Twenty-five years ago, I stood at the cloister door of the Poor Clares, knocked, and asked to be admitted to their community. I was young, confident, and excited to begin my new life that I just knew was going to be permanent. During the first weeks, I thrived, so much so that I was allowed to move from Candidate to Postulant in four and a half weeks rather than the usual six.
By the end of the year, I had made a complete turnaround. Beset by chronic ear infections, the loneliness that came with the lack of my family’s support, and the regular adjustments to religious life, I felt I had no more to give. However, by the time I had reached home, I regretted my decision. Those days were filled with so many tears and headaches from the stress! Over the next few weeks, though, the pain subsided, and I began to pick up where I had left off. Five years later, I would be walking down the wedding aisle, content and at peace with my decision.
My time in the cloister was invaluable to me as a wife and mother. I had learned to submit myself to someone else, a certain amount of detachment, and the importance of obedience. Six children later, I was pleased with my little family, but even in this state of satisfaction, the truth was that deep inside, I still grappled with what I saw as the loss of my vocation. Regular dreams visited me in which I was released to enter religious life, only to realize that I belonged with my husband and children and return to the world. Over and over, God needed to show me the holiness of family life in these little dreams until I learned the lesson.
Then an accident resulted in the loss of my two boys. A daughter should have joined them in their heavenly abode, but by miraculous intervention, she was spared. The bigger miracle, however, was a complete healing of the disappointment of my youth. From that moment on, I added those virtues which are so loved in good mothers: patience, long-suffering and cheerfulness.
Since that time, I have learned that God gives two separate and distinct graces in religious life: one to enter religious life and the other to persevere in it. God often gives the first without giving the second. He has things to teach which are best learned in an atmosphere of retreat that may last anywhere from a few days to a few years before sending us out into the world. Religious life not only is the seed bed for those who will live there until death, but it also cultivates the life of virtue of those who will become the mothers and fathers that God desires.
A few days ago, my oldest daughter stood at the cloister door, knocked, and asked to be admitted to her new community. She is young, confident, and excited to begin her new life. So now we have come ‘round full circle. The end of my vocation story means the beginning of hers.
It was about four years ago now. I was on a discernment retreat and I heard Jesus speak to my heart that he was not calling me to be a religious sister. He was calling me to marriage.
I told Him about the beauty of religious life, how these women give everything to Him, their parents and siblings, their desires for children and for a spouse, their sexuality, and their hearts, to receive so much in return. I spoke to Him about how their hearts are so directed toward Him that at the hour of their death, they will not be staring into the unknown, but into the future they have with their Maker and their Husband.
He spoke to me of the great sacrifice He required of me, one that the religious life could not pull out of me in the same way that an imperfect man could. A sacrifice that would challenge me in a unique way, and squeeze love out of me, requiring me to respond with a love that is not my own. He spoke to me of a love that would pour over me every day, begging me to pour it out onto others. He heard what I spoke to Him, and yet still said, “But I will show you a still more excellent way.”
I was heartbroken, but I believed Him.
Three years after that, I lived the reality that I was not married, engaged, or dating. I was (and still am), “single as a pringle,” as one of my friends likes to say. As I tried to adjust the reality that I was not called to the religious life, but serendipitously, both of my sisters were, to two different communities, which were both different than the one I was discerning with. I felt far away from God in a way and I was tempted to wonder if I did enter the convent, how holy would I have been? Would I have been like Saint Therese in her little way, or like St. Teresa of Avila, in her big way? In response though, I was sobered by the Holy-Spirit-inspired question: is hypothetical holiness more important than obedient faith? Of course not; “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.”
Almost exactly three years from that discernment retreat, I went on a day retreat, one based on Theology of the Body, and the keynote speaker was Dr. Janet Smith. Her words were maybe new, maybe repeated, but this time they stuck. She said that, “Marriage does not eradicate man’s loneliness, but only alleviates it.” Wow. She said that, “every human relationship, especially marriage is a sign, a symbol, of our real relationship with God.” Wow. She said that, “In images of the Coronation, Mary is the woman being crowned, but Mary is a type of the church, and thus a type of each one of us. In the image of the Coronation, imagine yourself being crowned by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” Wow. She said that “the Church is the bride of Christ, and thus each one of us is a bride of Christ.” Wow. She encouraged us to spend time in prayer imagining God the Father crowning us as His daughter, Jesus crowning us as His bride, and the Holy Spirit crowning us as His spouse. Wow.
In that moment, I realized that since the weekend I heard Jesus direct my steps away from the convent, I thought: He doesn’t want me to be His bride. He doesn’t want me. I regarded myself as unlovable and undesired. But, of course, that was (and is, and is to come) far from the truth. The expression of the spousal call may be different from the way it would be for a sister in vows, but as Dr. Smith said, I AM A BRIDE OF CHRIST simply because I am part of his Church. He is the one who makes me His bride. It is not a religious community that makes me Jesus’ bride. It is Jesus who makes me His bride. He has chosen me, and chooses me daily to be His bride. He reaffirms His love for me every day, an innumerable number of times, in a myriad of locations in the world, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. There, on the cross, my bridegroom offers Himself to me. I am loved. I am lovable. I am his bride.
I do not now have a husband, fiance, nor a boyfriend (See pringle comment above). I have not found the secret to thinking something was so right for you and living the reality that you are called elsewhere. And I do not know my future. I do know that I am imperfect, I am sometimes emotionally constipated, I say the wrong things, and embody awkwardness in all of its delights. But I also know that I am lovable and loved. I know that God looks upon me and loves me. I learned from the religious community of one of my sisters that, “God sees you like no other person sees you. God loves you like no other person loves you. God does not look at you in your limits, in your failings. He looks at what is limitless in you. He looks at you in what is most profound in you.”
I have moments (days, weeks, months, etc.) when I doubt my future. When I give in to fear that what God promised
will never happen. It is in those moments that I must remind myself, that I must preach the Gospel to my own heart: everything is about Jesus. There is no relationship that has greater gravity than the one I have with Jesus. There is nothing greater than Jesus. It is in those moments that I repeat the words of St. Teresa of Avila:
“Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end.”
To read the first installment of this three-part series, click here.
When praying about which of the many aspects of Theology of the Body to cover in this blog series, I really felt the Holy Spirit tugging at my heart to focus most importantly on one word:Hope. Honestly, I don’t even know if this word is mentioned once in the audiences of Theology of the Body, but that is the topic the Spirit wants me to develop. Specifically, hope in our identity as daughters loved infinitely by God, seen particularly through the witness of Mary.
The main reason I found these audiences of St. John Paul II so life-changing was that it helped me focus on a very important reality that was missing in my life- my identity as a daughter of God. When experiencing depression, extreme self-centeredness, and low self-esteem, I seemed to lose a sense of knowing my worth and even start to fear my own self.
In this beautiful catechesis that God placed in my life, I found support in my inner struggle. It helped me answer the following questions I was asking in my heart, “Who am I? What is my purpose?” In the asking of these questions, I found that I needed to become rooted in my identity first, and then to go forth from that into my mission.
We are all called to communion and love. Out of all the desires of our hearts, the one that is at the center is the desire to love and be loved- to enter into communion and union with another. This desire in each and every human person is a very good desire, and not only that, it points to the deepest desire that God has put in man- the desire for communion with Himself.
How do we live out this desire for union? We must know of our identity and receive. Women have the special gift of receptivity and receiving the love of another. We can see this especially in the example of Mary. She was the most beautiful example of authentic womanhood, and following her example, we can be the women God has created us to be.
Mary became a living vessel of God’s presence and love through her receptivity, seen particularly in the Incarnation. She had the particular gift in her femininity to receive and bear forth life through such open receptivity. Mary knew her identity came from God, and so had the confidence in His love and providence for her. In knowing of God’s love for her, she was able to give her “fiat” in trust, love, and freedom.
Likewise, by rooting ourselves in our immense dignity as daughters of the Father, purchased by the precious blood of Christ, we can open ourselves to receive all the love that God has for us. Even amid your own struggle of coming home from the convent, know that it is part of the beautiful plan of God, even if you do not understand right now. Trust in Him and be open to receive His love for you!
Even though it has been over a year since I left the convent, I still feel like I do not know where my life is going or what God really wants for me. Great things have definitely happened in my life this past year and I don’t doubt my decision of leaving Religious Life, but I still feel like I wish I had more clarity in everything. My heart is still restless about the day-to-day things and I have flashbacks to the convent where things “seemed” so much more clear and directed. It is hard to trust that God really does have something better for me out here in the world.
A few weeks ago, I went back and visited my previous community for their celebrations of Final and Temporary Vows. I am sure anyone who has been back to their communities after leaving can relate to this. The experience was really painful yet blessed all at the same time. I can see that I really needed to go and see myself as separate, but it was incredibly painful to be on the “outside” of everything for the first time and to be at a distance from those whom I entered the community with. Some Sisters were better than other at making me feel welcome, and for others I could see discomfort at my presence. I just wish it didn’t have to be that way. I wish we could just keep our friendships in some normal way, but I know that our relationships have to change for the good of them and me as well.
As I work through the painful separation from the life of a Religious Sister, I see Saint Monica as a source of hope. She persevered her whole life praying for something that seemed crazy to everyone around her and God blessed her perseverance. Saint Augustine eventually converted from a crazy life to life lived for God alone. So many days I just want to give up my prayer life and everything that goes along with my relationship with God, but I know that if I persevere, He will bless me and show me whatever He has waiting for me out here in the world. As Saint Augustine says, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” My heart may still be restless a year after leaving the convent, but I know the answer to that restlessness lies in God alone and persevering in my relationship with Him.
How to deal with anxiety, from the pen of a paranoid schizophrenic.
By Stephanie Grace Cesare.
Jeremiah 29:11: Yes, I know what plans I have in mind for you, Yahweh declares: plans for peace, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.
Trust has been a major problem in my past, but if we believe in God’s goodness, how can we not trust in Him completely? Every second of our life God knows and allows to happen to us. “There is a spiritual world all around us, can you not see it?” – Jane Eyre.
Because of my condition I am always worried that the worst thing possible is going to happen at any second. The only way I could overcome that was to believe in God’s loving providence: to actually live second to second with a great belief that everything was in some kind of play book for my life. It is when the waves start crashing in on us, when we think we are alone and will drown, that God says, “O you of little faith”. In that moment the Apostle Peter cried, “Lord, we are going to drown, don’t you care?” Whenever we take our eyes away from God, that is when we become anxious, scared, feeling we are on our own and will drown in worries: that is when we need to cry, “LORD!”
This is where suffering must be understood.
Luke 11:11-15 says, “What father among you, if his son asked for a fish, would hand him a snake? Or if he asked for an egg, hand him a scorpion?” Suffering as the saints know it has infinite worth. God allows suffering to come upon us for this reason, that we may fill up what is lacking in the wounds of Christ, and that we may actually participate in God’s salvific mission for the world. God works through us when we accept life’s difficulties
2 Cor 12:7-10: “Wherefore so that I should not get above myself I was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan to batter me and prevent me from getting above myself about this. I have three times pleaded with the Lord that it might leave me but he has answered me, “My grace is enough for you.” For power is at full strength in weakness. It is then about my weaknesses that I am happiest of all to boast, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me, and that is why I am glad of weaknesses, insults, constraints, persecutions and distress for Christ’s sake, for it is when I am weak that I am strong.”
Some examples in my life… God is in the details. To let go and realize every detail of the day is God’s will, will give you an extreme amount of peace. One day I realized I wasn’t going to be able to have a job because it was so stressful so I gave it up to God. I am a cosmetologist and I am supposed to take the next person on the computer list no matter what they want done, so I said, “Lord, please send me the people that I would be able to handle.” This went really well. Every time I went to the list I had the confidence that the Lord would help me with the next customer. He must really want me to have this job so I trusted.
I was in a religious community when I was having signs of schizophrenia and had decided to leave. I went into an extreme depression that landed me in the hospital several times. I didn’t know how a good God could push me away from him and not want a girl who dreamed all her life since the age of reason to be his spouse; to be incapable of it! How could a good God abandon me like that? “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” – that just wasn’t true – or, “She has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” – hmm, what about that one? I was telling God how to make me holy rather than trusting that he knew the best way. Then one day, I read that God sent the man who had asked to be his disciple to go home and be a witness to his family and home town – “How can I do that?” I thought. Well, I have had the chance to help those in the world with me more than I ever had in the convent with my peers, family and customers. I am planning on volunteering at a nursing home so I can talk to the infirm about God while doing their hair. I never had this in the convent…the chance to get close to people and love them. To get to know them, unlike I would ever have in the convent. That’s when I realized I was called to the single life and so be a witness.
One night I was crying hysterically over the fact I left the convent when my parents came home from Louisville with a note from a homeless person on the street to me. It said, “I have chosen you to bear fruit.” That was the quote at my clothing in the convent on my card. It made me realize that I have a mission greater than I could ever imagine as long as I did God’s will.
I was chosen, but how and for what? The most anxiety you go through is not knowing your calling in life and the second is not trusting and giving up your will to God. Mother Teresa said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”.
The teenager days are usually the most arrogant. I’m going to be rich, I’m going to change the world, I’m going to be famous. There is nothing wrong with having these goals, as long as we give our will to God, but many do not and go into despair when they do not accomplish what they desire. This has caused many college-age students to commit suicide because their goals are so high. Many people come out of religious life and this can be devastating to live a humble life of a lay person or the married state. In Abandonment to Divine Providence, Fr. Caussade explains that it is not in seeking holy things or circumstances, but seeking holiness in all our circumstances, that makes saints.
We will never have peace unless we trust that doing what is in front of us is God’s will and that doing it well (little detail by little detail) will take away the anxieties of life and will lead to greater, wonderful things. Think, when you offer your life to God in your daily duties, of how much more God in his generosity will give you to accomplish in your life. He is all goodness, so do you not believe he will give you a grand adventure – one that will bring you to heaven?
In living each moment the way God calls (the little details) God will give greater things for you to do. I love St. Therese because she taught the little way to heaven. Doing every little thing because it is most humbling and therefore more meritorious in the eyes of God. Once we realize the great worth of these small details, the more at peace we will be. Believe in PROVIDENCE! Just realize that our daily duties are so important when done with love – how much more at peace. God will always outdo us with love, and the more we offer up these small things, the greater the things he will call us to, and we will be at peace in his love.
Psalm 131, song of quiet trust: “O Lord my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high. I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me, but I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child that is quieted at its mother’s breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego: “Listen, put it into your heart, my youngest and dearest son, that the thing that disturbs you, the thing that afflicts you, is nothing. Do not let your countenance, your heart be disturbed. Do not fear this sickness of your uncle or any other sickness, nor anything that is sharp or hurtful. Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more? Let nothing else worry you, disturb you.”
Oh good, I thought to myself when the words Regina Caeli appeared in the list of chants for choir practice before my one and only conventual Easter. I know how to sing the Regina Caeli. It’s easy. You just go –
Until, that is, everybody else sings:
Easter in the religious life came on in a heady rush of music: the Exultet sung by Father at the vigil on Saturday evening, the vibrant Invitatory Psalm at Morning Prayer, and the familiar (thank heavens!) words of “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus!” at Mass on Sunday. In the midst of it all, though, was one song that initially didn’t seem to fit.
Christ the Lord is ris’n again! Christ hath broken ev’ry chain!
Hark, the angels shout for joy, Singing evermore on high, Alleluia!
All those exclamation marks make it look lively enough, but the melody to which we sang it is something completely different; slow, subdued and with a plaintive tone that somehow seems better suited to Lent than Easter.
It was sung by the community every day throughout the Octave, and I loved it, but couldn’t quite grasp what it was doing there amongst all the cheerful music that surrounded it.
Then I left the convent, and the next Easter, the mixture of joy and sorrow was easier to understand. The words were written by German Protestant theologian Michael Weisse in the 16th century, a time of upheaval and confusion among the faithful as the rift between Catholicism and Protestantism grew deeper. For his optimistic words, he chose a haunting ancient chant tone that expressed something of the sense of loss that must have filled Christianity as theological conflicts tore families and monasteries like his own apart. We rejoice in a world that is redeemed by Jesus’ death and Resurrection, it says, but with a sense of loss and a yearning that cannot be filled until His return at the end of time. In an incomplete and imperfect world, even joy aches. Will there ever be an Easter that’s not shadowed by the wish that I were celebrating it in the convent?
And yet, even through the sober melody, the hymn reminds us that Christ hath broken every chain! – the chains of our grief included. For all the sorrow of our world, every Easter is a sign that the turning point of history has already occurred, and every celebration of the Resurrection brings us another year closer to the Kingdom of God.
Now He bids us tell abroad, How the lost may be restored,
How the penitent forgiv’n, How we, too, may enter heav’n, Alleluia.
And, from the breviary for the morning of Holy Saturday: Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces, but He will heal us; He has struck us down, but He will heal our wounds; after a day or two He will bring us back to life, on the third day He will raise us and we shall live in His Presence (Hosea 6:1-3a).