L-R: Bek (Technology Coordinator), Theresa (President), and Penny (Blog Mistress)
Almost three months to the day after I promised to write this blog post, I am sitting down at my laptop with the resolution not to budge until it’s done.
What I set out to write back in January was a lively, cheerful account of a week spent with two friends I’d met through Leonie’s Longing, and an introduction to the video blog that we made together. Ever since then, I’ve been writing short, stilted paragraphs that have instantly hit the recycle bin (literally for the paper drafts, and figuratively for the typed versions). What made it so difficult to put it all together as a narrative?
“Leonie’s Longing: pulling the plug on post-convent loneliness!”
I think the key is in an insight that Theresa, the President of Leonie’s Longing, had during the long drive down from Sydney to Melbourne: when you meet someone else who has been in the convent, the normal process of conversation is reversed. Usually, to get to know another woman, you’d ask what she does for a living, what books she likes to read, how many pets/kids/siblings she has and so forth, and only after weeks or months would you move on to more personal topics. But when you meet someone who was in the convent, you ask things like: “What community were you with? What drew you to them? How long had you been discerning? How did your family react when you told them you were entering the convent?” Then, eventually, you take a deep breath and ask the difficult questions: “Why did you leave? Are you still discerning a religious vocation?” And, more importantly, you’re able to understand the answers.
It doesn’t matter what country your community was in (mine was Australian; Theresa and Bek, our Technology Coordinator, were in the US); if you’ve been in the convent, you have a shared understanding of things like familial freak-outs when you mention the word “nun,” the process of clearing out your former life as you enter, the experience of living such a disciplined life, and of battling the most difficult aspects of it and then finding yourself back out in the world. The part of me that hoped to become a bride of Christ is a sister to the part of you that longed for the same. In a parallel universe, we might one day have met at a seminar for religious, you in your habit and me in mine. (“I declare, ours is the only sensible one here!”) And yet, here we are, out in the world again together. We’ve walked the same road separately, and found suddenly found ourselves on it together. It’s hard to pin that connection down in words, which makes it that much harder to write a blog post about. Still, here goes!
If you read this blog regularly, you’ll have seen Bek’s “couch-surfing” journey across the United States, visiting friends from her former community. It was in about August last year that Theresa first raised the idea of making Bek’s journey in reverse, and coming to visit our two Australian LL volunteers. By November it was a fact, and in December we planned it all out in detail: she and Bek would travel around Sydney for a week or so, and then drive south to Melbourne, meeting me at the halfway-point, Albury, along the way. It’s a fair trip.
In Melbourne we would walk through the Door of Mercy at the cathedral, wander around the famous arcades and visit the museum dedicated to Saint Mary Mackillop, our only Australian Saint so far (though several more causes are underway). We’d also drive along the Great Ocean Road and have lunch on the beach, and then make some time for karaoke. Excellent plan. Nothing went according to it.
On the morning of the fifth of January, still bleary-eyed from a monastic wake-up time several hours earlier, I sat back in my seat on the train to Albury and sent off what is in retrospect a remarkably awake-sounding text to Bek: “Howdy! I’m making good time, currently passing through Wangaratta – how are you going in your travels? Hope you’re having a pleasant run!”
Alas, they were at that moment stuck in the McDonald’s drive-in queue from hell in Yass, about four hours out of our designated meeting place on the border between Victoria and New South Wales. They’d set out from Sydney at six in the morning, roughly the same time I’d dragged my weary bones onto a tram into Melbourne, but by the time the three of us finally converged on Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Albury, I’d had a peaceful train journey and they were ashen-faced from a long, long drive and the prospect of more to come. This is where the invisible bond between former religious that I mentioned earlier became all-important: we met in front of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and six hours together in a tiny car became a mixture of singing, prayer, serious spiritual conversation, and funny-awful jokes. What the other unsuspecting folk in the rest-rooms at Seymour thought of being serenaded with O Salutaris Hostia as we compared the versions we’d learnt in our respective communities, we’ll never know.
We reached Melbourne late at night, many hours later than planned. After Mass the next morning, another part of our grand plan fell through: the Door of Mercy at the cathedral in Melbourne is now only open for one hour a week during Sunday Mass, so we weren’t able to walk through it together as we’d hoped. However, as we stood on the steps of the Door, I was able to make a formal presentation to Leonie’s Longing of a medal that I had touched to the relics of Saint Therese and her parents the year before. (May the Saints of the Martin family intercede for our apostolate, and all who visit our website!)
Then, as Bek and Theresa had been “collecting” Doors of Mercy, it was my turn to take the photo:
We never did get to the MacKillop Museum (next time… next time…), but we did have dinner with another ex-conventual friend of mine. Four women, four very different experiences of religious life, four different personalities, accents, and senses of humour, but with a shared understanding of post-convent life: a conversation that could only have come about through Leonie’s Longing.
We didn’t drive down the Great Ocean Road, either – circumstances including but not limited to a bushfire saw to that. Instead, we drove down the other way to the Mornington Peninsula, and spent the day with my mother!
(The black ship in the background is the SV Notorious, the only replica fifteenth-century caravel in the southern hemisphere.)
Part of our intended tour of the Peninsula that day was a trip to the lighthouse at Cape Schanck, but we didn’t get there. Instead, we made a coffee-inspired detour to the lookout at Arthurs Seat, and found, not coffee, but…
Sisters! Specifically, the Servants of the Two Hearts, whose apostolate is primarily youth ministry, and who had gone up to the lookout on a detour at the last minute just as we had. Once more, Theresa’s theory about post-convent conversations was proved correct. When we explained to them who we were, the Sisters asked us which communities we’d belonged to, how long we’d stayed, and whether we were still discerning – the kind of in-depth conversation you can only have with others who have that understanding of the religious life in common. We didn’t end up finding any coffee, but instead, something far more significant: the realisation that God was guiding our journey together, even when we were fatigued or led astray by the GPS, or the doors that we thought would be open were locked, or we ended up at the top of a mountain we hadn’t expected to climb. All things considered, I think there’s a metaphor in that.
Stay tuned next week for our first-ever video blog post, made by the three of us together, on the topic of “finding community away from the community”!
By a cousin of an LL board member, written after she was called to leave a mission field that she loved.
My precious daughter, all I want is you.
I want you to know me more.
I want you to trust me more.
I want you to love me more.
That’s all I want from you.
Everything else is secondary, it flows out of that.
Being a missionary … serving me … being my hands and feet in this world,
its all secondary.
I want all of you.
And if it takes breaking your heart that’s what I am going to do
because I love you.
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.”
Today, we’ve swapped posts with Blessed and Beloved, a blog about the single life for Catholic women! This article was written by Michelle, one of the blog’s four foundresses, and originally published on the 14th of November 2014.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29: 11-13
I make plans. I have always made plans. I enjoy and get excited planning. Whether it is what I am doing this weekend or my childhood plans of going to Africa, living in an orphanage, or going to graduate school on the East coast, plans have directed me in life and given me security. For the most part too I have followed these plans believing they too were God’s plans for me. Plans gave me control and following them made me feel successful. They allowed me to be able to share with people where I was heading in life and look like I knew what I was doing. If you know me I am always doing something and usually many somethings. Just having plans to have plans though is where things get dangerous.
But God’s plans are not our plans. Most people have heard the saying, “if you want to make God laugh tell Him your plans”. I think it is probably more of a little endearing chuckle followed by a big smile of a loving Father. His plans are sooooo much better, greater, and truly the only way for us to follow Him and be truly happy. As said in Jeremiah, His plans give us a full, rich and worthwhile life. It is a life where we are successful and not by the standards of the world but by His call to love and serve and glorify Him. It is a life where we can truly live as though we were created to do nothing more than love and be loved.
Figuring out those plans is not always easy especially when we put so much into planning and like me are stubborn and convinced we know best. It takes much discernment. It can take someone saying, “What are you doing?!” It can take everything lining up perfectly except certain things that we were convinced were never in God’s plan. It takes taking chances, trusting, and letting go of our pride, need for control, and lack of faith.
Yes, I went to live and work in an orphanage. Yes, it changed my life. Yes, it taught me in so very many ways that God’s plans are not ours. Looking back on my discernment process to join the Salesian Lay Missioners 2.5 years ago is when it all started. As my plans went I had to find an African orphanage. There were no other options and that is where I would be for the next year or more. But, when I found the Salesians God lead my heart first to their mission: seeing Christ in the Face of a Child first, and secondly to their specific sites. If you had asked me months before I applied to the program: do you see yourself going to South America? The answer most likely would have been probably not and secondly do you see yourself learning and becoming fluent in Spanish? The answer would have been “forget about it!” I took five years of French because I didn’t want to take Spanish with everyone else. While my friends would speak Spanish in front of me I would plug my ears and wait till they started speaking English again. Well as God likes to laugh at our plans and oh how much patience He has in our stubbornness. I ended up settling (I say that lightly) for an orphanage in Bolivia, where of course Spanish was the spoken language. Some would call it irony, but I call it God. Along with so many other aspects of my life in Bolivia, Spanish is now a part of my identity, my faith, my world, and my future.
From the moment of God leading me to Bolivia until now God taught me over and over that He was in charge and all I need to do was reach out, grab His hand, and let Him follow. My last few months in Bolivia were so very busy and as I started the New York job search, I thought, I’ve lived in an orphanage for the last two years: I can handle graduate school and working full time. I looked for a family that would be flexible, knowing my school schedule. Finally I was contacted by a woman who said my schedule wasn’t a problem for her. Everything seemed to start to fall together and then she started to help me think about my post-Bolivia perfect “plan.” Being in charge of the medical needs of the girls in the orphanage for the last year and a half had got me thinking about my vocation and what God wanted to teach me through this experience. The head sister, Hermana Rosy at one point looked at me and said “I think your work here shows that you might have a vocation in the medical field.” One of the doctors I often worked with told me that he could see God calling me to be a doctor. I thought perfect, the medical field that is where I am heading.
Heading to graduate school to study Child Life (supporting children in the hospitals) still seemed on track with what these wise people were suggesting. But, as I was advised by my future boss to look more into the graduate school I was heading towards things weren’t fitting. Financially, vocationally, and even practically I started doubting. It went from I am going because it’s my plan, to could God have a different plan for me? Should I be a nurse, PA, or even doctor? to ok, well I’ll go for at least a semester, to I’m moving to New York in one week and I don’t think God wants me to be attending this graduate school, to I have no housing but a job and I still believe God has something to show me, teach me, and for me to do in New York. It was a process that went rather quickly and I truly felt like my life and plans were falling apart and my life being turned upside down. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. But, it was also the most freeing realization letting go of the plans I had held onto and letting God show me that He has something so much better for me.
No matter where we are or what we are doing as long as we love and letting God lead us, we are His. We can find Him in any tabernacle of the world, in others we encounter, and in our own hearts. As I journey from one place to the next sometimes I feel that my heart is in so many places. I leave it in Kirkland anytime I leave home, I left it in Africa when I went there in college, I left it at Gonzaga where God formed my heart and led me to many wonderful people, I left it in Bolivia with my girls and the sisters, and so many other places and people that God has blessed me with the chance to encounter. But when I think about that the line “Let your goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee” from the song Come Thou Font of Every Blessing comes to mind. My heart has wandered from place to place, person to person, experience to experience but in His goodness He has always wandered with me. In feeling my heart being torn in many directions I always feel most at peace in Him and through Him home is wherever He is with me. Often we do so much searching in the world especially when it comes to our planning. God calls us to come back to Him, encounter Him in our hearts, and in that see what His plan is. As St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” It is so easy to look in other places for that peace, in our plans, in our ideas, in our activities, etc. But, in the end we can only find that in Him, in His love, and in His plans for our lives.
As I continue on the adventure that God is taking me on I don’t know where He will lead me. I don’t know everything that is in His plan. I never will and that is alright. I choose to let Him bind my wandering heart to His and seek Him with all my heart. I know He has never led me astray before. In fact, His plans have always blown mine out of the water and given me the biggest gifts in my life. Although it’s not easy giving up that control it’s worth it always. He blesses each of us with our own story, our own journey with Him and back to Him. Help us Lord to remember You are in control, to trust in Your plan over ours, and find our home in You.
Anniversaries are supposed to be happy, right? The anniversary I celebrate today, however, that of departing from my former Religious Community, is filled with a range of emotions, none of which are happiness. There are no roses, gifts, cards, or breakfasts in bed. The worst part is that no one else knows, it’s just a regular day. Well, this year it happens to be on Black Friday and I still don’t know how to shop!
Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and I can hardly think of a prayer, let alone one of gratitude. It has been two years, and it seems like just yesterday and yet like forever, since I took off my habit and veil, replacing it with khaki pants, a green sweater, and a headband to make my “peter pan” hair cut at least a little less awkward.
Each month or year or Liturgical Feast is a reminder of the life I thought I would have lived for the rest of my life with the people I miss dearly.
But these benchmarks in time are increasingly less sad as I transition. Although I never thought I would be able to enjoy Midnight Mass or even see the word Tenebre without becoming upset, filled with regret and remorse, I now have so many other joy-filled memories among which my mind can dance! Before, all I could think of was what I was missing. Now I rejoice in what the Lord has given me in these past two years.
Sure, I still miss the convent, and not a day passes when I don’t think of it. But the way I think about it is drastically different. I am grateful for the life I have now, which seemed so fragmented two years ago but now I know with confidence and faith that I am much more whole and healed than I was before I left, when I “had it all together.”
I have finally learned that Jesus does not want me to stay sad forever and ruminate on what I had and “could” have had. He has arranged the pieces of my life into a beautiful mosaic that I never could have imagined. I spent so much time trying to hide my brokenness, but those broken pieces are what the Lord has chosen to make the centerpiece of His masterpiece, the places in which He glorifies Himself.
If you find yourself mourning your anniversary, a feast day, etc., know that those feelings are very normal, but that you have permission to move past them. You are not resigned to a “lesser” place in the Kingdom now that you are a lay person with less certainty about your future. In a very real way you are living the poverty of will which was such a visible hallmark of the Life of Christ.
So, smile. It’s hard but it gets easier, and you are not alone in that loneliness! Let Jesus give you an anniversary gift. Treat yourself too! Celebrate knowing that the Lord has a beautiful life planned for you. Wait with expectant joy as you anticipate the great season of Advent, confident that there will be graces in store that are far beyond your imagination. If you expect goodness, the Lord will outdo Himself. But if you keep your head down in fear, you might miss what Jesus is trying to show you, and the great work He is doing this moment in your soul!
In April of 2014, I found myself sitting in a meeting room on a university campus at a departmental “meet and greet,” where a bunch of professors gather to listen to wildly successful alumni of their department talk about their exciting career exploits. That Friday morning, the visiting alumna was some hotshot Director of International Marketing for some top five international magazine publisher that, every two or three years, moved her and her entire family to a new country, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Thailand…, to launch a new magazine in a language and culture she didn’t understand. Then, when she had made the magazine wildly successful, they moved her on to the next country to do it all over again. After about an hour of listening to her adventures, one of the professors asked, “Weren’t you ever… anxious or… afraid even… to just pick up your family and move them to a country you knew nothing about?”
The Marketing Director appeared genuinely confused, as if she couldn’t even understand the question. “Afraid? Why… Why would I be afraid? You just go and figure it out. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
In that moment, I felt a hard knock in my chest as I remembered who I used to be. The marketing hotshot continued talking, but I didn’t hear her. Instead, I heard my inner voice say in a slow, matter-of-fact tone, “I used to be like that. I used to be fearless. Now I’m afraid of everything.”
Most people are afraid of failing. They’re afraid of putting a ton of work and time and effort, and love, into a thing and then having it all “go to waste”. They’re afraid others will look down on them because they set their sights high, but didn’t make it. They’re afraid of starting all over again from scratch, because it might mean they’ll just fail again.
I wasn’t afraid of any of those things, and in my time working with Leonie’s Ladies, I’ve found that a lot of you think those are the things you’re afraid of, but you’re actually afraid of something else entirely. So, over the next few days, I’m going to tell you what I was afraid of, and where that fear came from. See if you can relate!
When I was a child, my mother used to say to me like it was a mantra, “Jenni, you have so much faith”. She didn’t mean that I was the spitting image of the Virgin Mary. She meant that I was fearless.
I suppose I actually was objectively fearless back then. Like a lot of us, my mother always told me that I could be anything I wanted to be and that I would always be successful at it. With those prospects, what was there to be afraid of?! In both school and college, I always made straight ‘A’s. So long as my world was confined to studying, I rocked it.
So I branched out a little. I traveled all of Western and much of Eastern Europe, by myself. At 23, I immigrated to Israel, also by myself, with every intention of making my life there. Israelis used to regularly ask me, “What, you mean you don’t have any family here? You don’t know anybody?” And just as regularly they would express awe when I answered in the negative. For five years, I supported myself as a freelance editor in Jaffa. I had a great professional reputation, and I was making exceptionally good money.
My world was bigger, and I still had never failed. What was there to fear?
Part Two of this post can be found here.