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.
Few women in the twenty-first century would be able to enter the convent in the way that Leonie did a hundred and twenty-eight years ago today: on impulse, while on holiday with her family. On the sixth of October 1886 she was sightseeing around Alencon, and the next morning she woke up in the cloister. Later, Therese was to write that, “Leonie’s surprising entry into the convent distressed me; I was very fond of her, and I never had the chance to kiss her goodbye before she left. I will never forget the kindness and bewilderment on my poor father’s face when he came to tell us that Leonie was already wearing the habit of the Poor Clares.” (Leonie Martin: A Difficult Life by Marie Beaudin-Croix, page 39.)
The world has changed so much since then that this scenario now seems almost inconceivable. Even a woman who has managed to avoid a vocation-crippling college debt will usually spend months on “live-in” retreats with a community before being accepted as an aspirant, and will typically also be subjected to every psychological examination from a stack of inkblots to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. What could Leonie have done to convince a Poor Clare abbess to admit her to the cloister within a single day?
Despite the difference in time and culture that separates us, I think it’s possible to guess. The abbess approved her for the same reason that the senior Sisters of your community ultimately voted to grant you admittance: they saw a sincere, concrete desire for God, and they wanted to see where it would lead. Do you remember how hard it was to sit with your future superior, even one who was gentle and encouraging, and try to pin down for her in ordinary words something that God had been forming in you for so long? Quite probably, it wouldn’t have been your hesitant speech that convinced her to let you in, but something larger than you that she sensed behind the words.
Like many of the women who visit this website, Leonie had spent years thinking about becoming a nun, having longed for a religious vocation since childhood – that impulsive entrance was an aberration in the slow, difficult process of discernment throughout her young adulthood – and she would have sat before the grille with a quiet, compelling fire in her voice as she tried to explain her desire to give herself to God. And so she was granted admittance. Therese adds:
“Poor Leonie, in her new outfit, was very sweet. She told us to look into her eyes, because we would never see them again: Poor Clares keep their eyes lowered. But God was satisfied with two months of sacrifice, and Leonie came back to us, to show us her blue eyes again, although they were often wet with tears.” (Ibid.)
The austere Poor Clare life took its toll on Leonie’s health, leaving her with no choice but to return home to her family, and her years of prayer and preparation boiled down to just eight weeks in the cloister. Sick and heartsore, Leonie once again walked up the path to the front door of Les Buissonnets: two major life changes, entry into and departure from the religious life, followed each other with a speed that must have left her reeling. She had wanted to follow God’s will, and instead found herself back at square one, grieving the loss of something that had barely begun. Perhaps, in the early stages of grief, she regretted having made such an attempt in the first place.
And yet, she tried again. In June the following year, she set out for the Visitation Monastery – with her family’s blessing this time. It wasn’t a miraculous bounce-back: Leonie’s biographer notes that her arrival at Les Buissonnets was followed by a period of depression which impeded her return to health. Her story after leaving the religious life, like many of our readers’ stories and perhaps like yours as well, was one of holding on, of getting up in the morning and simply putting one foot in front of the other until God calls again.
Calls to do… what? Email another religious community? Write to the archdiocese for information about becoming a consecrated virgin? Introduce yourself to that good-looking fellow you’ve seen at Holy Hour? What if you find yourself ten years down the track, reasonably secure financially and with a job you enjoy… and suddenly feel that God wants you to give it all up to make another attempt at the religious life? If Leonie didn’t ask these questions after her first experience of returning to the world, they must surely have preyed on her mind the third time the monastery door swung closed behind her. Nonetheless, she kept putting one foot in front of another, and discovered at last that she had actually, against all appearances, been walking in the right direction all the time.
Here’s a final thought to go with. Whatever unique, passionate, unworldly quality it was that your superior saw to make her want to admit you to the community, it is still part of you. It may not feel like that anymore if your heart is cut up by pain or anger – or maybe you’re just so damned weary in body and soul that any vocation might as well be Mount Everest for all the chance you can see of climbing it. Nonetheless, the Divine Hand that once took hold and propelled you into the religious life, and then guided you out again, has not once let go of you. It never will.
Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, pray for us.
Leonie Martin, pray for us.
“The Little Flower of Jesus”… this title and blessed saint certainly touched my heart as a little girl before I even knew how to read her story. Since I only ever wanted to be a nun (even before I knew what it was) it was inevitable that this young, gentle-looking nun in my Fr. Lovasik Picture Book of Saints would attract me. Had I known how my life would unfold, perhaps I would have gone more for Leonie (or someone who at least seemed to struggle with their vocation) as a role model and patroness. But since Therese had managed to find me first, this “greatest saint of modern times” had gotten herself another devotee in the enamored heart of a little girl with big dreams.
At first, Therese was my “secret patroness” because I knew pretty much everyone loved her and so I resolved to love her more than anyone but not let anyone else know (you see how this has changed drastically)! I wanted to follow her example as closely as I could.
I was 15 when I became convicted that I too was called to Carmel and I probably would have gone straight to the Holy Father as well were it not for the fact that I didn’t feel ready. I was told that one could enter at the age of 17 if she had a High School Diploma and her parents’ permission. I had my goal! But my heart was constantly in Carmel and I became very impatient with the waiting. Therese had been my confidante over the years because I felt that she understood better than most people what it was like to desire Religious life from a young age, and so I went to her with my impatience as well. She had an answer for me. I read how she had spent her own time before entering Carmel (though I mentioned to her that she only waited 3 months while mine became nearly 3 years!):
“I was unable to hold back my tears at the thought of such a long wait… I really want to believe I must have appeared unreasonable in not accepting my 3 months’ exile joyfully, but I also believe that, without it’s appearing so, this trial was very great and made me grow very much in abandonment and in other virtues.” (Story of a Soul, Ch. 6)
She said, I understood the value of the time being offered… and she spent it in breaking her own will and loving very much through “little nothings”. (Here in lies the secret to her rapid growth in holiness, I believe.)
Two years passed, not nearly as well spent as hers no doubt, yet there was a small dream I had not yet attained before entering the cloister. Like Therese had, I wanted to make a pilgrimage to the “Eternal City”, and while there, I could not pass up the opportunity to see experience Lisieux, France! I would have no one but Therese as my guide for, while visiting the Churches and Holy places of Rome, Assisi, Paris and Lisieux, I devotedly carried with me Story of a Soul. Everything she had experienced I wanted to as well and since my heart was longing for Carmel throughout I felt that our hearts were indivisibly united by desire and empathy. Naturally, Lisieux was the highlight for me as I walked the grounds and re-lived the scenes of my heroine. I felt so close to her there and thought I was truly following in her footsteps, for everything she loved, I loved. (God only knows how far my soul was from being as pure and holy as hers). Somehow, I knew that she had helped me come to this place, desire Carmel and that now she would walk with me through those doors still.
When that day finally came, it was evident that she had been with me for, though I had not chosen the date, I entered on January 2nd, (the Birthday of St. Therese and my deceased baby sister, Gemma Therese)! They held my hands as I was “born” into that new life.
As you have all most likely experienced postulancy, I have no need to explain how you once again become a child in every way. This is when the spirituality of my patroness really came alive for me. To be a child… to be love in the Heart of Church… to be a hidden soul… to be a Victim of Merciful Love! Of course, with my ideals and youthful zeal (I entered only a month before my 18 birthday); this last devotion appealed to me most of all. I, too, wished to offer myself using the beautiful words that she did in her Act of Oblation (see Appendix from Story of a Soul). I gave myself to the life of Carmel and its sacrifices with much vigor, striving so hard to follow my sister Therese and become a saint myself. I believed I knew what a “perfect Carmelite” was and I constrained myself to follow this.
My little Act of Oblation was accepted, though not in the way I imagined it should be and with much ignorance of the real sacrifice Our Lord would ask of me. I became ill shortly after making my First Profession. I thought, All right then. If Jesus is going to allow me to suffer then I will do it like Therese and hope that I too would be brought to Heaven speedily. Suffering was not as glorious or easy as I had imagined and though I waited for the final blow, it did not come in the way expected. As my mysterious illness progressed I became unable to live as the other sisters did (as a good Carmelite did) and with this I struggled. I read and re-read the analogy St. Therese made of the little bird who gazes at her Divine Sun and sees the great eagles (saints) soaring towards It, while she cannot fly. This little bird is not discouraged, but fixes her gaze on the Sun of Love and does not look away, even when dark clouds conceal It from view. The eagles take pity and come to her defense against the demons who would prey upon her, for she is destined to be the prey One who will catch her up and carry her with Him to the “inaccessible light.” This gave me courage to believe that, even in helplessness, I could be Love in the Heart of the Church.
The opportunity for the real oblation came when, to my great surprise, I was suddenly told that I was not meant to live this way and should return to my family to heal and discern God’s will for my life. I couldn’t believe it. This was my dream! Sure, I was struggling but wasn’t that just my cross? I complained to Our Lord, and He once again sent Therese to console and enlightens me. This time it was with her story of the Ball of the Child Jesus. This plaything allowed itself to be pierced and thrown in a corner by Him, deflated, yet it was at peace. I realized that I had to allow my grand ideals and plans for my life to be pierced through and deflated as well and only then would I find the true peace of being completely His! In my heart I prayed, “Lord, it is dark on this path, but I wish to close my eyes and place my hand in yours. Lead me and do with me what you like. I trust you.” I left Carmel with such peace and joy that it continues to amaze me when I reflect upon it. At last I knew the joy that Therese had experienced in her Act of Oblation, in her suffering, in her struggles. Her trust in the Loving Father from her child-like heart was so great that even being “pierced and cast aside” could not shake her. She knew that He still always loved her, that even when all seemed lost and she abandoned, He was only sleeping in her boat. She would not wake Him, but let Him sleep as the storm raged. My boat had started to drift in a different direction than I had wanted and Therese showed me that I could not steer it (no matter how much I wanted to be a certain way). She’s always been in the boat with me, I cannot explain it any other way and she has guided me lovingly to see my own littleness and allow the Father to be my Greatness! Instead of a role model, Therese has become a friend, a sister, a mother and I know she is not done teaching me. I pray that now I may say with her, “My one purpose then would be to accomplish the will of God, to sacrifice myself for Him in the way that would please Him.
For a long time I have not belonged to myself since I have delivered myself totally to Jesus, and He is therefore free to do with me as He pleases.” (Story of a Soul, Ch. 10)
By Anela, reproduced with kind permission from her blog http://anelafindshervoice.wordpress.com
Sometimes it’s funny, being known around the office as “the ex-nun.” My coworkers and I will be having a conversation, specifically about work or about life in general, and one of them will let fly something a little off-color. They’ll stumble to a halt in mid-sentence, or a sentence (or an hour) or two later, when they realize just what they’ve said in the presence of “the ex-nun.” Then they’ll apologize: sheepishly, sincerely or even offhandedly. I take no offense at their slips, although I have felt a bit uncomfortable on several occasions. When that happens, I usually end up offering up a silent prayer of apology to Our Lord on their behalf.
It’s a strange thing, but I’m grateful for the awkwardness these moments bring, because the culture we live in today has become so desensitized to issues of modesty and morality. We live in a culture whose mantra is “Sex, power and no responsibility.” We’re bombarded with images and messages that harm us physically, emotionally and spiritually every single day… and the majority of people buy into the message simply because society tells them they should.
Maybe when the people around me pause in that moment of awkwardness, they’ll take a moment to reevaluate the lies that society has told them are true. Maybe they’ll come to realize that they’re truly worth so much more than society leads them to think they are.
And maybe, just maybe, this “ex-nun” will be reminded that, just because I no longer wear the habit, live in community or keep the daily horarium (Latin for “the hours” – a schedule of work and prayer), doesn’t mean that I’m not still a beloved spouse of Christ or that I don’t need to remember that I am called to “live in the world” but not be “of the world.”
We all are.
But I still miss wearing the habit. Imagine the self-censoring that would go on in the office if I suddenly showed up in one?
Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.
I had a long road leading into the monastery. I believed that God had clearly called me to be His bride and so for several years I prayed and begged that it would be possible for me to enter religious life. The obstacle, however, seemed insurmountable: I had nearly six figures of student loan debt, and I would have to bring that down to zero before I could enter. During those difficult years of working two jobs, praying, and fundraising, I recited to myself the words of 1 Thess 5:24: “He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.” I tried, amidst mounting discouragement, to abandon myself completely to His providence.
Even while working, my income still barely covered my minimum monthly payments. If God really wanted me in the monastery then I needed a miracle. In October I decided to pray the 54 day Rosary novena with the specific intention that I would be able to enter the monastery in June. It seemed like a long shot, but I took heart in simple confidence of the novena prayer, which confidently gives thanks for the grace asked for before it has been received:
From thy bounty thou hast given me the favor
I so earnestly and trustingly sought. I despaired not of what
I asked of thee, and thou hast truly shown thyself my Mother.
This was the hope that I clung to and I made sure to remind Our Lady of it repeatedly. Still, as the months wore on my entrance date seemed increasingly unrealistic. Through the incredible generosity of friends and family I was able to fundraise about 16% of the total that I needed, but at this rate, it would be ten years before I could enter! Still, I tried to hope, truly believing that God would provide for those called according to His purpose.
In May of that year I had one final fundraising event planned: a concert at my parish. It was a simple affair and I looked at it more as an opportunity to offer my violin talent to the parish than as a fundraiser. I entrusted the concert to the Blessed Mother. The concert went well, and afterwards I went to the parish hall for the reception. I was thinking of leaving when suddenly an elderly gentleman approached me and began speaking with me. At length, he put his face near mine and said, “Whisper in my ear the amount of debt that you have.” I told him. He said, “I may be able to help. Write to me. You’ll find my address on the $100 check that I put in the collection basket.”
I wrote to this man and then I prayed another 9 day Rosary novena to back it up. I wasn’t sure if I could believe that this man whom I had just met would be willing to make such an extraordinary gift. I prayed and waited, hoping that this was the miracle that I had been praying for!
It was May, the month of Our Lady, and still Easter; while I was walking home one day I was concluding the ninth Rosary of the novena and the bells were ringing at the church for the Regina Caeli. Just then, my phone rang. It was this gentleman, and he was calling to tell me that he had just spoken with his stockbroker in order to transfer the funds necessary to completely pay off my debt.
“He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.”
I was then able to enter the monastery within two months. The Lord had truly provided for me, just as He had promised, and I rejoiced! I was absolutely overjoyed to be able to enter the monastery after so many tenuous years of waiting. At last! Although nervous, of course, I was so excited to completely commit my life to the Lord and be His forever.
Within minutes of entering the enclosed monastery, however, I began to be plagued by doubts. The Lord, Who had always seemed so near to me, now seemed elusive. I struggled in the small community and I was afflicted by a loneliness that still grieves me to recall. I prayed, I offered sacrifices, and I begged for the strength to live this life, but I felt completely abandoned and alone. I was confused. Surely this must be my fault! Surely God had not worked such a dramatic miracle in my life if I was not actually called to this community! What was I doing wrong? Was I being punished for all of my sins? And what would happen if I left? Wouldn’t it seem like a devious scheme that I had worked just to get my loans paid off and then return to the world? These questions circled in my mind constantly and, not wanting to be unfaithful, I remained in the monastery. I would suffer, I decided, if that was what He wanted. I tried to reflect on the Passion. But who was this God here in the monastery? He did not seem like the same God whom I had loved so ardently before… I had never before felt so abandoned by God, so punished, so… rejected.
The community that I joined lived a very radical vow of poverty. Our personal items were very limited and I was taught not to ask for anything that was not absolutely essential. I had very long hair, because I was saving it for the dramatic ceremony of the investiture where my hair would be cut and replaced by a veil. Until then I had to keep it constrained behind a short postulant veil. I thought that I had brought enough hair ties with me, but midway through the year all but one of them had broken and the one that remained was definitely nearing its end. I know that this sounds trivial but I had some real struggles because of that one hair tie. My hair kept coming loose in awkward moments, it wasn’t secure enough for all of the manual labor that we had to do, and on top of it all, I was afraid to ask my superior for another one. I didn’t have that much longer until my investiture and I really did not want the portress to have to beg one of our benefactors for something as seemingly vain as a hair tie. I did not ask, and every day I rather desperately hoped that my one hair tie would survive.
My interior struggles with the community continued to worsen and I did not have anyone with whom to consult. I was the only one in the novitiate, the community was enclosed, and Mother was already bending the rules in order to allow me to talk privately with a priest about my difficulties. I did not know what I was going to do and it was all I could do to persevere in the daily tasks while trying to appear calm.
One day we received an unexpected package from a lovely woman whom I had met in passing just before I entered. It was a very large box containing all sorts of delights: nuts, washcloths, envelopes, and other essentials. I was really not expecting to hear from this woman and I was deeply moved that she had remembered me and had been so thoughtful. She even mentioned in her card that she had prayed while she was shopping so that she would know exactly what to buy for us.
We had a very fun recreation that evening where Mother allowed me to unpack the box and show everyone what my friend had sent us. Beneath the brownie mix, the seeds, and the gloves, I found… a package of hair ties. They were the exact type that I had always bought, and there were SO MANY of them! My friend knew that the Sisters kept their hair very short, and still she had been moved to buy hair ties for us. You might consider this a coincidence, but in that moment, when I had struggled so much and felt so incredibly far from the providence of God, I knew, I knew that the Lord was truly aware of even our smallest, most trivial needs and I knew that He still loved and cared for me just as much as He always had.
I eventually left the monastery after a great deal of struggles. I learned so much while I was there and I am very grateful to the Sisters for their goodness and patience with me. I was incredibly fearful of returning to the world, at first, and it was so disheartening to think that I may not be called to be the bride of Christ after all. It was all that I could do to entrust this transition to God and try to believe that He does indeed “lead the blind in ways unknown to them” (Is 42:16). I tried to trust again in His providence, more blindly now than ever, and believe that His ways must indeed be mysterious if He would pay off my huge debt in a miraculous way only to ask me to return to the world a year later. But Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and He guides the future as He has the past. His providence had never failed me, so I just had to abandon myself into a new, albeit unexpected, adventure. If He would provide me with something as small as a hair tie, how much more could He be trusted with all of the needs that I would encounter upon leaving the community?
It has been almost a year now since I have left the monastery and I think that my whole experience can only be summed up in one word: gratitude. I am so grateful because the Lord has provided for all of my needs every step of the way. I still don’t know really what He wants me to do five years from now, but I can try to live my life here today with great love. This is the will of God for my life – to give thanks without ceasing, and so even now I think of those hair ties with just as much gratitude as I have when I think of the insurmountable debt that the Lord Himself paid off in a heartbeat.