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.
By Bernadette Monica.
Three years after leaving my former community it seemed like all the pieces in the puzzle of my life were finally coming together. I had found another community and everything appeared to be indicating that this was truly what the Lord had planned for my life. The community’s spirituality and charism resonated with my heart in a way I never could have imagined. With each faltering step forward I took, each time expecting to find myself falling flat or hitting a dead end, I was surprised to find myself filled with a peace and joy unlike anything I had ever known. The whole experience was so different to discernment the first time around – where formerly I had discerned out of external pressure, anxiety and fear, here instead I found freedom, beauty, and goodness. Even when facing the remnant fears I had from my previous discernment of religious life, I felt more exhilarated than afraid at the possibility of taking a leap of faith and placing everything in the hands of our Lord, trusting everything to His grace and providence. And so it was that, after spending 6 months or so discerning with the local mission of this new community, I found myself on a plane from Sydney to the US to visit the community’s Motherhouse, and discern if this was really where I was being called.
I half expected to arrive and feel like a fish out of water, having the realisation that I was not where I was meant to be, like when I had visited other communities in the past. Instead I felt completely at home, and fell in love with the community and their way of life. One of the postulants and one of the novices even remarked how well I fit in with the community and how they hoped to see me enter in a few months, God-willing. It seemed that the only obstacle remaining was that my family were not supportive, and even on this front I was sure that in time they would come around, even if there might be some challenges in the meantime.
Imagine then my surprise and shock on the day before my departure when I finally had an interview with the vocation director only to be informed that she didn’t think I would be able to cope with the demands of their community life. I always knew it was a possibility that a community might discern such, or that I might decide myself that it wasn’t the right fit, but her impression was so at odds with the peace and sense of belonging that I felt, and I wasn’t satisfied with the vague reason she gave as justification. Even so, it wasn’t an absolute no, and it was agreed that on my return home I needed to really take everything to prayer and discuss things with my spiritual director, and that I could continue to be in contact with the vocation director to discern a path forward.
After a challenging day filled with confusion and heartache I awoke on the final morning of my 12-day visit aware of the challenges that lay ahead, but also full of hope and trust that the Lord would remove this obstacle if it was His will. I returned home and it felt like I had a foot in each of two worlds. I prayed and sought spiritual direction, and after two months, though aware of the possibility of refusal or the likelihood of being asked to undergo a longer period of discernment to discuss and work through her concerns, I contacted the vocation director asking to speak with her again, and expressing that I felt I was being called to take the next step in discernment. We arranged to speak on the phone, and in the 20 minute conversation that ensued it was made clear to me (albeit in the kindest and gentlest way possible) that the door to discerning with the community was no longer open for me. In the space of a few minutes all the growing hopes and dreams I had treasured in my heart were dashed, and the Pearl of Great Price was pulled far from my reach. To say I was heartbroken would be an incredible understatement. I was recently struck by a line from Ted Danson’s miniseries adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels that seemed to sum up where I was at very poignantly:
“We love words, we humans; we use so many, so easily, ‘til they’ve lost all their meaning. But when I say as that last day dawned my heart was breaking – I have never known such awful pain and loneliness.”
I cannot describe my emotions and the testing of my faith over the past few months. I have never really dated, but I imagine that on some level this is akin to enduring a breakup of a longstanding relationship when from your own end you thought everything was going really well and were perhaps even expecting a proposal. After the traumatic experience of leaving my former community and all the growth and healing of the following years, to find a community that was healthy, vibrant, on fire with love for the Lord, and seemingly such a perfect fit for me only to be turned away even from applying felt almost too much to bear.
Over the last month or so the initial intensity of emotions and the agony of rejection has ebbed somewhat, but I’ve been painfully aware that around this time is when sisters will be receiving the habit and professing vows, and that in a few short weeks a new group of postulants will be entering various communities.
Upon learning that the postulants I knew during my brief time at the Motherhouse would have received the habit and their new religious names in the past day, and that the novices will be making their first profession of vows tomorrow, I sat down this morning to pray a rosary for them. It’s a Saturday, so it seemed very appropriate that I should be praying the Joyful mysteries for them. I’m so happy for these women reaching these milestones in their own vocational journeys, but I was aware of parallels I could see with the mysteries I was praying and the experiences of these women, and how this contrasts with my own experience. My own discernment feels more suited to the Sorrowful mysteries. I took this to our Lady as I prayed, and she gave me some beautiful insights which I want to share in the hope that it might bring others a little bit of peace and hope in their own struggles and confusion.
Firstly, on the Joyful mysteries. Perhaps many of you can relate to how these seem to tie in with religious formation, at least as I was seeing it.
The Annunciation: That unexpected and surprising moment when the Lord first presents to a young woman’s mind and heart the possibility of a call to religious life. “How can this be…?” she might ask. But like Mary she is exhorted to not be afraid, and assured that nothing is impossible for God, and that it is through His power that His will will be done, if only she gives him her Fiat.
The Visitation: The vocation starts to become more concrete. A woman finds a community she feels drawn to, and her apparent vocation begins to be affirmed by others – friends, family, her spiritual director, members of the community. And with Mary, the woman rejoices at the marvels the Lord is working in her life.
The Nativity: A birth; new life. The time comes for a woman to enter her community and leave her old life behind. A time of change and growth as she starts out on the new road she has been called to walk.
The Presentation in the Temple: At the appointed time, the woman begins her formal initiation into the community. First she receives the habit and her religious name; later she will make her first profession of vows, offering her life to “be designated as holy to the Lord” (c.f. Lk 2:23) and having her gift accepted by Him through her superiors. It strikes me only now as I sit down to write this that it was at 8 days that our Lord was circumcised, given his name and was formally initiated into the Jewish community, and at 40 days that he was presented in the Temple and redeemed according to Jewish custom and law – there is surely a parallel here with the process of being initiated into a religious community!
The Finding of Jesus in the Temple: Perhaps some might tie this in with a woman’s final profession of vows when she becomes forever a bride of Christ. I see it as something a little more abstract – those moments perhaps years down the track when she grasps a deeper understanding of the mystery of her vocation, or reaches a more profound level of intimacy with her bridegroom. This might perhaps come after a period of spiritual dryness, just as Mary spent three days searching for the missing Jesus, and like Mary, on finding Jesus once again the woman will be filled with joy, and is left to ponder the mysteries of God’s workings, and the purposes He fulfils in all things.
In contrast to this I can see in my own recent experiences a shadow of the Sorrowful mysteries:
The Agony in the Garden: That fateful conversation with the vocation director where she initially questioned my suitability for the community’s way of life; my wrestling with this, questioning, “Why me?” and wondering what it was that she saw in me that she hadn’t seen in the others who did end up applying, or alternatively, what she hadn’t seen in me that she had seen in them; wondering if there was a red flag over my head because of my having previously been in a community; the confusion over how everything had seemed to lead to this point and everything seemed to fit so well only to have the shadow of doubt cast over it all; and finally, reaching the point in prayer of being able to accept the cup I was being asked to drink, and coming to an understanding that if this truly was my vocation then the Lord would remove all obstacles at the appointed time, and that if it wasn’t then nothing I could do on my part could it make it so.
The Scourging at the Pillar: The return home and the months of prayer and discernment. Grappling simultaneously with the very real possibility of rejection and the hope that things might still work out; having others affirm that they thought I was on the right path, while knowing the odds were stacked against me. The feeling of flesh being torn from my side as I prepared to speak with the vocation director once again, laying my heart on the line while knowing there was a very real possibility that I may not receive the answer I was so desperately hoping for.
The Crowning with Thorns: That definitive moment of having the door of what I had hoped to be my vocation closed and bolted on me. Being prepared for the possibility did little in the moment to ease the pain of having thorns pushed cruelly into my flesh. In the hours and days that followed that fateful phone call it felt like there was a ring of thorns around my heart, slowly shredding it to pieces.
The Carrying of the Cross: The weeks and month following my rejection have involved a long process of coming to terms with the situation, working through my emotions, and trying my best to keep moving one step at a time, to get back up when I’ve fallen, to accept help from the Simon’s of Cyrene in my life, and to place myself at the foot of the cross. I’ve had to learn to see this as a way of becoming more united to Him, and to trust more and more in His plans, even when they make no sense to me. I’ve had to make a conscious decision to trust in His promises and to believe that He is indeed working for my good.
The Crucifixion: I can see here an invitation to lay down my life in a radical way to the will of God. An earlier Leonie’s Longing blog, Sacrificing Sacrifice, has proved very helpful in coming to an understanding that, where I had hoped to lay down my life for God through religious consecration, perhaps what is more pleasing to Him and sanctifying for me is accepting His will and choosing to trust even when it proves painful, or when I’m being asked to let go even of the truly good and honourable desires of my heart. Like Christ on the Cross we are invited to place our lives completely into our Father’s hands, accepting and trusting in whatever His will might be.
On another level I can see in the Sorrowful mysteries parallels with the experience of leaving my former community. Perhaps you may relate to some of these:
- Troubles, doubts or difficulties in the lived experience of community life
- Perhaps a difficult conversation with a superior, or some painful growth in self-awareness
- The experience of actually deciding to leave, or particularly of being asked to leave where that has been the case
- The aftermath of leaving your community and readjusting to lay life
- Learning to accept and surrender to God’s will, and for those who have left dysfunctional communities, healing and learning to forgive and let go.
While praying the rosary I had a few insights from our Lady in light of all of this which I found comforting and encouraging. Firstly, she affirmed to me that the Sorrowful mysteries don’t make sense on their own. It is only in the light of the Resurrection that our Lord’s Passion and death have any meaning or salvific effect. Without the Resurrection and the Glorious mysteries, none of the other mysteries take on their full meaning and power. Without the Resurrection the Sorrowful mysteries would also cast shadow, doubt and confusion on both the Joyful and Luminous mysteries, as well as these mysteries not making any sense in and of themselves. What could be the purpose in the Nativity by itself for example, let alone if it was all only to end in our Lord’s painful and humiliating death on the cross?
The Resurrection gives us hope, and is a promise of things to come. Perhaps we are now in a luminous period in which we are slowly having the Lord’s will revealed to us, and through which He has something to teach us and areas in which He wants us to grow. In the meantime we can look to the Glorious mysteries as a promise of the hope that is surely to come. I am reminded that, after all, my vocation is not the final destination but only a pathway to aid me in reaching it, and if the Lord is allowing a few detours en route I can still trust that in the end He will bring me to the final destination of perfect union with Him, and that we will be united all the more closely through the times He has allowed me to carry the cross alongside Him through the sorrowful mysteries of my own life.
By Amanda, re-published with permission from her blog http://www.mariasmountain.net
The conversation shouldn’t have been an awkward one. That is, if I were normal, if I were like any 32 year old.
But I’m not, so instead, it turned awkward and I wanted to crawl under a rock.
I’m new to my work and we were all sharing details of our lives in the office, so an intern innocently asked: “So, Amanda, do you have any kids?”
“But you’re 32…do you just not want to get married?”
I will admit that I brushed this off as the intern being a young college student and not having learned the prudence I learned was taught in religious life.
“It’s not that.” Pause. All right, I need to give more details here or they’re just going to fill in the blanks. “Okay, so I was a nun and left just a year ago.”
After the initial “WHAT?!?!” and “WHOA!“, she paused and said “But it’s been a year already. You’re not married or anything. What have you been doing with your life?”
I know she asked this innocently (once again, young college student), but I was taken back. I mumbled something about things don’t happen that fast and I changed the subject. But I couldn’t get the question out of mind:
“But it’s been a year already. What have you been doing with your life?”
What have I been doing with my life? Have I been doing anything with my life?
I feared the answer was “nothing”.
I am no closer to finding out my vocation in life, no closer to marrying anyone (or even going out with anyone), certainly no closer to having kids.
I am closer to starting graduate school for my MSW…and by closer, I mean I’ve filled out most of the application. So really, not that close.
I am no closer to any kind of promotion or salary increase. I switched jobs twice this year and I’m now in a job I like, but one that won’t be my permanent career.
Everything has remained the same since the day I left – same apartment, same car, even the same friends.
Maybe it’s true, maybe I haven’t done anything in a year.
I won’t deny it; I sulked around with those truths for a few weeks, even through Christmas. I had a year and I did nothing. I felt as if I had failed myself, failed God who had this great plan for me, and, in a way, even failed those who supported me leaving the community. I wallowed in shame.
Life with the Daughters was so packed with ministry, prayer, meetings, conferences, etc. Every moment was filled with purpose. Now that I was by myself… was I just wasting my life because I didn’t have a “purpose” of being a wife or mother?
But, as I let myself reflect on it, I realized that while I may not have done the logical “next steps” or what the world would expect of me, there were some accomplishments this past year:
I am no closer to finding out my vocation in life, but I started writing again and am deeply in love with its pains and joys.
I am no closer to finding out my vocation in life, but I’ve gained some self-confidence, which can only aid in the search.
I am no closer to my MSW as of right now, but I have learned many lessons in ethics, motivational interviewing, etc by experience.
I am no closer to any kind of promotion or salary increase, but I’m happy in my job and isn’t that what counts?
Everything has remained the same since the day I left, but I have gained some great friends from church that I didn’t have a year ago that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Everything has remained the same since the day I left, but I’ve grieved my past and kept walking ahead.
I pray that, if that question comes up again, I can say with confidence: “Actually, I did a lot.“
I have always seen Advent as a beautiful season of hope and joyful expectation. I fell in love with Advent when I entered my religious community. There’s something about the quiet waiting of our Blessed Mother that has resonated so deeply with me.
For the first time in eight years, I am spending Advent at home with my family, instead of in the convent. I made the decision to leave the community six months ago, after more than seven years as a religious Sister. I chose to leave during a period of intense desolation, and looking back, I see that I acted in haste, without any true discernment. At the time, I was sure I was at peace with my choice, but my former postulant directress very wisely told me, “What you feel is relief, not peace.” I brushed her off as not understanding my situation, but after six months, I see the truth in what she said. I have yet to find the peace I thought I had. Instead, I came very quickly to deeply regret leaving the convent, and do not yet know if it would be possible for me to return.
This Advent, I find myself seeing Mary in a new way. I reflect upon her months of pregnant expectation, and for the first time, see more than just her joy. It must have been a time of great uncertainty for her, and also of learning whole-hearted trust in the God of the impossible.
How critical are hope and trust during the pregnant pauses in our own lives. In times of “limbo,” pain, or uncertainty, the temptation can be to fall into anxiety and even despair. Blessed are we to have Mary to guide us and be our example in these times.
As we enter the final days of Advent, I picture myself sitting alongside Mary in the later months of her pregnancy. The initial excitement has passed, and in the silence, perhaps Mary’s heart has begun to fill with questions of what the future will bring. I acknowledge the questions rising up in my own heart…questions of discernment, of God’s will, of doors that may or may not be closed before me. But rather than give in to the fear and uncertainty, I fix my gaze on Mary.
Very gently, she takes my hands in hers. She places my right hand over her heart, and the steady beating makes her hope, faith, and trust almost tangible to me. I cling tightly to Mary’s hope and trust, as I seem to have so little of my own right now. Then she presses my left hand to her belly, and as I feel the movement of the baby within her, I am reminded that times of uncertainty and waiting are really moments pregnant with God Himself. It is only by being faithful in the waiting that the sacred new life can be born.
If you, too, find yourself in a season of uncertainty, take heart. Hold tightly to our Blessed Mother, and know that something new and beautiful is in the waiting.
For the longest time after I returned home from the convent, I was afraid to move in a fixed direction or put down any roots. I didn’t want to commit to anything unless I was sure. Once burned, twice shy… that’s how it felt. I had given everything I could of myself when I was “living the life” in my community. I had committed entirely on an interior level, so when the call back out to the world came it hit me like a ton of bricks. The sense of purpose that I had prior to discerning out of religious life was a hard act to follow. Unless I could find a similarly purposeful direction to move in, I didn’t want to be tied down.
3 years after returning home, I moved out of my parents’ home and took out a lease on an apartment. I decided to allow myself to ENJOY setting up my new home. I went for uncluttered without being minimalist, with a few soft furnishings and bits and pieces to create a pleasant place to relax or to entertain… even a few prints of paintings by local artists of places to which I have travelled in my past… each one, a memory. It sure won’t be gracing the pages of any interior design mags, but it’s home.
Why is investing time, effort and $ in homemaking, even important, you might ask?
I’d invite you to pick up your Bible and flick to Jeremiah 29. No… not verse 11… that quote about a hope and a future that so many people explore on blogs like this one! Let’s have a look at something different! Go right back to the beginning of the chapter to where God addresses Himself to the exiles in Babylon.
He tells them to build houses, plant gardens, settle down, get married, seek the good of the society within which they are living. He told them that this exile was PART of His plan for them, that it wasn’t a thwarting of His plan. He reassured them that they were exactly where He willed for them to be, and gave them the confidence they needed to get on with living their exile well.
I’m still in the process of trying to work out how to do this well in my own context, and I dare say that this is going to look different for every one who has returned to the world from the convent. I know this much – putting my life into a holding pattern in the hopes that some wonderful life mission or purpose will materialise out of nowhere is not what He is asking me to do. Gabriel didn’t appear to our Blessed Mother in a waiting room. He delivered God’s message to her when she was at work.
So again, I invite you – sit down with this passage – and if possible, do so before the Blessed Sacrament. How is He speaking to you through this passage?
I pray you’ll find reassurance and peace!
Pictured Rocks, MI – captured by a local artist. It hangs on my wall to remind me of a wonderful memory kayaking under that archway with a dear friend of mine!
Q: What is “From My Inner Cell” all about?
A: From My Inner Cell: Conversations with God for convent-leavers
I call it almost-discernment: where you’ve been bruised by a brush with convent life and are in no particular rush to repeat the experience, but at the same time, the idea of becoming a sister is like a distant phone in the background of your life that never stops ringing. Like when you hear about a new religious community and think, simultaneously,
a) I wonder if that will be the community God wants me to join?
b) I hope not because I don’t really want to be a sister anymore,
c) but I wish I could stop thinking about becoming a sister. (That phone is starting to drive me berserk: Lord, I’d answer it if I could figure out where it is. Could You please either point me in the right direction, or make it stop ringing?)
Discerning a religious vocation the first time around wasn’t easy by any means, but at least it was comparatively straightforward. The explanation I came up with for my spiritual director was this: the first time you enter religious life, it’s like turning a compass slowly until the needle points north and everything falls into alignment. God is the magnetic pole Who draws you to Himself, and you need only keep your eyes on the compass and follow the path north to Him.
Leaving the convent is like dropping the compass.
Of course, you pick it up again, and it looks fine on the outside – the glass unbroken, the case undented – but when you try to follow it, sooner or later you’ll find it’s been jarred out of alignment. The needle swings back and forth without stopping, on any bearing, let along north. God is still out there somewhere, and you keep waiting more or less patiently for the compass to settle down and start pointing you in the direction He wants for your life… and when it doesn’t, there’s no option but to start walking regardless, because that phone is just going to keep on ringing until you do. Discernment the second time around means having the courage to take even a single step forward, knowing that you have no real idea whether you’re heading north or south-south-west.
My post-convent discernment path has been largely comprised of zig-zags, punctuated occasionally by an “oof!” as
my faulty compass guides me straight into a tree. (I went on a nine-day orienteering camp when I was fourteen. Didn’t like it. Can you tell?) Our Lord told us, though, to keep on asking, seeking, and knocking; without a functioning compass, the walk will take longer, but one day – in His time – the underbrush will part suddenly and a clear path to Him will become visible. And He asks us to trust that, when each one of us gets to heaven and looks back down on the times when we felt most lost and helpless, meandering pointlessly in the scrub, we will see only one set of footprints.