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.
I was a sophomore in college, haunted by a persistent idea. Could I be called to religious life? This thought had persisted since I was eleven years old, but the urgency was new. At January’s March for Life, I met some amazing religious sisters. Before I knew it, I was finishing my sophomore year, bidding farewell to my close-knit community of friends and professors. I entered that order the following August. Leaving family and friends to enter religious life was the hardest thing I had done. Through the tears, I was still able to see Christ bidding me to come to Him, to walk upon the waters. During the months that followed, I was able to truly put out into the deep and bask in the light of His love. Through this, I experienced the relationship that is possible through prayer and silence.
A year and a half later, I was again invited to leave the boat. I had loved my time in the convent, but the summons came to go home to my family and, from there, to discern the possibility of cloistered life. I left my habit, my community, and my religious life behind to follow the call. Readjusting to life “in the world” was particularly challenging. There were many moments of sinking into the waters, but through it I learned that, although I felt like I had lost so much, my only security was in the person of Christ. I learned that I needed to rely on Him even more than before, and to trust Him as I navigated these waters.
Seven cloister visits later, my world shifted again. I was on my third visit to a cloister, and during this visit was seriously discussing the application and potential entrance dates with the mother superior. And then the call came again. This time, He was inviting me to step out onto the waters of lay life and to be open to the vocation of married life. This change was completely unexpected. However, a deep peace was present, just as it had been the previous two times. Within a short time after this visit, I had a car, an apartment, and a full-time job.
Now, several years later, as I look back on these three events, I notice how much I have grown through them. My “fiat” cannot just apply to one event. If I say yes to whatever God wants in my life, then I must be open to all of the very different, crazy things that He can ask of me. My time with the active order taught me about the powerful and relentless way that Christ loves each one of us. As I left the convent, I learned that He, and He alone, is my rock in this world. And as I look back on the cloister that I almost joined, I can only laugh. I laugh at God’s surprising way of guiding my life and turning it upside down time and time again. I laugh at the way He somehow has access to my heart to guide it so well. I marvel at the way He always, always guides me with a sense of peace. And the next time I am called to step out of the boat to follow Him, I will probably laugh at the idea. Indeed, God has given me laughter.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”
This passage from the Gospel of John is one of the most beautiful readings at Mass during the Easter season, and
there’s so much to meditate on! There’s the parallel to Peter’s threefold denial of the Lord during His Passion, there’s the Lord’s unfathomable mercy in forgiving Peter and reinstating his place as shepherd of His flock, there’s the opportunity given to Peter to make restitution for his sins, there’s the specific mission that Peter is given – all very valid, very beautiful points to pray with. This year, however, during my first “post-convent” Easter season, I was focused on something different when this passage came up. At some point during college (pre-convent), I had learned that, in the original Greek of the text, John uses two different Greek words for love: agape and philia. The dialogue actually looks like this:
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me more than these?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord, You know that I love (philo) You.”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord, You know that I love (philo) You.”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (phileis) me?”
Peter: “Lord, You know everything; You know that I love (philo) You.”
Knowing this provides a fascinating new understanding of the text. While there is some disagreement among scholars, generally the Greek agape is interpreted as unconditional, self-sacrifical love, like the love God has for His children. Philia, on the other hand, refers to affection between friends. One reading of the Greek passage is that Peter is petitioning the Lord to accept him back as a friend and “equal” after his betrayal, and thus the Lord’s switch from agapas to phileis is an acquiescence to that bold request. But I was moved this year by another interpretation.
Before the Lord’s Passion, Peter confidently proclaimed his agape love for the Lord: “Lord, why can I not follow you
now? I will lay down my life for you.” (John 13:37, emphasis mine). After his betrayal of the Lord, however, Peter no longer claims agape love. He is humbled. He sees himself more as he truly is, and not how he’d like to be. Thus, when the Lord asks him if he agape loves Him, Peter is distressed and responds with what he’s come to accept as truth: “Yes, Lord, I love You ” but only as a friend. I do not love You unconditionally as I had once thought. Twice the Lord asks for agape love, and twice Peter responds with philia love. And the Lord finally meets him where he is: “Okay, Peter, you can’t manage agape, so I’ll have mercy and meet you at philia.”
This in and of itself is striking, and a beautiful testament to divine condescension as well as to Peter’s humility. But what I find most beautiful is what happens next: Jesus agrees to meet Peter at philia, but He doesn’t leave Peter there! In the next breath, the Lord predicts how Peter will die to glorify God. This prediction is a promise that He will help Peter get to agape! Peter had initially thought to do it on his own strength, and he failed miserably, painfully. So now the Lord, knowing his “willing but weak” spirit, promises to provide what Peter is lacking. “Yes, Peter, I know that you don’t agape Me. But I also know that you desire to. So follow Me, feed and tend My flock, and I will help you. I will provide for your deficiency in overabundance. If you follow Me, I will give you the grace to die for Me.”
I, too, am like Peter. Although it is not a perfect analogy (since leaving the convent is not a betrayal of the Lord), entering and leaving the convent has taught me a lot about my limitations. This could easily lead to the self-blame, self-loathing, and despair of Judas – “If I had only been stronger or more prayerful or more virtuous or less selfish or less prideful, I wouldn’t have had to leave! I’ve ruined God’s plan for my life because I’m such a screw-up!” – but that is not the only option. I can also choose to be like Peter, to humbly acknowledge the truth about myself and my limitations, to turn with them to the Lord in trust, and to allow Him to heal me.
The chains that bound Saint Peter, in the basilica of S. Pietro in Vincoli in Rome.
Regardless of the circumstances of my departure from the convent, the end result is that I have realized that I am not able to love the way I had thought I was. My fervent “I will enter the convent and die to myself for You!” has turned into a humbled “Lord, You have seen and know everything. You know that I love You … and You know that I do not love You as I ought. You know that I am willing, but weak. I was not able to do what I set out to do relying on my own strength.” And the Lord’s promise is that He will give me the strength and the love necessary to love Him with agape. He will provide. He sees my desire, and it is enough. He has given me a mission – to evangelize those around me – and through this mission I will become conformed to Him. Through this mission, my love for Him will become steadily deeper until I am finally truly able to give my life to Him the way that He desires – not because of my passion or devotion or fervor, but because of His. He will supply strength in my weakness. My vocation – whatever it may be – is His project. I have only to say “yes” to His invitation to follow Him and to humbly acknowledge the truth about myself. He will do the rest.
“I love You, Lord, my strength.” (Ps. 18:2)