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)
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 Leonie’s Longing reader.
Photo credit: the fifth image in this sequence (the broken umbrella) is used under Creative Commons licence, CC By S-A 2.0. The owner is Matias Garabedian.