Leaving the atmosphere of religious life can feel like a big let-down. It’s easy to fall in love with that atmosphere, away from the seemingly pointless hustle and banality of our modern culture. It’s easy to think that you’ll never find the peace and tranquility you found “on the inside” again, and this fact alone drives many people who leave a community to near-madness. I know, it happened to me. But it doesn’t have to be like this.
One of the biggest problems I faced when leaving was despair. I worried about how I’d find work and where I would wind up and how I’d pay the bills. I worried that I’d failed God, or worse, that He and in particular His ministers in the Church had failed me. I wondered if He really cared about me or had a plan for me. I also felt that the world was completely against me, that worldly people would believe me to be a religious freak, and that without life in a religious organization I would be incapable of survival, in both the spiritual and material sense. Never in my life was I more wrong. What I desperately needed was a view of good things that can happen on the outside, and thankfully I got that.
I’m not advocating a foolhardy Pollyanna attitude, but I do know from first-hand experience that the world really isn’t quite so bad as that, and being a faithful and joyful Christian is possible out here. Here’s some things I discovered, in no particular order:
The world is a place filled with beauty. Beg, borrow, or steal a ride and go camping. Visit some place you’ve never been. Meet some new people. Or if you really can’t get very far, go for a long walk. Stare at the sky. Watch a squirrel closely. Listen to beautiful music. Then remember this: God made all this for you. God made you, and everything around you, because He loves you. This experience is His gift to you. This experience has been so necessary for me from time to time, because otherwise, if I’m trapped indoors or at work for a long time, I can easily assume that God isn’t close. When you’re in the convent or in a seminary it can be easy to forget to perceive beauty and God’s loving care for the world in places outside the Adoration chapel, the choir bench, or a beautiful traditional Mass. You’ll feel starved for love and beauty if you ignore the great beauty of the world around you.
Waste time with other people. It can be tempting to spend a lot of time working or praying, or working and praying, if you’re really into ora et labora. But humans are meant to be in relationship with others, and most often you’ll find that you can’t do that if you won’t just waste time with them. In a community it’s easy to take this for granted. You’re always together, doing the mundane things of life. When you’re outside, you won’t have this. So ask somebody to sit and eat with you in the break room at work. Talk about frivolous things and laugh. Even the most introverted of people can feel starved for this after leaving a community.
Remember that the world in a very real way needs you, and you will need the world. Remember that God has given you gifts, gifts that are meant to serve other people. Be prepared to be surprised at the ways your gifts get used by others. The skills that you thought would make you so perfect as a priest or a nun could very well make you an extremely effective counsellor or businessperson. Don’t be afraid to use these skills on the job and outside of it too. It will draw people to God in ways they do not expect, and He will reward you more than a human employer could do. There is little in this life that is more rewarding than that.
Finally, consider seeking new ways to pray. Without the community life of prayer you may find it very difficult to pray in the old ways. I found that after leaving seminary I could no longer pray the Office with anything other than a sense of reluctant recitation. I needed something else. So I learned lectio divina, and started taking a sketch pad with me to the parish Adoration chapel to draw what I meditated upon. God is a person who loves you and wants to spend time with you, so do not become discouraged if your old prayers seem lifeless and impossible. He will understand if things change.
Anthony is a thoroughly lovable former seminarian, artist, and Catholic blogger. He is not only the author of this week’s post, but also the creator of its featured image. If you’ve never seen his artwork, check out his blog at http://weaselsgonarf.blogspot.com/.
Thank you for your thoughts and for sharing your struggles and then finding yourself again in the world. How wonderful is that. You have given me a guide. For 14 years I have lived very sheltered, afraid that I will not be able to mix in with others and I still feel I don’t. I have tried, but I have not been successful. I must be doing something wrong. Thank you for writing filled with so much hope and exploring and finding a way with Jesus. It looks like you went to a familiar place inside yourself where you are you and where God takes you as you are. I am happy for your sharing. Thank you very much. I am truly grateful.
These are wise and insightful words to live “in the world but not of the world” for anyone regardless of whether they have been in religious life or not. Thank you for your reflections!
Ever since I read this post a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been meaning to come by and say thank you: your suggestion about drawing during meditation has made a real difference to me. I still pray some of the Divine Office because it’s a source of regularity and structure in my day, but I’ve needed something more personal as well – and being able to create something during prayer and look back on it later is really helpful. Thank you!
Thank you for shating how you struggled praying the Hours after leaving. For years after leaving I cried every time I attempted to pray the Office. It is nice to know I am not alone.