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?
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”!