“Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.”(1 Corinthians 9:24)
Reading these words made me wonder, what does it take to win a race? What does it take to not only cross the finish line, but to cross the finish line first? And how can I relate that to the spiritual life? So I read the autobiography of an athlete. My athlete of choice was Jessie Diggins, a cross-country skier who won the first gold medal for the United States in any Olympic cross-country skiing event. Although her autobiography “Brave Enough” is secular in nature, there are many parts that are relatable to running this great race and participating in this pilgrimage to Heaven. Running a race takes an individual. Winning a race takes making good decisions each day, words of encouragement and truth, and the support of a great team.
It’s all in the moderation and balance, and before I do anything, my first thought is, how will this impact my racing? (p. 185)
There are a lot of decisions to make after leaving religious life – decisions that perhaps earlier were made for us. What will I wear? What will I eat? What time will I get up? How should I spend my free time? When will I pray? Athletes too face many daily decisions during their months – or even years – of preparation for a race. Jessie approaches these decisions with the end goal in sight: she asks herself, “How will this impact my racing?” I have found it helpful to ask myself the same question as I make decisions in the world. Of course, by “racing” I don’t mean an Olympic cross country ski event, but rather that pilgrimage to Heaven. Through that lens, the decisions usually become clearer and perhaps even easier.
Sometimes the right decision means striving to grow just a little bit more. One exercise that some competitive skiers do is roller ski 100km (that’s 62.1 miles!). Jessie completed this one year, or so she thought. When she got to the end of the route she plotted out the tracking device only read 96 kilometers… so she immediately roller skied four more kilometers. I was struck by how she gave that workout her all, even if there weren’t crowds cheering her on and she could have easily called 96 kilometers good enough. For us, sometimes the right decision will be just managing to sit through Mass. Or perhaps it is filling out one more job application, or even an act of generosity or patience when we feel like we have nothing left. Whatever it is, sometimes the right decision is to stretch ourselves and ski those last four kilometers.
And sometimes the right decision is rest. I was struck by the importance that athletes give to rest – and not just physical, but also mental. Athletes need physical rest, a whole day of it per week (doesn’t that sound familiar?), so that their muscles can be allowed to recover and build after all of the exercise. It means no going hiking or anything that could be physically demanding, even if that is something she wanted to do that day. In preparing for a race, mental rest was also needed. For Jessie, sometimes the right decision was to watch a movie with a teammate to relax and calm down when things were getting stressful. Reading about the intentionality and importance of rest inspired me to try to find ways to be more intentional about how I treat Sunday. This day of rest is more than just a day off or a day to go to church. If I treat it more intentionally, perhaps it will become a day of restoration and growth for my soul, much like it is for athletes.
Lastly, and perhaps the favorite thing I noticed, is that sometimes making the right decision is in the little things. For Jessie, an important part of preparing for a race is glitter. Putting glitter on her face before a race reminds her that racing is fun. Glitter is a little decision that positively impacts her race. Perhaps there are little, seemingly insignificant, decisions that we can make that will positively impact our relationship with Jesus. One little decision I have recently made is to smile at Jesus, to let my delight in Him be shown as I would a friend. That little decision of allowing a visible sign of my love for Him appear on my face has brough much joy to my prayer life.
Words are a powerful thing. (p. 175)
One of the pivotal moments in Jessie’s story is when her coach, Matt, said to her “Who you are is good enough,” and she believed him (p. 123). After having had many difficult experiences with a previous team, those words gave her the freedom to be herself and to trust that she would be loved and supported as she was. Of course, “Who you are is good enough” doesn’t mean that she was ready to win a gold medal right then and there. Of course there was still work to be done, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that she is good enough. She is someone her team is ready and willing to support. She is someone who has what it takes to race well. She is good enough.
Sadly, words can also have a negative impact. In a 10K Olympic race, Jessie missed the podium by 3.3 seconds. The media implied that she should be very disappointed that she failed to achieve the first Olympic medal of the US women’s team by a hair. But she wasn’t disappointed. She gave that race everything she had. She made the right choices leading up to the race. She had a good race. That was the true victory. And the media took that away from her. They were telling her she wasn’t good enough.
I think many of us who have left religious life face a similar temptation. We each have our own story of why we left, and we need to remain faithful to the truth. Sometimes we know the truth about leaving immediately, and sometimes it is a truth that unfolds after we have left. But we cannot let others take that truth from us. One of the lies that perhaps many of us face after leaving religious life is that we’re not enough. Those are not the words of the Father. In those moments, we need to turn to Jesus who is the Truth and allow Him to speak His words into our hearts. We need to allow Him to tell us that we are good enough. That we are still called to live lives of great holiness, lives of what Caryll Houselander calls “undiluted, heroic, crucified love.” That we are loved. Fully. Here and now. That He will never abandon us, and never has. Jesus wants to say those words to us. He wants to say, “Who you are is good enough.” Who you are is someone He can contine to lead along the path to holiness. Who you are is fully loved by Him here and now. Who you are is good enough.
It was the start of what we called the “fifth leg of the relay” because it was our way of saying that the alternate was our most important leg. (p. 126)
Selection for a 4 X 5K relay is hard when there are more than four skiers on the team. Someone is going to get left out of the race. The first year that this happened with the US National team the skier who was left out, Ida Sargent, turned it into the most important leg of the race. She showed up to the course on race day – even though she didn’t have to – and cheered her teammates on for over an hour. Her enthusiasm was so exuberant that some skiers wondered who that crazy person was yelling herself hoarse!
In a way, those of us who have left religious life are now a part of “the fifth leg.” Others were chosen and we are left out. But the reality is, whether or not we or our communities act like it, we are on the same team. We may no longer be a part of the particular community, but we are still a part of the Body of Christ. Ida set a precedent for the US National team. Perhaps some of us could help set a precedent for those of use who have left religious life. What if we could act like we still have an important role to play? What if we acted like our prayers and sacrifices do matter? Maybe the team that we left doesn’t have the camaraderie that would make imitating Ida easy. A rough transition can really make being a part of the fifth leg difficult. But we can still try. I can still try. You can still try.
“Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins!”
When you watch her gold medal finish at the Pyongyang Olympics, it may seem like she is on her own to strive for that finish line. But she’s not alone. Her team not only supported her though all the training, but was also there for the race. Her family was there. The announcer shouting “Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins!” as she edges past the other skiers knew her. She had family and friends watching the race on television. She was not alone in her race. And we are not alone in ours either. Some of us, I’d hope many of us, have the strong support of family and friends as we run this race to Heaven. Regardless of whether we do or don’t, sometimes it can be too easy to focus on the shortcomings of the earthly teams we are a part of, and forget that we are a part of an incredibly beautiful team. A beautiful team that is on our side. We have the Communion of Saints supporting us. We have the angels, and Mary, and Joseph. We have the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are not alone. And perhaps, when we do cross that finish line, we will hear the enthusiastic roar of all those who have been cheering for us along the way.
Images of Jessie Diggins from Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons Licence.
Attribution: Granada • CC BY-SA 4.0
Attribution: Cephas • CC BY-SA 3.0
During the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Calendar was updated to remove the feast days of certain saints whose historical existence couldn’t be verified. The most well-known of these would have to be Saint Christopher, but many others – including Philomena, Ursula, and Barbara – also quietly disappeared from public celebration at the time. This doesn’t mean they were ‘de-canonized’ or booted out of Heaven (to my knowledge there’s only one person who’s had that dubious honour; more on him later). Rather, their Feast Days could now be celebrated privately but were no longer officially listed as memorials for the Mass or Divine Office of that day.
One reason for this paring-down of the Calendar is that, in addition to the canonized saints raised to the altars by the Magisterium, we also have a legacy of folk saints canonized by popular acclaim in their local regions. And, let’s face it, some of these folk saints were pretty darned weird. So, for no other reason than that 2021 is a rough year and we all need a break, here’s a brief guide to some of the unusual saints you won’t find in official lists, and who make up a rowdy and colourful hidden history within the Church.
1) Saint Muirgen the Mermaid.
Let’s face it, there’s only one reason you clicked on this post, and that was: “Saint Muirgen the what?”
So, to prove that the title wasn’t clickbait, let’s start our list with this this entry from the Irish Martyrology of Donegal:
MUIRGHEIN : i.e., a woman who was in the sea, whom the Books call Liban, daughter of Eochaidh, son of Muireadh ; she was about three hundred years under the sea, till the time of the saints, when Beoan the saint took her in a net, so that she was baptized, after having told her history and her adventures.
The 12th-century Lebor na h-Uidri (Book of the Dun Cow) goes into more detail, explaining that she was the daughter of an Irish king whose palace fell into Loch Neagh, drowning him and trapping her underwater in the sunken palace for a year. After this, she prayed to the pagan goddess Danu to turn her into a salmon. And while her lower half did indeed become that of a salmon, her upper half remained that of a woman. (Thanks, Danu?) In this form she spent the next three hundred years chilling out in Loch Neagh before encountering a boat full of Irish monks, getting tangled in their fishing net, and hearing the Gospel for the first time while they were pulling her free. She promised to return to shore at the monastery a year from that day, and upon doing so gave up the rest of her extended mermaid life (another three hundred years) in exchange for Baptism and an immortal human soul. She died shortly thereafter, and her soul was taken to Heaven. Her Feast Day is on the date of her original capture, and her Baptism and death one year later: January 27th.
2) Saint Guinefort the Hound.
No, he wasn’t a friar of the Order of Preachers, aka Domini Canes (‘Hounds of the Lord’): Saint Guinefort was an actual dog of the four-legged variety.
The 13th-century Inquisitor Stephen de Bourbon railed against the ‘insulting superstition’ of a canine saint celebrated in the diocese of Lyon in France, and by his contemptuous retelling of the legend in his report on what he found there, he accidentally preserved it for all time.
The story goes that a wealthy local lord had a favourite greyhound named Guinefort, to which he gave the task of protecting his baby son. One day he came home to the castle and found the baby’s cradle overturned and Guinefort sitting calmly beside it, muzzle red with blood. In a broken-hearted rage, the lord drew his sword and slew the dog. A moment later, he spotted the baby lying alive and unharmed in a pile of blankets on the floor behind the cradle, next to the bloodied corpse of a large snake which had tried to attack the child, but was killed by the loyal Guinefort before it could do him any harm.
The repentant lord and his wife buried Guinefort in a well and planted a grove of trees nearby. The grave immediately became a site of pilgrimage by parents seeking a cure for their sick infants, and the people of the diocese venerated the greyhound as a saint on the basis of his ‘noble deed and innocent death.’
Stephen, extremely unimpressed by the virtues and alleged curative powers of Saint Guinefort the Hound (and by the practice of leaving sick babies unattended while surrounded by burning candles at the shrine), decided to put a stop to it. “We had the dead dog dug up,” he reports, quite devoid of sentimentality, “and the grove of trees cut down and burned along with the dog’s bones.” This, combined with the threat of a fine for anyone caught visiting the site in the future, put paid to the grassroots cultus that had sprung up organically around Saint Guinefort the Hound. Nonetheless, the legend of the faithful dog has remained a peculiar footnote in folk Catholic history ever since. According to the Ultimate History Project:
“For historians, the cult of Guinefort sheds light on the complexity of past cultures in Europe, including the power of popular religion. The people in this area forged their own interpretation of what a saint should be and created a set of rituals around this particular saint which served their immediate needs. Guinefort may have been a saint in this community but he was not officially declared a saint by the powers that ruled the church [sic]. Additionally, neither decrees from the official church nor ridicule from the Protestant churches persuaded local believers to halt their practices, some of which persisted until the twentieth century.”
3) Saint Christopher the Cynocephalus.
We all know the basic story of Saint Christopher: he was a giant who lived by a river and carried a little boy across on his shoulder on a stormy night, only to find the boy growing so heavy that he could barely hold him up. When Christopher finally staggered up the bank on the other side, the boy revealed that He was actually Jesus, and Christopher (‘Christ-Bearer’) had been carrying the weight of the world upon his shoulders.
Now, according to his legend, Saint Christopher was a Canaanite. No problem. Until, that is, someone apparently confused ‘Canaeus’ (Canaanite) with ‘Caninus,’ (dog), at which point the story goes completely off the rails. The idea began to circulate that Saint Christopher was one of the mysterious dog-headed people (cynocephali) believed to live on the edges of the civilized world, and in the version of the story that made it East to Orthodox Russia, he ended up looking like this:
Likewise, the 15th-century Irish Passion of Saint Christopher recounts: Now this Christopher was one of the Dogheads, a race that had the heads of dogs and ate human flesh. He meditated much on God, but at that time he could speak only the language of the Dogheads. When he saw how much the Christians suffered he was indignant and left the city. He began to adore God and prayed. “Almighty God,” he said, “give me the gift of speech, open my mouth, and make plain thy might that those who persecute thy people may be converted”. An angel of God came to him and said: “God has heard your prayer.” The angel raised Christopher from the ground, and struck and blew upon his mouth, and the grace of eloquence was given him as he had desired…
Fortunately or unfortunately, the Orthodox depiction of Saint Christopher the Cynocephalus was forbidden by Moscow in the 18th century, having long since disappeared in the Western Church as well. Except for a few glimpses in icons and ancient stories, this unusual story has largely faded from memory.
If you’re interested in the way the Church approached the existence of cynocephali, though, check out this letter written by a ninth-century monk addressing the question, ‘Do the Dog-Headed Men Have Souls?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-5RZBKBl_A
(Note the reference to Saint Christopher at the 9:13 mark.)
It features the classic line, “people seem to be better at reasoning than animals,” and if that doesn’t sum up most of the events of 2020 and 2021, I don’t know what does.
4) Blessed Charles de Blois, 1319-1364.
aka “The Saint,” aka Remind Me Again Why We Canonized this Dude?
Pious, ambitious, rich and ruthless, Charles de Blois, nephew of King Philip VI of France, spent most of his life fighting for the right to be named the Duke of Brittany. Eventually, Brittany was partitioned under a treaty which gave each of the two claimants (the other one being John de Montfort, a surname that will be familiar to many Catholics) half of the province. Then Charles broke the treaty, went to war for the other half, and ended up dead at the Battle of Auray in 1364.
Apparently he was quite famous for his great religious devotion and severe penances, which is how his family got his Cause for canonization before Rome in spite of some of the shady things he’d done, up to and including ordering the execution of some 2000 civilians after the Siege of Quimper. We don’t know exactly what happened with the canonization process, but we can make an educated guess that some strings were pulled and some money changed hands, and presto, one new Saint. (There’s still a small stone church called Église Saint Charles-de-Blois in Auray. Based on the handful of photos posted online, it’s quite pretty.)
An unspecified number of years later, but within the lifetime of John de Montfort – now John V of Brittany – who pushed to have the canonization reversed, Pope Gregory XI took another look and seems to have had an “Oh hell, what have I done?” moment. The canonization was annulled; to my knowledge, the only time this has happened. (Although it makes no sense theologically, I like to picture Charles sitting on a cloud and playing a harp, only to have a couple of angels in black mobster suits materialize behind him, haul him up by the arms, and frog-march him back down to Purgatory.)
Charles was beatified (for real this time) in 1904, but there are currently no active efforts underway to return him to sainthood. The only other thing of interest about this rather dodgy historical figure was that he played an important supporting role in the story of a much more interesting person.
Charles de Blois had a nobleman friend named Olivier de Clisson who supported him in his campaigns to gain control of Brittany. When Charles developed unfounded suspicions of treachery, however, he had Olivier summarily imprisoned and executed and his head stuck on a pike, as one does. Olivier’s widow, Jeanne de Clisson, was not impressed. So unimpressed was she that she sold all her lands and possessions, bought a ship which she had painted black and draped with blood-red sails and named My Vengeance, then added two more black ships to her fleet and embarked upon a life of piracy along the northern coast of France, plundering and sinking any French ship unlucky enough to cross her path. She herself would use an axe to behead any Frenchman of noble birth who happened to be on board, leaving only one or two crew members alive to tell the king what she had done. (Did I mention that ‘Saint’ Charles was the nephew of the king of France, and had the tacit support of the French Crown in his campaigns against John de Montfort? Well, Jeanne de Clisson, now known as the Lioness of Brittany, was having none of that. A friend of my enemy, etc…)
Eventually, according to some accounts, the English hired her as a privateer. She didn’t care where the money came from as long as she was allowed to keep unleashing hell on France, which she did very successfully for no less than thirteen years. After that, she hung up her cutlass , married an Englishman and retired to his castle in Brittany (which was now controlled by the Montforts), where she died a few years later of unknown causes.
Now, Jeanne de Clisson is not a saint, nor even a blessed. But if you were having difficulties with an unscrupulous landlord or obnoxious colleagues, to whom would you rather address your appeals for assistance: the unpleasant bloke who died in battle and later got shiftily canonized and then de-canonized again, or the unstoppable pirate queen with a fleet of black ships and all cannons blazing away in a hail of breathtaking destruction? Hmm…
This picture of Saint Quiteria looks altogether too nice and normal for an article like this.
5) Saint Quiteria.
And on the topic of warrior women, here’s our final probably-less-than-historically-authentic saint for the day! According to the legend, a noble Roman lady living in fifth-century Portugal gave birth to nine daughters all at once, and was so disgusted that she’d given birth to a “litter” (and not one of them a son) that she gave an order for the babies to be drowned in the river so she could start again with a clean slate.
This being that kind of story, of course, the girls were not drowned, but given to a peasant woman to grow up together in some remote rural location. And then, in the words of the article in which I first read about Saint Quiteria: “Things get really weird. They formed a nonuplet warrior gang. The girls were all good Christians and their gang was formed to travel around breaking Christians out of jail… and smashing Roman idols.”
After carrying out this unusual apostolate for several years, they were captured and brought before their father, the Roman governor of the region. He cottoned on that these nine young women looked rather a lot like him, and with this in mind, he decided to show them mercy; provided, of course, that they agreed to the good pagan marriages he was arranging for them. Quiteria, the eldest, was having none of that, and led her sisters in a successful jailbreak. They fled to a nearby mountain, which became their home base in an ongoing guerilla war against the Roman Empire. Quiteria was eventually captured, beheaded, and thrown into the sea, after which she walked calmly out of the water carrying her head in her hands. As I discovered while researching this blog post, the Church has a technical name for Saints-who-walk-around-carrying-their-own-heads: cephalophores. Wikipedia states that Quiteria is not considered part of this select group because the historical accuracy of her story cannot be verified, but some Catholic websites give her the title cephalophore nonetheless.
That’s more like it.
The other eight sisters were also martyred in various ways, and two of them are also, like Quiteria, still venerated across Portugal and parts of France and Spain. Her feast day is May 22nd. She is often depicted in artworks holding two dogs on a leash, having once tamed two vicious dogs by singing to them, and is invoked as a patron saint against rabies. (What is it with folk saints and dogs, by the way? So many of these legends have canine connections…)
Last-Minute Bonus Saint:
You know those eight other sisters of Saint Quiteria I mentioned, martyrs all? One of them was Saint Liberata, also known in English as Saint Wilgefortis (meaning ‘Strong Virgin’) or Saint Uncumber. According to her legend, when her father was searching for a pagan husband for her, Liberata prayed to God to alter her appearance so that her prospective husband wouldn’t want to marry her… and woke up the next morning with a full beard. And so if you look up the martyrdom of Saint Liberata/Wilgefortis on your preferred search engine, you’ll find paintings and statues that look like this…
Her statue in Westminster Abbey.
What’s even stranger to me, though, is that if you look up the painting of the crucifixion of Saint Liberata by the king of weird, Hieronymus Bosch, he’s painted her beard as a light down across her chin, almost invisible unless you zoom right in on her face. Of all the artists I would have expected not to handle the subject with this much restraint, Bosch would be top of the list.
And there you have it, folks. I promised weird, and weird I have delivered. May all the saints of the Catholic Church – official, unofficial, and ambiguously in-between – pray for us!
 Wikipedia raises doubts that the canonization process was completed, as opposed to being started and then dropped. The other sources I’ve read, though, mostly state that he was canonized.
(aka “References or it didn’t happen, buddy”)
Image from https://twitter.com/lorraineelizab6/status/1089482424831148032
https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/guinefort.asp (primary source)
Saint Christopher the Cynocephalus:
https://web.archive.org/web/20130729215126/http://www.ucc.ie/milmart/chrsirish.html (primary source)
Charles de Blois and Jeanne de Clisson:
Statue image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeanne_Hachette. It’s not actually a statue of Jeanne de Clisson, but another woman named Jeanne a hundred years later who was also famous for wielding an axe. But the image was too cool not to use.) Attribution: Markus3 (Marc ROUSSEL), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Stained glass window from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vitrail_Ste_Quitterie_Mimizan.jpg Attribution: Jibi44, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilgefortis#/media/File:Saint_Wilgefortis_Graz_20121006.jpg Gugganij, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
By Mary Rose Kreger.
Eight years ago, I was a young novice, Sister Mary Inez. Today I am happily married and a mom of two. I had an amazing convent experience, but God never meant for me to stay there. Here is my story.
In August 2012, I joined a community of Dominican teaching sisters. The Lord began calling me to religious life during a retreat that spring. When I felt certain Jesus wanted me to go, I quit my job, sold my car, and became a postulant.
Being a new sister was hard. The other postulants and I had to adjust to a new routine of prayer, work, and study. The hardest thing for me was all the silence. Regular silence and profound silence. Silence in the chapel and silence in our airy, white-curtained cells.
All that silence made it impossible for me to hide from myself. It was like Yoda’s cave in Star Wars:
“What’s in there?” Luke asked about the mysterious cave.
“Only what you take with you,” Yoda wisely replied.
Inside the Cave
I didn’t know it at the time, but I brought a lot of baggage with me into the convent cave. Every time I made a mistake, I was assailed by negative thoughts:
You don’t belong here. You could never be a religious sister. No one could ever love you. Jesus loves everybody in the world except you.
These hurtful words stung like physical blows. Adding to this interior misery was the back pain I’d experienced since I was a teenager. In January 2013, I finally told my novice mistress about my struggles.
“I want to stay in the convent, Sister,” I said. My aching body stood hunched over in her doorway. “But I need help.”
Even more, I needed healing.
My novice mistress first gave me permission to see a back doctor. I went to physical therapy and had some X-rays done, but the X-rays didn’t show much. My back pain was invisible on the charts, but still very real.
“Ask the Lord to reveal if there’s a psychological reason for your back pain,” my novice mistress suggested. So I prayed, and soon received an answer.
On Easter Monday, I was working in the convent kitchen. I put a few spoons in the wrong drawer, and the sister next to me – my closest friend there – shot me a look of exasperated fury. That minor event stirred up a far more serious incident from the past:
In the winter of 2000, someone whom I loved got very angry with me and hit me. In front of everybody, at a party. They apologized later, but they never explained why.
I was 14 then. I wasn’t sure what to think. What had I done to deserve this? To make sense of it, I decided someone must be to blame: me.
“There’s something wrong with me,” I decided that day. “Something, very, very wrong.”
I didn’t mean my sins. I knew that sins could be forgiven, washed away in the confessional. I also knew God loved to be merciful. No, I believed there was something wrong with me that was unchangeable. Something unredeemable.
And so I began believing an unconscious lie:
There’s something wrong with me. If I did not exist, I would fix what is wrong with the world.
This thought didn’t make sense logically, but emotionally it felt real and true.
Before that winter, I had an optimistic look at my freshman year of high school. Afterwards, I remained cheerful on the outside, but I was deeply depressed on the inside. My back pain started a few months later, and never stopped.
Seeing Sister Mary
I told my novice mistress about my discovery, and how I thought it was linked to my back pain. When she saw my distress, she sent me to see Sister Mary*.
“You need someone to talk to. Sister Mary can help.”
I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to share my ugly wounds with a complete stranger. But I knew Jesus would want me to go, so I went.
I talked to Sister Mary, and she listened. I told her how I was hurt at 14, and all the nasty things I heard in my head. Over several months, Sister helped me. She offered simple words of wisdom, and a clearer vision. She taught me to put those lies from the Devil at the foot of the Cross.
“The Devil is always accusing us, reminding us of our faults,” she said. “But Jesus offers love, forgiveness, healing.”
The more I talked to Sister Mary, the more the pain got out of my head and into the open. My heart, made numb from past hurts, began to feel again. It was a painful experience, but liberating.
Acknowledging the Truth
Through prayer and meetings with Sister Mary, I saw that what had happened to me at 14 was only one piece in a much larger puzzle. I grew up in a household with sometimes unrealistic expectations of perfection. As a consequence, we sometimes ignored the imperfect situations within our own family. This left me hungry for justice, rightness, the truth.
At 14, I couldn’t see that truth. But at age 26, I could acknowledge that my family was loving and supportive, but not perfect. I could also find comfort in Jesus, who came to heal the brokenhearted.
“Sometimes Jesus allows us to suffer physically, as part of His plan for us,” my novice mistress explained. “But He always wants to heal us spiritually.”
Jesus helped me along the difficult road to healing. I surrendered my wounds to Him, wrote to Him in my journal, and begged for healing and perseverance. Finally, I wrote a letter to the person who’d hurt me, saying that I forgave them and that Jesus had healed me.
Sister, What Do You Desire?
Afterwards, however, convent life continued to be difficult. I felt like I was slogging through quicksand. Still, I kept going, determined to stay where God wanted me, as long as He wanted me, here in the convent.
I visited Sister Mary one last time. “I’m healed, Sister. My back pain is gone, and I can feel again.” I sighed. “So why do I feel so unhappy?”
Sister Mary gave me a long look.
“Sister, what do you desire?” she asked.
I stared behind her, into the grey. “I want…a tangible kind of love. I try to give it to my sisters here, but no one wants it.” At night, I’d peer into the bathroom mirror, just to confirm I was still there. I felt invisible. “I want…to be seen, known, loved.”
“What does that sound like?” she prompted.
The answer came to me all at once. “Oh. Marriage. It sounds like marriage!”
In that moment, I knew right away that I wasn’t called to be a sister. I was supposed to get married! No one could have been more surprised than me. I felt so much joy!
I smiled and leapt to my feet. “I have to go home, Sister. My husband is waiting for me!”
A Future With Hope
One week later, I left the convent. Six weeks after that, I met my future husband for the first time. We’ve been married for six years now, and have two beautiful children.
God healed me in the convent, but He didn’t heal me just so my back would stop hurting, or to free me from depression. He healed me so I could see the truth that had been there all along: I was called to marriage, not religious life. And later, to a vocation of writing, not teaching. Healing allowed me to discover my true vocation and calling.
Saying “Yes!” to Jesus led me to a wellspring of grace and healing. The Lord truly took my broken soul and gave me a future “filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
* Name changed.
About the Author:
Mary Rose Kreger lives in the metro Detroit area with her family, where she writes fantasy for teens, and blogs about her spiritual journey: before, during, and after the convent on www.monasteryinmyheart.com.
By Mary Rose Kreger, republished from her shared blog Monastery in My Heart.
Eight years ago, I was a young novice, Sr. Mary Inez. I spent 19 months in the convent before realizing I was called to a married vocation. Today I am a happy wife and mom, but re-entering the world was a great struggle for me. Here is a poem about my experience:
Once outside the convent
You still long to be inside it
The white curtained walls
The ancient creaking floors
The silence and the song.
He drew me in and I followed,
Hungry for the final Word in treasures—
His secret gaze pierced me, pleaded silently:
I left everything to find Him,
My home, my job, my family—
Stepping out of the boat into the deep waters.
In return, He gave me the Cross,
That bitter cure-all for a thousand ills,
But also a taste of Heaven.
19 months in His garden, and then He says,
“Go home and tell your family all that I have done for you.”
And so I do. I go home and tell of
The white curtained walls
The ancient creaking floors
The silence and the song.
Six weeks later, I meet James,
The man whom I will marry
Whose birthday is Christmas like
The First Beloved of my heart.
We work and we play, we talk and we pray.
We are married, find a home,
Have a son, then a daughter—
Make friends, lose friends.
Die a hundred tiny deaths, and
Rise a hundred times again.
We share our lives together.
The Lord makes us new—He kisses me
With James’ touch, and embraces me with
Lukie’s arms, and gazes at me
With my daughter’s eyes.
He still wants me, even if His rose was
Never meant to stay in His convent garden.
No, rather to struggle and labor
In this world, pretending to fit in
When my heart has been spoiled for anything
On the outside, endless motions,
Movements of faith, hope, love—
And grit and survival, too, for this
Long journey is hard.
On the inside, a tiny-heart-home,
Always longing for the white curtained walls,
The ancient floors, where I first saw Him.
There, I tasted heaven once—
A darkness that was Light—
And I can no more return to my
Heathen ways than a child to her
Mother’s womb. I tasted heaven once, and my
Heart is ruined for anything else.
By Jamie, reposted from her blog Bloom Where You’re Planted.
I sat in my first job interview after leaving the convent. I remember clearly being asked, “What’s your five year plan?” by the financial lead of the organization. I mean this was a typical job interview question, but you may chuckle at the absurdity of the question if you asked a nun this question, which is what I was not too long prior. For a sister, your identity is in who you are, not what you do. As a religious, you are the bride of Christ. That is your identity.
In my monastery, you get assigned your new “job” every three years. You learn to have a peaceful acceptance of whatever it may be as the will of God, coming from the wisdom of the superiors. Even if you’re not too keen on the job, this is the daily obedience that you promise when you take vows. It comes with the lifestyle of a sister. For active sisters, these could mean moving to a whole new state for a teaching assignment every three years. For a cloistered sister, perhaps switching from your duties as the sacristan and helping with chapel ministries to the head cook for all the sisters. There is a detachment that is at first learned in religious life.
Detachment. Not a common word in our everyday lingo. What does it mean to you? It is very similar to St. Ignatius’ methods. A beautiful way of thinking of it is a desire to please God. A desire to focus on the things above not on the things below, no matter the consequences. It does not base questions on if you want or don’t want to do something. It is a detachment of self and the identity, job, salary, skills, etc. you held previously in the world to attach to the things above, to heavenly things. Pretty different from what we’re used to, huh?
For example, do you delight in your favorite ice cream? Of course. Do you jump for joy if given your least favorite ice cream? Why not? Sound like a crazy notion? The goal in this path of holiness as a religious is to be unattached from every human desire to only be attached to that of Christ and follow that which Christ lays before you. ‘Do I want this job?’ is not a question to be asked. ‘Does He want me to have this job?’ is a better question. If given prayerfully by your superiors, then yes, it is within His will and under the vow of obedience, you say yes. One sister once told me, “Stop thinking ‘Is this what I want?’ or ‘Is this what I think He wants?’ ” It is rather asking for a divine surrender to the Will of God. Trust. Jesus, I trust in Thee.
Saying ‘yes’ to Him and to this lifestyle is a daily dying to self. It is waking at 5 am everyday to join the sisters in chapel. It is rushing off to ring the bell 10 times per day to remind the sisters it is time for prayer, a meal, etc. because that is the task of the postulant. It is constantly watching your watch so you do not lead the sisters into the chapel late for their time of singing the Psalms in unison. Saying ‘yes’ is dusting the chapel three times a week since it is the task assigned to you. It is cleaning the bathrooms at the same time on Wednesdays with the novice mistress showing you spots you missed. It is watering the garden and pulling out weeds thinking that if your family saw you now they wouldn’t believe it!
Dying to self is receiving a package in the mail but asking for permission to keep it. You really desire to talk to a particular sister, but it is asking permission from your mistress to see if that is allowed. You want to speak during dinner prep but it is not the life or the call so you stay quiet. A sister needs a new glasses case and you would like to offer yours, but the exchange cannot go through you. The sister must speak to the novice mistress on your behalf to see if the exchange is allowed. Dying to self is getting up at 1:50 am three days a week to attend your middle of the night holy hour, losing sleep, but telling yourself it is worth it, to doze back to sleep until prayers a couple hours later.
You become like a child. Dying to self in little ways over and over. Making no decision for yourself. Every decision must be approved, run by your novice mistress. It is trust that He called you here and that He will give the grace of perseverance in each of these actions that keeps you going. You accept each little cross, rather, this different culture altogether, as a shedding of the old you and the growing pains of trying to live holiness in the radical way He has called you to. You see a transformation of yourself and see the secular version of yourself that once was being peeled away in this life you have chosen and that He humbly has given you if you wish to accept.
In the monastery I often wondered what it would look like to go back into the world for my first home visit, when I was usually immersed in the sanctity of perpetual adoration and song of praise, and how I would be able to handle the reverse culture shock. How would I go back to a world that was way too loud, sprinkled with evil, and try to live my life that had transformed so evidently? So here I was, applying for a secular job post monastery. So what did I answer the financial officer in my job interview for my five year plan? Thankfully, this was for a Catholic organization and someone else in the interview had left religious life long ago too. I remember collecting my thoughts and answering, “If you would have asked this question not too long ago I would have told you to be a religious sister, but now, my five year plan is to be a mom.”
It was not the secular answer most job interviews expect, in a world where job ranking, salary, and working up are emphasized. I said this with complete uncertainty of the road ahead. I had chosen to leave the monastery, I reminded myself. The pangs of ‘Did I fail?’ or ‘Did I leave what was my call because I could not handle the difficulties?’ rang strong in my ears. The uncertainty of the future and the possibility of the disappointment of who I was preparing to espouse echoed loudly. Trust. A level of trust I had never known before is what leaving the monastic way of life entailed to the core.
I pray this helps those understand the way of life a bit better and gives accompaniment to my sisters who also discerned out. Christ’s peace.