By Sally Hoban.
On September 3rd (2019), the canopy of one the trees in my yard snapped and crashed down in our yard; it missed the house by a few feet. In many ways, the breaking of the top of this tree and the fact that it did not damage our house reminds me of my own path through this dark period of my life. The tree is no longer whole and the top that kissed the sky is now in a woodchip pile somewhere, but thankfully, the tree is still standing, and the damage done to the area where it landed was minimal. In so many ways, this parallels with me, however, I pray that the damage I have done in the depths of my despair and rage has not damaged beyond repair my relationships with those who love me.
As I start to feel the storm of despair and anger recede, I’m beginning to not feel blinded by the light around me. No longer do I recoil when I find myself looking out and wondering what next. No longer do I weep over the yearning to fulfill the call I heard to live out my life as with the congregation I love so much. Yet, I am now able to also acknowledge how painful and agonizing it was to constantly be in the throes of trying to prove my vocation to the decisionmakers within the congregation. So, how do I learn to live with this conundrum…
For so many months, I banged my head against a wall trying to make sense of all of this. I went round-and-round trying to make sense of hearing a call from God to pursue my vocation with this congregation and being rejected; blaming myself for being me, wishing I could have been someone the Provincial Team and the Vocation Director would accept; to replaying my mistakes and wondering how they could have been so great as to be summarily dismissed. I was so in love with God, my vocation and the journey of discernment that I believed nothing could stand in the way of fulfilling this yearning, but something did stand in the way…I was told by the Provincial, “The decision has been made to not continue the discernment with me.”
After the dust settled and I awoke to this reality, I found myself broken and shattered beyond repair. For the first year, I could barely get through a day without weeping and wishing to die. (Yes, I said it, I wanted to die!) I had spent over 40 years searching for meaning in my life. When the spark of living my life as a Catholic sister took hold, my whole being lit up. I found myself living from my heart from the early days of my discernment through the early days of February 2018, when I still believed that Jesus would sweep in rescue me and restore me back to my vocation with the congregation that rejected me. When I became aware that this was not going to happen, my life became a living nightmare and I rejected God and myself, the self that still believed and hoped for meaning in my life.
A few months ago, I was encouraged to embrace the phrase “fake it until you make it”. Since I was told this by one of the sisters from the congregation, it stung all the more. Yet, as the second year of this reality comes to a close, I am aware that in many ways, I have successfully utilized this task. I am back on my feet, albeit different feet than before, but nonetheless, I am gainfully employed, no longer weeping or lost in turmoil when I reflect on the current status of my life, and beginning to take in my life and contemplate a new path.
Like something that was broken and glued back together is never the same, I too am learning that I am broken and slowly being glued back together. I believe that Jesus not only has stood by me during this darkest time in my life, but saved me from the darkness that threatened my very existence. I’m still figuring out how to deal with this, because I am still angry with God over my rejection; however, I no longer have the energy to lash out at God when it arises, instead I find myself desiring to simply be honest by acknowledging this anger, sadness and hurt without losing myself in the depths of this despair.
Somehow though, I don’t want to go back to life before I was broken. I want to learn how to live from my brokenness. Can Jesus use my brokenness in God’s great mission? How can I live with my brokenness without letting it destroy me? How will Jesus to carry me in a new way? How might I use this longing to return to my religious vocation with the awareness that it is unlikely that I will return to my religious vocation with that congregation? Perhaps this leads to the question, do I really want to return to that?
I’ve often reflected upon my friend’s encouragement to write a book about my experience; however, I fear that my recounting of my experience would turn into a negative rant tied with fantastical dreams. Yet, I would like to utilize my keyboard to gain insight into how I might learn to live from this brokenness.
I’m not sure where this journey is leading me. So, I am utilizing my need to express myself, my hope to be heard (read) and the prayer that perhaps this might open a new path on this life’s journey…. Living from a place of brokenness…
Nearly a year after writing this with COVID-19, these words describe where I was. Where I am today is somewhere further down the road of discovering who I am and how I might learn from my experiences. While I don’t pine for what was and what isn’t, I wonder where might God be calling me. The other day my spiritual director reminded me that God isn’t finished with me yet, so I know I am living my next adventure right now.
During prayer, I have been hearing, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”, the line from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”. Some days, I am troubled by the question, as I wonder, what to do? Other days, I am on a mission to determine what I am called to do. Today, I realized I am simply living into this moment, and this is my “one wild and precious life”.
 Oliver, Mary, “The Summer Day” from Dog Songs: Poems , (Penguin Books, 2015).
By a Leonie’s Longing Contributor.
Most of my life I have had a certain disdain for wealth and luxury. I would catch myself looking down on those with big houses, nice cars and name brand clothes. I grew up poor the majority of my childhood and I was proud of where I came from and the challenges I had to overcome. When I converted to Catholicism and eventually entered the religious life, the value placed on poverty and shunning luxury fueled my belief that pursuing wealth was diametrically opposed to a holy life. After leaving religious life, I worked in jobs that I was underpaid and overqualified for. Pursuing a secular career that paid well with opportunities for upward mobility seemed too worldly a pursuit and an obstacle to my vocation. Alongside me, I had friends, who, like myself, graduated from expensive Catholic colleges with massive student loan debt, follow a similar path. It seemed working for the Church in some capacity was the goal, regardless of the low pay, and secular well-paying careers were avoided. As the years went by, I started to question these choices. Why do devout Catholics (particularly women) pursue low paying jobs they are overqualified for? What was influencing this and is it healthy? Is this what God wants?
In the Catholic tradition, we are taught the virtues of poverty and detachment from earthly goods. This especially becomes prominent in religious life in the Vow of Poverty. As we detach from earthly things, we are taught that this allows us to attach to God and “store up treasures in heaven”. The benefits of wealth, such as luxury, convenience, and comfort, are looked down upon and seen as obstacles to our walk with Christ. The concept of the Prosperity Gospel that we hear of from some of our Protestant brothers and sisters is close to the exact opposite of how we view our faith in relationship to money. In fact, our tradition holds that suffering (including financial hardships) are opportunities to rely on the Providence of God and sometimes are directly given to us to grow on our paths to becoming saints. And this skepticism of wealth and success, especially if we have come from religious life, can guide our decisions in career paths, financial choices, and lifestyle.
Yet, with all this being said, the million dollar question is (no pun intended), have we swung the pendulum a little too far? Are we taking something neutral or even good, and shaming it? To be clear, I am not saying working a fulfilling but low paying job is wrong. Or that the teaching on detachment is erroneous. This is more a challenge to evaluate our views on wealth and career success. Negotiating pay, investing to build wealth for the future, purchasing a home (yes, even as a single man or woman), pursuing a promotion or career change for better pay – these are not bad things. And so, I challenge anyone reading this, if you find yourself in a job that you are overqualified, underpaid, and living paycheck to paycheck, I encourage you to reflect on your approach to your career, to success, and to wealth. Do you find distorted thinking, shame, guilt, or scrupulosity at its foundation? If you can move up in your job, why aren’t you? If you can get better pay, why not?
If this message strikes a chord with you, I recommend researching professional development learning opportunities to develop and upgrade your skills, learning from inspirational figures such as Dave Ramsey, Tony Robbins and Matthew Kelly, and finding a career counselor to address what’s been holding you back (National Career Development Association is a good place to start). LinkedIn is also a fantastic resource for networking, workshops and keeping up to date on trends in the workforce. Remember that as lay Catholics, we are not barred from success, nor are we forbidden to become wealthy and enjoy our success. Poverty or wealth does not determine attachment to goods – our love, generosity, and pursuit of God determines this. It is up to you how you decide to live that out.
By Rebecca Pawloski
The first time I heard the word Beguine was in undergrad theology at the Lateran University in Rome. I was assisting our venerable professor of Church history with his microphone at the break between lessons. He asked me, “Chi siete?” in Italian “Who are you (both)” while motioning to my place in the classroom, and to my friend Sara who was sitting there chatting with the Roman seminarians—as one does during the break. I understood he was asking what community Sara and I belonged to, which was a normal enough question. In our class of 70-some students there were over 30 ecclesial entities represented. Another professor had once asked me the same question on the very first day of class, and I had answered that my community was the Holy Catholic Church. When he looked confused, I responded that I hoped it was his community as well. He was embarrassed as my classmates laughed. I amended my ways and learned to simply say, begrudgingly, “lay woman”, when it came time to announce allegiances at the start of each new course.
So I told the good Prof. Mario Sensi, “I am a laywoman with monastic tendencies”.
He gestured to Sara, “Both of you?”
I said, “Yes”. I explained, in brief, that we would have done something else, each been part of some group, but that discerning a community is complicated to do after undertaking studies. So, well, at least we try to pray the liturgy of the hours and live celibacy for the Kingdom. Prof. Sensi became very excited and gestured with his hands in the air “You’re Beguines! BEGUINES!” I assured him he was mistaken, and that I had never heard of that community. He smiled and said, “You will learn”. And, indeed, three years later when he taught his new course Mulieres in Ecclesia on Beguines, I was signed up for the adventure. Sara planned the field trip for our STL class to visit the houses of Beguines dating from the 13th to the 15th centuries in central Italy. But I would not yet identify with the Beguines.
Sara and I had met because a priest who was close to each of us had put us in contact and encouraged us to go to Rome to study theology. This priest had spoken to each of us about his plans to found a community; however, I had just recently departed from a new community that had canonical problems and I was wary of new things. At the same time, I had a conviction I should continue my path in the Church and had a deep desire to study theology. Sara had survived cancer and had decided she wanted to live life radically. She had already spent some time discerning whether or not to set out on the path towards consecrated life. We met up in Rome. The priest who connected us did not continue in his idea to found a community. This was well for us, because as we studied, a new community lost its appeal and the older forms of consecrated life seemed to grant deeper rootedness.
So, at the time Prof. Sensi was teaching his course on Beguines, Sara and I were networking with the Ordo Virginum (OCV) in Rome, an ancient ordo, or order, of women each consecrated by a bishop to live virginity for the Kingdom in relationship to the local Church. We were both attending the monthly meetings at the Roman Seminary, together with other women who had invited us, an event where both Consecrated Virgins and those who were interested in their ways of life met for formation sessions. For me, OCV was not entirely a good fit, first of all because I do not have a stable sense of calling to a particular diocese and also have a desire to continue in academia with all its uncertainties. However, there are many things I like about OCV: for example, its focus on living continence for the Kingdom as a charism in itself. I like the diversity of women in the ordo, the strong local identity and the lack of a complex relationship with a founder-figure—things I had also admired about the spirituality of the diocesan priests with whom I had studied.
Ordo Virginum, though it may resolve the question of one’s identity and way of belonging in the Church, does not resolve the physiological questions fundamental to human life, namely the need for food and shelter. Women generally do not receive a stipend for participation in sacraments to guarantee sustenance by prayer. And so, as the fundamental needs became more pressing, the idea of OCV became less immediate.
But, back to the Beguines. “Beguine” is the name given to a vast array of women who organized their lives and livelihood around the Church without (at first) any formal approval. It turns out the Beguines had first of all mastered a secular economic model for women to participate in ecclesial life while maintaining their independence, and this as early as the 12th century. If they shared a common life (and some did not), there was mutual support to live in continence for the Kingdom, but also freedom to leave the lifestyle at any time. Celibacy was an important requirement for being a Beguine, but permanent vows were not pronounced. This was not always celebrated and was even sometimes condemned by members of the hierarchy. In fact, if anything, the nominative “Beguine” was pejorative and even today is used by Italians to denote a professional Church Lady who doesn’t do much else, even though the Beguine movement has many saints associated with it.
For me the Beguines became closer as I took time to do a long retreat after I finished my STL. It was a good moment in life to stop and take stock of direction. I wrote down all the possibilities on a paper in a sort of flow chart of life options (this is not a specific Ignatian Retreat “task”, but my own way of working). I colored in yellow the way where I found some light. I found myself right where I was in academia, living celibacy for the Kingdom as I could, and happy to do so in free association with others on a similar path. In short, I found I was a Beguine and not really looking for another way to be.
I’ve written this little reflection “On becoming a Beguine” in dialog with Penny and Leonie’s Longing because of a shared vision we have that studying the Beguines can give consolation and a sense of identity to unmarried women who are living out their baptized and confirmed vocation while longing to feel more at home in the Church community. I hope Penny will not mind if I quote her as saying, “I think it will help a lot of women come to a new understanding of their place in the Church as laywomen living celibate lives for the Kingdom. Certainly, in my own life, I’ve drawn a lot of consolation from the ideals of the Beguines. It’s comforting to have a sense of belonging, of having a spiritual lineage, outside the formal monastic life.”
For me, acceptance of living in the identity of a Beguine has influenced my spiritual life by allowing me the freedom to do a few “experiments” in prayer. When a woman belongs to a well-defined spiritual tradition, her task is often to learn and grow in that community’s way of prayer without the freedom to try out different prayer styles. For many years the liturgy of the hours carried my prayer life, but now–although I love the liturgy as a way to pray with others–I’ve found my need for a more personal and meditative way of praying. I still look forward to praying the liturgy with others, but liturgy is certainly a different practice when one is alone for prayer.
I see this way of life as being a concrete living out of prophetic intuition. We understand the vocation of men to the priesthood as belonging to an “ordo”– the order of priests– which expands to include many different styles of sacerdotal lifestyle. By making an analogy, we could understand the women of every age who find themselves called to live intentional celibacy for the sake of the kingdom as part of a sort of “order of prophets” seeking with their lives to point to that love in Christ which surpasses death. The world, and sometimes even the Church, will not understand the witness of such women, but they understand each other. Psychologists tell us the sense of belonging to a group is one of our higher needs. Since grace builds on nature, we can talk about fulfilling a spiritual need to connect and identify with a group.
In my reflection on Beguines, I think it is important to recognize I am not alone. Sara is also studying what it means to be a Beguine. It is also important for us to recognize we are not the only ones seeking to root ourselves in this tradition. There are others out there already doing so. In the future, it could be good to think of a way to support each other. However, for the immediate present, I have to live out my calling to finish my doctoral dissertation in dogmatic theology at the Gregorian University. Then we will see where all this goes.
(Prof. Mario Sensi passed away May 25, 2015. His exhaustive study illuminating the role of mystic women in Church history continues to bring insight to many.)
Image from https://pul.academia.edu/MarioSensi.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want;
he makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
Those are difficult words to pray when life has taken on the characteristics of a desert.
There are still moments when I miss the “green pastures” and “still waters” of religious life. There are still moments when I miss the hours set aside for prayer, simplicity of our cell, the laughter and smiles of the community, the folds of our habit, the quiet and simple work, the Stations of the Cross leading to the cemetery, the rattle of our side beads, the bells… Now there is even more that has been taken away due to the pandemic. So much more. I miss being able to pray with others. In person. In a Church. I miss being able to enter a Church. I miss going to Mass. I miss the Eucharist.
Yet I shall not want.
Jesus, the good shepherd, is the shepherd of my soul. He is mine, and I am His. That is what is important. That is all I need. Even when so much as been taken away, Jesus remains and He alone is enough. Although He has bound Himself to the Sacraments, He is not bound by them. He will continue to nourish my soul somehow and in some way. He will continue to lead me on the path of righteousness the Father has marked out for me from all eternity. He continues to come to me, and I can find rest and restoration in Him. Even here. In this desert. Even now. In the midst of the challenges and uncertainty.
Jesus is the green pasture. Jesus is the still water. Jesus is the restoration of my soul.
He always has been, and He always will be. And He cannot be taken away from me.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
What has struck me most in the Gospel readings lately is how often Jesus seeks someone out and goes to them. “Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him…” (John 9:35). “Jesus himself drew near and went with them.” (Luke 24:15) “she turned around and saw Jesus” (John 20:14).
How fitting it is that we should see Jesus seeking out His sheep in the days when He walked among us. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11). Jesus laying down His life is not confined to one moment 2,000 years ago. The burning love that made the sacrifice of Calvary possible is still alive here and now. Jesus lays down His life for His sheep in the little things and the big things. No act is too small for love. He who hung upon the cross for me will not abandon me in the bitter valley.
When St. Therese found herself in the midst of darkness, she found herself turning not to the cry, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” but rather, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me.” Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He will not abandon me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
At first the verse “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” seems nonsensical. Why would the good shepherd prepare a feast in the presence of enemies? Wouldn’t far away from the enemies be better? Yet in doing so, Jesus shows His true mastery over that which causes distress. So often I just want the difficult and unpleasant parts of life to just go away. Jesus shows His true power not through eliminating the difficulty, but rather through inviting me to feast in the midst of the difficulty and uncertainty. This harkens back to Isaiah 11:6 with “…the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” To be at peace in the midst of tranquility is expected. To be at peace in the midst of tribulation and distress is a gift. A gift that Jesus invites us to receive each day.
In the end, we are all on pilgrimage to our heavenly homeland. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says; “I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (John 10 14-15). Jesus knows us. We are not anonymous to Him, the creator and shaper of our hearts. He knows our rising and our resting. He knows the path that will lead us home to eternity with Him. Some of us will spend the pilgrimage in convents and monasteries which are like little vestibules of heaven. Others of us will spend this pilgrimage reflecting the love of the Trinity through the Sacrament of marriage. Others of us will spend this pilgrimage living the mystery of Nazareth through the seeming ordinariness of our life. Many and fleeting are the paths that we take. One and eternal is the destination. May our steps always remain homeward bound. May our gaze always remain fixed on Jesus.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
I am His sheep.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
I shall not want.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
I find rest in Him.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
I am never alone.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
I trust in Him.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
I shall not fear.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
I am homeward bound.
I AM THE WAY
After leaving I wanted to know where to go, what to pursue… And instead of answers there was stillness – an odd stillness that I didn’t quite know what to do with. Inside I sort of felt a “where to next?” that was only met with silence. It felt as though I were a sailboat left in the middle of a sea on an overcast day with no wind and no sense of direction. At least the sun was still there. Somewhere.
What finally broke into the restlessness were Jesus’ words “I am the Way.”
He always was the way. He was The Way as I discerned which monastery He was calling me to. He was The Way during the day to day activities at the monastery. He is The Way now, in this stillness. And He will continue to be The Way as I journey ahead on this pilgrimage.
Sometimes discernment can feel as though it is some sort of enigma that I must solve lest I be eternally doomed to a life that is less than what had God intended. But that isn’t love. Part of discernment, especially during the silence and stillness, is trusting that whatever I choose Jesus can and will make it work for good. Then discernment becomes something truly beautiful. Then discernment isn’t about what I do, but about Whom I love. It is trusting that as long as I love Jesus, everything will fall into place.
In Story of a Soul St. Therese speaks of “having savored the delights of walking without seeing” (Manuscript A 23v). May we too delight in placing one foot in front of the other as we remain close to Jesus, The Way.
One of the challenges outside of the monastery was the seeming contradiction between what I know and want to be true, and what was actually happening. There were many difficult emotions after leaving the monastery, and initially I was rather dismissive of them. I shouldn’t be angry; I wasn’t told to leave out of malice. I shouldn’t be sad; I am still the spouse of Jesus and a beloved daughter of the Father. I shouldn’t feel abandoned; the sisters are praying for me.
But the reality was that I felt angry, and hurt, and sad.
When I finally allowed myself to enter into those emotions – as illogical as they may have seemed at times – I found Jesus there. Almost to my surprise. Yet those emotions are a part of the reality of my experience. And of course He who is the Truth would meet me in the truth of what I was experiencing.
It took a lot of courage for me to stand in the truth of what I was experiencing. Nice, neatly-packaged theological explanations such as “I am still espoused to Jesus through Baptism” were so much easier to engage than the interior struggle going on within. Yet when I stood in the truth of the heartache, the anger, the frustration… I found Jesus there. He who is the Truth continues to meet me in the truth of my experience and work His redeeming love from there.
AND THE LIFE
Leaving the monastery left me feeling stripped of the way of life through which Jesus would help me grow in holiness. But there was something greater than a particular charism, horarium, or apostolate that I did not lose. Something that was present the whole time – or rather Someone. The Catechism highlights how each Christian is called to live the mysteries of Christ’s life within each of their own lives. It reads:
“Christ enables us to live in him all that he himself lived, and he lives it in us. ‘By his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man.’ We are called only to become one with him, for he enables us as the members of his Body to share in what he lived for us in his flesh as our model: ‘We must continue to accomplish in ourselves the stages of Jesus’ life and his mysteries and often to beg him to perfect and realize them in us and in his whole Church. . . For it is the plan of the Son of God to make us and the whole Church partake in his mysteries and to extend them to and continue them in us and in his whole Church. This is his plan for fulfilling his mysteries in us.’”(CCC 521)
Jesus’ life is the life I am to live. It was the life I was called to at my Baptism. It was the life I was called to as I discerned religious life. It was the life I was called to through living monastic life. And it is the life I will continue to be called to live. It is beautiful to find reflected in my own life the flight into Egypt, the miracle at Cana, the Saturday after His burial, His joy, His sadness, His desires, His charity…
May Jesus give us the grace to recognize His life reflected in our own life.
We are currently in the midst of a loneliness epidemic in the western world. I’ve heard about research that has come out recently regarding this subject, but unfortunately, the media aren’t reporting on it very much. I’m sure, though, that you feel it within your heart and see it in the world around you. As women who have been in religious life, I think we can feel the sting of this loneliness in a particular way: we felt called to community, but yet we are not experiencing it in the same way now. Our world is getting progressively more isolated as people spend more time online and less time with friends and family. Even in faith communities we can feel as though we don’t belong. If we’re single and don’t have a defined state in life vocation, it’s easy to think that we are invisible and don’t matter to the Church. But this isn’t true.
I recently had a beautiful phone conversation with one of you. She said she hoped that 2020 transformed longing to belonging for me. I found that an encouraging thought. And I wish the same for all of you.
I hope that you are able to spend this year, especially this season of Lent, around people who love you and are supportive of you and your journey. If you feel particularly lonely I encourage you to take risks, be vulnerable, and reach out to others. If you have a home filled with love (and kids), please try to invite someone over who may be alone during this time (single people don’t care if your house is a mess btw). We all need each other. And the evil one does what he can to whisper lies to us and encourage us to put up barriers to protect our hearts. We think that these barriers will keep us from being hurt. They might do that. But they always keep us from experiencing love. And that is unfortunate because love is what we truly desire.
Leonie’s Longing has some great ideas that we are trying to put into practice soon. My particular hope is that we will be able to facilitate more connections and community between you all. Please pray for us as we explore ways to do this. And if you’d like to help volunteer so that we can move forward more quickly with these endeavors we would love to hear from you.
May God bless you during this Lenten season.