Twenty-five years ago, I stood at the cloister door of the Poor Clares, knocked, and asked to be admitted to their community. I was young, confident, and excited to begin my new life that I just knew was going to be permanent. During the first weeks, I thrived, so much so that I was allowed to move from Candidate to Postulant in four and a half weeks rather than the usual six.
By the end of the year, I had made a complete turnaround. Beset by chronic ear infections, the loneliness that came with the lack of my family’s support, and the regular adjustments to religious life, I felt I had no more to give. However, by the time I had reached home, I regretted my decision. Those days were filled with so many tears and headaches from the stress! Over the next few weeks, though, the pain subsided, and I began to pick up where I had left off. Five years later, I would be walking down the wedding aisle, content and at peace with my decision.
My time in the cloister was invaluable to me as a wife and mother. I had learned to submit myself to someone else, a certain amount of detachment, and the importance of obedience. Six children later, I was pleased with my little family, but even in this state of satisfaction, the truth was that deep inside, I still grappled with what I saw as the loss of my vocation. Regular dreams visited me in which I was released to enter religious life, only to realize that I belonged with my husband and children and return to the world. Over and over, God needed to show me the holiness of family life in these little dreams until I learned the lesson.
Then an accident resulted in the loss of my two boys. A daughter should have joined them in their heavenly abode, but by miraculous intervention, she was spared. The bigger miracle, however, was a complete healing of the disappointment of my youth. From that moment on, I added those virtues which are so loved in good mothers: patience, long-suffering and cheerfulness.
Since that time, I have learned that God gives two separate and distinct graces in religious life: one to enter religious life and the other to persevere in it. God often gives the first without giving the second. He has things to teach which are best learned in an atmosphere of retreat that may last anywhere from a few days to a few years before sending us out into the world. Religious life not only is the seed bed for those who will live there until death, but it also cultivates the life of virtue of those who will become the mothers and fathers that God desires.
A few days ago, my oldest daughter stood at the cloister door, knocked, and asked to be admitted to her new community. She is young, confident, and excited to begin her new life. So now we have come ‘round full circle. The end of my vocation story means the beginning of hers.
By Gertrude Heartwood.
In Fr. (now Bishop) Robert Barron’s video series Catholicism, he points out that Our Lord Jesus did not have any religious status in his society. He was not a member of the priestly class and was neither a scribe nor a Pharisee. He was a manual laborer, a member of the laity. So now are we, who once had “religious status” as members of a religious community, counted among the laity.
All states of life were elevated by him, for although he was a regular working man, he also was the model for all in religious life, living poverty, chastity and obedience; and he is the Eternal High Priest. We know that all priests derive their priesthood from His; that all religious follow him more closely in the evangelical counsels; yet he is simultaneously a lay person.
Reflections like these can comfort those of us who pursued religious life and left, but we can never get away from the fact that we no longer remain in what is considered by the Church to be the objectively more perfect way of life which persons in religious vows have been called to live.
Lay people are not called like priests and religious to a supernatural vocation. We may be chosen for the married state of life, or for some ministry in the Church, but this is not the same sort of call that a priest or religious receives…a summons to a way of life that can only be lived because of the grace that is available from the Redeeming Act of Christ. Prior to Christ, the celibate priesthood and the consecrated life did not exist. These are possible only because of the new economy of grace brought about by the Blood of His Cross.
So here we are, just regular folk, living a regular type of life. Some of us are single, some of us are married. But our states in life are nothing new, nothing particularly Christian. All cultures and religious traditions have married people and single people. We are just plain Janes.
And yet, are we really?
In the purely lay state, having no Church status to rely upon, we can show forth the essentials of the Christian gifts, the changes that Christianity brings to human beings. We look, dress, talk, live like secular folk. But we have the Holy Trinity within us. We have a mother in heaven who watches over us. We have a guardian angel. We have grace upon grace upon grace. We are new creations. Furthermore, if we are married, we can live that state in life at a higher level, at the level of grace, because it has been elevated to a sacrament.
These hidden treasures of grace we possess within are like jewels sparkling out quietly from within us, upon a world that is inhabited by darkness. People will catch the sparkles if we remain in His Love, and be drawn to Him too. And that is all we have. Those sparkles of grace. We don’t have a habit, or religious vows, we don’t have a collar, we aren’t set apart. When people look at us and interact with us, it is as persons just-like-them. The only things we have to rely upon to draw people to Christ is His grace inside of us and our cooperation therewith. No one will look at us in a habit and be moved to think of God. But if we wear a smile for them, they may see that they have dignity and that they are loved. If all our interactions with them bear the Light of Christ, the heaviness of their darkness can be lifted from them, if even for a moment.
At the same time, we see the goodness in them, these regular folk like us…though not Christian, they can make us marvel at how they too reflect God’s goodness. His goodness in us, His goodness in them…we and they, regular folk, yet carrying too, the wonder of God’s generous presence.
By Christina M. Sorrentino, re-printed with permission from her blog https://calledtoloveosb.blogspot.com/
One of the greatest blessings of living in a monastery or convent is being able to live with the Blessed Sacrament. When young women would come on a discernment retreat and ask me what my favorite part was of being in religious life, I would always tell them, “Being in the constant presence of the most holy dwelling place”. There were some nights I would go down to the Eucharistic chapel and simply sit quietly alone with Jesus in the darkness with only the sanctuary lamp as my light. I cannot explain the feeling that would come over me as it is indescribable, and it is a feeling that I miss the most after leaving the monastery. I can no longer at night right before bed go downstairs and sit in the stillness before the Blessed Sacrament, and I can say that is my greatest sadness and loss of no longer being in religious life.
As in the words of Fr. Michael E. Gaitley, MIC, I find myself with a sort of “holy envy” in that I wish that I lived in the same house in such closeness to the Eucharist. Religious sisters and nuns are truly blessed in that they actually live in the same house as the Blessed Sacrament, and can visit with Jesus as often as they wish to visit him. I remember after Compline visiting the Eucharistic Chapel on my way back to the Sisters’ residence, and whispering to Jesus, “Good night”.
My heart yearns for the day when I will once again be living in the same house as the Blessed Sacrament. I do not find it a coincidence that not too long after my departure I was given an image of the Divine Mercy, which is such a beautiful image of his grace. I told my father I wanted to hang the image on the wall in my parents’ living room, and I was surprised when he told me that I could do so, and already I knew that Jesus was pouring out his merciful love.
Although the image is not the Blessed Sacrament, it will be a reminder of the merciful love of Jesus for me and for my family. The Divine Mercy Image Enthronement is an invitation to allow Jesus to reign not only in our home, but also in our hearts, and I will remember to trust Jesus and his divine will. This image of great grace brings Christ into our home, and until the day that I can once again live in closeness to the Eucharist I will consider myself blessed that the Image of Divine Mercy will remind me that Jesus is always with me, and to trust him.
Some time ago, I had a conversation with a friend who, like me, left a religious community during formation. We were light-heartedly discussing which communities we would think about entering if we tried again, and she mentioned one which is famous for educating all its sisters to an extremely high level.
“I wondered about them…” she began.
“Me too…” I said, and then in unison:
“But I’m not smart enough.” (In the ordinary course of things, getting a couple of former Dominicans to admit to that would necessitate the pulling of teeth.)
Not long after that, I started reading David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. While exploring ways in which underdogs throughout history have been able to turn the situation to their advantage and beat apparently stronger opponents, he asks whether it’s better to be a big fish in a little pond, or vice versa. One interesting case study is a brilliant young science student who opted to go to one of America’s most elite universities, attracted by the excellence of its science course and the prospect of being surrounded by equally intelligent and committed peers. Within months she was flailing desperately in her studies, convinced that she was stupid, and ended up dropping out of the course in despair. How, Gladwell wonders, does someone who would have been at the top of the class almost anywhere else become convinced that she is not only backward, but hopeless?
And what does this have to do with religious life?
For me, it was an important insight into why I ended up leaving a community that had seemed to be exactly right: devout, traditional, monastic, academic – everything I wanted. Before I discovered Leonie’s Longing, I’d had trouble finding biographies by former nuns with whom I could identify, mainly because they seemed to have left religious life largely for moral or spiritual reasons: conversion to another religion or even to atheism, dissatisfaction with the Church’s teaching on priestly celibacy, women’s ordination, Humane Vitae, or something else along those lines. That wasn’t me, though. I left the convent for a single, purely human reason – because, when I was there, I felt like a failure. Having prided myself on getting high distinctions at university, I entered the convent to find myself failing one essay after another and being placed in a scaffolded writing program. In choir, in the refectory, and in my chores, it wasn’t any better. And I kept wondering, how on earth was this happening? I wasn’t stupid or crazy… was I?
Here’s where Gladwell’s point comes in, and it applies in a big community or a small one: any group of people will have a bell curve of ability, and in an elite institution some highly intelligent and capable people are going to end up in the bottom quarter of that bell curve. Here’s how it might work in a religious context:
Option 1. A young woman joins a postulant group of, say, twenty. She’s warned from the outset not to compare herself with her companions, but she hears others in her class making insightful comments about concepts that she hasn’t yet fully grasped, or she starts getting essays back with marks lower than any she’s ever had before. She makes more mistakes than they do, or feels as though she does. She starts to worry about getting weeded out by the superiors. In an environment where no-one is average, an above-average sister gets shuffled down to the bottom of the class while, actually, producing work of a quality that would excel anywhere else. She becomes the bottom of the top.
Option 2. Or, perhaps, the young woman joins a small community in which she is the only postulant or even the only one in formation, and the curve gets even steeper. In theory, nobody expects her to keep up with sisters who are years ahead, but if she’s the only one who can’t perform a simple task in the proper way, she’ll stand out – and the danger then is to start accepting any and every correction or criticism as the truth, the better to try and fit in. She, too, starts to worry about her place in the community. She, too, becomes the bottom of the top.
You know that truism we’ve all heard, that “religious life is not about what you do, but who you are”? When a young sister is having difficulties, it’s perilously easy for her to flip that around into the negative and think that she is therefore failing not at what she does, but at what she is. If any cup ever bore the label poison, that would have to be it. A nun who deliberately chose to live selfishly would fail at what she was (as Mother Mary Francis, the late Poor Clare Abbess, says), but not the one who tries to press on in love through and in spite of suffering until, finally, she can’t.
Therefore, if this was you and you think you failed in the religious life, what I’m saying straight out is that you didn’t. Chances are that you were at least above average – both in intellect and in generosity – when you entered, and got shuffled downward by the environment in which you lived. (How much heartache could have been prevented if we’d been warned about this possibility beforehand, I wonder?) On that note, Gladwell points out that Yale has introduced a program in which elite athletes whose marks are lower than the usual cut-off are admitted to academic courses, so that, even if they become the bottom quarter of the bell curve, they have an alternative outlet for excellence and don’t burn out trying to compete. He also notes that the top students in average universities score higher on an objective measure of success (publication of research papers) than students who are considered ‘average’ in elite institutions like Yale, largely because they haven’t been subjected to the psychological carnage which comes with that sense of across-the-board failure. So, how to apply this to discernment, the second time around?
Awareness of the psychological factors that may affect someone in religious formation could help in adjusting to life in the right community in the future (or at least, reducing self-flagellation over having left the wrong one in the past), but it’s only the beginning of discernment. That God’s plan for each person’s life is the most important thing of all goes without saying, but this leaves us with the difficult task of finding it – and if grace builds on nature, then our main duty is to develop our nature into a firm foundation for it. I’m not a doctor (and nor do I play one on TV), but here’s a pertinent quote from someone who is:
“If a young woman’s sense of worth comes from being a good novice, she must cling in desperation to her façade of obedience and piety, lest she let slip from her grasp that which she has never really held securely” (from Conflict in Community by Dr Robert J. McAllister, 1969, p.27).
I don’t know whether or not that was you in religious life, but it was definitely me – and when I found myself unable to keep up, that sense of worth collapsed and I fell out of religious life and back into the secular world. What went wrong?
“It is characteristic of a woman to want to belong to someone and be responded to. She wants to be recognized for herself. Sisters used to say they belonged to Christ, but there must be a psychological gap in such a relationship for those who are still in the purgative way. Sister must have felt this remoteness… perhaps (she) now needs to belong to herself so that she can keep herself not fragmented by people and activities that see her in parts, but entire and intact so that she may grow in a kind of internal expansion of charity that flows to others without losing herself or her value in that process” (p.64).
So, how to find that way forward, to become whole enough to serve God and to receive His graces, in order then to share them with others?
“The person entering religion gives herself to God, but the needs which she brings with her are a sort of divine dowry which God gives the community. This uncut and unpolished stone may have many flaws, or it may be a jewel of great excellence. It comes from God; it is the product of His hand. But the process of polishing it remains that work of the individual and the community. Only God knows the potential for perfection of each stone” (p.102).
If your community didn’t recognize your talents as something it could use, and you crashed and burned while striving against your nature to become something that it could, then perhaps – as Gladwell suggests in a more secular context – look again at a community or a way of life that wasn’t your first choice, and see whether there’s something there. There is truth to the cliché that it takes all kinds to make a community, but not every community will have the right place for every talent. One convent loses a novice who was told off for being too slow and cautious in her work – and another ends up, thirty years down the track, with the silver jubilarian who’s the only one they trust to manage their accounts. One community values academic excellence and lets go of the one who didn’t quite make the cut – and so she takes her compassionate nature to a secular nursing home or a childcare facility instead. Another woman finds herself empty and lonely in religious life, but ends up five years later happily chasing around after the children she never expected to have. Hard as it may seem to believe it sometimes, there’s a vocation ahead of each of us that will make us saints in heaven, and God is helping us grow toward it.
All of our talents were given by God, and He asks us to put them at His disposal. Our first vocation is our baptismal one, to serve the God Who loves us – and wherever He guides us, to meet Him there. I couldn’t enter the religious life again now (good Lord, no!) with any chance of staying, but thankfully He’s not asking me to just yet. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready (Romans 3:2). Perhaps one day He will ask, but first, there’s work to be done.
In His love, may He put the pieces back together and build us all into vessels – even clay ones – to contain His grace. Let’s pray for each other.
By Amanda, re-published with permission from her blog http://www.mariasmountain.net
The conversation shouldn’t have been an awkward one. That is, if I were normal, if I were like any 32 year old.
But I’m not, so instead, it turned awkward and I wanted to crawl under a rock.
I’m new to my work and we were all sharing details of our lives in the office, so an intern innocently asked: “So, Amanda, do you have any kids?”
“But you’re 32…do you just not want to get married?”
I will admit that I brushed this off as the intern being a young college student and not having learned the prudence I learned was taught in religious life.
“It’s not that.” Pause. All right, I need to give more details here or they’re just going to fill in the blanks. “Okay, so I was a nun and left just a year ago.”
After the initial “WHAT?!?!” and “WHOA!“, she paused and said “But it’s been a year already. You’re not married or anything. What have you been doing with your life?”
I know she asked this innocently (once again, young college student), but I was taken back. I mumbled something about things don’t happen that fast and I changed the subject. But I couldn’t get the question out of mind:
“But it’s been a year already. What have you been doing with your life?”
What have I been doing with my life? Have I been doing anything with my life?
I feared the answer was “nothing”.
I am no closer to finding out my vocation in life, no closer to marrying anyone (or even going out with anyone), certainly no closer to having kids.
I am closer to starting graduate school for my MSW…and by closer, I mean I’ve filled out most of the application. So really, not that close.
I am no closer to any kind of promotion or salary increase. I switched jobs twice this year and I’m now in a job I like, but one that won’t be my permanent career.
Everything has remained the same since the day I left – same apartment, same car, even the same friends.
Maybe it’s true, maybe I haven’t done anything in a year.
I won’t deny it; I sulked around with those truths for a few weeks, even through Christmas. I had a year and I did nothing. I felt as if I had failed myself, failed God who had this great plan for me, and, in a way, even failed those who supported me leaving the community. I wallowed in shame.
Life with the Daughters was so packed with ministry, prayer, meetings, conferences, etc. Every moment was filled with purpose. Now that I was by myself… was I just wasting my life because I didn’t have a “purpose” of being a wife or mother?
But, as I let myself reflect on it, I realized that while I may not have done the logical “next steps” or what the world would expect of me, there were some accomplishments this past year:
I am no closer to finding out my vocation in life, but I started writing again and am deeply in love with its pains and joys.
I am no closer to finding out my vocation in life, but I’ve gained some self-confidence, which can only aid in the search.
I am no closer to my MSW as of right now, but I have learned many lessons in ethics, motivational interviewing, etc by experience.
I am no closer to any kind of promotion or salary increase, but I’m happy in my job and isn’t that what counts?
Everything has remained the same since the day I left, but I have gained some great friends from church that I didn’t have a year ago that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Everything has remained the same since the day I left, but I’ve grieved my past and kept walking ahead.
I pray that, if that question comes up again, I can say with confidence: “Actually, I did a lot.“
By Rosemary Kate.
Dear Leonie’s Longing Readers, I feel like I have been keeping a secret from you, and that secret is this book. I first heard about Hurting in the Church through a book review, and my reaction was, “I have to read this book!” Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York with a history not unlike our own. He spent 34 years in religious life as a member of the Legionaries of Christ. This priest, I thought, will have something to say to me. He did.
Hurting in the Church is divided into three sections. The first section shares personal stories of the ways we, the lay faithful, hurt in the Church today. The second is a grouping of several chapters on personal healing, and the third speaks of the hope for healing the Church at large. The book masterfully draws you in with stories that anyone can identify with in some aspect, thus providing the authority for what Fr. Berg says in the following sections.
The first part is where Father Berg shares his story. If you are familiar with the recent past of the Legionaries of Christ, you will know that Father Berg left the community during a time of deep turmoil. In the end, though, his reasons and the circumstances for leaving were deeply personal and unique, just as they are for each of us. Father Berg courageously allows his wounds, like the wounds of Christ, to be a source of healing for others. He also assists in sharing the stories of others, including those wounded by the scandal of priestly sexual abuse. Later in the book Father Berg does not shy away from this topic, and contributes to the ongoing discussion of how the Church can move forward. But this review is not meant to focus on that piece. Ultimately, the connection between Father Berg’s personal journey and the journey of anyone who has left religious life gives this book a voice that particularly spoke to me, and I think could speak to you.
The second part of the book is where I found much food for thought. Father Berg continues to share anecdotes from his personal healing, and his words said to me, “what you are experiencing is to be expected.” I found in these pages a mirror of my own journey, a source of reflection where I could name my experiences and grow from them. One example is on page 110:
“One of the effects of suffering a severe emotional trauma such as betrayal is the sense that our life has been upended. Our compass seems to fail, and we lose our north. Long-held convictions about life, love, and purpose—once foundational for our own self-understanding—can be abruptly shattered. It can give us the terrifying sensation of being held to the precipice of an existential void. Anxiety attacks and depression are not uncommon responses to such interior turmoil.”
Yet all of this is written with the underpinnings of hope. A few pages later, Fr. Berg writes, “I rediscovered that, at my core, my life was anchored in that experience of the love of Jesus” (p. 113).
The third section looks at the universal Church. After providing guidance on how one can personally heal, Father Berg expands his vision and speaks of what the Church is, can, and will be if and when her members heal individually and help each other heal. I found the first section a draw into the book, the middle a “deep dive,” and the third a gentle exit to the reality of the world we live in as well as a roadmap of where it could go.
Hurting in the Church is a much-needed book for our time, and a great tool for anyone, as Father Berg masterfully explains in his note at the beginning. With its rich content, it took me a few months to read it; therefore, dear readers, I hope you will forgive me for not sharing it sooner. It was only published in 2017, so I have not kept silent for very long after all. Father Thomas Berg’s writing has been a much-needed companion, teaching me, as he writes, “the wound and how I chose to deal with it would have a lasting influence on who I would become from that point on in my life” (p. 109, emphasis in the original). I have left religious life, which, no matter how peaceful or not, created a wound in my life, and both that wound and my time in religious life will have a lasting influence on me. With Father Berg’s inspiration, that lasting influence will be a positive one. I hope he can assist you in coming to the same conclusion.
Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics, by Father Thomas Berg, published by Our Sunday Visitor – Website: http://fatherberg.com/