On February 1, 2014, I rode away from my community in my dad’s Honda Civic, which held all of my belongings. I chatted with my dad about what kind of job I could find in my hometown as we drove through the rolling hills of Southeastern Ohio. I hoped that I might still explore consecrated life, but for now I had to simply be a “regular” person.
The following day, February 2, I was the Godmother at my nephew’s baptism. It was also the World Day of Consecrated Life, which the lector did not fail to mention during the petitions at Mass. I won’t say that it was exactly sad for me in that moment, but it was certainly strange.
In the months that followed I would wrestle with the question of vocation and calling. No longer being “consecrated,” what was I? I took some comfort in knowing I was a daughter of the King and consecrated to Jesus through Mary, even if my calling didn’t have a specific name. But it was still hard. Something of my identity was missing. I wasn’t in a consecrated way of life or a missionary any more. I just was.
On that World Day of Consecrated life my baby nephew received the indelible mark of the Sacrament of Baptism. Which of those celebrations was more important? Baptism, by far! But sometimes I would forget that. Desiring a vocation that had a name, I would forget that I was called by name by my God, baptized into His family. If I was to be called to religious life, my vows would be a deepening of the vocation I received at Baptism. But even without religious vows, I still had a vocation at Baptism.
A religious profession, as beautiful and significant as it is, is still not one of the seven sacraments. It’s not my intention to devalue the vows and that beautiful vocation– but remind all of us that the vows that we made at Baptism (or that were most likely made for us) are sacramental.
It can be devastating to discover that we have not been called to commit ourselves for life to a vocation as a sister, nun, or consecrated woman, but nothing can remove the indelible mark of Baptism from our souls. Not leaving, not being asked to leave, not wondering and wandering, not growing older without clear purpose. Nothing.
It’s hard to have a vocation that doesn’t have a name or a form. It’s hard to be a “regular” person after aspiring to the “higher calling” of religious life. It can even feel like…a demotion in the Church.
But nothing could be further from the truth. My dear sister in Christ, as we wrap up this Lenten season and prepare to renew our vows – our Baptismal vows – at Easter, let us reflect on the meaning of that call. It does not need to be “fulfilled” by religious life—if that is not where we’ve been called to stay. In Baptism you have been called. You are known to Him by name. Your name. You are His.
I return “home” after the Christmas holidays with my family–a beautiful time that I am still learning to appreciate at it’s proper value. I savor the memory of this experience, yet the feelings are still so new–almost hard to embrace fully. It’s only the second Christmas for me since returning to lay life, after a full nine years of life in the convent. Unlike last year, I don’t wonder this year if I could ever go back to my convent, or any convent, back to the liturgical grandeur of the celebration of the birth of the Lord. However, though my family’s love warms my heart, and I soak it up gratefully, I do not yet feel totally at home again taking part in the family traditions.
The “home” that I’ve now returned to is the house I’m renting with two grad students, near the college I attended so many years ago. I love the smallness of this town, its familiarity, and the possibilities that being close to a college exude. These are possibilities of a future that on the one hand I want, and on the other make me hesitate–for I am not yet ready to embrace them.
On January 2nd, the birthday of St. Therese, I made it to 1 year and 6 months since leaving religious life. 1 year and 6 months. That is really not that long. I breathe a long, slow, and deep sigh of relief. Tears rise in my eyes, and simply hang there. I’ve been through so much. The questions within me no longer seem to be darkened by I thought I would be farther by now. They seem…well…normal. They are: What am I doing? What should I do next? Where am I going? Not only that, but who are my friends? Who should I call? With whom do I belong? These are big, and hard questions. And it’s such a grace and gift actually, for me, to be able to write about it.
Right now I have a part time job working at a local specialty grocery store. It has been good for me to just get my feet wet. I tried a full time job for a startup company earlier last year, and well, it didn’t go so well. I ended up quitting. I think I’m going to have to build up to a job just like I’m building up to a life. Slow but steady. Plunging might work for some people, but it’s just not for me.
What this piece is about however, and what I’d like to share with you, my sisters, is the astonishing realization that my reflections at this time have led to, and I simply wonder if you may share as well.
There is one thing I don’t understand: how am I staying sane in all this? I would expect that someone who is asking the questions I am, who is so deeply ungrounded as I am, would be deeply shaken! Well, I will not deny I have dealt with a lot of both anxiety and depression, but now I see this as absolutely part of the journey. I am not ashamed to seek the help of a therapist.
But what has helped me a great deal–and I recognize it now more starkly and with awe and gratitude–has actually been my experience in entering religious life. Whatever God did to my soul in giving it to Him, He has blessed, and made strong… so that I know that He is my God, always. I am grounded in Him.
It is precisely because of going into religious life that I am able to face this now. I’m certainly not afraid. I am at peace, deep within, and I know that nothing can take that away–because God is God. I think that this is the gift that God has given to me, through what I’ve offered Him. And the peace itself that He gives me is the reassurance that I have done the right thing all along. He, God, is the life of my life. I feel that truly–even though a lot of things have changed in my spiritual life, and dramatically so, throughout my journey. I think it’s only when you’ve left everything for the Lord that perhaps you know …not in an abstract sense but in a lived sense, what the Lord can be for you.
What St. Paul says in Philippians 4:12 resonates with me, especially through this rocky time of transition: “In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.”
Jesus’ own words also strengthen me, and I can make them my own, even though not in the sense that He says them as the Son of God. He says, “The one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone.” – John 8:29.
So I too feel like the Father is always with me, within me, and He will never leave me alone–through the times of sweetness but also in the darkest night. I trust Him. This is the ground I can stand on.
Though it is not easy, I find comfort in this prayer, shared with me by my spiritual director, and I pray it now for all of you, my sisters around the world. And I pray that you too will experience, if not today, then down the road, the gift that your gift to God can be back to you:
Trust in the Slow Work of God by Teilhard de Chardin
Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. Yet it is the law of all progress, that it is made by passing through some stages of instability, and that may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you. Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow. Let them shape themselves without undue haste. Do not try to force them on as though you could be today what time–that is to say, grace–and circumstances acting on your own good will will make you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new Spirit gradually forming in you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. Above all, trust in the slow work of God, our loving vine-dresser.
You know the way for me, You know the time,
Into Your hands, I trustingly place mine.
Your plan is perfect, born of perfect Love, You know the way, Your way is love
For the last year or so, I’ve been reading and meditating on the Sunday readings beforehand. It’s been interesting and fruitful. I am more aware of the readings themselves and better able to follow along. Furthermore, I’ve noticed patterns and relationships between the various texts. It is Year C in Ordinary Time and three of the Second Readings we heard last month come from I COR 12 and 13.
I’ve read this part of 1st Corinthians at various times in my life, but as we know, scripture is “ever ancient and ever new.” These passages are striking me in a different way today than in the past. Paul states that “there are different forms of service.” This line didn’t jump out at me until now. A great reminder that being in lay life isn’t “bad” or “less than.” Paul then lists spiritual gifts and his ending reminds us that these are actual gifts. God gives them “as he wishes.” As a result, I should not be jealous of others (though that can be easier said than done!). I should also have gratitude for the gifts I have received.
Next we had I COR 12:12-30 (I hope you heard the long version at Mass!). Once again, I’ve come across this passage a “million times” before. But I now realize that I only had gifts, talents or skills in mind when I heard or read this portion. The mouth (someone good at public speaking) cannot say to the arm (someone good at loving others), I don’t need you. We all have different gifts, of course! I’m sure I was in this frame of mind because it follows after the list of spiritual gifts.
But, this time I started reflecting on various states of life. Even if you only heard the short version (I COR 12:12-14,27), you’ll notice he mentions, “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons.” (vs 13) In my mind, this has to do with different “tribes,” ways of living, in-groups and out-groups. As a middle-aged, lay, single, woman, I am an outsider in Catholic communities. It could be easy for me to say to myself, “I do not belong to the body.” (vs15) And, let’s be honest, there are people in the church who have said “I do not need you” (vs 21) through their words, actions or both. But this is a lie. How do we know? Paul states, “But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended.” (vs 18).
That’s great news! Even if I appear unwanted and unneeded in the Church, it’s not true. This also challenges me to step up and make sure that others feel welcomed and have a sense of belonging. Are there people on the fringes that are a part of your parish or community? Reach out to them!
Finally, this line struck me: “Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary.” (vs 22). This restates the above point that the body needs us and we all have a place in the body. But then it takes it even further. If you feel like you don’t have value because you can’t contribute, are too weak, etc. that is a lie. I live in the USA and society tells us that if you can’t produce things, your life has no value. As a result, weakness is a liability and I must conclude that I have no value as a person. But our faith contradicts this message. When I realize how weak I am, my response should now be, “Yay for me!” That weakness makes me even more important and valuable!
Today let’s ask God for the spiritual gifts and thank him for those that we have already. Let’s also make an extra effort to tell ourselves and others the truth: We need you. You are necessary!
How do you feel in your parish or community? Do you feel like a necessary member of the body? Please comment below!
In celebration of my clothing as a religious, some high school friends of mine gave me a rosary that they handmade together. The lavender- and blush-colored beads were linked together with little pieces of wire twisted in meandering loops. In their own words it was “janky”. But I delighted in it…even if you couldn’t pray through all five decades without it falling apart at some point!
When my novice mistress saw the state of this rosary, she offered to fix it for me. She asked if I would prefer she just re-shape some of the loose links, or completely re-do it. I said that I would prefer that she just repair some of the links. She instead proceeded to completely re-do it, despite my preference. When she was done, it didn’t look like the same rosary. Extra chain-links were added before the Our Father beads, and the cross had been replaced with a crucifix. It also was deemed “too nice” to use on a regular basis, and tucked away into a closet containing personal items of those in the novitiate—only to be used if asked for.
Later, after I left religious life, I found the rosary in a small box among the things that came home with me from the monastery. I took it out of the little cardboard jewelry box and tried to pray with it, but the metal my novice mistress remade it with must have been too soft, because it always left a grey dust on my fingers after finishing those decades. So back it went, tucked away in a shoebox of monastery related items, forgotten for a time.
About two years after leaving the monastery, I opened the little cardboard box that held the rosary. The post-it note from our chaplain that read “Blessed!” was even still there. I didn’t want it to stay unused. So I began to work. I took my pliers and began to replace the wire, link by link. And clean each bead, one at a time. And I removed the extra chain-links, piece by piece.
The gesture of repairing the rosary reflected so well where I was at with having left religious life. When I entered there were some kinks that needed to be set right, but the process at the monastery was not the right fit for those beads— all those little mysteries, joyful and sorrowful and everything in between, that make up who I am. Wire that may have made a beautiful rosary with a different set of beads ended up creating a rosary that, although it looked nice, was actually not functional.
So, with the original wire gone and the replacement wire being a poor match, I found new wire. I entered into a new context through which to live that call to holiness. The old wire, the person I was before I entered the monastery is gone. I changed a lot. The replacement wire—religious life—was a poor match, at least with this particular community. So I am left with this new life I am beginning back in the world. It is a life that brings together all those joys and sorrows in a new way. I am discovering new ways to live out motherhood, to care for the people God has entrusted to my care. I am experiencing the delight of the Father in His daughter in unexpected and beautiful ways. I am encountering new opportunities for sisterhood with friends, old and new. I find the Holy Spirit guiding me to new ways of loving and being loved.
Sometimes I wonder what was meant to happen. Was the rosary really meant to go through having every link replaced? And then to have every single link replaced again? It seems like just fixing the kinks would have been so much easier. Yet, perhaps the only way that the Rosary would have received new wire, and a lot of love, was precisely through enduring being remade.
I never did find the original cross to the rosary amongst the items that came home with me from the monastery. When I shared this story with a friend, she noted that this too was fitting, because at the monastery I received the Cross. A quote attributed to Léon Bloy observes that “There are places in our heart that do not yet exist and into it suffering must enter so that they may.” Leaving monastic life was very painful for me. Yet through this pain I have found greater intimacy with Jesus and a greater compassion for the Father’s dear children. I received suffering and, in a beautiful way, I have received a new capacity for love.
“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.
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).