Here’s one thing that works to my advantage: I’ll never need to pay a psychoanalyst to decipher the hidden meaning of my dreams. Last night, for example, I was kneeling in my parish church when the Sisters from my former community unexpectedly walked in. They didn’t see me, but I watched them as they genuflected and took their seats near the front, and I wondered whether or not to go over and join them, since I wasn’t wearing my postulant uniform. Then I woke up.
Nearly two years out of the convent, my subconscious clearly still hasn’t quite let go of what might have been. Thankfully, it’s better than it was: at around the time I would have received the habit, for example, I started waking up in the middle of my Clothing ceremony several nights a week. (At least my community had the understated custom of giving the novice’s religious name at the start of the ceremony rather than the end, so I always got that far!) After about a year back in the world, I’d dream myself standing outside the convent in twilight, just as I had stood in real life while wheeling out the bins each week during postulancy, looking up through a window into the brightly-lit community room where the Sisters were gathering for evening recreation. Now, I wonder what that dream means?
For a long time after returning to the world, I slept a lot, but badly: going to bed at 8.30pm, waking up as late as possible the next day, and getting dizzy with tiredness sometime in the late afternoon. A number of times, I was appointed designated driver home from outings when, despite being stone-cold sober, by 10pm by I was definitely no safer to drive than anyone else in the car. (If I make it to heaven one day, I confidently expect that Saint Christopher will be waiting just inside the pearly gates to deliver a lecture on the subject that I’ll never forget.)
Not being a doctor, I can’t offer medical advice, but if you’re in this situation I can tell you a few things that have worked for me:
1) For a short-term rescue if you’re getting faint during the day, forget the sugar and eat a salami stick. I started carrying some around with me (the individually-wrapped ones), and found that the salt, fat and juices gave a much better energy boost than chocolate.
2) The biggest one: no screens for an hour before bed-time. No phone, computer or even TV, as the bright lights apparently interfere with the brain’s sleep cues. (Well, minimal screens, anyway. I cheat. I’m cheating as I write this now, in fact.) This one actually fixed most of my sleep problems in one go, and drastically reduced the dizzy spells next day.
3) Chamomile tea. If you’re like me, the challenge, waking or sleeping, is to find a channel in your mind that’s not playing repeats of Life in the Convent. Slowly drinking a cup of chamomile tea just before turning out the light can help gently disconnect those loops of thought and take you downward into sleep.
And then there’s the 2am demon: what if I’d…/perhaps if I’d…/if only I’d… (Or its evil twin, what if they’d…/perhaps if they’d…/if only they’d…) The only thing that helps here, unfortunately, is time and a conscious effort to understand and process the grief. It’s as though every memory of life in the convent, good or bad, is a sharp edge that needs to be gone over with sandpaper a certain number of times before it gets dull enough that you can handle it. However, it’s 2am and you’d really like to go back to sleep, so what can be done for some relief in the meantime?
Here, I’ll pass on three suggestions from the wise and patient priest who suddenly found a wildly unhappy recent ex-postulant in his confessional back in 2013.
1) If you’re playing certain scenes over and over, perhaps making magnificent speeches where you actually once stood mute, bring your sense of the absurd into play. Imagine the scene with Bert and Ernie in the background reacting to what’s going on, or Mr. T providing a running commentary. If it sounds extremely stupid, that’s because it is… but I actually laughed out loud the first time I tested it on one of my painful convent memories.
2) Or, if that’s just too silly for words, how about this? Imagine you’re sitting at a table so long that the far end disappears into the distance, and slowly, gently slide the people you’re angry with down the table away from you, further and further until they’re so small you can’t see them anymore. Keep them there and turn your mind to something else.
3) If all else fails or – worse – the person you’re angry with is yourself, then turn the light on and write down, very specifically, what is bothering you. Then (my own later addition), decide on something concrete that you will do in the morning to move on from that situation. I will say a decade of the Rosary for someone’s intentions. I will put $5 in the Saint Vincent de Paul box. I will make coffee for my parents/housemates. I will say the Office of the Dead for the souls in Purgatory. Anything, as long as it’s clear, charitable and constructive. Then turn the light off and, for heaven’s sake, go back to sleep.
And me? Self-evidently, I’m not “over” the most vivid months of my life just yet. But two years out is a hell of an improvement over two months out, no longer bittersweetly receiving the habit night after night being but one example. The Sisters still walk through my dreams sometimes (do I ever, I wonder, walk through theirs?), but slowly, a couple of years behind schedule, my heart and mind are catching up to my life in the outside world. Thanks be to God.
While at University I spent a summer on an archaeological dig. We lived in platform tents in the woods and drove about thirty minutes to get to our dig site and “town,” which was very small. A few people had cell phones but it did not matter because there wasn’t a signal there anyway. We had no TV, radio, internet, phone or anything like that at camp. We worked hard physically all day and sat around the fire talking and being silly at night. Then we went to bed and did it all again the next day.
On a holiday weekend a number of us drove to a bigger town which actually had a movie theater and we chose to see Moulin Rouge! If you have not seen this movie I would describe it as an explosion: intense visual images, singing and dancing, fast-paced editing, and over-the-top in every way. Many people who saw it found it rather overwhelming. My mother told me that a friend of hers went to see it and walked out of the theater because she hated it so much. For our group, which had been on a media fast for all intents and purposes, it was basically a massive sensory overload. We sat there with our mouths hanging open, not even sure what was happening to us.
Afterwards, we laughed about it and told our teammates who didn’t come to the theater with us all about our experience. It was fantastic to have a group of people who could understand. We made jokes about it, sang the songs at night and processed the experience together.
When I returned to the world from the convent, it felt much the same way. The world was loud, intense and overwhelming to my senses. But instead of being a two hour movie, it was constant and never-ending. And I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, to help me feel normal again.
At first I felt terrible. I thought, “There is something wrong with me!” But gradually I realized that I just needed to give myself time and permission to be human. Instead of forcing myself to hang out with my friends a few times a week, I cut it down to two times, and more if I felt up for it. I also limited my phone conversations. Slowly I adjusted and I could do more than that.
What about you? Did the world feel loud and wild when you returned? If so, how did you handle it? Did your family and friends help you adjust?
By Maria Jacinta.
“Humility, humility and humility.” This was St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s response to the question of what the three most important virtues are. During Advent I only pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. I love meditating on Our Lady’s humility when she immediately gave her yes to God at the Annunciation and when she humbly responded with her Magnificat during the Visitation. It is beautiful, but it really baffles me as to how someone without sin could be so humble. My point in this post is not to preach about the importance of humility, but to address its vice: vanity.
In the initial days of being home from the convent, vanity was a real struggle for me, among other things. I believe it was triggered from my reaction to being back in the world. In the convent, I had one outfit to wear every day, and I did not need to spend time fixing my hair. Vanity was not too much of an issue. Now being back in the world, I cannot wear the same thing every day. I have to fix my hair. I have to look nice. All this became an obsession for me. Ah!!! What to do?!
Thanks be to God, I came up with two solutions. If any of you have any other ideas, please do not hesitate to post them.
1) In my last post “Guard Your Heart”, I talked about my struggles with dealing with young men. I noticed that when I would go to Mass I would be focused on if any young men were there and if they would see me and how nice I looked. Yeah, I know, pathetic, right? Well, to help deviate my attention from that I got back into the habit of wearing a veil at Mass. This actually helped to lessen my focus on my hair and my looks so that I could be more focused at Mass. It is amazing! It is a very humbling experience to cover your head.
2) This may sound contradictory, but I also find that dressing nice does help. To learn to overcome vanity, it is easy to play the false humility card and dress like you just rolled out of bed. It dawned on me that we were created with dignity as women of God. We should not be ashamed of our beauty. When I began to wear skirts more often and make myself decently presentable, I noticed my self esteem go up. Obviously, I need to be careful, as I do not want to get too inflated. I try to keep the focus that I am dressing for God and God alone. If you are having trouble finding nice modest clothes, I find that Ross and Good Will (or thrift stores) are good. The prices are not too bad either!
May Our Lady clothe us with her humility. Blessings to you all this Advent!
By Nancy McCall, MS, LPC
In religious life, one is freed from having to make the mundane decisions about what to eat, what to wear, when and what to do for work, and when to pray. In this way of religious community, which involves self-effacement and obedience to others, one can focus on purifying the heart, growing in grace and on prayer for, and service to, others. It may take the religious person many years to progress far in purifying the heart. Meanwhile, she is growing in grace and does, at least formally, pray for others. When one exits religious life, one can come to believe that because she was free from those mundane decisions like what to wear and what to eat and when to talk, that she is somehow now rendered incapable of decision-making. No, not true at all. All the time while in religious life, the religious sister or brother was still making the most important decisions for himself or herself throughout every day.
You see, the important decisions involve the heart and eternal things. “Will I love today or only be placid?” “Shall I give fully or half-heartedly?” “Shall I bear difficulties patiently or become internally resentful?” “Shall I follow the way of Jesus or just go through the motions?” It is the same outside of religious life, only you must attend to the mundane things too.
Think for a moment and ask yourself, “Did I learn anything in religious life that will help me simplify my life now and be more attentive to God’s Holy Spirit?”
In religious life, there is a purpose for releasing you from the mundane decision-making you were likely used to prior to entering the convent. One purpose is that it is essential when living in community. If everyone decided what they wanted to eat, how would you have meals together? The other major purpose for this release from mundane decision-making is to free each person to focus on those things mentioned above: purifying the heart, growing in grace and on giving energy to prayer and service to the world. Now that you are not living in the same kind of community, naturally many mundane things of life will present themselves to you again and you must deal with them.
What is the best way to manage this new encounter with the diurnal? First, realize that while everything seems to have changed in your experience, nothing has actually changed in the larger picture. Your purpose in life is the same: to purify the heart, grow in grace and to pray for and serve others. Second, there is an art to living and one of your jobs right now is to study that art. For example, the best trick for deciding what to wear in the morning is to decide the night before. An easy way to decide what to do tomorrow is to decide this evening. And just as adhering to routine preserved simplicity for you in the convent, creating and adhering to routine will simplify and bless your life now.
What about that sense of community and common cause that you feel you are suddenly missing? How in the world can such a thing be replaced? You feel lonely, possibly rejected, and you are essentially on your own. Sometimes, the reason little daily decisions seem so difficult is because much bigger decisions are not yet made: in particular, the decision of overall vocation. What’s worse is that I thought I had that huge decision made. What a relief! Now it appears to be unmade. “Oh no!” So I think to myself, “what I was so certain of has unraveled before my eyes, how can I move on not even knowing which way to move?”
The best way to move on is to begin. It’s always easier for God to direct someone who is moving. Begin by choosing to look at your own situation in a fresh and beautiful way. Something beautiful has happened to you. It may look and feel ugly and awful, but it isn’t actually. And Jesus, who adores you, will show you its beauty in time – ask Him.
Second, remember, your decision-making abilities have not been surgically removed. Your emotions may have been badly wounded and your thought processes turned upside down because your circumstances were caught in a toad-strangling, unpredictable storm. You are going to recover, because God has not abandoned you, even if others have.
Third, routinizing all the important things and daily necessities can go far to normalize your life right now. Make a routine based on wisdom, your desires and practical needs. This may require prayer and could be aided by someone you trust who is especially good with routine.
Last, be attentive to self-care. Without good self-care, you will fail at everything. Here are some basics of good self-care:
Remember, you are still in a discernment process. This is an important time in your life. Seek God. Ask for wisdom (James 1:5) and open yourself to all the beauty that is about to be revealed to you.
I have taken for myself the parents of the Martin Girls as my patrons for trying to live the ordinary demands of an ordinary life, as an authentic path for seeking God. Perhaps it sounds odd, but accepting the ordinary has been very difficult for me.
One of the hardest lessons I have had to learn in the spiritual life is the reverence that the ordinary, natural elements of life deserve. It is only in being grounded in the rich earth of ordinary life that the supernatural can be authentically received. In spite of my lifelong devotion to St. Thérèse, I spent many years quite frustrated by the routine and pressures of living the demands of daily life.
Mounds of laundry and dishes, hurrying to work, and hurrying home again to family expectations: all these felt like barriers to responding to God. The realities of my life did not seem to match any concept of holiness that might refer to me.
What did it take to open my eyes to the very real presence of God hidden beneath the surface of the demands of ordinary life? Years of simply doing what looked like the next right thing and a flood of graces. What did I ponder on in those days? Mostly survival from one necessity to the next. But once I began to believe that the call to holiness is universal and specific to each circumstance, then my soul was free to rejoice in all things.
What moved my soul beyond survival mode to the awareness of the presence of God? Fidelity to Mass, I think, even though I judged that I was not really praying. I carried a rosary in my pocket, even though as a young woman I rarely actually said it all, let alone meditate on a Mystery. The mystery to me was how profoundly I loved my family even though I was totally overwhelmed by them. By such tiny, desperate steps I began to believe that nothing can separate me from the love of Christ, because He chooses to be with me in all the chaos that I often considered my daily life to be.
If I’m not aware of God in the ordinary joys and sorrows of life, not in a state of deep gratitude for the natural elements of life, then I’m not yet truly in love with Our Father who created the natural, and said that it was good.
All things are created by God. Therefore, the most natural, common elements of life have the potential to be a revelation of God Himself. Growth in holiness cannot be His gift to me if I don’t learn to recognize the gifts that He has already given me and is giving me each day.
I’m just beginning to appreciate the importance of the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine on the relationship between grace and nature. The God-given nature of each individual is specifically given as the foundation for the relationship that He desires to offer to that soul. By means of the characteristics of my particular personality, profession, and limitations, God chooses to reveal Himself to me, and through me. There are no separate categories of life in respect to encountering the living God. God is all in all.
Living the Sacrament of Matrimony with a small flock of children and grandchildren. Greatly influenced by the Eucharist, the Oblation of St. Therese and the Rule of St. Benedict. In service through retreat work, fostering lay communities and vocation discernment.
When I left the convent nine years ago, I was entirely unprepared for my biggest struggle: the temptation to give up on prayer. I hate to admit it, but I kinda let prayer hang by a string for a while. I wish I were unique in this, but I suspect others have the same temptation, and I’ll bet no one warned you. So I want to share my thoughts in hopes of helping you avoid my errors.
What caused this temptation? First, I’d really wanted to be a Sister, I loved my community, and I’d really thought God wanted me there, so discerning otherwise took the wind out of my sails. Second, when faced with learning how to balance prayer, work, and life as a laywoman, I found it too easy to slack off. Like a pendulum, I swung from the convent-extreme of lots of prayer to the extreme of practically none. I never skipped Mass, but many days found me doing very little else.
At bottom, however, the real perpetrator was that ignoring God was less painful than facing Him. I eschewed confronting Him in emptiness and sorrow to avoid being exposed and vulnerable and, because He was so awfully silent then, having no answers or consolation. If I curtailed serious interior prayer, then I could forget I was a gaping wound.
Problem is, this is a time when we need serious prayer. We can’t pray as much as we used to, but we also shouldn’t stop praying as well as we did. So why do we feel tempted to give up on prayer in this time of weakness? Honestly, I think a lot is due to the devil wanting to kick you while you’re down. You’re already vulnerable, so he tries to convince you to despair and to stop talking to precisely the One Person who can give you healing, peace, and hope.
The remedy is to keep communicating with the Lord at all costs. At ALL costs. He can work with any little bit you can give or throw at Him. Really.
When I started to crawl out of the nefarious hole that is acedia, I found my best recourse was what I call the “park it” (as in “park your tukhas right there, young lady”) prayer method, because sometimes all you can muster up the heart for is to sit there. Your very presence is something He can work with.
So park yourself in the nearest church or adoration chapel, or if that’s not available, park it wherever you can pray. Don’t bring a rosary or breviary or Bible for this visit. Just bring you. Commit yourself to some amount of time: a half hour, an hour, whatever, and just sit with the Lord. OK, so you don’t have the heart to talk with Him? Maybe you feel like yelling at Him instead? Go ahead! Holler, scream at Him. (I mean the interior versions of these, unless you’re absolutely certain there’s no one around who might hear you!) Scowl at Him and be silent. Complain to Him about how hard this is. Tell Him how disappointed you are and how much you feel like a failure and all the other ugly things you feel. Or sit there and just let yourself weep in His presence. God’s strong enough to take anything you dish at Him, so let Him have it. And I’ll bet you dollars to donuts He’d rather have this honest, raw, hurting you who’s hurling gripes at Him than not hear from you at all. Maybe you’re not a Sister anymore, but you’re still His beloved, and He wants to hear from you.
Don’t stop there, and don’t move that tukhas yet. Don’t budge until the time to which you’ve committed is up. Is the Lord still not talking? Beg Him to talk to you, plead with Him to speak to your heart and heal it. Is He still not talking? Keep sitting there, and keep asking. Maybe He won’t say anything today, and maybe He won’t seem to say anything for a lot of todays, but you know what? The more todays you park it, the more you keep open those lines of communication. You’ve told Him, by your daily parking it, that He’s still more important to you than your hurt and disappointment. You’re showing that you still know you need Him and aren’t willing to rely on yourself. You’re showing that He’s still your everything, despite your disappointment, anger, and whatever else you’re experiencing, and despite the difficulty in focusing on Him. And this is a very real, deep form of abandonment and surrender.
You know the awesome, amazing thing that this does? It will gradually bring you to an entirely new level of prayer because, before you know it, you’ll start to hear Him speaking in new ways that you never expected. You’ll find that He’s started teaching you a new way of listening to Him, and then all of a sudden, you’ll see that He really is speaking to you after all, in a voice much more sonorous, healing, and loving than you could have ever imagined. Slowly but surely, the darkness will start to fade, and you’ll see bright sky peeking through, and prayer will bring you joy again.
Trust me, ladies. I’ve been where you are. It really, truly does get better because the Lord will make it better for you if you give Him the chance and the time. It took me a year to climb out of the hole, but it worked, and it was worth it! If you cling to the Lord when it hurts, you will find that great peace and joy come in and eclipse the hurt. And after all, this Lord of ours who clings to us eternally is so very worth clinging to, is He not?
By Cafea Fruor
Cafea Fruor is a former active religious sister who is now discerning a vocation to the contemplative life. She thinks that coffee, bacon, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are God’s finest creations, but she’d give these up in a heartbeat to enter the monastery. Please pray for her continuing discernment.