Jennifer shares her magnificat of what God has done in her life since leaving the monastery. She battled depression and anxiety, but through all of this, she has grown so much. She’s not called to be a nun, and that’s okay. God has called her to marriage, and this is the vocation through which she will serve Him.
Jennifer wanted to be a nun since she was 14, and she put her all into it. Sometimes we feel so sure about something, but God has another plan. It’s hard to let go. Jennifer offers encouragement to all who are struggling with letting Him lead.
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
Eight years ago, I was a young novice, Sister Mary Inez. Today I am happily married and a mom of two. I had an amazing convent experience, but God never meant for me to stay there. Here is my story.
In August 2012, I joined a community of Dominican teaching sisters. The Lord began calling me to religious life during a retreat that spring. When I felt certain Jesus wanted me to go, I quit my job, sold my car, and became a postulant.
Being a new sister was hard. The other postulants and I had to adjust to a new routine of prayer, work, and study. The hardest thing for me was all the silence. Regular silence and profound silence. Silence in the chapel and silence in our airy, white-curtained cells.
All that silence made it impossible for me to hide from myself. It was like Yoda’s cave in Star Wars:
“What’s in there?” Luke asked about the mysterious cave.
“Only what you take with you,” Yoda wisely replied.
Inside the Cave
I didn’t know it at the time, but I brought a lot of baggage with me into the convent cave. Every time I made a mistake, I was assailed by negative thoughts: You don’t belong here. You could never be a religious sister. No one could ever love you. Jesus loves everybody in the world except you.
These hurtful words stung like physical blows. Adding to this interior misery was the back pain I’d experienced since I was a teenager. In January 2013, I finally told my novice mistress about my struggles.
“I want to stay in the convent, Sister,” I said. My aching body stood hunched over in her doorway. “But I need help.”
Even more, I needed healing.
My novice mistress first gave me permission to see a back doctor. I went to physical therapy and had some X-rays done, but the X-rays didn’t show much. My back pain was invisible on the charts, but still very real.
“Ask the Lord to reveal if there’s a psychological reason for your back pain,” my novice mistress suggested. So I prayed, and soon received an answer.
On Easter Monday, I was working in the convent kitchen. I put a few spoons in the wrong drawer, and the sister next to me – my closest friend there – shot me a look of exasperated fury. That minor event stirred up a far more serious incident from the past:
In the winter of 2000, someone whom I loved got very angry with me and hit me. In front of everybody, at a party. They apologized later, but they never explained why.
I was 14 then. I wasn’t sure what to think. What had I done to deserve this? To make sense of it, I decided someone must be to blame: me.
“There’s something wrong with me,” I decided that day. “Something, very, very wrong.”
I didn’t mean my sins. I knew that sins could be forgiven, washed away in the confessional. I also knew God loved to be merciful. No, I believed there was something wrong with me that was unchangeable. Something unredeemable.
And so I began believing an unconscious lie:
There’s something wrong with me. If I did not exist, I would fix what is wrong with the world.
This thought didn’t make sense logically, but emotionally it felt real and true.
Before that winter, I had an optimistic look at my freshman year of high school. Afterwards, I remained cheerful on the outside, but I was deeply depressed on the inside. My back pain started a few months later, and never stopped.
Seeing Sister Mary
I told my novice mistress about my discovery, and how I thought it was linked to my back pain. When she saw my distress, she sent me to see Sister Mary*.
“You need someone to talk to. Sister Mary can help.”
I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to share my ugly wounds with a complete stranger. But I knew Jesus would want me to go, so I went.
I talked to Sister Mary, and she listened. I told her how I was hurt at 14, and all the nasty things I heard in my head. Over several months, Sister helped me. She offered simple words of wisdom, and a clearer vision. She taught me to put those lies from the Devil at the foot of the Cross.
“The Devil is always accusing us, reminding us of our faults,” she said. “But Jesus offers love, forgiveness, healing.”
The more I talked to Sister Mary, the more the pain got out of my head and into the open. My heart, made numb from past hurts, began to feel again. It was a painful experience, but liberating.
Acknowledging the Truth
Through prayer and meetings with Sister Mary, I saw that what had happened to me at 14 was only one piece in a much larger puzzle. I grew up in a household with sometimes unrealistic expectations of perfection. As a consequence, we sometimes ignored the imperfect situations within our own family. This left me hungry for justice, rightness, the truth.
At 14, I couldn’t see that truth. But at age 26, I could acknowledge that my family was loving and supportive, but not perfect. I could also find comfort in Jesus, who came to heal the brokenhearted.
“Sometimes Jesus allows us to suffer physically, as part of His plan for us,” my novice mistress explained. “But He always wants to heal us spiritually.”
Jesus helped me along the difficult road to healing. I surrendered my wounds to Him, wrote to Him in my journal, and begged for healing and perseverance. Finally, I wrote a letter to the person who’d hurt me, saying that I forgave them and that Jesus had healed me.
Sister, What Do You Desire?
Afterwards, however, convent life continued to be difficult. I felt like I was slogging through quicksand. Still, I kept going, determined to stay where God wanted me, as long as He wanted me, here in the convent.
I visited Sister Mary one last time. “I’m healed, Sister. My back pain is gone, and I can feel again.” I sighed. “So why do I feel so unhappy?”
Sister Mary gave me a long look.
“Sister, what do you desire?” she asked.
I stared behind her, into the grey. “I want…a tangible kind of love. I try to give it to my sisters here, but no one wants it.” At night, I’d peer into the bathroom mirror, just to confirm I was still there. I felt invisible. “I want…to be seen, known, loved.”
“What does that sound like?” she prompted.
The answer came to me all at once. “Oh. Marriage. It sounds like marriage!”
In that moment, I knew right away that I wasn’t called to be a sister. I was supposed to get married! No one could have been more surprised than me. I felt so much joy!
I smiled and leapt to my feet. “I have to go home, Sister. My husband is waiting for me!”
A Future With Hope
One week later, I left the convent. Six weeks after that, I met my future husband for the first time. We’ve been married for six years now, and have two beautiful children.
God healed me in the convent, but He didn’t heal me just so my back would stop hurting, or to free me from depression. He healed me so I could see the truth that had been there all along: I was called to marriage, not religious life. And later, to a vocation of writing, not teaching. Healing allowed me to discover my true vocation and calling.
Saying “Yes!” to Jesus led me to a wellspring of grace and healing. The Lord truly took my broken soul and gave me a future “filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
* Name changed.
About the Author:
Mary Rose Kreger lives in the metro Detroit area with her family, where she writes fantasy for teens, and blogs about her spiritual journey: before, during, and after the convent on www.monasteryinmyheart.com.
Eight years ago, I was a young novice, Sr. Mary Inez. I spent 19 months in the convent before realizing I was called to a married vocation. Today I am a happy wife and mom, but re-entering the world was a great struggle for me. Here is a poem about my experience:
Once outside the convent
You still long to be inside it
The white curtained walls
The ancient creaking floors
The silence and the song.
He drew me in and I followed,
Hungry for the final Word in treasures—
His secret gaze pierced me, pleaded silently:
I left everything to find Him,
My home, my job, my family—
Stepping out of the boat into the deep waters.
In return, He gave me the Cross,
That bitter cure-all for a thousand ills,
But also a taste of Heaven.
19 months in His garden, and then He says,
“Go home and tell your family all that I have done for you.”
12 lessons I learnt from my first leaving, that made my second so much easier.
When I was twenty, I was set for life. I was a happy and confident young woman excited to begin my postulancy in an active religious order.
Fast forward to twenty-one, and it was a very different picture. After a very difficult year, I’d been shown the door. I didn’t cope very well with this: I really struggled to process and accept this ‘catastrophe’ and have hope for my future again.
But five years after leaving my first community, God led me into another one. Life was good, and I was flourishing in this new (and much psychologically healthier) environment.
But, as you’ve probably guessed, this community didn’t work out either. I could’ve come out the other side from this community in an even worse state than I was after leaving the first time. But praise be to God, I’m actually handling things much better this time around! Less than a year on, and I’m in a place where I’m genuinely happy, fulfilled, stable, and generally content with life – probably the best I’ve been since before joining the first time. I definitely felt that having learned a bunch of lessons the hard way a few years ago, this leaving has been a lot easier to navigate. So I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learnt, so that maybe this can help a few others who find themselves in similar situations.
God will provide what you need
Leaving can be scary, especially if it happens suddenly (like it did to me). You’re probably homeless and income-less, you don’t know what you’re stepping out into, you don’t have a plan, and you don’t have a safety net. Except for God.
My experience of my first leaving was that God truly did provide. Door after door kept opening just at the right time. I felt like I just walked into accommodation, employment, and a really great community.
When I left this time, I was homeless in the middle of a pandemic. But that didn’t trouble me. I knew that if we keep on turning to God, He does provide all our needs. And he didn’t let me down this time, either.
2. You need time to grieve and adjust
Leaving a convent is a major life event. It’s sort of like being divorced, losing your family and losing your job all in one hit – while also suffering the culture shock of being catapulted from the middle ages into the 21st century. You probably have mixed feelings about leaving: there can be hope and confidence and relief, but also grief, confusion and a crisis of meaning. Don’t expect the next year or so to be an easy one.
So go easy on yourself during this time! Give yourself the time and space to process all your emotions: to cry and rage and just sit with the sadness. Be careful not to take on too much. Be discerning about which friendships you will keep up or invest in: not every friend from your pre-convent life is going to be the right friend for you now. Make sure you are well supported, and get at least a couple of sessions of counselling.
3. God has a plan for you and He is in control
– even though it might seem like the devil has triumphed this time. He’s God. Just because you can’t see where He’s leading you, it doesn’t mean that you’ve fallen ‘outside’ of His plan or that He’s not going to lead or provide for you.
There’s a beautiful prayer written by Thomas Merton which has often helped me in times of tested faith:
O Lord God, I have no idea where I am going, I do not see the road ahead of me, I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, And that fact that I think I am following Your will Does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe That the desire to please You Does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire In all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything Apart from that desire to please You. And I know that if I do this You will lead me by the right road, Though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always Though I may seem to be lost And in the shadow of death. I will not fear, For You are ever with me, And You will never leave me To make my journey alone.
4. Nothing is ever wasted and God works all things to good
Again, it won’t often feel like this! But it’s not a shallow cliché, it’s a powerful truth. Look at the lives of the Saints: one of the common themes in their stories seems to be experiences of great suffering (in fact, I regularly consoled myself by remembering that God only seems to treat His special favourites like this!).
God’s much more powerful than anything of the devil. He can and does bring good out of the worst of experiences – much more good than there ever was evil in that event. But Rom 8:28 has a condition: God works all things to good for those who love Him. The choice to love and serve God in the midst of all their trials and sufferings was the difference that made the Saints.
I have seen in my own life how God has brought about so many amazingly good things that would have been impossible if I hadn’t left my first community. I don’t know if would’ve been better off staying there. To be honest, I don’t really care any more, because I’ve learnt to embrace a different set of goods for my life. And this new life isn’t just ‘good’, it’s great.
5. You have to forgive
Even though this can be really, really hard, it’s absolutely necessary. Unforgiveness will only hold you back, and make you bitter, twisted and resentful. You’ll be allowing the people who hurt you to keep you stuck in a miserable life.
One thing which held me back from fully forgiving was that it offended my sense of justice. Both times, I’d been very badly treated, and then left to deal with the consequences alone while it seemed like the people who hurt me could just move on as though nothing had happened. It didn’t feel fair.
But eventually I saw that in this attitude, I was trying to take God’s rightful place as their judge, and by Grace I was able to give that role back to Him. He’s God, He doesn’t let sin and injustice get ‘swept under the carpet’. Some day, somehow, they’ll each have to own their part in what happened. Maybe this confrontation has already occurred somehow in a way I’m not aware of. Maybe it will be at the moment of their particular judgement. Either way, the point is that I don’t have to be their judge. And that’s a great freedom.
6. Don’t miss the Grace of this time
This is a very unique time in your life. There are going to be particular Graces here, which won’t be available anywhere else. The experience of leaving can be a great Cross: but the Cross never comes without the Resurrection. In fact, I’ve found in my life that the Resurrection is very ‘Cross-shaped’!
It’s important to intentionally choose make the very most you can of this time and these Graces. When I finally made this decision three years after my first leaving, it was a major turning point. Nothing in my outward situation changed, but Grace started flowing, wounds began to heal, new possibilities were opening up, my happiness was increasing. I was truly experiencing a new springtime after a long winter.
This time around, too, this was a decision I needed to make: to stay close to the Cross, with all its Grace and all its challenges, over escaping all of this and living a numbed-out sort of existence. But no matter how challenging the road of the Cross is, it’s also infinitely more beautiful.
7. Take responsibility for yourself
God often uses dreams to tell me harsh truths about myself, probably because I don’t argue back when I’m asleep! A couple of weeks after my second leaving, I had a dream where I met someone else in my same situation. My advice to them was to ‘stop moping, and start doing the things which will set you up for the best possible life’. It was the kick up the backside I really needed!
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of blaming other people for our problems instead of taking responsibility for the direction of our life. But this is another attitude which will only hold you back. If you’re as wrecked as I was, you’ll only be able to take small steps at a time. That’s ok, just do what you can. Even a small step forward is a step in the right direction!
8. Keep up some form of apostolate
This might not be appropriate for everyone, but keeping up (a reduced level of) ministry was really good for me after both leavings. Loving and serving others takes you outside of yourself, brings joy and meaning, and can help keep you balanced and well connected with reality.
I’ve also found that staying in the same ministry after leaving is good for the people you reach out to as well. Just ‘disappearing’ will probably cause grief, disappointment and confusion. Continuing to have a ministry presence avoids all those things, provides reassurance that you do genuinely care, and gives them a chance to show their love and care for you.
9. You can choose your meta-narrative
Being part of, and then leaving a religious order, can be a very significant life event. But it doesn’t have to be what defines your life. It can be, if that’s what you choose. But I wouldn’t recommend that. Instead, you can choose to live in your true identity as a beloved daughter of God, in a meta-narrative of hope, of salvation, of Resurrection. It is a bit cliché, I know, but it’s true – and a much better way to live.
10. Seek full healing
Maybe you had a great experience in religious life. I really hope you did. But it’s not uncommon to walk away with a significant amount pain and anger – it’s just what comes of living in close relationship with a bunch of other broken and imperfect people.
If you’re one of the ones who are walking away wounded, I really encourage you to seek full healing. Don’t aim for anything less for yourself. You don’t want the effects of the bad experiences to keep on holding you back in life, or to be stuck in unhealthy patterns, or transferring negative emotions and expectations to new people and situations. It can be a long, hard process, but it’s totally worth it.
Although I’ve been through a lot of healing, I still haven’t made this full journey yet. I came into my second community still carrying a lot of baggage from my first. Maybe if I was more healed it could have worked out. Or at least not ended quite so badly. But with the help of God’s Grace, I’ll get there.
11. Your life/happiness isn’t over
Probably the hardest thing about the first leaving was that I felt that I was loosing my happiness, and that my life after this would just be a botched-together plan B, never quite as good as the life that I was really meant to have. After all, you can only be truly happy when you’re living your vocation, right?
I was once moping to my spiritual director about not having a charism to live out anymore made me feel very unanchored in life. His challenge back to me was to focus on developing my sense of my personal charism. Even if I were still in religious life, this was something I would have to do: as members of a community, we are not meant to be ‘carbon copies’ of the founder, but take up the charism in a way which is both unique and personal to us, and faithful to the spirit of our community.
God’s made you with a unique spirituality and mission. For me, I’ve found that my ‘personal charism’ hasn’t really changed over the course of my life as I go in and out of different communities and ministry roles. In fact, I’ve come to see the two communities I was part of as two ways in which I could live out my sense of charism. And now I’m discovering a third in single life. And I don’t feel like my vocation – or my happiness – is being compromised because of this change of state.
12. Your happiness isn’t in your temporal vocation anyway
This is probably the most important lesson! Don’t forget that you’re most important and fundamental calling is your Baptismal vocation: to know, love and serve God, and live forever with Him in Paradise. It’s God Himself Who is your joy, and loving and serving Him which is your fulfilment. Every other vocation is a particular way of living out this most important vocation, the only ‘essential’ vocation you’ll ever have.
So when a door like this closes – even if it was against your wishes and your discernment – it doesn’t mean game over for your life. It only means that God will provide another way to live out your ‘real’ vocation. A temporal vocation is a gift, an immensely great gift, but it’s not the gift-Giver Who we are called to seek above all things and find our true happiness in. Your happiness definitely isn’t over: perhaps, like I found, in being forcibly detached from a temporal vocation I was too attached to, your true happiness is only just beginning.
The dove painting featured in this article is used under Creative Commons Licence.
Attribution: Nheyob, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons