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
By Christina M. Sorrentino
“He who knows how to forgive prepares for himself many graces from God. As often as I look upon the cross, so often will I forgive with all my heart.” (St. Faustina, Diary, 390)
Forgiveness is a tremendous challenge when it often seems that by offering pardon to another we are surrendering to a loss of justice. But the reality is that forgiveness does not diminish justice, it leaves it to God. We are assured by our Christian faith that there will be retribution, where God will reward the righteous with remunerative justice, and with His response of wrath against man’s sin He will inflict penalties upon the ones who choose by their own free will to remain far away from Him, which will be His retributive justice.
It was seven months ago that I made the conscious decision to forgive. I knew that forgiveness was the only way to allow the grace of God to heal my wounded heart, mind, and soul. It was not instantaneous though, and it took my heart awhile to catch up with my head. I struggled with the incredible hurt and pain that one individual, the woman who was supposed to be my “spiritual mother” inflicted upon me, especially since she admitted during the very last time that I saw her to committing the wrongdoings on purpose and for no particular reason.
My whole world was spun upside down and the vocation that meant everything to me was taken away because one person chose to become an instrument of the devil instead of an instrument of the Holy Spirit. With her head down and eyes looking downward gazing towards the floor she begged me for my forgiveness and to pray for her. At that moment forgiving her and praying for her was the hardest thing that I had ever had to do. But as soon as the words left her lips to ask me the question I immediately chose to forgive her, and to continue to pray for her as I had always done prior to my departure at the convent.
I questioned her sincerity at first in truly being repentant for what she had done to me, but ultimately decided that it was not for me to decide because God knew the disposition of her heart. And I hoped that one day she would be able to accept God’s forgiveness for what she had done, so that she could find peace just as I had found peace in forgiving her. I wanted her to be able to accept the love and mercy that I knew God was waiting to offer her in the Sacrament of Confession. Forgiveness truly sets us free.
We know the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant where the Master forgives his servant for a large debt, but then the servant refuses to forgive a small debt of his fellow servant. The Master then rebukes the first servant, and throws him in prison until his large debt would be paid in total, which would actually be beyond his lifespan. The first servant lacked great humility when he punished his fellow servant, and acted as if he had never been forgiven himself. If we do not find in our hearts to forgive those who have sinned against us, how can we then expect our Heavenly Father to be merciful and to forgive us? (Matthew 18:21-35)
When we refuse to forgive another we become a slave to the sin of pride, and lose our freedom to have peace within our hearts. Anger, bitterness, and resentment can take control over our heart, mind, and soul, and permitting such feelings to take up residence within us rents the space within our heart that is for Christ alone. If we allow these emotions to become the master of our thoughts, words, and actions then we prevent ourselves from being able to heal from the hurt and suffering, and to find peace. God desires for us to have peace, and to not spend the rest of our lives as a prisoner of pride.
“Today I decided to forgive you. Not because you apologized, or because you acknowledged the pain that you caused me, but because my soul deserves peace.” (Najwa Zebian)
How can we control our natural emotions and prevent ourselves from having the tendency to lash out or retaliate against those who have trespassed against us? We need to act on a supernatural level by allowing the graces of the Holy Spirit to work within us, and place our “littleness” before God. By placing ourselves at the feet of Jesus we can surrender our pride and imitate Christ’s example of mercy and Love. As Christ hung from the Cross painfully laboring his last breaths with blood dripping from His sacred wounds He spoke the words, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Having been forgiven by the Lord in His mercy and Love, can we then lower ourselves, and be humble enough to do the same and forgive another?
We can ask the Holy Spirit to give us strength, and look to the saints as models of forgiveness. St. John Vianney once said, “The saints have no hatred, no bitterness; they forgive everything, and think they deserve much more for their offenses against God.” The martyrdom of St. Stephen teaches us to forgive in his last words before death, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit… Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:59-60) The child virgin and martyr, St. Maria Goretti, before taking her last breath, forgave her assailant, Alessandro Serenelli, after he stabbed her fourteen times and mortally wounded her. St. Ignatius of Loyola in the bitter cold of winter walked one hundred miles to care for a sick man who only a short time prior to his illness stole from him. Another Saint whom we often turn to for intercession to help us with forgiveness is St. Pio of Pietrelcelina, who suffered immensely at the hands of his superiors and even Vatican officials, who believed him to be a fraud.
We need to allow the light of Christ to radiate from the depth of our souls, and like the beautiful Saints before us, we can unite our hurt and pain to the suffering of Jesus on the Cross. Christ can heal our wounds, if we let Him, by transforming them into a fountain of love poured out like a libation for the sanctification of poor sinners. It is by love alone that we will be able to forgive those who have left us with these scars. The gateway of our hearts will become open to receive peace as we are set free from the yoke of bondage – the self-prison that we create for ourselves when we are held captive by our own pride – if we choose forgiveness. Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian who helped to hide Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, once said, “Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.”
Image of Saint Faustina with the Divine Mercy used under Creative Commons license. Attribution: Phancamellia245, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.
I was on a very difficult discernment visit with a community, when a priest in confession assigned me to pray Psalm 23 as my penance.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . .”
As a 22-year old cradle Catholic, the words were so familiar that they had lost their meaning. But in this moment, they really took on new significance. In the midst of this stressful period, I felt Jesus reassuring me that he was there with me even though I didn’t feel it. He had led me here; he had started this journey with me and he would see me through.
He guides me along right paths for His name’s sake,
Even though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death,
I shall fear no evil, for you are at my side. . .
As I continued to read, in the chapel, before the giant crucifix that the community had behind the altar, the final verses of the psalm struck me like a lightning bolt:
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup overflows. . .
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
This hit me strongly, with both peace and anticipation. I sensed that the Lord was really getting my attention about something. I deeply felt a call from him, that despite the difficulties, he truly was calling me to enter this community and “dwell in His House” – this house. My cup did “overflow” with joy in response to this, and as I looked at the crucifix, it seemed to me that despite the struggles and sufferings I had encountered there, he had great graces to give me also, in that particular place with that community.
Fast-forward to the following spring, when I applied to this community, and despite the revelation I thought I had received, was not accepted.
If the experience in the chapel was a lightning-bolt showing me the way ahead, the rejection letter was a thunderbolt, appearing out of nowhere and painfully throwing me to the ground. I felt jolted by this on multiple levels. Not only were there the feelings of hurt and rejection, but there was something else, even deeper. I really had – so I thought – learned to recognize and listen to the Lord’s voice and followed an instruction direct from Him. And then, it would seem, he did not keep His promise. I fulfilled my end, and he failed to uphold his.
This disturbed me even more than the circumstances and misunderstandings that led to not being accepted by the community. For if something that I clearly heard God say was not Him, how could I ever trust Him again? More importantly, how could I ever trust myself again, in believing that he spoke to me?
I learned to pray anyway, even if it was more often complaining than anything else. I learned to go to Mass anyway even though my heart felt dead rather than alive in the Lord. I learned to go through the motions of my life, seeking his will for me in practical ways (job searching, finding God in friends and family). I took comfort that St. Francis too, thought that God spoke to him (“rebuild my church”) and it meant something completely different than he thought – in fact greater than what he thought. But something was missing, completely gone, to the point where I didn’t think it would come back and barely remembered what it was in the first place.
Fast-forward again to six years later. . . I had reached a place in my spiritual life that was more peaceful. I had learned to see the Lord in my daily life, even while I was unsure about the future. I had accepted that some things about his workings with us remain a mystery in this life; but it didn’t mean they weren’t real. Yet I still felt annoyed whenever I “ran into” Psalm 23. Like an old injury or pain that is mostly gone, but “flares up” under the right conditions, Psalm 23 was a sticking point in my relationship with God. I avoided it by skimming through when it came up in any reading I was doing, thinking about something else when it came up during Mass, and generally writing it off as a part of the Bible where God had something to say to everyone except me.
Then one cold winter day, I was sitting at my kitchen table with a warm cup of tea, doing my prayer-time for the day, and generally experiencing a pleasant time with the Lord. I opened the scripture readings for that day, and lo and behold, waiting for me was That Psalm. Its’ words jumped out at me from the page and danced before my eyes. They seemed to taunt me, reminding me how I didn’t trust God enough, reminding me how much I sucked at listening to him, and how prone I was to “getting it wrong” when it came to his message for my life. Oh no, not That Psalm! I thought. Not today. I will read the gospel instead.
Normally the gospels provide me much food for meditation. But that day it just left me restless. “That Psalm” kept distracting me. So I thought, perhaps, the Lord wanted me to go there after all. I turned the page, took a deep breath, and asked Him what he wanted to say. Then, by some small yet magnificent miracle of grace, when I read the words over again, they were no longer taunting at all. They came washing over me, like gentle waves that wore away at my resistance and washed over the hurt in my heart.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . .
He guides me along right paths for His name’s sake,
Even though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death,
I shall fear no evil, for you are at my side. . .
“This is still true,” he seemed to be saying to me. “I am still your shepherd. I always have been. Through the “deaths” of rejection and confusion, still I have been beside you. Even though you have stumbled in the dark, still you have not strayed from ‘right paths’ because I have been with you.”
You anoint my head with oil,
My cup overflows. . .
You spread a table before me in front of all my foes. . .
I realized I had been anointed. Literally. At my baptism. That was where he had chosen and called me. And that call in itself, was unique and beautiful. He had not chosen me for religious life; at least at that time, in that community. But he had chosen me to be baptized. And he called me and chose me still, out of all the others on earth who could be privileged to know His name and yet, by some mystery, hadn’t been. It was a great honor and a great responsibility. “My cup overflowed” again, for different reasons, but even more so than the first time.
I felt in that moment too, that he had “spread a table in front of all my foes” because the darkness and the devil were vanquished, in a very significant way. The “fear of being wrong” in prayer began to lose its’ power.
And then finally. . .
Only goodness and kindness follow me, all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Previously I had misinterpreted this to mean “only blessings follow me” (in my relationships with other people) all the days of my life. But now I realized, these words were not the Lord’s promise to me. They were my promise to Him, in return for His goodness as my shepherd. I would choose to be kind, to bless others, that even the smallest encounter with me would grant them an encounter with Him. And “his house” – beyond being the Church I was privileged to belong to — was also His presence. In that, I could choose to dwell always, regardless of success or failure.
These revelations were profound for me. That Psalm that taunted me was transformed into the first place I now go for consolation. When other storms have come, that is where I have found Him.
I pray that this experience of mine grants His peace to each of you reading it. I hope that it gives you a foretaste of the healing he has for you and the nearness he wishes to restore to you, even in the scriptures or devotions that you now find most painful. He makes all things new, even the thing you find most “ruined” at the moment.
By Windy Day.
A few years ago I went for a surprising bike ride. It was a sunny and beautiful day and I set off recognizing that it was a bit breezy. My hat was slightly blowing around but I didn’t think about the direction of the wind. I thought I’d go for a 20 minute bike ride; 10 minutes one way and 10 minutes back.
When I turned around to return, I had a rude awakening. Unbeknownst to me, I had been riding with the wind all along. Now I was going straight into it.
And it was strong. Very strong.
Because I was in the country, the wind cut across the fields and hit me with great force. I felt as though I could hardly move forward. I had gone up and down a few hills on my way there and now I realized that I would have to tackle those hills against this wind. This daunting prospect discouraged me. But I realized that I needed to go. I had no other way of getting home.
So I pedaled and I pedaled and I crept back. The wind was so strong that even when I was trying to coast downhill I was losing speed. It was stunning.
Eventually I made it home and I was rather proud of myself. And exhausted.
I found it to be a great analogy for the spiritual life. The entire time I felt like I wasn’t making progress because I was going about half the speed that I was when I left. It was frustrating to suddenly slow down that much. I wasn’t accomplishing what I thought I would. The expectations I had for the bike ride flew out the window. My hands were cold, my ears were ringing and I was exasperated.
I felt similarly when I returned to lay life. I had grown accustomed to the graces and beautiful gifts the Lord had been giving me during my time of discernment. It was a bright period filled with consolation.
But my time in religious life and the period afterwards were in stark contrast to this peace. I felt as though I was not making any progress at all as I plunged into spiritual darkness. As a matter of fact, it felt like I was going backwards.
As we all know, our feelings about our prayer life and the spiritual life are often inaccurate. We don’t have a precise way to gauge our progress. Saints like Alphonsus, Aquinas and Francis de Sales say that a prayer time which feels distracted and pathetic is the best for you. This is because you persevered and exercised your will! In contrast, when I was riding my bike, even though it did not feel like I was going forward, I could assess my progress by seeing the landscape pass by … just verrrrry slowly.
Often we simply have to trust that we are moving in the direction that God wants, even if it doesn’t feel that way. I encourage you to keep fighting and moving forward even if you want to quit. As the saying goes, “God can’t steer a parked car.” If I have momentum while biking, it’s easier to change direction as opposed to starting from being “parked.” Even if you’re slightly off-course, God will have an easier time reorienting you if you are moving.
But how can you fight discouragement, frustration and powerlessness?
First, remind yourself that you can choose. On my bike ride, a part of me felt I had no choice – I had to get home! But I did have a choice. I could have stopped and collapsed on the road. I could have walked my bike all the way back. I could have waited for a car to come by and tried to hitchhike. And I could have kept riding. We always have a choice. If nothing else, we can choose how to respond internally.
Second, you can do a self-assessment and/or ask for feedback from others. A daily Examen helps but often we don’t have the best perspective on our own spiritual life. Try to check in with family, friends, a spiritual director, etc. to help you get a more accurate perception of your spiritual condition. Just because it doesn’t “feel” that you are changing or growing doesn’t mean that is actually the case.
Next, the sacraments are powerful and provide us with grace beyond measure. Reconciliation and Eucharist both provide much-needed healing and they can be regularly accessed by the faithful. During confession the priest might even offer advice and words of encouragement.
Finally, remember that strength comes from pushing yourself reasonably. If you exercise and only do things you find easy, you won’t get stronger. But, if you do too much, you will hurt yourself. Finding that balance is the key, but it is SO DIFFICULT. If you’re recovering from a physical injury, it’s understandable that you may be afraid to be hurt again. It’s possible that you have experienced hurts, wounds and injury during and/or after your time in religious life. As a result, it can be scary to keep up with prayer, consider discerning with another community or be open to marriage, for example. Be honest with yourself and with God about these fears and allow yourself to be “coached” when you are discerning your next steps. Ask Mary to help you discern when to push forward and when to change course.
Times of desolation and spiritual combat are incredibly challenging. But they can be less difficult if we anticipate them and have tools ready to address them.
If you’re not currently struggling in this way, think about what you will do when you are in this situation. Also, please pray for others who are having a hard time.
If you have experienced this before, please share your tips and strategies in the comments below.
If you are grappling with discouragement, please try the suggestions listed here and keep pedaling! Most of all, be assured of our prayers.
An Advent reflection by Emma.
As I watched Disney’s Frozen II I felt, at some level, understood. Some friends who saw the movie also noticed themes that resonate very much with what it is like to discern religious life, or to have a friend who is discerning religious life. The below is less of a review and more of a spiritual exploration of a few of those themes through soundtrack lyrics paired with scripture. To those who may feel a little frozen in their discernment journey after having left the monastery, I hope these reflections help you to see that you are not alone – that others are frozen too – and that there is hope, for indeed “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Romans 8:28)
I’ve had my adventure, I don’t need something new
I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you
Into the unknown
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Matthew 14:28
Elsa rules peacefully rules over Arendelle in the company of her dear sister Anna and friends. She already had an adventure of self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and sisterly love, yet there is still more to be learned and growth to be had. She still doesn’t understand why she has cryokinetic powers and is simultaneously longing for a life where having such a gift makes sense, but that might mean leaving behind her tranquil, easy-going life… again.
Similarly, many of us who have been in religious life may feel like we have already had our adventure. We already made the sacrifice. We left home behind and followed Jesus out onto the water. We followed the calling with everything we had, and everything the Spirit was willing to give us. We grew in self-knowledge and matured in other ways through living religious life.
And now we’re back.
It’s too easy to think that I have already had the adventure of religious life and I don’t need anything new. It is hard to listen and discern when I’m not sure if I trust those movements in my heart anymore. It is be hard to consider risking everything… again. Yet I do have the qualities of a contemplative soul and desire to find a place where those gifts fit in. I am different. Not many people would be willing to leave family, friends, career, and everything else to wake up before 5 am every day and never again be able to choose what’s for breakfast. Of course, the secret is that underneath the sacrifice is a deep love and longing for God – a spousal love.
And so the call remains… to something. I remain confident that Jesus is calling me to consecrated life, yet the context remains unclear. So I try to trust. And ask Jesus to bid me come to Him on the water if indeed He is the one who is calling.
And with the dawn, what comes then?
When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again.
Then I’ll make the choice to hear that voice
And do the next right thing.
“But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared.” Luke 24:1
Another theme that appears in Frozen II is grief. This is definitely an emotion that I felt after leaving the monastery, especially toward the sister I was. Each sister is so unique in the way she loves God and the way she loves the other sisters, and the way she is loved by God and is loved by the other sisters. The fact that I left means that there will never be a sister in that monastery who is like that. Indeed, when a sister leaves the monastery or convent, things will never be the same again, and I remember wondering what is on the other side of grieving that loss.
I encourage you, wherever you find yourself, to do the next right thing. Perhaps the next right thing is spending a few minutes in prayer. Perhaps it is reaching out to a friend or priest for guidance. Perhaps it is going to Mass or Adoration. Perhaps it is simply finding enough motivation to go for a walk. The next right thing may not seem particularly remarkable, but each step taken out of love for Jesus is heroic. I encourage you, like Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, to go to the tomb. Because if you do, you will find the Resurrection – it just might not be right away though. Things will never be the same again, and that’s okay.
I’m dying to meet you
It’s your turn
Are you the one I’ve been looking for
All of my life?
I’m ready to learn
“Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?'” John 20:15
I’ll refrain from commenting on the context of this song so as to avoid spoilers, yet I wanted to include it because of how it mirrors contemplative prayer so well (note: the full song does contain spoilers). More than anything else after having left religious life, I needed to re-encounter the God I fell in love with. I needed to know that I was still loved by Jesus, when my emotions after leaving the monastery had me feeling rejected and abandoned. I found much healing here through praying in a way described by a bishop. His prayer in difficult moments was, “Lord show me how you are good here. Lord I want to see you in this situation” and he assures that when we pray in this way “God always comes through. And I mean always.” Through this prayer I was asking Jesus to show Himself, which is at the heart of the cry of a contemplative soul. I wanted to learn how he loved me through the difficult moments. I wanted to see how He was living His mysteries within my own life. I wanted to see God. As I began to pray in this way, moments of great suffering turned into moments of great intimacy with Jesus, and I’ve grown much in understading who I am to Him and who He is to me.
Where the north wind meets the sea
There’s a mother full of memory
Come, my darling, homeward bound.
When all is lost, then all is found.
“And Mary kept all these thing, pondering them in her heart.” Luke 2:19
This opening song of the film actually makes quite a beautiful Marian hymn. Mary, our mother, is full of memory. She watches over us and ponders moments of our lives in her heart. As St. Mary of Jesus Crucified says, “Mary counts your steps.” We have a mother who cares for us. Loves us. Nurtures us. Heals us. This Advent, I invite us to ask Mary to lend us her heart. I invite us to ask her to permit us to see as she sees. To feel as she feels. To know as she knows. To hear as she hears. To love as she loves. To ponder as she ponders. We have a Mother who is counting our steps to our eternal home, where truly all that we long for will be found.
By Sally Hoban.
On September 3rd (2019), the canopy of one the trees in my yard snapped and crashed down in our yard; it missed the house by a few feet. In many ways, the breaking of the top of this tree and the fact that it did not damage our house reminds me of my own path through this dark period of my life. The tree is no longer whole and the top that kissed the sky is now in a woodchip pile somewhere, but thankfully, the tree is still standing, and the damage done to the area where it landed was minimal. In so many ways, this parallels with me, however, I pray that the damage I have done in the depths of my despair and rage has not damaged beyond repair my relationships with those who love me.
As I start to feel the storm of despair and anger recede, I’m beginning to not feel blinded by the light around me. No longer do I recoil when I find myself looking out and wondering what next. No longer do I weep over the yearning to fulfill the call I heard to live out my life as with the congregation I love so much. Yet, I am now able to also acknowledge how painful and agonizing it was to constantly be in the throes of trying to prove my vocation to the decisionmakers within the congregation. So, how do I learn to live with this conundrum…
For so many months, I banged my head against a wall trying to make sense of all of this. I went round-and-round trying to make sense of hearing a call from God to pursue my vocation with this congregation and being rejected; blaming myself for being me, wishing I could have been someone the Provincial Team and the Vocation Director would accept; to replaying my mistakes and wondering how they could have been so great as to be summarily dismissed. I was so in love with God, my vocation and the journey of discernment that I believed nothing could stand in the way of fulfilling this yearning, but something did stand in the way…I was told by the Provincial, “The decision has been made to not continue the discernment with me.”
After the dust settled and I awoke to this reality, I found myself broken and shattered beyond repair. For the first year, I could barely get through a day without weeping and wishing to die. (Yes, I said it, I wanted to die!) I had spent over 40 years searching for meaning in my life. When the spark of living my life as a Catholic sister took hold, my whole being lit up. I found myself living from my heart from the early days of my discernment through the early days of February 2018, when I still believed that Jesus would sweep in rescue me and restore me back to my vocation with the congregation that rejected me. When I became aware that this was not going to happen, my life became a living nightmare and I rejected God and myself, the self that still believed and hoped for meaning in my life.
A few months ago, I was encouraged to embrace the phrase “fake it until you make it”. Since I was told this by one of the sisters from the congregation, it stung all the more. Yet, as the second year of this reality comes to a close, I am aware that in many ways, I have successfully utilized this task. I am back on my feet, albeit different feet than before, but nonetheless, I am gainfully employed, no longer weeping or lost in turmoil when I reflect on the current status of my life, and beginning to take in my life and contemplate a new path.
Like something that was broken and glued back together is never the same, I too am learning that I am broken and slowly being glued back together. I believe that Jesus not only has stood by me during this darkest time in my life, but saved me from the darkness that threatened my very existence. I’m still figuring out how to deal with this, because I am still angry with God over my rejection; however, I no longer have the energy to lash out at God when it arises, instead I find myself desiring to simply be honest by acknowledging this anger, sadness and hurt without losing myself in the depths of this despair.
Somehow though, I don’t want to go back to life before I was broken. I want to learn how to live from my brokenness. Can Jesus use my brokenness in God’s great mission? How can I live with my brokenness without letting it destroy me? How will Jesus to carry me in a new way? How might I use this longing to return to my religious vocation with the awareness that it is unlikely that I will return to my religious vocation with that congregation? Perhaps this leads to the question, do I really want to return to that?
I’ve often reflected upon my friend’s encouragement to write a book about my experience; however, I fear that my recounting of my experience would turn into a negative rant tied with fantastical dreams. Yet, I would like to utilize my keyboard to gain insight into how I might learn to live from this brokenness.
I’m not sure where this journey is leading me. So, I am utilizing my need to express myself, my hope to be heard (read) and the prayer that perhaps this might open a new path on this life’s journey…. Living from a place of brokenness…
Nearly a year after writing this with COVID-19, these words describe where I was. Where I am today is somewhere further down the road of discovering who I am and how I might learn from my experiences. While I don’t pine for what was and what isn’t, I wonder where might God be calling me. The other day my spiritual director reminded me that God isn’t finished with me yet, so I know I am living my next adventure right now.
During prayer, I have been hearing, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”, the line from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”. Some days, I am troubled by the question, as I wonder, what to do? Other days, I am on a mission to determine what I am called to do. Today, I realized I am simply living into this moment, and this is my “one wild and precious life”.
 Oliver, Mary, “The Summer Day” from Dog Songs: Poems , (Penguin Books, 2015).