Review of a Dissertation: The Impact of Leaving the Convent on a Woman’s Perceived Relationship With God

Reader Michaela reviews the dissertation ‘The impact of leaving the convent on a woman’s perceived relationship with God as viewed through the lenses of attachment and divorce,’ by Jennifer Cabaniss Munoz, 2018.

In this approachable and novel dissertation, Jennifer Munoz approaches the effect that leaving the convent has on a woman’s perceived relationship with God. Writing in 2015, Munoz not only shines a fresh light on the effect leaving religious life has on a woman, but pierces right to the most important effect leaving can have: an effect on a woman’s perceived relationship with God. “It defies belief,” she writes, “that a woman who entered a community and a way of life with such an understanding of what she was undertaking, and committing herself to it whole-heartedly, would find it irrelevant to her relationship with such a spouse when she makes the decision (or is forced) to leave that life.” (58)

Attachment theory and divorce are the primary frames of reference Munoz draws upon to explore the affect that leaving has on relationship with God. Although divorce is not a theologically accurate lens through which to view leaving the convent, it proves to be an apt lens psychologically. Firstly, consecrated life is understood as being the bride of Christ, as having a special way of relating to Him. When a woman leaves religious life, she makes a shift from consecrated to unconsecrated and leaves behind a special way of relating to Jesus. Secondly, the grieving process following the shift in relationship exhibits a similar pattern of protest, despair, and reorganization. The paradigm of divorce provides insight as to why leaving the convent is so difficult, but it doesn’t quite explain the diversity of difficulty with which women handle the situation. To explain this Munoz turns to attachment theory.

Attachment theory describes the relationship between a person and their attachment figure, the person who serves as a safe haven or caregiver in a time of distress. Expectations around such a relationship are formed during childhood and these expectations are known as an attachment style, which is secure or insecure (preoccupied, dismissing, or fearful). This attachment style influences how a person interacts with other attachment figures later in life including God or a spouse. Much like the example of divorce, acknowledging an insecure attachment style toward God requires standing in the truth of the human emotional experience instead of turning toward idealizations. “[I]ndividuals can simultaneously have an intellectual belief, keeping with the tenets of their faith, that God is in essence the perfect caregiver – omnipresent, all loving, forgiving, and faithful – and yet struggle with a deeper emotional sense that he is perhaps none of those things, but is rather much more like the human caregivers whom they have experienced.”(151)

Whether a woman has a secure or insecure attachment style can affect her capacity to handle the transition of leaving. For example, a woman with a secure attachment style would be expected to recover more quickly from the transition because the struggle will primarily be establishing a new identity and way of relating to God. For a woman with an insecure attachment style, in addition to establishing a new identity and way of relating to God, she might struggle with feelings of having been abandoned or rejected by God. At the end of the dissertation Munoz suggests a few potential therapeutic interventions that can assist in the transition including narrative therapy, emotion-focused therapy, and collaboration with spiritual direction.

Even if the particular theme of this dissertation doesn’t quite fit the reader’s situation (it didn’t quite fit my own), the series of topics covered throughout are thought provoking and can help identify areas of growth to be had and healing to take place. These topics include passage lag (“determining which habits, customs, and elements of one’s training as a
religious to retain in one’s new role as a laywoman, and which to reject as no longer relevant” (34)) internal working models, grief, and examples of various emotional struggles and identity struggles associated with leaving. Lastly, I would like to mention that this dissertation is written by someone who gets it. She herself had to leave a religious community due to medical difficulties. She dedicates the dissertation “To ‘Marie’ and all those who struggle.”

 

Note: I was able to access a copy of this dissertation through ProQuest Dissertations and Theses on a guest computer at a local university. (You may also be able to access it through your local or state library, or ask a friend who is currently studying at university to access it on ProQuest for you.)

The Rejected Bride

By Esther Caswell, reprinted with permission from her blog.

Jesus, we need to talk. Like the prophets of old or the Psalmist, I need answers to my complaint. My heart is racked in pain. I need you to answer me. Hope in you becomes my instrument of torture in this regard. Please apply the salve of truth.

Who are you to those who heard our cry as Bridegroom and who innocently followed you, who left everything behind and prostrated themselves before you giving you everything, these ones who entered your Church believing it was a Mother, a place of belonging only to be told in your Name that they were excluded, unfit, unwanted and unredeemable? Those who were tortured during lonely nights and told in the day to keep their selves tucked in and their brokenness hidden, that their love would cause harm. Who were told that any love they needed would come from you alone and reminded through correction how they ought to sit and stand and kneel when they pray? Who were told to spare the dramatics of tears in your presence like Eli told Hannah of old? Those who only wanted you and were told by the “voice of God” that they were not enough? Whom do you choose Jesus? What of these rejected? Are they like those who came to the wedding banquet improperly clothed and are now subject to wailing and gnashing of teeth? How is it that thieves, prostitutes, and public sinners are promised your Kingdom but these tossed away? And when they are tossed away because their white knuckles could no longer hold the death grip, who is there to catch them? They are regarded with suspicion and punished by all for falling off a pedestal that somehow the Church needs. Even the divorced woman in the back pew is better understood because we can all allow husbands to be weak.

How many now to prove their worth to you by a strange kind of “forced labor” for your Church, their own private Gulag, through work is their salvation? Some hold themselves to even higher standards as if all the good work and prayer could somehow wipe out the shame of being unwanted by YOU. Others already feeling the condemnation, fall the other way in despair hoping to find something that will numb the pain of this rejection. Like soldiers back from war they are mentally tortured by making sense of what does not make sense, by trying to find the God they only wanted serve.

I do not make this appeal to anyone but you because you know those of which I speak. You know well. Can you please tell me your heart breaks too? Please tell me, Jesus, that this is not you! Jesus, come to all those who have been wounded by your mediators. Come to those who find it hard to breathe in the presence of innocent enthusiasm for you because to them it represents the way the pain began. Come to those who cannot trust themselves or your voice in them because that place has been broken. Because they did and it led to their demise. Come to those who feel like they asked for a fish and were given a snake. Jesus, come to those who even still have made attempts to come to you and were turned away like a disease that can be caught.

Jesus, Abba, Holy Spirit: Tell me this is not who you are! Please I beg you, make it clear. You are God, I will follow no other but if I may claim my intimacy with your cross as my authority and remind you who you are. You are the God for the weak and abandoned who forgave the thief as you died. You defend the orphan and the widow, and Lord please your rejected bride! Jesus, I need you to go find them in their places of darkness and shame. I need you to bath them and clothe them. I need you to restore the integrity of your name. I come like Esther before the King. Jesus please, act on their behalf.

You and I both know there is no other way. You have to go yourself or send your Mother. No one in your Church seems to understand these ones and perhaps it is because they do not want to admit the Bride is broken because they will need more Faith in you.

I am the Resurrection and the Life

By Michaela.

It was one year since I left the monastery. I knelt on the stone floor of the retreat center chapel, my Bible opened to the Gospel of John, chapter 11. The story of the raising of Lazarus. 

It seemed fitting to spend some time with this moment in Jesus life for so many reasons. The friends of Lazarus begged Him to come when her friend was sick – to save Lazarus from death. Like them, I begged Jesus to come and make up for my frailty with His love and His peace – to give me the grace of perseverance in the vocation He called me to. And instead He waited. He waited as Lazarus died. He waited as I left the convent doors and no longer walked the cloisters of the monastery. 

How similar to Mary and Martha I was when I told Jesus that “If You would have been there, I would not have had to leave.” How much I didn’t understand His ways, as He was in the midst of revealing to me that He is the resurrection and the life. And that in order for there to be the beauty of resurrection, there must come first the sorrow of death. 

 Death is hard – in whatever forms it comes in. The death of loved ones. The death of dreams. The death of fervor. The death of opportunities. The death of relationships. The death of meanings… When faced with death, the friends of Lazarus placed him in the tomb. And then, days later, Jesus arrives. And asks where Lazarus is laid. 

Then Jesus wept.

And it struck me. Perhaps it was not the death of Lazarus that caused tears to flow from the eyes of our Lord, but rather the reaction of Lazarus’ friends. When faced with sickness they begged Jesus to come. They begged Him to heal their friend who was ill. They had faith. But when sickness turned to death, they gave up. They placed Lazarus in the tomb. They believed the situation was beyond hope. They had Jesus, who is the Resurrection and the Life, in their midst, and they continued their mourning. They thought the story was over. And Jesus wept. 

This left me to be determined to believe that, as difficult as things sometimes are during this time outside of the monastery, Jesus can create something beautiful out of it. It challenged me to have the faith that will trust in Him even in the face of death – the death of my identity as a sister. It challenged me to have the vulnerability to place this death before Jesus, and not seal it in a tomb. And it challenged me to believe in the Resurrection – not just two thousand years ago or at the parousia, but also here and now in the moments of my life. I do not know how the Resurrection will manifest itself in my particular story, but placed in the hands of Jesus I know it will be beautiful. 

“And all through Lent we had this beautiful statue 

to help us meditate on Mary and her faith.

And that faith in the face of failure. 

In the face of death. 

In the face of shattered dreams.

In the face of enthusiasm that had been spent

and hopes that had been dashed in a worldly messiah

that was going to come and liberate them from the Romans.

But Mary had a quiet faith

and she waited in expectation of the Resurrection.

It didn’t take away the pain of the moment.

But it gave her direction.”

– Fr. Joseph Johnson  (November 3, 2018)

 

Asperges Me: Autism and Religious Life

By Penny.

Written for Autism Acceptance Month, April 2019.

‘I am very pleased with Marie; she is a great comfort to me. I only wish my poor Léonie were more like her. I cannot understand her character; the wisest sages would be out of their depth with her. But I hope that some day good seed will sprout in that soil.’ (A Difficult Life p. 17)

Saints Louis and Zélie Martin had five daughters who survived to adulthood. Four were bright, pretty, affectionate, and charming. One wasn’t.

Marie and Pauline, the two eldest, were very close; Céline and Thérèse, the youngest, were like ‘two little bantam chicks’ that could not be separated from each other. Léonie, in the middle, spent much of her childhood on her own, getting kicked out of school because of her strange and rebellious behaviour and causing more worry to her parents than the other four put together. At the time that Zélie wrote to her brother about her ‘poor Léonie’ in 1871, the girl was an awkward, angry nine-year-old who struggled to understand her lessons or control her overwhelming emotions. Were she alive today, she would doubtless be diagnosed with moderate to severe learning disabilities, but in the late nineteenth century she was simply a slow, ‘trying’ child.

Like all of her sisters, Léonie would eventually grow up to become a nun. Unlike her sisters, however, she became a nun on her fourth attempt. Today, she is known as the Servant of God Sister Françoise-Thérèse Martin VHM, and the cause for her canonisation is underway in France. She is the patroness of our apostolate, named Leonie’s Longing in her honour, which provides support for women around the world who have left the religious life at any stage of formation. Interestingly enough, there is also another Catholic lay association which holds her as its patroness: the Leonie League for the Advancement of Autistic Persons.

Posthumous diagnosis of someone who lived over a hundred years ago is an ambiguous exercise at best, of course. Nonetheless, Léonie’s social difficulties, academic struggles, ‘loneliness of spirit’ (as she described it in her own words) and lifelong difference from others have made her an instantly familiar, approachable older sister to autistic Catholics who have experienced all of these things themselves. I know. I’m one of them.

When I was a child in the 1990s, autism was still largely seen as an exclusively male phenomenon: the province of small boys who sit and rock in corners, refuse physical contact, and recite train timetables to themselves over and over. Even now – though this is improving – the diagnostic criteria are still heavily weighted toward the male presentation of symptoms, meaning that boys are often diagnosed and supported in early childhood while girls (who present the same patterns but in different ways) tend to flounder along on their own until their twenties, thirties, or even later. I began to wonder whether I might be on the autism spectrum while I was at university in my early twenties, but concluded from my reading that I couldn’t possibly be: I can hold a normal conversation, make eye contact, feel empathy for other people, and I have a rich and complex inner world, all of which are supposedly beyond the reach of autistic people.

Except when they aren’t.

This is the video that popped up in my recommended list on YouTube in October 2017 and changed everything I thought I knew about myself:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wKb5TUX49U

Even if you don’t know anyone on the spectrum, I’d encourage you to watch it, not least because it breaks down the stereotype of there being any one ‘typical’ form of autism. The host is a young woman from the UK, and watching her on screen was like watching myself – lively, quick-talking, and animated in a way I’d been told that autistic people couldn’t be, but with the admission that this social persona had been developed through years of deliberate trial and error, and aimed at camouflaging the fact that she was most often out of her depth when communicating with other people. Exactly the way that my persona was. I had few friends as a child and none (except online) as a teenager because I was so odd that others my age avoided me; my brain was a powerful computer attached to the social awareness of a child less than half my age, excitable and tactless, and with a sense of humour involving things that weren’t funny to other people and vice versa.

I started changing in my last year or so of high school, which was – not coincidentally at all – also the time I began discerning a vocation to the religious life. For the first time, I began to want to fit in with other people and get along with them. I learned to mask the physical mannerisms, odd laughter and blunt social comments that had made me stand out, and by the time I got my first job in my early twenties, I could usually pass for normal. (Like many people on the autism spectrum, I object to being labelled ‘high-functioning’ – dammit, I work hard for that functioning!) Every now and again, I’ll still slip up and someone will look at me oddly and say, ‘That was weird,’ but by and large as an adult I manage to roll the dice and land on ‘endearingly quirky’ rather than ‘fruitcake.’

I went through the psychological testing process for autism in November 2017, and was diagnosed formally in early December that year. (Under previous versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, I‘d have been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. In the current version, Asperger Syndrome has been folded into the umbrella diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.) My response? Pure relief. Suddenly, I could explain why I do peculiar things like borrow forty non-fiction books at a time from the library and read them at every spare moment (information being my brain’s version of crack), quote textbooks verbatim Hermione Granger-style, and struggle so much with time management (because the executive function of the brain, which is responsible for organising things, works more slowly in autistic people). Even more importantly, it also began to help me understand why I had crashed and burned out of religious life at twenty-four with a force that wrecked my physical and mental health, along with my spiritual life, for years afterward.

It’s a myth that autistic people don’t feel emotions. We do. Almost unbearably, so deeply we could drown in them, but rarely in a way that we can put into words at the time. Think of Léonie, who loved her family beyond measure but had no idea how to express that love in a form that they could see or understand. Or me, crying silently in my cell because I had no idea why I was failing so badly and being corrected all the time. I’m not writing this for sympathy, but because I know that you, my sister in Christ – even if you’re not on the spectrum yourself – will understand exactly what I’m talking about when I describe sleepless nights, mysterious stress-related illnesses, bewilderment at how something so longed-for could hurt so much, and the deadening grief for your vocation that begins even before you leave the convent. That part is common ground for all of us.

What diagnosis gave me was that all-important why. Why I had caused the Sisters such frustration with my slow working style and hesitation in moving from one task to another: when I was told to do something, the delay that my executive function needed to process the instructions and come up with a plan of action would have looked from the outside like foot-dragging. Or why I was sometimes corrected for mistakes as though they had been deliberate acts of disobedience: because the Sisters had been signalling me with their eyes or gestures not to do something, and I either hadn’t seen their signals or didn’t understand what they meant, because non-verbal hints are almost invisible to people on the autism spectrum. So I went ahead and blundered headlong across the community’s rules and customs, over and over and over, and kept not learning because I couldn’t identify a pattern in the things I was doing or failing to do. The Sisters’ corrections were justified – if I had seen their directions and carried on anyway, it really would have been disobedience – but it took an autism diagnosis five years later to reveal to me how much I must have been missing under the surface of things.

I would watch others to see what they did, but without knowing which of those numerous things I was supposed to do as well (is the way she pours her glass of water a community custom, or her own personal preference?), imitation was largely a matter of guess-work. Interestingly, by the time I left, the novice who sat next to me at meal-times had started to pick up on this and developed a system of signals with meanings that she explained to me directly: ‘When I do this, it means you need to do that.’ I’ve never forgotten the courtesy she showed me; it became one of my anchors in the refectory, which had nearly as many customs as the chapel.

I’d been studying the principles of religious life intensely for more than half a decade before I entered – forty books at a time from the library, remember? – and that was a convenient mask for the fact that, in day to day community life, I actually had very little idea what was expected of me or why. Could I have asked for help? Perhaps, if I had known why I was floundering. Lacking the understanding that my brain structure was actually objectively different from that of the women around me, however, all I could see was that there was a method to all of this somewhere, but not what it was or where it was. Looking back now, I can see that I was trying to live within a system of unspoken rules and norms, ancient and modern traditions, and the complex social interactions required when a group of people live in such close proximity to each other… and I was oblivious to most of it. I therefore carried on doing what autistic women do best: camouflaging my difficulties with a smile and trying to appear normal. Until, finally, I couldn’t keep going.

I left the convent just before my mask broke: I had a cell inspection and a mid-postulancy review coming up within a couple of days of each other, and knew beyond doubt that one or the other of them was going to be the end of my ability to cope. I wanted to stay. No, strike that; I needed to stay. My whole heart was in the religious life, and I wanted nothing else. I had friends among the Sisters, enjoyed my studies, and immersed my soul in the deep, ancient rituals of convent life, just as Léonie Martin had over a hundred years before. So what do you do when desire isn’t enough?

‘O my God, in my life, where you have put so little that shines,’ Léonie wrote in 1934, ‘grant that I, like You, may choose true values, disdaining human values to prize and desire only the absolute, the eternal, the Love of God, through constant Hope.’ (A Difficult Life p.96.)

I now have the benefit of knowing that I’m on the autism spectrum; there are hundreds of books and websites out there that help me to understand the unique wiring of my brain, compensate for my blind spots, and make best use of the many unusual strengths that come with the territory. I finally understand that (apart from those caused by my own character flaws) the worst difficulties that I had in the convent weren’t my fault. They weren’t the Sisters’ fault. They weren’t anyone’s fault. I was just wired differently, and nobody (including me) knew it.

Léonie’s path was far harder: doggedly conquering her social difficulties, sensory sensitivities and overwhelming emotions minute by minute for the rest of her life without ever knowing why she was different, but slowly learning endurance and fortitude by following the Little Way of her younger sister Thérèse. In a letter to her Carmelite sisters in 1936, five years before her death at the age of seventy-eight, she described herself jokingly (but with a quiet air of wistfulness) as a ‘broken window’ in the convent (A Difficult Life p.112). She was loving and loved in her community, but the constant work of being different never got easier. A year later, in her retreat resolutions, she wrote:

‘It is inappropriate for me to moan over my faults, as I have done until now; I realise now that it is pride. As our Holy Founder said, it is no wonder that weakness is weak; so I must humble myself, not vex myself. I want to be little, so little! Little children fall without hurting themselves badly – they are too small for that; this is the example I want to follow. I can feel that this is what Jesus expects of me.’ (A Difficult Life p.96).

Like me, and like all of the women who read this blog, Léonie knew what it meant to fall, and fall hard. When desire wasn’t enough to match some external or internal circumstance that forced us out of the religious life, we went through every stage of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, please God, acceptance – just as she did. Through all her struggles within the convent and without, it was in God that Léonie found the ‘constant Hope’ of which she wrote in the final decade of her life. She struggled too much to have any confidence in herself, so she gave herself up to His mercy and turned to Him for the strength she lacked. Autistic or not, we’re all in the same boat here: as the Superior of my community said to me just before I left, sooner or later, in any vocation, God is going to require sacrifice.

The nature of sacrifice is that it hurts. Léonie surrendered herself to God even (and especially when) she was in pain; even (and especially when) she felt in her soul that she had failed. This is what makes her such a beautiful example for autistic people, who live by means of an ongoing process of trial and error in a world where most of the rules are hidden from us, and for women of all neurotypes who have had to re-construct a life outside the convent where they once hoped to remain forever. I’m in an area of overlap between the two groups – how’s that for a minority within a minority? – and with April being Autism Acceptance Month, this seemed like the right time to describe my own experience in religious life as a person on the autism spectrum, and to honour a woman who has therefore become my patroness twice over.

Back in January 2015, on the day that Léonie Martin received the title Servant of God, I wrote an article on the blog describing her as ‘the patron of the awkward, the naturally contrary, those whose personalities didn’t quite “fit” in the convent, those who didn’t get it right the first time (or the second, or the third) but somehow keep crashing their way up the narrow path that leads to heaven.’

Four years, an autism diagnosis, and much hard work of healing later, Léonie is still one of the people I most look forward to meeting after I die; a black sheep of Christ’s flock, a very human woman, and above all a faithful daughter of the Church.

‘Well, provided I have enough wit to love God with all my strength, living only by love and humility, that is enough for me.’   –  Léonie in 1910. (A Difficult Life, p.103.)

Servant of God, Sister Françoise-Thérèse Martin, pray for us!

 

 

Unofficial Checklist for Autism in Women by Samantha Craft: https://the-art-of-autism.com/females-and-aspergers-a-checklist/ 

References: Baudouin-Croix, Marie. Leonie Martin: A Difficult Life. Veritas Publications, Dublin 1993.

Greener Grasses

By Sean O’Neill.

So heed me now, though all my quondam whimpers rise

From darknesses and little deaths You did despise,

Or seemed to. Your tremendous volte-face preyed each year

Upon my gullibility to bend Your ear

And racked this ruined soul with frames of phantom guilt.

Your accidental turning broke the barns I built

To store unrealised the mildewed fruit I bore.

I listened and ran bleating to Your closing door.

But when you turned I never saw your fabled smile

But wept upon Your thorny brow, to lose my guile

Where rivulets of blood do still obscure Your eyes

And gather where my hopes and weathered dreaming dies.

But here I lie, and ever did I, catlike, do.

For once, I now remember, where the olives grew

With mists between the small hills and dawn on the felled

Ancient castellations of the Marches, You held

My eyes and opened them on glimpses of Your face.

And have You changed? Is this now why there is no trace?

But now I think I mind a moonlit path I walked

Where all the trees were dancing with your voice and talked

Between themselves and lifted their long-fingered praise.

And You stopped me like a traveller with your gaze

And bade me lift this old, old burden from my back.

You have not changed. But surely I must learn my lack.

Then other places where Your love drew near, precious

And strong , or weeping and long, like milestones, conscious

Of me, spread along these dusts. I pine in my sleep,

Now. Now Your mercies crowd upon me from some deep

And dead forgotten cavern of my wayward heart.

I am the lost sheep. But no sooner do we start

Back on the pasture than I stray among the rocks

Or bandy words with here a wolf or there a fox.

Brand my hide with Your blood-red love, sacred shepherd.

Teach me the strong timbre of your speech that, once heard,

Will ever be obeyed; and lead me, lead me now

To grasses greener, sweeter than the heart knows how.

 

This poem first appeared in First Things, June/July 2004. Poem and image © Sean O’Neill, used with permission from the author.

 

 

 

Desert Poem

By Katita Luisa

“Go to the desert and you’ll understand”.

So I went there this year.

I dipped my toes in that hot sand

and out of love for Him,

I was soon all in

with each grain rubbing against me,

scratching and removing what I wanted most,

purifying me

and my dreams

and my will.

I went there.

I stuck my neck out in that unrelenting heat,

feeling the burn on the most delicate of skin,

reddening,

but out of love for the Son,

I continued-

realizing He was not merciless

but rather merciful,

exposing and toughening

my weaknesses

for the path that would unfold.

I went there.

I reached for my canteen

only to find it empty,

surrendering

my own preparations,

expectations,

wishes

and comfort,

and was invited

to rely solely on Him,

embracing the unknown,

thirsting for Him alone.

And out of love for me,

we went there.

We grew closer rather than apart.

I found refuge in His Heart.

I even saw flowers bloom in that desert-

promises fulfilled,

so unexpected

yet expected,

because I can take Him at His word.

Lessons taught and learned,

my heart broken only to start to heal,

making room for Truth to sink in,

deeper than the cracks of my sin

and the holes of my doubt.

Yes, my cup overflows,

only because it had to be emptied first.

And as we left and I dusted off the sand from my sandals,

I took His hand and said,

“Out of love for You,

I’d do it all again.”

He looked at me, smiled, and said,

“Now you’re beginning to understand.”