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:
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.
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.
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,
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,
but out of love for the Son,
realizing He was not merciless
but rather merciful,
exposing and toughening
for the path that would unfold.
I went there.
I reached for my canteen
only to find it empty,
my own preparations,
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-
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.”
By M. Cabri
Over a year and a half ago when I left a religious community, everything in my life seemed to be broken. My family seemed to have fallen apart while I was thousands of miles away, and I could not seem to maintain emotional equilibrium. I alternated between extreme joy and deep interior darkness. Inside, I tried not to be blinded by the fear of not understanding what was going on, and the growing sense, which I refused to accept, that I may have to leave the community. My spiritual life had been undermined as well, and I alternated between wondering if it was spiritual dryness or something I had done terribly wrong. I felt burdened by the obligations of communal prayer in a monastic community. I seemed to fall asleep in both of my meditations every day no matter how hard I tried to keep watch with Our Lord. I received no consolation at daily Mass. Whenever I went into the chapel to pray the Divine Office, rosary, or make a Holy Hour, it couldn’t be over fast enough. I was painfully agitated and restless. The silence seemed to crush me. When I could speak, I never seemed to be able to say what I needed to my superiors, which left me feeling hopeless and desperately alone.
In the months before I left, I cried myself to sleep more nights than I can count. I never seemed rested when I woke up in the morning. Every day I dragged myself to my chores, trying to tell myself wholeheartedly and joyfully that this was all for Jesus, but I found that I wasn’t even able to convince myself of that anymore. For the first time in my life, it truly seemed like Jesus was taking away the grace to live a life I had dreamed of for so long. I remembered how happy I had been as a postulant and new novice and couldn’t make sense of the inner darkness I felt now. I wrestled with feeling like I never could be enough for Him, that all my prayers and labor was in vain. I even began to wonder if He still was there, loving and supporting me. I couldn’t even look at my Sisters without crying. Finally, I just broke.
For a few blissful and painful days, I lived in a limbo of dreading I must leave and knowing my Sisters did not know what would happen. I felt interior joy (or relief) at the prospect. I sensed all I wanted was freedom from what had become oppressive to me, not realizing that I was pining for earthly treasure which could not satisfy my heart. His grace (or my willfulness) seemed to keep me in one piece long enough to smile and say goodbye to my Sisters without dragging them into my inner chaos.
From that place, I came home across the country, hoping that somehow everything would be better again. Those painful first days, I could barely go outside because I felt unable to face the world as I was. I felt immodest walking around habit-less, horror that I had left the community, shame for my shaved head and an unshakable sense of failure. I could barely tolerate going to Mass or praying, because I felt divorced by the One I had promised to marry, whom I still love. Everything reminded me of the Sisters I had left behind who were now dead to me. I saw their faces everywhere and heard their voices in my head, sharing their joys, sorrows and spiritual growth with me. To this day, I still do. I still do.
Over a year later, after being in therapy and having the advice of a wonderful spiritual director, I approached the community again. The prompt reply was that they did not think I had a vocation to their community and should discern elsewhere. The experience was like leaving all over again. I feared that no community would ever want to talk to me.
In the six months since that conversation, I have approached two communities. From both, I have received understanding, love and support. One vocation directress even praised me for my courage in continuing discernment of consecrated life. Both emphatically assured me that I could have been refused simply because the community had too many applicants that year or did not have the resources to invest in a young woman for a second try at religious life. After a long struggle, those words are beginning to set me free.
It is easy to see everything as a personal rejection. Many of us already see ourselves as damaged goods, irreparably broken and unlovable. The great mystery of salvation is that Christ does not merely come to make everything externally appear better, leaving the root problem intact. He wants to, and DOES, heal the inner brokenness! We are all wounded and damaged by sin, either our sins or the sins of others. He sees the brokenness and what He can do to make those scars radiant. We are all like shards of glass which individually can be unimpressive. But when the chips are filled, edges polished, and we are pieced together with the rest of the Body of Christ, we will be more beautiful than we ever could have imagined. The more perfect and transparent each individual piece is, the more light will shine through that piece and make the whole window radiant.
Jesus wants to shine through your life so that the world will come to know Him through you. The more you reflect Christ, the more His light will shine on people around you. Offer up your suffering, grow in holiness, and above all, continue to hope when all seems hopeless! The Body of Christ needs your suffering; don’t waste it! He IS faithful, even when we cannot feel it! Let Him heal you and know that all the saints and all of us who are journeying this path with you are praying for you!
By Windy Day.
In 2016, I went for a walk with a colleague when Hurricane Matthew was striking the United States. We couldn’t help but talk about the weather because it was such big news. He shared that he was in Virginia for Hurricane Bertha and said it was “only a Category 2.” He then described his experience:
“The sky was pitch black; the wind howled nonstop for hours. The eye of the storm passed by at around noon, which I recall vividly because it provided just enough time for us on staff to go out for lunch — we sat outside at a local sandwich place under beautiful, peaceful blue skies and sunshine! Then, no sooner had we returned to the office when the deafening, dark tempest began roaring again. The contrast in so short a time was surreal and impressive.”
We were discussing this on a beautiful Autumn day, knowing full well that in other parts of the world people were recovering from devastation, experiencing devastation, or awaiting devastation. It was a strange feeling. Enjoying the beautiful weather and yet knowing not everyone in the world was experiencing the same thing.
If that can happen with weather I would suspect that it can happen in the spiritual life.
Does it sometimes seem that your experiences and feelings are casting a cloud over everything? It’s easy to deduce that everything is awful when we feel awful ourselves. But our current feelings and experiences aren’t an all-encompassing reality (or they don’t need to be). Have you heard St. Therese’s analogy of the little bird looking at the sun when the cloud passes in front?
“With bold abandonment, he remains gazing at his Divine Sun. Nothing can frighten him, neither wind nor rain; and if dark clouds come to hide the Star of love, the weak little bird will not move away, for he knows that on the other side of the clouds his Sun continues always to shine.”
To me that analogy made sense. But the way I had been reading it made it seem fairly tame. However, if we think about a hurricane completely blocking out the Sun so that midday looks like midnight, that is something very different.
Have you felt this way? I know I have.
Since returning to lay life I have felt to varying levels of desolation and spiritual torment. These are hard to reflect upon, let alone describe, especially when you’re afraid to scandalize others. It feels as though everyone expects you to have your life together because you were a religious. And to make it worse, we often expect that of ourselves.
Instead, I think it’s more realistic to anticipate and expect at least some darkness, if not extreme darkness, at this time. We are vulnerable and the evil one always looks for weakness in our defense (see 14th rule in St. Ignatius’ Rules for Discernment of Spirits*). It is quite likely your relationship with the Lord has been strained or challenged and this gives Satan an “in.”
How can we combat this darkness? Here are a few thoughts:
First, recognize this possibility and, “Be not afraid!” Fear can easily dominate us and cause us to feel powerless. Try to manage your response and any other things that you can control. Remind yourself of the truths of the spiritual life. Once again, Ignatius’ rules may help.
Next, don’t be surprised, offended, disappointed or take it personally. It magnifies things and only makes everything feel worse. This is a great opportunity to find hidden pride. If you are shocked and upset, you most likely had an unrealistic image of yourself (mea culpa!).
Finally, consider praising God in all things and thanking Him for this opportunity. View this truly as an opportunity and not a barrier. How can this be true? A few ideas:
You can learn more about yourself.
You can depend on God more.
You can turn to Him.
You can grow.
These are all good things that God wants for you! And you can always ask Mary to help you. Keep reminding yourself that, as St. Therese affirms, on the other side of the clouds his Sun continues always to shine.
What suggestions do you have? Please share in the comments below!
Some time ago, I had a conversation with a friend who, like me, left a religious community during formation. We were light-heartedly discussing which communities we would think about entering if we tried again, and she mentioned one which is famous for educating all its sisters to an extremely high level.
“I wondered about them…” she began.
“Me too…” I said, and then in unison:
“But I’m not smart enough.” (In the ordinary course of things, getting a couple of former Dominicans to admit to that would necessitate the pulling of teeth.)
Not long after that, I started reading David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. While exploring ways in which underdogs throughout history have been able to turn the situation to their advantage and beat apparently stronger opponents, he asks whether it’s better to be a big fish in a little pond, or vice versa. One interesting case study is a brilliant young science student who opted to go to one of America’s most elite universities, attracted by the excellence of its science course and the prospect of being surrounded by equally intelligent and committed peers. Within months she was flailing desperately in her studies, convinced that she was stupid, and ended up dropping out of the course in despair. How, Gladwell wonders, does someone who would have been at the top of the class almost anywhere else become convinced that she is not only backward, but hopeless?
And what does this have to do with religious life?
For me, it was an important insight into why I ended up leaving a community that had seemed to be exactly right: devout, traditional, monastic, academic – everything I wanted. Before I discovered Leonie’s Longing, I’d had trouble finding biographies by former nuns with whom I could identify, mainly because they seemed to have left religious life largely for moral or spiritual reasons: conversion to another religion or even to atheism, dissatisfaction with the Church’s teaching on priestly celibacy, women’s ordination, Humane Vitae, or something else along those lines. That wasn’t me, though. I left the convent for a single, purely human reason – because, when I was there, I felt like a failure. Having prided myself on getting high distinctions at university, I entered the convent to find myself failing one essay after another and being placed in a scaffolded writing program. In choir, in the refectory, and in my chores, it wasn’t any better. And I kept wondering, how on earth was this happening? I wasn’t stupid or crazy… was I?
Here’s where Gladwell’s point comes in, and it applies in a big community or a small one: any group of people will have a bell curve of ability, and in an elite institution some highly intelligent and capable people are going to end up in the bottom quarter of that bell curve. Here’s how it might work in a religious context:
Option 1. A young woman joins a postulant group of, say, twenty. She’s warned from the outset not to compare herself with her companions, but she hears others in her class making insightful comments about concepts that she hasn’t yet fully grasped, or she starts getting essays back with marks lower than any she’s ever had before. She makes more mistakes than they do, or feels as though she does. She starts to worry about getting weeded out by the superiors. In an environment where no-one is average, an above-average sister gets shuffled down to the bottom of the class while, actually, producing work of a quality that would excel anywhere else. She becomes the bottom of the top.
Option 2. Or, perhaps, the young woman joins a small community in which she is the only postulant or even the only one in formation, and the curve gets even steeper. In theory, nobody expects her to keep up with sisters who are years ahead, but if she’s the only one who can’t perform a simple task in the proper way, she’ll stand out – and the danger then is to start accepting any and every correction or criticism as the truth, the better to try and fit in. She, too, starts to worry about her place in the community. She, too, becomes the bottom of the top.
You know that truism we’ve all heard, that “religious life is not about what you do, but who you are”? When a young sister is having difficulties, it’s perilously easy for her to flip that around into the negative and think that she is therefore failing not at what she does, but at what she is. If any cup ever bore the label poison, that would have to be it. A nun who deliberately chose to live selfishly would fail at what she was (as Mother Mary Francis, the late Poor Clare Abbess, says), but not the one who tries to press on in love through and in spite of suffering until, finally, she can’t.
Therefore, if this was you and you think you failed in the religious life, what I’m saying straight out is that you didn’t. Chances are that you were at least above average – both in intellect and in generosity – when you entered, and got shuffled downward by the environment in which you lived. (How much heartache could have been prevented if we’d been warned about this possibility beforehand, I wonder?) On that note, Gladwell points out that Yale has introduced a program in which elite athletes whose marks are lower than the usual cut-off are admitted to academic courses, so that, even if they become the bottom quarter of the bell curve, they have an alternative outlet for excellence and don’t burn out trying to compete. He also notes that the top students in average universities score higher on an objective measure of success (publication of research papers) than students who are considered ‘average’ in elite institutions like Yale, largely because they haven’t been subjected to the psychological carnage which comes with that sense of across-the-board failure. So, how to apply this to discernment, the second time around?
Awareness of the psychological factors that may affect someone in religious formation could help in adjusting to life in the right community in the future (or at least, reducing self-flagellation over having left the wrong one in the past), but it’s only the beginning of discernment. That God’s plan for each person’s life is the most important thing of all goes without saying, but this leaves us with the difficult task of finding it – and if grace builds on nature, then our main duty is to develop our nature into a firm foundation for it. I’m not a doctor (and nor do I play one on TV), but here’s a pertinent quote from someone who is:
“If a young woman’s sense of worth comes from being a good novice, she must cling in desperation to her façade of obedience and piety, lest she let slip from her grasp that which she has never really held securely” (from Conflict in Community by Dr Robert J. McAllister, 1969, p.27).
I don’t know whether or not that was you in religious life, but it was definitely me – and when I found myself unable to keep up, that sense of worth collapsed and I fell out of religious life and back into the secular world. What went wrong?
“It is characteristic of a woman to want to belong to someone and be responded to. She wants to be recognized for herself. Sisters used to say they belonged to Christ, but there must be a psychological gap in such a relationship for those who are still in the purgative way. Sister must have felt this remoteness… perhaps (she) now needs to belong to herself so that she can keep herself not fragmented by people and activities that see her in parts, but entire and intact so that she may grow in a kind of internal expansion of charity that flows to others without losing herself or her value in that process” (p.64).
So, how to find that way forward, to become whole enough to serve God and to receive His graces, in order then to share them with others?
“The person entering religion gives herself to God, but the needs which she brings with her are a sort of divine dowry which God gives the community. This uncut and unpolished stone may have many flaws, or it may be a jewel of great excellence. It comes from God; it is the product of His hand. But the process of polishing it remains that work of the individual and the community. Only God knows the potential for perfection of each stone” (p.102).
If your community didn’t recognize your talents as something it could use, and you crashed and burned while striving against your nature to become something that it could, then perhaps – as Gladwell suggests in a more secular context – look again at a community or a way of life that wasn’t your first choice, and see whether there’s something there. There is truth to the cliché that it takes all kinds to make a community, but not every community will have the right place for every talent. One convent loses a novice who was told off for being too slow and cautious in her work – and another ends up, thirty years down the track, with the silver jubilarian who’s the only one they trust to manage their accounts. One community values academic excellence and lets go of the one who didn’t quite make the cut – and so she takes her compassionate nature to a secular nursing home or a childcare facility instead. Another woman finds herself empty and lonely in religious life, but ends up five years later happily chasing around after the children she never expected to have. Hard as it may seem to believe it sometimes, there’s a vocation ahead of each of us that will make us saints in heaven, and God is helping us grow toward it.
All of our talents were given by God, and He asks us to put them at His disposal. Our first vocation is our baptismal one, to serve the God Who loves us – and wherever He guides us, to meet Him there. I couldn’t enter the religious life again now (good Lord, no!) with any chance of staying, but thankfully He’s not asking me to just yet. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready (Romans 3:2). Perhaps one day He will ask, but first, there’s work to be done.
In His love, may He put the pieces back together and build us all into vessels – even clay ones – to contain His grace. Let’s pray for each other.