By Mary Rose Kreger.
Eight years ago, I was a young novice, Sister Mary Inez. Today I am happily married and a mom of two. I had an amazing convent experience, but God never meant for me to stay there. Here is my story.
In August 2012, I joined a community of Dominican teaching sisters. The Lord began calling me to religious life during a retreat that spring. When I felt certain Jesus wanted me to go, I quit my job, sold my car, and became a postulant.
Being a new sister was hard. The other postulants and I had to adjust to a new routine of prayer, work, and study. The hardest thing for me was all the silence. Regular silence and profound silence. Silence in the chapel and silence in our airy, white-curtained cells.
All that silence made it impossible for me to hide from myself. It was like Yoda’s cave in Star Wars:
“What’s in there?” Luke asked about the mysterious cave.
“Only what you take with you,” Yoda wisely replied.
Inside the Cave
I didn’t know it at the time, but I brought a lot of baggage with me into the convent cave. Every time I made a mistake, I was assailed by negative thoughts:
You don’t belong here. You could never be a religious sister. No one could ever love you. Jesus loves everybody in the world except you.
These hurtful words stung like physical blows. Adding to this interior misery was the back pain I’d experienced since I was a teenager. In January 2013, I finally told my novice mistress about my struggles.
“I want to stay in the convent, Sister,” I said. My aching body stood hunched over in her doorway. “But I need help.”
Even more, I needed healing.
My novice mistress first gave me permission to see a back doctor. I went to physical therapy and had some X-rays done, but the X-rays didn’t show much. My back pain was invisible on the charts, but still very real.
“Ask the Lord to reveal if there’s a psychological reason for your back pain,” my novice mistress suggested. So I prayed, and soon received an answer.
On Easter Monday, I was working in the convent kitchen. I put a few spoons in the wrong drawer, and the sister next to me – my closest friend there – shot me a look of exasperated fury. That minor event stirred up a far more serious incident from the past:
In the winter of 2000, someone whom I loved got very angry with me and hit me. In front of everybody, at a party. They apologized later, but they never explained why.
I was 14 then. I wasn’t sure what to think. What had I done to deserve this? To make sense of it, I decided someone must be to blame: me.
“There’s something wrong with me,” I decided that day. “Something, very, very wrong.”
I didn’t mean my sins. I knew that sins could be forgiven, washed away in the confessional. I also knew God loved to be merciful. No, I believed there was something wrong with me that was unchangeable. Something unredeemable.
And so I began believing an unconscious lie:
There’s something wrong with me. If I did not exist, I would fix what is wrong with the world.
This thought didn’t make sense logically, but emotionally it felt real and true.
Before that winter, I had an optimistic look at my freshman year of high school. Afterwards, I remained cheerful on the outside, but I was deeply depressed on the inside. My back pain started a few months later, and never stopped.
Seeing Sister Mary
I told my novice mistress about my discovery, and how I thought it was linked to my back pain. When she saw my distress, she sent me to see Sister Mary*.
“You need someone to talk to. Sister Mary can help.”
I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to share my ugly wounds with a complete stranger. But I knew Jesus would want me to go, so I went.
I talked to Sister Mary, and she listened. I told her how I was hurt at 14, and all the nasty things I heard in my head. Over several months, Sister helped me. She offered simple words of wisdom, and a clearer vision. She taught me to put those lies from the Devil at the foot of the Cross.
“The Devil is always accusing us, reminding us of our faults,” she said. “But Jesus offers love, forgiveness, healing.”
The more I talked to Sister Mary, the more the pain got out of my head and into the open. My heart, made numb from past hurts, began to feel again. It was a painful experience, but liberating.
Acknowledging the Truth
Through prayer and meetings with Sister Mary, I saw that what had happened to me at 14 was only one piece in a much larger puzzle. I grew up in a household with sometimes unrealistic expectations of perfection. As a consequence, we sometimes ignored the imperfect situations within our own family. This left me hungry for justice, rightness, the truth.
At 14, I couldn’t see that truth. But at age 26, I could acknowledge that my family was loving and supportive, but not perfect. I could also find comfort in Jesus, who came to heal the brokenhearted.
“Sometimes Jesus allows us to suffer physically, as part of His plan for us,” my novice mistress explained. “But He always wants to heal us spiritually.”
Jesus helped me along the difficult road to healing. I surrendered my wounds to Him, wrote to Him in my journal, and begged for healing and perseverance. Finally, I wrote a letter to the person who’d hurt me, saying that I forgave them and that Jesus had healed me.
Sister, What Do You Desire?
Afterwards, however, convent life continued to be difficult. I felt like I was slogging through quicksand. Still, I kept going, determined to stay where God wanted me, as long as He wanted me, here in the convent.
I visited Sister Mary one last time. “I’m healed, Sister. My back pain is gone, and I can feel again.” I sighed. “So why do I feel so unhappy?”
Sister Mary gave me a long look.
“Sister, what do you desire?” she asked.
I stared behind her, into the grey. “I want…a tangible kind of love. I try to give it to my sisters here, but no one wants it.” At night, I’d peer into the bathroom mirror, just to confirm I was still there. I felt invisible. “I want…to be seen, known, loved.”
“What does that sound like?” she prompted.
The answer came to me all at once. “Oh. Marriage. It sounds like marriage!”
In that moment, I knew right away that I wasn’t called to be a sister. I was supposed to get married! No one could have been more surprised than me. I felt so much joy!
I smiled and leapt to my feet. “I have to go home, Sister. My husband is waiting for me!”
A Future With Hope
One week later, I left the convent. Six weeks after that, I met my future husband for the first time. We’ve been married for six years now, and have two beautiful children.
God healed me in the convent, but He didn’t heal me just so my back would stop hurting, or to free me from depression. He healed me so I could see the truth that had been there all along: I was called to marriage, not religious life. And later, to a vocation of writing, not teaching. Healing allowed me to discover my true vocation and calling.
Saying “Yes!” to Jesus led me to a wellspring of grace and healing. The Lord truly took my broken soul and gave me a future “filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
* Name changed.
About the Author:
Mary Rose Kreger lives in the metro Detroit area with her family, where she writes fantasy for teens, and blogs about her spiritual journey: before, during, and after the convent on www.monasteryinmyheart.com.
By Mary Rose Kreger, republished from her shared blog Monastery in My Heart.
Eight years ago, I was a young novice, Sr. Mary Inez. I spent 19 months in the convent before realizing I was called to a married vocation. Today I am a happy wife and mom, but re-entering the world was a great struggle for me. Here is a poem about my experience:
Once outside the convent
You still long to be inside it
The white curtained walls
The ancient creaking floors
The silence and the song.
He drew me in and I followed,
Hungry for the final Word in treasures—
His secret gaze pierced me, pleaded silently:
I left everything to find Him,
My home, my job, my family—
Stepping out of the boat into the deep waters.
In return, He gave me the Cross,
That bitter cure-all for a thousand ills,
But also a taste of Heaven.
19 months in His garden, and then He says,
“Go home and tell your family all that I have done for you.”
And so I do. I go home and tell of
The white curtained walls
The ancient creaking floors
The silence and the song.
Six weeks later, I meet James,
The man whom I will marry
Whose birthday is Christmas like
The First Beloved of my heart.
We work and we play, we talk and we pray.
We are married, find a home,
Have a son, then a daughter—
Make friends, lose friends.
Die a hundred tiny deaths, and
Rise a hundred times again.
We share our lives together.
The Lord makes us new—He kisses me
With James’ touch, and embraces me with
Lukie’s arms, and gazes at me
With my daughter’s eyes.
He still wants me, even if His rose was
Never meant to stay in His convent garden.
No, rather to struggle and labor
In this world, pretending to fit in
When my heart has been spoiled for anything
On the outside, endless motions,
Movements of faith, hope, love—
And grit and survival, too, for this
Long journey is hard.
On the inside, a tiny-heart-home,
Always longing for the white curtained walls,
The ancient floors, where I first saw Him.
There, I tasted heaven once—
A darkness that was Light—
And I can no more return to my
Heathen ways than a child to her
Mother’s womb. I tasted heaven once, and my
Heart is ruined for anything else.
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.