By Bernadette Monica.
Three years after leaving my former community it seemed like all the pieces in the puzzle of my life were finally coming together. I had found another community and everything appeared to be indicating that this was truly what the Lord had planned for my life. The community’s spirituality and charism resonated with my heart in a way I never could have imagined. With each faltering step forward I took, each time expecting to find myself falling flat or hitting a dead end, I was surprised to find myself filled with a peace and joy unlike anything I had ever known. The whole experience was so different to discernment the first time around – where formerly I had discerned out of external pressure, anxiety and fear, here instead I found freedom, beauty, and goodness. Even when facing the remnant fears I had from my previous discernment of religious life, I felt more exhilarated than afraid at the possibility of taking a leap of faith and placing everything in the hands of our Lord, trusting everything to His grace and providence. And so it was that, after spending 6 months or so discerning with the local mission of this new community, I found myself on a plane from Sydney to the US to visit the community’s Motherhouse, and discern if this was really where I was being called.
I half expected to arrive and feel like a fish out of water, having the realisation that I was not where I was meant to be, like when I had visited other communities in the past. Instead I felt completely at home, and fell in love with the community and their way of life. One of the postulants and one of the novices even remarked how well I fit in with the community and how they hoped to see me enter in a few months, God-willing. It seemed that the only obstacle remaining was that my family were not supportive, and even on this front I was sure that in time they would come around, even if there might be some challenges in the meantime.
Imagine then my surprise and shock on the day before my departure when I finally had an interview with the vocation director only to be informed that she didn’t think I would be able to cope with the demands of their community life. I always knew it was a possibility that a community might discern such, or that I might decide myself that it wasn’t the right fit, but her impression was so at odds with the peace and sense of belonging that I felt, and I wasn’t satisfied with the vague reason she gave as justification. Even so, it wasn’t an absolute no, and it was agreed that on my return home I needed to really take everything to prayer and discuss things with my spiritual director, and that I could continue to be in contact with the vocation director to discern a path forward.
After a challenging day filled with confusion and heartache I awoke on the final morning of my 12-day visit aware of the challenges that lay ahead, but also full of hope and trust that the Lord would remove this obstacle if it was His will. I returned home and it felt like I had a foot in each of two worlds. I prayed and sought spiritual direction, and after two months, though aware of the possibility of refusal or the likelihood of being asked to undergo a longer period of discernment to discuss and work through her concerns, I contacted the vocation director asking to speak with her again, and expressing that I felt I was being called to take the next step in discernment. We arranged to speak on the phone, and in the 20 minute conversation that ensued it was made clear to me (albeit in the kindest and gentlest way possible) that the door to discerning with the community was no longer open for me. In the space of a few minutes all the growing hopes and dreams I had treasured in my heart were dashed, and the Pearl of Great Price was pulled far from my reach. To say I was heartbroken would be an incredible understatement. I was recently struck by a line from Ted Danson’s miniseries adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels that seemed to sum up where I was at very poignantly:
“We love words, we humans; we use so many, so easily, ‘til they’ve lost all their meaning. But when I say as that last day dawned my heart was breaking – I have never known such awful pain and loneliness.”
I cannot describe my emotions and the testing of my faith over the past few months. I have never really dated, but I imagine that on some level this is akin to enduring a breakup of a longstanding relationship when from your own end you thought everything was going really well and were perhaps even expecting a proposal. After the traumatic experience of leaving my former community and all the growth and healing of the following years, to find a community that was healthy, vibrant, on fire with love for the Lord, and seemingly such a perfect fit for me only to be turned away even from applying felt almost too much to bear.
Over the last month or so the initial intensity of emotions and the agony of rejection has ebbed somewhat, but I’ve been painfully aware that around this time is when sisters will be receiving the habit and professing vows, and that in a few short weeks a new group of postulants will be entering various communities.
Upon learning that the postulants I knew during my brief time at the Motherhouse would have received the habit and their new religious names in the past day, and that the novices will be making their first profession of vows tomorrow, I sat down this morning to pray a rosary for them. It’s a Saturday, so it seemed very appropriate that I should be praying the Joyful mysteries for them. I’m so happy for these women reaching these milestones in their own vocational journeys, but I was aware of parallels I could see with the mysteries I was praying and the experiences of these women, and how this contrasts with my own experience. My own discernment feels more suited to the Sorrowful mysteries. I took this to our Lady as I prayed, and she gave me some beautiful insights which I want to share in the hope that it might bring others a little bit of peace and hope in their own struggles and confusion.
Firstly, on the Joyful mysteries. Perhaps many of you can relate to how these seem to tie in with religious formation, at least as I was seeing it.
The Annunciation: That unexpected and surprising moment when the Lord first presents to a young woman’s mind and heart the possibility of a call to religious life. “How can this be…?” she might ask. But like Mary she is exhorted to not be afraid, and assured that nothing is impossible for God, and that it is through His power that His will will be done, if only she gives him her Fiat.
The Visitation: The vocation starts to become more concrete. A woman finds a community she feels drawn to, and her apparent vocation begins to be affirmed by others – friends, family, her spiritual director, members of the community. And with Mary, the woman rejoices at the marvels the Lord is working in her life.
The Nativity: A birth; new life. The time comes for a woman to enter her community and leave her old life behind. A time of change and growth as she starts out on the new road she has been called to walk.
The Presentation in the Temple: At the appointed time, the woman begins her formal initiation into the community. First she receives the habit and her religious name; later she will make her first profession of vows, offering her life to “be designated as holy to the Lord” (c.f. Lk 2:23) and having her gift accepted by Him through her superiors. It strikes me only now as I sit down to write this that it was at 8 days that our Lord was circumcised, given his name and was formally initiated into the Jewish community, and at 40 days that he was presented in the Temple and redeemed according to Jewish custom and law – there is surely a parallel here with the process of being initiated into a religious community!
The Finding of Jesus in the Temple: Perhaps some might tie this in with a woman’s final profession of vows when she becomes forever a bride of Christ. I see it as something a little more abstract – those moments perhaps years down the track when she grasps a deeper understanding of the mystery of her vocation, or reaches a more profound level of intimacy with her bridegroom. This might perhaps come after a period of spiritual dryness, just as Mary spent three days searching for the missing Jesus, and like Mary, on finding Jesus once again the woman will be filled with joy, and is left to ponder the mysteries of God’s workings, and the purposes He fulfils in all things.
In contrast to this I can see in my own recent experiences a shadow of the Sorrowful mysteries:
The Agony in the Garden: That fateful conversation with the vocation director where she initially questioned my suitability for the community’s way of life; my wrestling with this, questioning, “Why me?” and wondering what it was that she saw in me that she hadn’t seen in the others who did end up applying, or alternatively, what she hadn’t seen in me that she had seen in them; wondering if there was a red flag over my head because of my having previously been in a community; the confusion over how everything had seemed to lead to this point and everything seemed to fit so well only to have the shadow of doubt cast over it all; and finally, reaching the point in prayer of being able to accept the cup I was being asked to drink, and coming to an understanding that if this truly was my vocation then the Lord would remove all obstacles at the appointed time, and that if it wasn’t then nothing I could do on my part could it make it so.
The Scourging at the Pillar: The return home and the months of prayer and discernment. Grappling simultaneously with the very real possibility of rejection and the hope that things might still work out; having others affirm that they thought I was on the right path, while knowing the odds were stacked against me. The feeling of flesh being torn from my side as I prepared to speak with the vocation director once again, laying my heart on the line while knowing there was a very real possibility that I may not receive the answer I was so desperately hoping for.
The Crowning with Thorns: That definitive moment of having the door of what I had hoped to be my vocation closed and bolted on me. Being prepared for the possibility did little in the moment to ease the pain of having thorns pushed cruelly into my flesh. In the hours and days that followed that fateful phone call it felt like there was a ring of thorns around my heart, slowly shredding it to pieces.
The Carrying of the Cross: The weeks and month following my rejection have involved a long process of coming to terms with the situation, working through my emotions, and trying my best to keep moving one step at a time, to get back up when I’ve fallen, to accept help from the Simon’s of Cyrene in my life, and to place myself at the foot of the cross. I’ve had to learn to see this as a way of becoming more united to Him, and to trust more and more in His plans, even when they make no sense to me. I’ve had to make a conscious decision to trust in His promises and to believe that He is indeed working for my good.
The Crucifixion: I can see here an invitation to lay down my life in a radical way to the will of God. An earlier Leonie’s Longing blog, Sacrificing Sacrifice, has proved very helpful in coming to an understanding that, where I had hoped to lay down my life for God through religious consecration, perhaps what is more pleasing to Him and sanctifying for me is accepting His will and choosing to trust even when it proves painful, or when I’m being asked to let go even of the truly good and honourable desires of my heart. Like Christ on the Cross we are invited to place our lives completely into our Father’s hands, accepting and trusting in whatever His will might be.
On another level I can see in the Sorrowful mysteries parallels with the experience of leaving my former community. Perhaps you may relate to some of these:
- Troubles, doubts or difficulties in the lived experience of community life
- Perhaps a difficult conversation with a superior, or some painful growth in self-awareness
- The experience of actually deciding to leave, or particularly of being asked to leave where that has been the case
- The aftermath of leaving your community and readjusting to lay life
- Learning to accept and surrender to God’s will, and for those who have left dysfunctional communities, healing and learning to forgive and let go.
While praying the rosary I had a few insights from our Lady in light of all of this which I found comforting and encouraging. Firstly, she affirmed to me that the Sorrowful mysteries don’t make sense on their own. It is only in the light of the Resurrection that our Lord’s Passion and death have any meaning or salvific effect. Without the Resurrection and the Glorious mysteries, none of the other mysteries take on their full meaning and power. Without the Resurrection the Sorrowful mysteries would also cast shadow, doubt and confusion on both the Joyful and Luminous mysteries, as well as these mysteries not making any sense in and of themselves. What could be the purpose in the Nativity by itself for example, let alone if it was all only to end in our Lord’s painful and humiliating death on the cross?
The Resurrection gives us hope, and is a promise of things to come. Perhaps we are now in a luminous period in which we are slowly having the Lord’s will revealed to us, and through which He has something to teach us and areas in which He wants us to grow. In the meantime we can look to the Glorious mysteries as a promise of the hope that is surely to come. I am reminded that, after all, my vocation is not the final destination but only a pathway to aid me in reaching it, and if the Lord is allowing a few detours en route I can still trust that in the end He will bring me to the final destination of perfect union with Him, and that we will be united all the more closely through the times He has allowed me to carry the cross alongside Him through the sorrowful mysteries of my own life.