By Stephanie Q.
July 16th, 2016.
That’s the date my friend, E, gave me for her entrance to the novitiate. The wind let out of my sails a little. I was so excited for her discernment to continue with the sisters, but that date, well that was already my wedding day.
And so we adjusted the plans. No longer would she be at our nuptial Mass, but we would certainly include her in our Prayers of the Faithful. No longer would I be able to attend her entrance ceremony, but friendship is so much stronger than that. On July 16th, we would both be taking steps to fulfill our vocations, steps towards the life God had in store for us.
Preparations continued for both of us. E packed up and donated all of her clothes and belongings during a brief visit home between pre-postulancy and postulancy. I bought a wedding dress and picked out flowers and planned centerpieces.
Our lives were almost perfectly paralleled in prayerful preparation. There was little doubt in our friends or family that we were living our best lives, pursuing the vocation God created us for. And I had little doubt that E was supposed to be a sister. Watching her talk about her life in the convent, her eyes lit up in the same way I saw my fiance’s eyes light up when he talked about me.
When I finally said goodbye to E before postulancy started, it was hard, so hard. We had no idea when we would see each other again because novitiate + wedding day made the next logical time impossible. But we promised to write cards and letters and went on our way.
About three months into her postulancy, I received a surprise notification that E had sent me a Facebook message!
The elation soon turned to concern as I read the message. She had discerned out of the convent and didn’t know what her next steps would be.
In the moment, I said all the right things. “I’m proud of you for making the hard decision” (because I knew this broke her heart), “Jesus loves you no matter what” (because I know Satan loves self-doubt), and offered a trip for ice cream whenever she was ready to be social.
On the other side of the screen though, I was flabbergasted. Everything seemed perfectly ordered for her to become a sister. And if she could discern out, what did that mean for my discernment of marriage? All of sudden, certainty didn’t seem so certain and that really put me in a bit of a spiritual and mental pickle for a while. I would support E, but I was also very confused by the situation.
The whole thing was made more difficult because I saw how upset the decision made her. And she wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. So I was in this weird place where I had to be supportive without knowing the details. Responsive and prayerful without understanding the magnitude. There were many moments where I just asked the Holy Spirit to guide my words because I was at a loss for what to say or do. Walking with a friend who had their whole future changed in a moment is a true test of friendship and fortitude. I didn’t want to make things worse, and I couldn’t make anything better. I could just sit there in the uncertainty and the ick with her.
As she opened up over the next two months about the decision process, I understood better. Leaving a religious order is like breaking off an engagement. And sometimes a broken engagement takes you by surprise because on the outside, everything about the couple seemed perfect. But, it takes living in that reality every single day to really understand the nooks and crannies of the relationship. And as postulancy progressed, it was her observation that the relationship had to end.
Having broken off a serious relationship of my own once before, I think in some ways I understood better than some how it feels to be adrift without a plan. A period in life where the things you had taken as fact, a future marriage or religious life, was all of a sudden ripped from its role in the future chapters of your life.
And so, time progressed. Our friendship back to normal, I realized that my wedding day was still going to happen, and I began to worry about celebrating the permanency of my own vocation on the day that was also supposed to have been E’s celebration as well.
So I did the only thing I could. I painstakingly crafted a new set of prayers for our wedding day. One to pray for our religious friends, since many priests and religious men and women came from our group of friends. One to pray for all the married couples in the room. And, finally, one to pray for those who were still discerning their way in life that God would give them the courage to say “yes” when He called.
Being there for a friend who has left the convent can be tricky, but it is similar to being there for a friend in any other difficult life situation. The trickiest part of it all is that what worked for my friendship, might not work for yours. And that’s true, but all friendships need those moments where it is enough to say, “I am here”. Encourage her. Validate her feelings. Believe in her. Be there for her. Give her space. And most importantly, pray for her.
Reader Michaela reviews the dissertation ‘The impact of leaving the convent on a woman’s perceived relationship with God as viewed through the lenses of attachment and divorce,’ by Jennifer Cabaniss Munoz, 2018.
In this approachable and novel dissertation, Jennifer Munoz approaches the effect that leaving the convent has on a woman’s perceived relationship with God. Writing in 2015, Munoz not only shines a fresh light on the effect leaving religious life has on a woman, but pierces right to the most important effect leaving can have: an effect on a woman’s perceived relationship with God. “It defies belief,” she writes, “that a woman who entered a community and a way of life with such an understanding of what she was undertaking, and committing herself to it whole-heartedly, would find it irrelevant to her relationship with such a spouse when she makes the decision (or is forced) to leave that life.” (58)
Attachment theory and divorce are the primary frames of reference Munoz draws upon to explore the affect that leaving has on relationship with God. Although divorce is not a theologically accurate lens through which to view leaving the convent, it proves to be an apt lens psychologically. Firstly, consecrated life is understood as being the bride of Christ, as having a special way of relating to Him. When a woman leaves religious life, she makes a shift from consecrated to unconsecrated and leaves behind a special way of relating to Jesus. Secondly, the grieving process following the shift in relationship exhibits a similar pattern of protest, despair, and reorganization. The paradigm of divorce provides insight as to why leaving the convent is so difficult, but it doesn’t quite explain the diversity of difficulty with which women handle the situation. To explain this Munoz turns to attachment theory.
Attachment theory describes the relationship between a person and their attachment figure, the person who serves as a safe haven or caregiver in a time of distress. Expectations around such a relationship are formed during childhood and these expectations are known as an attachment style, which is secure or insecure (preoccupied, dismissing, or fearful). This attachment style influences how a person interacts with other attachment figures later in life including God or a spouse. Much like the example of divorce, acknowledging an insecure attachment style toward God requires standing in the truth of the human emotional experience instead of turning toward idealizations. “[I]ndividuals can simultaneously have an intellectual belief, keeping with the tenets of their faith, that God is in essence the perfect caregiver – omnipresent, all loving, forgiving, and faithful – and yet struggle with a deeper emotional sense that he is perhaps none of those things, but is rather much more like the human caregivers whom they have experienced.”(151)
Whether a woman has a secure or insecure attachment style can affect her capacity to handle the transition of leaving. For example, a woman with a secure attachment style would be expected to recover more quickly from the transition because the struggle will primarily be establishing a new identity and way of relating to God. For a woman with an insecure attachment style, in addition to establishing a new identity and way of relating to God, she might struggle with feelings of having been abandoned or rejected by God. At the end of the dissertation Munoz suggests a few potential therapeutic interventions that can assist in the transition including narrative therapy, emotion-focused therapy, and collaboration with spiritual direction.
Even if the particular theme of this dissertation doesn’t quite fit the reader’s situation (it didn’t quite fit my own), the series of topics covered throughout are thought provoking and can help identify areas of growth to be had and healing to take place. These topics include passage lag (“determining which habits, customs, and elements of one’s training as a
religious to retain in one’s new role as a laywoman, and which to reject as no longer relevant” (34)) internal working models, grief, and examples of various emotional struggles and identity struggles associated with leaving. Lastly, I would like to mention that this dissertation is written by someone who gets it. She herself had to leave a religious community due to medical difficulties. She dedicates the dissertation “To ‘Marie’ and all those who struggle.”
Note: I was able to access a copy of this dissertation through ProQuest Dissertations and Theses on a guest computer at a local university. (You may also be able to access it through your local or state library, or ask a friend who is currently studying at university to access it on ProQuest for you.)
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 Cate (re-printed with kind permission from her blog Seeking Sunflowers) .
I turned right one street before I needed to—the route that led to my old apartment. Shoot, I thought to myself. I’m already running late, and now I have to drive around the block and lose more time. After turning left in order to get back to where I needed to be, I saw a male figure I recognized walking down the sidewalk. My hunch was confirmed as I approached his vicinity, so I pulled over and called out the window to him.
This man and his wife were friends of mine from high school. We reconnected several month ago, before I moved out of town for missions. I had thought about reaching out to them while I was home on break, but my schedule filled quickly, making it impossible to see everyone this time around.
I got out of my car, and we stood chatting for a few minutes in the cold, catching up briefly on life before exchanging hugs and wishing one another well. I was grateful for the happy accident—the seemingly wrong turn—that afforded me this encounter.
Isn’t that how life is sometimes? Unexpected turns lead us down roads that, in the end, we are happy we didn’t miss. In fact, some the greatest joys in my own life have been the result of turns that, at the time of choosing, I seriously questioned being the “right” choice.
I remember the state of my heart one dreary January afternoon several years ago. I was sitting at an office desk across from my friend Theresa, who had been supervisor, coworker, and mentor to me. I had just made a decision that rocked my world—to leave the Catholic organization I had been serving with practically my entire adult life up to that point. Through tears I verbalized to my confidant that I had just made the worst decision of my life.
My dear friend, who knew that the decision came as the result of much prayer and discernment, encouraged me to consider that this detour—if it was in fact a detour—was happening for a reason, and that perhaps there was something or someone along this path that I needed to encounter.
Theresa was right. As I look back, I no longer see in this decision a wrong turn, and I no longer believe that I took a detour. That was the way I was meant to follow, and the blessings that came as a result are ones that I can’t imagine not having as part of my life today.
Since that cold January day I have made plenty of other questionable turns in the road. Some I have made peace with. Other I still wrestle with in my mind. But on my better days I am able to see that all has served to bring me to where I am now.
As we begin a new year, and I begin a new chapter in life, the temptation can be to jettison the past and “begin anew.” While there is certainly wisdom in this approach, I have found the Holy Spirit leading me in a different direction presently.
One of the words I received for this year is build. While this was the one generated for me on a website, and not the one I received in prayer (more on that in another post), I have nonetheless been reflecting on its significance.
We tend to see time as linear: the past in the shadows behind us, and the future on the horizon ahead. But lately I have been challenged to see time as more horizontal. We build on the foundation of the past and ascend toward the future that awaits us. Our past—with its joys and sorrows, good and bad, triumphs and mistakes—all serve as a foundation for where we find ourselves in the present.
Today I stand on this foundation, on the brink of something new. In a few short days I will board a plane to Peru and begin to make a home in this new country. I have a different view than I did on that January day. I now see that it was only by making that difficult decision, and many other that have followed, I am here, once again ready to step into the foreign mission field.
I am grateful for the roads I’ve traveled, for the wisdom gleaned from each chapter, for the beautiful, the challenging, and the grueling. My good God has allowed each and every piece of the journey to bring me to where I stand today, on the threshold of something beautiful.
You may have noticed a marked improvement in our social media in 2018. That would be because of our wonderful volunteer Cate. Not only did she post our blogs and help link to interesting articles from other sites but she also created beautiful graphic content for us. It’s been a pleasure working with her and to say thanks I thought it might be fun to interview her and learn a little more about her.
How did you first hear about our site?
I’m pretty sure I found LL through a link on another blog I was reading. It was during my first year back home after having discerned to leave my consecrated community, and I was searching Google on topics that would help with the transition.
What did you like about the site?
I liked that it was serving a need in the Church that I felt should be addressed. I had wanted to start a blog myself where I talked about my discernment journey, and thought of inviting others who had been in consecrated life. I only got as far as taking some notes and drafting up a few first paragraphs of potential blog posts before happily discovering that this type of thing already existed.
Did you find Leonie’s Longing helpful? If yes, how?
Yes, it was certainly helpful to feel solidarity with other women who had similar experiences. There were some blog posts that spoke to me in a particular way and gave me insight and encouragement as I navigated this new chapter. Perhaps one of the greatest fruits was learning to be patient with myself in the process. More difficult than anything was the guilt of possibly having made the wrong decision in choosing to leave. It helped to correspond with others from LL and express those feelings with people who could relate.
What made you decide to volunteer?
I had written a couple of blog posts and had considered volunteering for a while, but my schedule always seemed too packed to add one more thing. However, when Theresa and I were emailing and she asked me if I would consider volunteering, the timing was right. It was during the slower winter months and in the midst of a rough time for me. I almost immediately knew it was right, not only because I could honestly dedicate time to it, but also because I saw that an opportunity like this would be a good outlet for me.
Cate & Theresa meet IRL!
What was your favorite part about volunteering?
Other than evening brainstorming chats with Theresa, which contained a fair amount of random chit-chat and laughter? 🙂 I enjoyed doing something where I really understood my target audience. As I looked for quotes and created graphics, and as I read articles and decided to share them, I knew that if something struck a chord with me, it would likely be helpful to others here.
Did anything surprise you?
I’m not sure that I expected it to be such an overall positive and joyful experience. I loved being part of the team and feeling connected other volunteers and those we serve.
What are you doing next?
I’ve discerned to do two years of foreign mission work with Family Missions Company. I’ll be leaving for training very soon and will receive my assignment in the next couple of months. Being a lay missionary feels like a great fit. It wasn’t an easy step, but it’s one that I’m very grateful to be taking. Thanks be to God!
If you knew someone who was unsure about volunteering what would you say?
Go for it! You have a unique experience to share with others. We need to use our own experiences to help one another. God will use it not only for the benefit of other women but for your own growth and healing.
In my former community, we would comment–in a somewhat light-hearted way–about the age of thirty-three being the “year of crucifixion.” Perhaps those community sisters of mine who had already passed that age spoke with more truth than I realized. While there are certain moments of more intense suffering and offering at different stages of life, independent of age, the “year of crucifixion” didn’t pass by without reminding me very clearly of the cross.
At thirty-one, I said goodbye to my community family and embarked upon a new way of life. At thirty-two I met a knight in shining armor and seriously opened myself to the possibility of marriage. And not more than a day after my thirty-third birthday, my knight and I–after a long conversation and many tears–decided that we needed to step back from the relationship. God had not given me the peace I needed to move forward in that vocation.
In some ways it was more painful to end an eight-month relationship than it has been to leave my community of many years. Or perhaps the one was now compounding the other. I was working through not one loss but two. In spite of feeling peace in the rightness of the decision, the sadness continued for many months.
Providence would have it that I had already intended to renew my Marian Consecration on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The Consecration day itself had its share of crosses, not the least of which was my inability to attend Mass due to my “worldly duties.” Yet on the following day–the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows–I had a moment of heart-to-heart prayer with My Mother. The previous few months had been painful. I needed to be with her at the cross. I wrote this reflection:
“With Mary I stand at the foot of the cross. No…I don’t stand. I fall. It’s hard, so hard. It’s painful. Why? Because of love. Love can hurt. I may have to leave at the altar of the cross something that I love dearly. Why? Because the love of Christ is more, and if He is asking the sacrifice, I can’t refuse it.
But I really have nothing on Mary when it comes to pain, suffering, and loss. Talk about a broken heart! No…her heart was pierced but not broken. She knew suffering like no other yet was not driven to despair. She hoped against all hope. She offered, she loved. And it is with her that I walk through this valley of tears. I’ve renewed my consecration to her – and if I take this act seriously, how much more does she? She is my faithful companion. I know that she does not abandon her children.”
The tears didn’t magically disappear that day, my heart wasn’t healed in an instant,nor did the twists and turns suddenly make sense. But I had a new awareness of Mary’s presence in my life. If Mary could maintain faith and hope in the midst of unimaginable suffering, can she not help me to do the same in my sufferings, small by comparison? She accompanies me at the foot of the Cross, consoles me and reminds me that I have reason to hope. Because if thirty-three is the year of crucifixion, it is also the year of resurrection. We all have that to look forward to, my friends – in small ways in this life and a glorious way in the next.