I return “home” after the Christmas holidays with my family–a beautiful time that I am still learning to appreciate at it’s proper value. I savor the memory of this experience, yet the feelings are still so new–almost hard to embrace fully. It’s only the second Christmas for me since returning to lay life, after a full nine years of life in the convent. Unlike last year, I don’t wonder this year if I could ever go back to my convent, or any convent, back to the liturgical grandeur of the celebration of the birth of the Lord. However, though my family’s love warms my heart, and I soak it up gratefully, I do not yet feel totally at home again taking part in the family traditions.
The “home” that I’ve now returned to is the house I’m renting with two grad students, near the college I attended so many years ago. I love the smallness of this town, its familiarity, and the possibilities that being close to a college exude. These are possibilities of a future that on the one hand I want, and on the other make me hesitate–for I am not yet ready to embrace them.
On January 2nd, the birthday of St. Therese, I made it to 1 year and 6 months since leaving religious life. 1 year and 6 months. That is really not that long. I breathe a long, slow, and deep sigh of relief. Tears rise in my eyes, and simply hang there. I’ve been through so much. The questions within me no longer seem to be darkened by I thought I would be farther by now. They seem…well…normal. They are: What am I doing? What should I do next? Where am I going? Not only that, but who are my friends? Who should I call? With whom do I belong? These are big, and hard questions. And it’s such a grace and gift actually, for me, to be able to write about it.
Right now I have a part time job working at a local specialty grocery store. It has been good for me to just get my feet wet. I tried a full time job for a startup company earlier last year, and well, it didn’t go so well. I ended up quitting. I think I’m going to have to build up to a job just like I’m building up to a life. Slow but steady. Plunging might work for some people, but it’s just not for me.
What this piece is about however, and what I’d like to share with you, my sisters, is the astonishing realization that my reflections at this time have led to, and I simply wonder if you may share as well.
There is one thing I don’t understand: how am I staying sane in all this? I would expect that someone who is asking the questions I am, who is so deeply ungrounded as I am, would be deeply shaken! Well, I will not deny I have dealt with a lot of both anxiety and depression, but now I see this as absolutely part of the journey. I am not ashamed to seek the help of a therapist.
But what has helped me a great deal–and I recognize it now more starkly and with awe and gratitude–has actually been my experience in entering religious life. Whatever God did to my soul in giving it to Him, He has blessed, and made strong… so that I know that He is my God, always. I am grounded in Him.
It is precisely because of going into religious life that I am able to face this now. I’m certainly not afraid. I am at peace, deep within, and I know that nothing can take that away–because God is God. I think that this is the gift that God has given to me, through what I’ve offered Him. And the peace itself that He gives me is the reassurance that I have done the right thing all along. He, God, is the life of my life. I feel that truly–even though a lot of things have changed in my spiritual life, and dramatically so, throughout my journey. I think it’s only when you’ve left everything for the Lord that perhaps you know …not in an abstract sense but in a lived sense, what the Lord can be for you.
What St. Paul says in Philippians 4:12 resonates with me, especially through this rocky time of transition: “In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.”
Jesus’ own words also strengthen me, and I can make them my own, even though not in the sense that He says them as the Son of God. He says, “The one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone.” – John 8:29.
So I too feel like the Father is always with me, within me, and He will never leave me alone–through the times of sweetness but also in the darkest night. I trust Him. This is the ground I can stand on.
Though it is not easy, I find comfort in this prayer, shared with me by my spiritual director, and I pray it now for all of you, my sisters around the world. And I pray that you too will experience, if not today, then down the road, the gift that your gift to God can be back to you:
Trust in the Slow Work of God by Teilhard de Chardin
Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. Yet it is the law of all progress, that it is made by passing through some stages of instability, and that may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you. Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow. Let them shape themselves without undue haste. Do not try to force them on as though you could be today what time–that is to say, grace–and circumstances acting on your own good will will make you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new Spirit gradually forming in you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. Above all, trust in the slow work of God, our loving vine-dresser.
You know the way for me, You know the time,
Into Your hands, I trustingly place mine.
Your plan is perfect, born of perfect Love, You know the way, Your way is love
I sat in my first job interview after leaving the convent. I remember clearly being asked, “What’s your five year plan?” by the financial lead of the organization. I mean this was a typical job interview question, but you may chuckle at the absurdity of the question if you asked a nun this question, which is what I was not too long prior. For a sister, your identity is in who you are, not what you do. As a religious, you are the bride of Christ. That is your identity.
In my monastery, you get assigned your new “job” every three years. You learn to have a peaceful acceptance of whatever it may be as the will of God, coming from the wisdom of the superiors. Even if you’re not too keen on the job, this is the daily obedience that you promise when you take vows. It comes with the lifestyle of a sister. For active sisters, these could mean moving to a whole new state for a teaching assignment every three years. For a cloistered sister, perhaps switching from your duties as the sacristan and helping with chapel ministries to the head cook for all the sisters. There is a detachment that is at first learned in religious life.
Detachment. Not a common word in our everyday lingo. What does it mean to you? It is very similar to St. Ignatius’ methods. A beautiful way of thinking of it is a desire to please God. A desire to focus on the things above not on the things below, no matter the consequences. It does not base questions on if you want or don’t want to do something. It is a detachment of self and the identity, job, salary, skills, etc. you held previously in the world to attach to the things above, to heavenly things. Pretty different from what we’re used to, huh?
For example, do you delight in your favorite ice cream? Of course. Do you jump for joy if given your least favorite ice cream? Why not? Sound like a crazy notion? The goal in this path of holiness as a religious is to be unattached from every human desire to only be attached to that of Christ and follow that which Christ lays before you. ‘Do I want this job?’ is not a question to be asked. ‘Does He want me to have this job?’ is a better question. If given prayerfully by your superiors, then yes, it is within His will and under the vow of obedience, you say yes. One sister once told me, “Stop thinking ‘Is this what I want?’ or ‘Is this what I think He wants?’ ” It is rather asking for a divine surrender to the Will of God. Trust. Jesus, I trust in Thee.
Saying ‘yes’ to Him and to this lifestyle is a daily dying to self. It is waking at 5 am everyday to join the sisters in chapel. It is rushing off to ring the bell 10 times per day to remind the sisters it is time for prayer, a meal, etc. because that is the task of the postulant. It is constantly watching your watch so you do not lead the sisters into the chapel late for their time of singing the Psalms in unison. Saying ‘yes’ is dusting the chapel three times a week since it is the task assigned to you. It is cleaning the bathrooms at the same time on Wednesdays with the novice mistress showing you spots you missed. It is watering the garden and pulling out weeds thinking that if your family saw you now they wouldn’t believe it!
Dying to self is receiving a package in the mail but asking for permission to keep it. You really desire to talk to a particular sister, but it is asking permission from your mistress to see if that is allowed. You want to speak during dinner prep but it is not the life or the call so you stay quiet. A sister needs a new glasses case and you would like to offer yours, but the exchange cannot go through you. The sister must speak to the novice mistress on your behalf to see if the exchange is allowed. Dying to self is getting up at 1:50 am three days a week to attend your middle of the night holy hour, losing sleep, but telling yourself it is worth it, to doze back to sleep until prayers a couple hours later.
You become like a child. Dying to self in little ways over and over. Making no decision for yourself. Every decision must be approved, run by your novice mistress. It is trust that He called you here and that He will give the grace of perseverance in each of these actions that keeps you going. You accept each little cross, rather, this different culture altogether, as a shedding of the old you and the growing pains of trying to live holiness in the radical way He has called you to. You see a transformation of yourself and see the secular version of yourself that once was being peeled away in this life you have chosen and that He humbly has given you if you wish to accept.
In the monastery I often wondered what it would look like to go back into the world for my first home visit, when I was usually immersed in the sanctity of perpetual adoration and song of praise, and how I would be able to handle the reverse culture shock. How would I go back to a world that was way too loud, sprinkled with evil, and try to live my life that had transformed so evidently? So here I was, applying for a secular job post monastery. So what did I answer the financial officer in my job interview for my five year plan? Thankfully, this was for a Catholic organization and someone else in the interview had left religious life long ago too. I remember collecting my thoughts and answering, “If you would have asked this question not too long ago I would have told you to be a religious sister, but now, my five year plan is to be a mom.”
It was not the secular answer most job interviews expect, in a world where job ranking, salary, and working up are emphasized. I said this with complete uncertainty of the road ahead. I had chosen to leave the monastery, I reminded myself. The pangs of ‘Did I fail?’ or ‘Did I leave what was my call because I could not handle the difficulties?’ rang strong in my ears. The uncertainty of the future and the possibility of the disappointment of who I was preparing to espouse echoed loudly. Trust. A level of trust I had never known before is what leaving the monastic way of life entailed to the core.
I pray this helps those understand the way of life a bit better and gives accompaniment to my sisters who also discerned out. Christ’s peace.
It’s now been about two and a half years since I left my monastery. Yes, it’s still my monastery and my sisters, but now is the time to share the rest of the story.
I had been in the cloister for one year when it was time to go on my week long silent retreat to prepare to enter the novitiate. Yes, a silent retreat in an already silent monastery, but everyone needs a retreat sometimes, to step away from people and figure things out a bit.
Anyway, I was preparing to receive my new name, Sr. Maria of the Immaculate Heart, the name that was second on the list of three names I gave the prioress. My feast day would be the Feast of the Immaculate Heart. I would be attending my Clothing or Investiture Ceremony and receive the beautiful white Dominican habit and blessed scapular, the white veil of novices, and the fifteen decade rosary on my left hip, the pillar for the Dominicans. I had submitted my reasons for wanting this, I had gone through my interview with the Council to make sure this was where I was to be, and the other sisters had voted that they felt this was my calling as well. I was on track. It was not until my time away on retreat that I began to truly reflect and dig deeper.
Six months prior I had my misgivings. Through prayer in another week long retreat I felt like I was supposed to be fighting this battle but in the world. Like Moses holding his arms up for the Israelites to win the battle (Exodus 17:11) , I felt the nuns were to be raising his arms while I was to be on the front lines, in the world, fighting a battle that would be coming in the Church. I didn’t know what that meant, but I asked, like I do in big moments in my life, for a sign. I was confused as to why I should leave, but I figured God would show me the way. I lay on my bed in my cell and prayed for a flower once again. I said, “Lord, if it’s true I am to go home, please send me one white lily.”
That same day I was swinging on our back porch swing just praying, thinking, and reflecting. My novice mistress was passing me and usually we are not to talk during this hour of personal prayer before supper, but she called me over to look at something. I went over and she pointed, “Look at that lily. Isn’t that funny?” Sister knows all about flowers, unlike me, and she said it was odd to see that little flower in December of all times. It was one white lily all by itself, so I talked to the prioress.
Sister said I could go home and to call my family. I called Dad. He heard the confusion in my voice as to not understanding why this all was happening. He told me, “Jamie, the devil will try to confuse and attack you. I don’t think you have peace with this yet. Our Lady brings peace and clarity.” I needed his advice. I walked back to Sister and said I would stay. I talked with a priest spiritual director as well who said to give it six months and so I stayed.
Things went along with their usual bumps, but I was doing fine. As the Investiture approached, I sat in my little hermitage. It was our one bedroom and bathroom trailer in our backyard for sisters to go on retreat. I prayed and came upon a stack of CDs. I popped Fiddler on the Roof into the Boom Box and just listened. It was in listening to the songs of my favorite musical that I reflected on giving up music, movies, musicals, and other little things I loved. It was listening to love songs and knowing I wouldn’t have an earthly husband that I had hoped for for so long.
Also on this retreat I made my way to the piano. As Christmas approached, I sat and played. I reflected on a Christmas where I could sit and play with lots of kids and family around me singing along to their favorite Christmas tunes. It was a different kind of Christmas joy, something else I yearned for but would not get. I was desiring a different vocation, the vocation of marriage. For me, I have to be all in. And I wasn’t. I spoke with another priest spiritual director who said not to rely on signs but rather to stay if you wake up everyday and this is where you want to be, so I decided to leave.
It makes it difficult when the prioress has not announced the news to the community yet and a sister comes up to you in adoration asking you to stand as she needs another measurement for the habit she’s sewing for you. Or when another sister interrupts your prayer time to ask about the organ songs you’ve been practicing for Christmas Mass that is approaching. Finally, after keeping my eyes down low for a couple days, the prioress made the announcement and the goodbyes began.
It felt like a break up with twenty-six women. This was unexpected for them and saddening. It was not a decision I had been mulling over for a long time and hiding from the sisters or my family, but rather the decision came suddenly but with great clarity and peace. I would miss these women for years and years. What a gift to have them in my life.
Twelve months after I left, I came home. I walked into my parents’ home on December 22, 2018, while my family was hosting our annual large party for the anniversary of my family’s conversion to the Catholic faith. I greeted my family and prayer warrior Grandpa, completely unsure of what the future would hold.
Do you find yourself ready to start dating and yet limited by the lack of social activities these days? (Thank you, Lord, for paradoxically opening my heart to marriage in the midst of a global pandemic!) Or maybe you’ve found the local Catholic dating scene leaving something to be desired. (Too many awkward conversations on tap.) Maybe you’ve thought of trying an online dating site but have hesitations for multiple reasons including horror stories, safety concerns, or the belief that if God wants you to date, He’ll bring someone into your life.
I always desired to meet someone organically. And I did. Multiple times. I probably started dating before I was ready, considering I had been in consecrated life for a decade. But several years and a few breakups later, the Lord did something in my heart. And He called me to create a profile on a Catholic dating site. I believe that I reached a point where clicking “not discerning a religious vocation” gave me a sense of finality and intentionality in my discernment of marriage.
I am grateful for the person I met online! I also know people who tried it for years and finally met their spouse in real life. It’s different for everyone, but I’d like to encourage people to prayerfully consider it. And because it can be so brutal, I’d like to offer some thoughts based on my own experience.
Craft a stellar profile. Make it honest and detailed. Be specific—it helps you to stand out and not just be “one more profile” that someone reads. What makes you unique? Choose good photos that represent you well. If you don’t have many, ask a friend to help you take some. Be you. Don’t be afraid to talk about yourself. That’s easier for some of us than others.
Find a tribe to support you. Or at least a friend. I was blessed enough to be living among holy friends when I entered the online dating scene. Because it can feel demoralizing at times, it helps to have a sister to remind you of your worth. It’s also great to have someone to bounce messages off of and to seek advice about a particular person or conversation.
Be intentional and disciplined. Set aside certain times to scroll, like profiles, and send messages – both so that you don’t become obsessed with it and so that you don’t do nothing at all.
Don’t be afraid to make the first move. We all want to be pursued, am I right? And much of our formation has told us that this is the “right” way. I always assumed that if God wanted me to get married, He would bring that person to me. But that mentality kept me from taking ownership of my desire for marriage.
I’m here to tell you that sending a first message to let a guy know that you’re interested IS OKAY. It is NOT contrary to letting yourself be pursued. Men want to pursue, but they also want to know that they won’t be rejected. And many men appreciate women who are confident.
If he doesn’t eventually begin to pursue you, then you can move on. But sometimes we need to be the ones to drop that first hint. If he’s right for you, he’ll take it from there.
Be open minded. Know your non negotiables, but don’t unnecessarily lock yourself into a certain type when it comes to things like interests, career, or location. You could be surprised by someone who didn’t seem to be your “ideal match” at first.
At first I was looking for someone within driving distance. Or someone who lived anywhere but worked in ministry. The man I fell in love with fell into neither of those categories. I sure am glad I expanded my search and kept an open heart.
Send messages. Don’t be afraid. The more you send, the more of a chance you have at finding someone you really click with. And it’s good practice. Read their profile and acknowledge something from that. Ask leading questions, not ones that can be answered with “yes” or “no.” Be genuine. Allow some back and forth, but don’t continue relentlessly if he doesn’t seem interested.
Say “no” if it’s not going anywhere. Don’t be afraid to kindly express that you’re not interested in taking the conversation any further.
This is hard. It was especially hard for me. I can make good conversation with just about anyone, and I have a sensitive heart. But I had to be honest I wasn’t interested in going further. If I knew this person in real life, I’m sure that we could continue being friends. But the reality of online dating is that you will have to reject good people, and you will never see them again. A relief for some, a cross for others.
But don’t ghost. It’s not kind. I appreciated polite rejections from others, so I wanted to do the same. Sometimes a conversation will fizzle out without either person having to say anything, and that’s ok. But if you’ve corresponded a lot or have talked on the phone, sending a polite rejection couched in appreciation and compliments, is the right thing to do. Even though it can be super hard.
Maintain hope. Don’t let the bad apples discourage you from finding a potential match. You’ve heard all about it—the number of guys who don’t believe in all the church’s teachings, the ones who don’t go to Mass, the guy whose mom set up his profile so that he could find a “nice Catholic girl,” the ones who lie about their age or don’t update their photos in years. Click “not interested” and move on. Don’t hate the tool because not everyone uses it perfectly.
Remain rooted in your identity in Christ. It can be pretty discouraging when none of the cute guys are responding to your messages, when a promising conversation fizzles out, when a first phone call doesn’t lead to a second. We can be harsh on ourselves and wonder if there’s something wrong with us.
This is where our relationship with the Lord has to be our source of truth. Who we are in Him is much more important than how we are perceived by anyone else. That must be our foundation and where we return day after day.
Keep it light! You can be both casual and intentional. Just because the ultimate goal is marriage doesn’t mean you have to have it all figured out from the beginning of each encounter. That’s unrealistic. Not every conversation will turn into a date. Not every date will lead to marriage. Relax. Enjoy getting to know people. Laugh at the awkwardness. Rejoice in the variety of humanity. Be grateful for pleasant conversations and new things learned.
Dating is a great act of faith and trust. If we believe that God works all things for our good, we are called to trust that each dating success or failure is part of His greater plan. In the midst of a heartbreak it’s tempting to wonder endlessly why things didn’t go our way. Sometimes it is only chapters down the road that we get a glimpse of understanding—and are even filled with gratitude that the Lord had His perfect way in the matter.
So if you’re feeling the itch to try online dating, approach it prayerfully, with a system of support, keeping an open mind and a trusting heart. It’s one more way of putting ourselves at the Lord’s disposal, allowing Him to lead us as He wills.
If you’re interested to try online dating and would like help creating a profile, or if you’d like to give your current profile a makeover, contact me to sign up for a free 45-minute profile session. I’m happy to share tips based on my own dating experiences and my background in marketing. Please send a message addressed to Cate via the Leonie’s Longing contact form, and it will be forwarded in confidence.
“Too late.” I replied from the inside the infirmary bathroom as I fiddled with the bandana, trying to cover my shorn hair as best I could. I was glad I already folded the habit, before a sense of obedience would have bidden me leave those holy garments in a deflated heap of brown and white. Street cloths felt so unusual now. Especially a short sleeve shirt. ‘Good enough,’ I thought as I stopped adjusting the bandana. I gently picked up the clothing I wished I was wearing off the counter, opened the door, and placed it on the large windowsill of the cloister corridor. I felt stripped. We walked past the cloister door where I entered the monastery, and came to a stop at the turn door, where I would leave.
“I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.”
– John 10:9
Doors mark a entering, or a leaving. They provide access to shelter and security. They can provide a hiddenness. An open door is an invitation. A closed door can feel like an inpenetrable barrier. Doors can mark a change, a transition, or a new space. Those Holy Doors of Mercy were the floodgates of grace thrown wide and a passage to a new beginning. Entering the door of the monastery seemingly marked the end of one life and the beginning of another. Three knocks, the click of a bolt, and a few steps brought many of us within a world we could only enter through our imagination. Doors carry importance in our hearts and our minds. In fact, research conducted by Gabriel Radvansky at the University of Notre Dame indicates that we do have a memory lapse when we walk through a doorway. Doors do mark a change, a transition into something or someplace new. In identifying Himself as the door, Jesus is itentifying Himself as that new beginning, as that source of shelter and security, as that invitation newness of life.
Jesus also says that if we enter by Him, we will “go in and out and find pasture.” I find this to be a very heartening phrase for those of us who have left religious life. In these words, Jesus promises us nourishment on either side of the sheepfold. When I went in to religious life, found pastures for my soul. When I went out of religious life, I also found pastures for my soul. Speaking on a more practical level, although walking out of the monastary door meant leaving the sisters with whom I had lived and loved like family, no longer living under the same roof as the Eucharist, and no longer having the silence, the stillness, and the simplicity of monastic life, walking out of the monastery also meant re-entering the world. It meant an open door to the friends and family members with whom communication was limited. It meant entering being a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a coworker. And in re-entering these familiar places, and exploring some new ones, I continue to find interior pastures for my soul.
“I am the door of the sheep”
– John 10:7
More than any door made of wood or steel or stone, each of us has entered that door which is Jesus Himself. Jesus is the reason why we entered the monastery in the first place. As Sr. Karla Goncalves, OSCO, describes, “I ask myself Why did you come? It’s Him. Who do you seek? It’s Him. Why do you stay? Can’t live without Him.” (Hidden: A Life all for God) As I reflect on those words, I am drawn to add “Why did you leave? For Him.” As paradoxical as those words can seem, they are true. Leaving the monastery was still wrapped in the prayer “All for you, dear Jesus, through your mother, Mary, as an act of the most pure love.”
In the first reading for today, the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, we hear “The angel brought me back to the entrance of the temple, and I saw water flowing out.” Perhaps each of us needs to go back to the entrance, the real entrance. Not to any doorway made of stone and wood, but to the very heart of Jesus Christ. That is where we entered the monastery. That is where we re-entered the world. That is there where we will find those flowing waters for which we continuously long for.
“He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep”
– John 10:2
In the Gospel of John, Jesus identifies Himself as both door and shepherd. Yet how can this be so? Perhaps this is so because our wounds are united to His. And if this is true, then perhaps, on a deeper level, leaving the monastery is not a closed door at all. Perhaps it is a very open door.
Leaving the monastery has left me with a wound; it has left me with a place where God can enter. Having a wound allows me to unite myself to Jesus in the most intimate way – in His suffering. It is only with our closest friends that we share our wounds. Those friends who we know will have the courage to enter within those wounds with us. Those friends who we know will be compassionate. Those who enter by other doors in our life are not as close to us. Perhaps this is precisely how we can know that it is Jesus who is entering – because He enters by the gate – He enters by our wounds. He accepted the Cross, He received wounds, so He could meet me here. He received wounds so that He could suffer with me. He received wounds so that He could enter within my wounds, and He invites me to enter within His wounds.
Not only does Jesus enter our wounds, but our wounds are the very place where God desires to manifest His glory. In Salvifici Doloris, Pope St. John Paul II writes that “…the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christ’s Cross. In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ.” May our wounds be like the wounds of Jesus. May our wounds be the door for the saving power of God.
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.