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.
In July 2015, Aussie former-Dominican Bek Griffin embarked upon a journey across the Pacific to the USA where she visited other former religious sisters from a range of different States and communities and enjoyed some of the very best couch and futon accommodation that the “Land of the Free” and the “Home of the Brave” had to offer. The experience was both vacation and pilgrimage, both restorative and prayerful… and a heckuva lotta fun!! She shares this experience in the hope of inspiring others in post-convent transition to prayerfully consider responding to the unexpected manifestations of God’s love that bring healing and joy.
ex-Con: n. a former resident of a convent; a former member of a religious community.
Called to vAcation: permission to be joyful!
When we enter religious life, we give the Lord our unconditional “yes” to whatever He may ask of us for the entire remainder of our lives. For those of us who leave and return to the world, this doesn’t cease to be the case. Rather, it takes on a radically different appearance to that which we thought it would. My act of returning to the world after a year and a half in community was fundamentally in continuity with that very first “yes” I gave the Lord in May of 2010 when, praying the 10th Station alone in a candle-lit chapel I responded to the totality of the Lord’s gift with my own offering of my life to Him – small in comparison to His infinite gift, but the very best I had to give, and in some way, pleasing to His loving and adorable Heart.
My act of returning home was a step forward in raw trust, a deep conviction that He was calling me out not as a rejection, but as a positive thing with a definite purpose… and so I took my step forward into the dark, and like Peter walking on water towards Jesus, my trust faltered at a certain point. I flailed and stumbled and found myself over my head amidst wild waves that served as a foil to show up my lack of faith.
My first mistake was to forget that I was not alone, to rely upon my own resources. After returning home, I was determined NOT to “sponge” off the charity of others for longer than necessary (a.k.a. I succumbed to pride.) I put a great deal of pressure on myself to find employment and to become equipped to pull my weight financially. While the intention was to take responsibility for myself and to minimise the impact that my unexpected transition had on those I loved, the impact to ME was that I forgot, for a little while, just how much the Lord loves me! Life took on a bleak and burdensome flavour and this made my interior post-convent processing that much harder. I threw myself into work, and in a stunning act of kamikaze madness, undertook also to complete in the space of about 10 months another Masters degree in my “spare time.” Full-time work and full-time study whilst still maintaining one’s responsibility to be present to one’s family means that, even when you DO uncompromisingly schedule prayer time for the Lord, you don’t have a whole lot of energy left to give to Him! He gets time… but not necessarily quality time. I was aware of my thirst for Him… and yet did not allow room in my life to frequently approach the Well from whence Living Water can be drawn. Occasional bursts of mercifully gifted fervour kept a little flame alive… just.
It’s the battle we all face, I suppose, out here in the world. And yet as we stumble in the dark, our Kindly Light is ever there to lead us on, if only we dare to trust and follow. I made a resolution for the new year. I would build back into my life the pattern of daily mental prayer that I lost when I left community life. It HAD to work – it was at His invitation, after all. It would happen by His Grace.
So it was some 18 months after returning to the world that I found myself in my third post-convent job, a little more stable and lucrative than those prior. Prayer was a more fruitful fixture in my life than it had previously been. Further, I belonged to an international community of women who loved the Lord intensely and were each seeking out ways to serve Him and share His Love with others – I had been in communication with a number of other women who had similarly left my former community, as well as a number of active members of Leonie’s Longing for some time. I realised that these were firm and worthwhile friendships – wonderful gifts! Over a period of about six months, the idea of travelling to the United States to visit some of these friends kept coming up in conversation and even in my dreams. I considered my options and my budget and realised that such a trip would be feasible if I saved carefully… could it be possible that the Lord actually actively wanted me to take a vacation?
It can be so easy, falling prey to my pride, to seek fulfilment in achievement. My academic pursuits left me wide open to this. Nevertheless, in moments of uncharacteristic clarity, I find myself wondering why I don’t just get out of my own way and let the Lord fulfil me!!
Somehow on this occasion I did exactly that. I listened to Him. I got out of my own way. I spoke to my friends and found out which of them would be happy to host me for portions of my adventure… and then I booked flights till my hip pocket could barely handle it anymore. Four very dear and generous friends with a whole lotta God-given love in their heart… and all He was asking me to do was let them love me – to let Him love me.
Things fell into place. My application for a month of vacation time at work was approved without incident. My travel preparations were unimpeded. I got on my flight and some 24 hours later I was hugging a dear friend I hadn’t seen in years! She and I had become very close while in community together; she entered about a year before I did, and left about a year before I did, and our time in the community only overlapped by 6 months. Now here we both were – her a teacher, me an IT professional in the education sector – let loose in the world!! As we road-tripped Texas together, I made the comment to her that seeing her in this new context… ordinary life… and just spending time with her and doing regular things… it somehow really affirmed for me on an interior level my decision to return to the world. There are many trials and dangers associated with no longer having the walls of the convent and the horarium and my religious community – but there are many joys and beautiful things to be experienced, too!
The purpose of my visit to Texas was purely and simply to spend quality time with my very dear friend.
Mission accomplished. Definitely. And that was the absolute highlight of my Texas leg of the trip.
Portrait of St Therese by her sister, Celine
It wasn’t all about staying in and eating icecream and catching up, though. Some of the secondary highlights included:
- meeting HEAPS of awesome, beautiful, hospitable people!!
- visiting the Basilica Shrine of St Therese of Lisieux in San Antonio and seeing the larger-than-life original of the portrait of Therese painted by her sister Celine
- being introduced to Tex Mex
- being told, in Texan drawl ” You’re in ‘Merica – you can do whatever you want!”
Cactus+Beer? I LOVE America!
- discovering the delights of Prickly Pear flavoured beer (whod’ve thunk?)
- kayaking in downtown Houston (I kid you not!)
- checking out the NASA Space Center
- checking out the Alamo
- Museum of Fine Arts in Houston
- finding the little hole-in-the-wall coffee joints that know how to serve up a “Flat White” just as well as any barista in Sydney
- rediscovering the much-missed comfort-food and friendly atmosphere of Chik-fil-A… we SO need this chain to open franchises in my country!
- playing chicken with traffic to get a photograph at the site of the Kennedy assassination
- discovering an awesome breakfast innovation that hasn’t yet taken Australia by storm: the Nest Egg… genius. Pure genius.
- enjoying the generous hospitality of a Venezeulan family who had never met me, didn’t know me, spoke in a different language to me but opened up their home and fed me delicious arepas!
Groovin’ at the Grassy Knoll
Next Stop: Denver, CO>>
(Stay tuned: part two of Bek’s journey will be published on Thursday December 10th!)