By Jamie, re-published from her blog Bloom Where You’re Planted.
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.
“You don’t need to fold it.” Mother said.
“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.
“Knock and the door will be opened to you.”
– Matthew 7:7
I approach the door
candle in hand
light of Christ to guide me
The click of a bolt,
the creak of hinges,
by gentle wrinkled hands.
I can still enter
those sacred wounds.
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.