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!)
As I mentioned above, marrying Jesus is a lot different than marrying a human being. For one thing, Jesus can’t die and leave me. He already did that. I just heard about a friend’s friend who died at age 34 leaving a wife, three kids, and a baby on the way. He was a strong Catholic and has made a huge ripple with the witness of his holy death. This is devastating, and frightening too, but somehow there’s a depth of hope and love in it that I can’t even fathom. When I see this, love looks worth it. And I know for a fact that most mature religious have experienced the feeling that Jesus has died and abandoned them, perhaps through the dark night of the soul. They go on living trusting that He is there, but not feeling his presence. There are many similarities in this.
But whoa, before all of that, there’s dating. This should be the fun and anxiety-free part. Rather, for so many of us it is ridden with anxious expectations. The idea of going back into dating frightened me even before I left the convent. I remember a priest who formed us saying, “I wouldn’t want to be out in the dating world these days, you should all consider yourselves blessed!” It’s a rough trail to tread out here, certainly.
Some people leave the convent thinking, “absolutely, I’m called to marriage, let the dating begin!” This wasn’t the case for me. I had no idea where God was calling me upon leaving, so it’s taken me about this long to get used to the fact that God might be calling me to marriage, which implies dating first. Part of this has been finding potential mates in friends or the guys in the circles I frequent. Most recently, during a holy hour, I really felt the Lord ask me to surrender to the fact that he might want me to get married. It was freeing, but also terrifying. Perhaps part of the difficulty, as a woman who was in the convent, is that this looks a little bit intimidating. A guy hears this and wonders if he could “keep up” with me spiritually (obviously he has no idea how far from the truth this is…). I wonder sometimes, when I casually mention this to a guy, if anything romantic is automatically shelved. They may think it’s neat and ask all kinds of questions about it, or if they aren’t particularly strong in their faith, they may think it’s the craziest thing they’ve ever heard. It might also intimidate them that there are priests in my phone’s contact list who I consider to be fathers and brothers to me. One of those priests told me last year (in jest!) that I should just stand outside the seminary and wait for the guys who are leaving. I do sometimes think I’d be most compatible with a former seminarian, because he could likely understand me and my experience better, and I could be relatively sure that he shared my spiritual values and goals (unless he left because he had become cynical rather than simply disillusioned…).
This is where I tend to over-spiritualize things, and where I’m trying to focus on the whole person: attractiveness of both body AND soul rather than just one aspect of them. There is no such thing as a knight in shining armor. Relationships are a two-way street, and no one is going to be in the exact place you want them to be right when you meet them. We also need to love guys for being men: not being “our way out”. Jesus is our way out. I recently saw a bumper sticker that read, “I already have a Savior. I’m looking for a president”. I think we could say the same in this case: “I already have a Savior. I’m looking for a husband.” We need to let men be human, so that we can take the pressure off of ourselves too. Dating is not such a big deal. If a guy asks me on a first date I will not turn him down, no matter how much I think marriage with him is out of the question. Marriage and dating are not the same thing. Friendships are risked when they become dating relationships, but I have to remind myself that it is worth it!
The reason I think God called me away from the convent is obviously complex, but I think it had something to do with the fact that I got caught up in the vocation culture. It’s exciting to believe and to know that Jesus has a plan and a call for my life. I still believe that. And yet I think in all my discernment process I got away from the idea that Jesus is calling me first to be a Christian. Through my baptism he wants me just for himself no matter what my vocation is. And he wants to work out my salvation not completely reliant on that particular vocation. Since I left the sisters, I’ve come to understand that there isn’t necessarily one vocation that each person is destined to. Before you call me a heretic, let me explain. Is it in the nature of God that he would set up one particular mission for each of us, so that if we failed to discover that mission, we would not be able to spend eternity with him? This sounds more like fate to me. Certainly we each have a mission from him, but I don’t know that it is always definable. After I left the sisters, my former superior sent me that great quote from John Henry Newman: “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.” I’ve looked at myself as a disappointment to Jesus for much too long, as if I have broken his heart by “breaking up with him”, rather than loving him exactly where I find myself. Obviously he desires commitment from me, in whatever vocation that will be. But right now, in the present moment this is what he desires; my complete trust and total surrender to the fact that I’m living my vocation and my mission now. I have to know first that I am loved. And the love of God comes through the love of others; the people around me, my friends, my family, the people I work with, and the people I serve. And even through the men that I might date.
So to all the “Joe Schmoes” out there – thanks for your Schmoe-ness! It’s what makes you real and good and accessible and loveable. I am glad you are human, because I am too! And so, if it’s God’s holy will, I am open to loving you, with a human and imperfect love, so that together we can help each other on this journey towards Heaven.
Did you miss part 1? Read it here.
“Wait, so you broke up with Jesus?” The confused look on my third grade student’s face spoke volumes. I was trying to explain to him that I had been in the convent for a year, preparing to marry Jesus, but decided that it wasn’t what God was asking of me at that particular time. I stuttered as I attempted to respond… after all, isn’t that exactly how I had felt so often in the last two and half years since I had left? It is certainly confusing to me as well, how could I expect a third grader to understand! If I am not called to live fully that spousal intimacy with Christ here on earth, I know I am still called to it forever in Heaven. But sometimes it just seems like the idea of dating a regular Joe Schmoe after being lined up to marry the most perfect man (slash GOD) is just a little bit of a step down. And perhaps that’s the message I’ve been sending to those Joe Schmoes as well…
So I’m on Catholic Match. I made a New Year’s resolution to be actively open to dating, whatever that means. After realizing in prayer that this was necessary, my first (bad?) move was to check out the Catholic Match website. To my surprise it said that I could fill out a profile for free! I did so out of curiosity. When I got to the end of it, of course, there was a price tag. Just before clicking out, my mom ran over with her credit card. “I’ll pay for three months!” she said. So yes. I’m on Catholic Match, sponsored by my mother…yikes! Does this sound desperate to you? I really, honestly am not desperate. I left the convent 2½ years ago and it has taken me this long to even allow myself to be open to dating. There is something weird about the idea of online dating sites, though everyone assures me that it’s the way most couples are meeting these days. I am suspicious of every person I “meet” on it… is there something wrong with them? Where’s the catch? But maybe there’s just something wrong with me, and my struggle to open myself to the new-fangled methods that the Holy Spirit is using these days… my excuse for being out of the loop on technology and current events (even three years later) continues to be “Well, I was in the convent!”
I loved religious life as much as I struggled in it. I loved the routine, the constant opportunities to love and to give, and the sense of belonging I received in being a tiny part of the whole. But I also felt deeply that lack of intimacy between me and the other sisters in my community. Of course we shared the ins and outs of our lives, and made ourselves vulnerable at appropriate levels. But exclusive friendships were not encouraged, and I had a hard time navigating this without feeling lonely. I knew it was just something that I was giving up in exchange for a deeper intimacy with Jesus, and I believed that over time these friendships would deepen and grow, like family. Now that I am back in “the world,” I value my friends in a new way. I do not think I am as attached to others as I once was, but I certainly have friendships with both men and women that are exclusive and particular. I still believe (perhaps falsely?) that as a married woman, it would be much harder to have a deep intimate relationship with Jesus.
I admit too – it was a little strange that in the convent, we were all married or planning to marry the same guy: Jesus! Everyone, religious or lay, is called to a spousal relationship with Christ. But in a particular way in the convent, I found that I would compare myself to Jesus’ other brides way too much, doubting myself and His love for me. This was dangerous and full of lies. It seemed like all the sisters around me had a deeper love for him, devotion to him, care for the poor, love for their sisters, than I did. Before I entered the convent, I had been surrounded by people who loved Jesus but most didn’t seem to desire the intimacy of relationship that I desired. I had always felt a little different, like Christ had claimed me in a particular way for Himself. And now, the pride that I had upon my entrance was completely shot because I was surrounded by these very human but holy women who felt the same way. It was extremely sobering. I had to learn how Christ could love me particularly while also loving everyone else particularly. I went to him with my pain and those desires for intimacy. I remember praying on one particularly lonely day, “no one knows or cares how much I am hurting right now, except for you Jesus. There is no one else to tell, and I can’t pick up the phone and call a friend. Please listen to me and hear me out on this.”
I don’t think I’m called to marriage simply because I felt lonely in religious life. There is an existential loneliness in every vocation here on earth. This “Original Solitude” as John Paul II calls it, is what always reminds us that God alone can fulfill our deepest longings and desires, no human being. I think the biggest fear I have about marriage is that the intimacy with Christ that a religious sister is called to and a single woman can at least afford, seems to be substituted by the intimacy with one’s husband and the needs of the family. After all, St. Paul says “And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband.” -1 Cor 7: 34b. Are they mutually exclusive? I want to please the Lord first, but if I were to insist on a daily Holy Hour or a quarterly retreat as a married wife and mother to the neglect of feeding or caring for my children, this in itself would be selfish. Certainly the married saints have been powerful examples, but let’s just call a fact a fact – there aren’t too many of them declared by the Church yet! It has been shown through the ages that the life given to spreading the Gospel and dedicated to prayer has been the life of the religious or priest. I am grateful however, to live in the Theology of the Body generation, in which we are just beginning to unpack the words of St. John Paul II and his love for human love. This gives me great hope. If God calls me to marriage, I will love my husband as if he is Christ, and yet he will not be Christ. I will go to Christ everyday to give me the love I need to love my husband, so that ultimately it will be like Jesus loving Himself.
Read part 2 of this post here.
Last night, I watched the first half of Labyrinth with some friends.
No, not this one.
The two-part TV series set in the south of France during the thirteenth-century Albigensian Crusade, complete with glorious location footage of the walled city of Carcassonne.
As we put the DVD on, the (non-Catholic) friend who had recommended it asked me casually whether I’d ever heard of the Cathars. Yes, I replied: I joined a Catholic religious Order specifically founded to counteract the Cathar heresy. Hmm.
It became clear very quickly that the writers might just as well have abandoned all pretence and sub-titled the show How to Make a Dominican See Red: the Cathars to a man were portrayed as gentle, noble and extremely good-looking people who, quote, “just want to be left to worship in peace.”
For all that they kept hammering the Cathars-good-Catholics-evil theme throughout, the only time I allowed myself a wail of disbelief was when the elderly Cathar hero revealed to his virtuous Cathar daughter (but not his evil Catholic daughter, of course) that he was one of only a handful of people who knew the true whereabouts of…
When Part 1 ended, my friend asked whether I’d liked it. Now, I may not belong to the Order of Preachers in any formal way, but I’m still a Dominican at heart and a sophisticated modern re-hash of the stuff we’ve been arguing against for eight hundred years makes me cranky, so I replied that:
- According to the Cathar heresy, the material world is evil and therefore so is the god who created it, and
- therefore reproduction is evil because it traps pure spirits in corrupt flesh, and
- Cathar “vegetarianism” was due to fear of contamination by consuming the flesh of creatures that reproduce sexually, and
- in true Gnostic fashion, only a handful of extreme ascetics could be “true” and “perfect” followers of the way, and the hoi polloi just had to make do with rejecting the Church and the Sacraments, and avoiding anything that might commit the sin of procreation.
Funnily enough, none of our charming heroes (or the Cathar “priests” who sacrificed themselves for religious liberty) mentioned any of the above. Nor, for that matter, did anyone refer in passing to the murder of the Catholic missionary Pierre de Castelnau which brought the Crusaders to France in the first place. The mass slaughter of Cathars was appalling, and was rightly depicted as such, but there was a cynical post-modern prejudice underlying the whole thing that didn’t reflect the actual worldview of either Cathars or Crusaders, and simply didn’t need to be there.
This really brought it home to me that I’m not in the convent any more: I’m out in a world where heretics are automatically heroes and Catholics are automatically evil. I dearly miss the sanity of the religious life, but it’s clear that my job for now, out in the world, is to follow the example of Saint Dominic, who fought error with logic, charity and prayer.
One day, every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. Until then, you and I are the current generations of the Church Militant, and those who have taught and died for the Faith for two millennia are upholding us in their prayers. Maranatha!
While at University I spent a summer on an archaeological dig. We lived in platform tents in the woods and drove about thirty minutes to get to our dig site and “town,” which was very small. A few people had cell phones but it did not matter because there wasn’t a signal there anyway. We had no TV, radio, internet, phone or anything like that at camp. We worked hard physically all day and sat around the fire talking and being silly at night. Then we went to bed and did it all again the next day.
On a holiday weekend a number of us drove to a bigger town which actually had a movie theater and we chose to see Moulin Rouge! If you have not seen this movie I would describe it as an explosion: intense visual images, singing and dancing, fast-paced editing, and over-the-top in every way. Many people who saw it found it rather overwhelming. My mother told me that a friend of hers went to see it and walked out of the theater because she hated it so much. For our group, which had been on a media fast for all intents and purposes, it was basically a massive sensory overload. We sat there with our mouths hanging open, not even sure what was happening to us.
Afterwards, we laughed about it and told our teammates who didn’t come to the theater with us all about our experience. It was fantastic to have a group of people who could understand. We made jokes about it, sang the songs at night and processed the experience together.
When I returned to the world from the convent, it felt much the same way. The world was loud, intense and overwhelming to my senses. But instead of being a two hour movie, it was constant and never-ending. And I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, to help me feel normal again.
At first I felt terrible. I thought, “There is something wrong with me!” But gradually I realized that I just needed to give myself time and permission to be human. Instead of forcing myself to hang out with my friends a few times a week, I cut it down to two times, and more if I felt up for it. I also limited my phone conversations. Slowly I adjusted and I could do more than that.
What about you? Did the world feel loud and wild when you returned? If so, how did you handle it? Did your family and friends help you adjust?
I remember reading once that, if someone in the Middle Ages recovered from a severe illness after having been given the Last Rites, popular superstition considered that his earthly life was actually over: among other restrictions, he was not permitted to marry, to make a will, or to eat meat. *
Without wishing to seem morbid, when I left the convent, I began to understand a little of what those people would have felt as they muddled around after their recovery, trying to make sense of a world with which they were supposed to have finished. While getting ready to enter the religious life months earlier, I had realised why a former colleague – now a nun – said that in a way it felt like preparing for death: once my date of entry was set, I stepped into some strange area outside the regular flow of life, knowing that I was on a limited time-frame. I’d look in shop windows at racks of clothing, and realise that even if I bought anything, I wouldn’t have a chance to wear it. At the supermarket, I’d buy the smallest possible jars of honey or peanut butter (even though it was more expensive) because that way, I’d be able to get them finished in time. Also, of course, I was hauling bag after bag of clothes and books to the op-shop, leaving my closet looking stripped and abandoned… and most of all, my friends and family were holding small parties to farewell me, knowing it might be a long time before they saw me again.
And then I left. And then I was back.
Good grief, the noise! I’d lost the ability to tune out background music, the chatter and footsteps of passers-by, the rumbling and honking of cars, the clattering signals at pedestrian crossings… I couldn’t believe I’d ever been able to ignore so much noise. Advertisements on TV and billboards seemed surreal: having barely handled money for over half a year, I couldn’t believe that I was once again being marketed to. Visiting the places where I used to live or work was more like walking into a memory than living in the present, and everything I read/watched/listened to was something I had consciously, willingly, given up for good. None of it made any sense.
Of course, true death to the world only occurs during the rite of final profession, as the religious lies beneath a funeral pall while the Litany of the Saints is sung. So, what about the rest of us, who didn’t make it that far but still feel as if we’re no longer really part of the outside world?
For one thing, the experience gave me a taste of what being “in the world, but not of the world” feels like. It’s probably a good thing to feel slightly distant from the things you’re shopping for, to be able to step back from the advertising and think, “Seriously? They’re trying to make me want this thing? Do I want it?” It’s definitely a good thing to be able to sit back while sending a text or surfing the net and say, “You know, I lived for half a year without this and didn’t miss anything important.” And it’s wonderful to put your arms around your grandparents in the knowledge that, in other circumstances, you might not have seen them again. Basically, the world becomes unexpected: having lived outside it, you can’t now take it for granted, and whether that’s ultimately good or bad is defined by your response to it.
*See The Catholic Encyclopaedia chapter entitled ‘Subject’, paragraph 3. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05716a.htm.