“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.
By Anela, reproduced with kind permission from her blog http://anelafindshervoice.wordpress.com
Sometimes it’s funny, being known around the office as “the ex-nun.” My coworkers and I will be having a conversation, specifically about work or about life in general, and one of them will let fly something a little off-color. They’ll stumble to a halt in mid-sentence, or a sentence (or an hour) or two later, when they realize just what they’ve said in the presence of “the ex-nun.” Then they’ll apologize: sheepishly, sincerely or even offhandedly. I take no offense at their slips, although I have felt a bit uncomfortable on several occasions. When that happens, I usually end up offering up a silent prayer of apology to Our Lord on their behalf.
It’s a strange thing, but I’m grateful for the awkwardness these moments bring, because the culture we live in today has become so desensitized to issues of modesty and morality. We live in a culture whose mantra is “Sex, power and no responsibility.” We’re bombarded with images and messages that harm us physically, emotionally and spiritually every single day… and the majority of people buy into the message simply because society tells them they should.
Maybe when the people around me pause in that moment of awkwardness, they’ll take a moment to reevaluate the lies that society has told them are true. Maybe they’ll come to realize that they’re truly worth so much more than society leads them to think they are.
And maybe, just maybe, this “ex-nun” will be reminded that, just because I no longer wear the habit, live in community or keep the daily horarium (Latin for “the hours” – a schedule of work and prayer), doesn’t mean that I’m not still a beloved spouse of Christ or that I don’t need to remember that I am called to “live in the world” but not be “of the world.”
We all are.
But I still miss wearing the habit. Imagine the self-censoring that would go on in the office if I suddenly showed up in one?
The ID Card Saga and other Former Nun-People Problems
I am reminded of God’s sense of humor every time I pull out my license. Why? Because I got my license renewed two months before I left the convent, and haven’t gotten around to changing it – so as you can imagine every time I board a plane or go to a bar for a Theology on Tap I have to pull out my ID, with a picture of me very clearly in habit. I can only imagine the thoughts of the Airport Security and Bouncer. I’m sure they’re thinking I’m some crazy nun in cognito who jumped the convent walls for the weekend. Keep going sister, hop on that plane to Orlando! I won’t tell anyone! I once walked into a liquor store to buy champagne for a cupcake recipe, and a second later walked right back out because I couldn’t bear to show my license. I could only imagine! Here sister, I’ll put it in a brown paper bag so no one will know! Ginger ale would have to do! Now I can laugh about it.
These experiences also remind me that although I’ve left Religious Life, despite the shame and confusion that often comes with it, the Lord is not disappointed that I am no longer a Sister. I am the same in His Eyes even when I’m wearing basketball shorts and a t-shirt and am called by my given name.
I think many of us go through this crisis when we leave Religious Life and Seminary. We live a particular life with a particular order, and our identity can become wrapped up and intertwined (like DNA chromosomal strands) with the identity of the community. Then when we leave we feel like nothing. I remember thinking, “Who am I if I’m not a sister?” But I think we’ve had it all wrong from the beginning. At least for me, I was never confident in my identity. In this “create-yourself” culture, I thought- from as far back as I can remember- that I had to find it. Everyone seemed to have some defining characteristic, relationship, talent, etc. that seemed to define them. And I didn’t feel perfect at much of anything.
Being an identical twin also makes things complicated, especially when people ask, “Who’s the smart once and who’s the athletic one?” and other questions of that sort. She seemed to be better at most things, and some people thought I was her because they didn’t know I existed. The more I tried to be good at something, or find what could justify my being, the more restless, empty, and alone I felt.
In college, it was a whole new world, where I found wonderful Catholic friends who loved me for me! It was hard to be convinced, but the healing began! I could trust people a little, and for once I saw people look into my eyes and see God’s Presence in my soul. I couldn’t describe it as such then but I knew that they recognized my worth more than I did. The Lord led me to Himself slowly and beautifully and I discerned Religious Life, entering after I graduated college.
I was excited for everything about becoming a Sister. I thought I could leave everything behind including the old me, and start fresh. But history was repeating itself. I had done this before. In sixth grade I moved to a new school, and decided to change myself. I didn’t like who I was and how I looked, so I grew out my bangs, got contacts instead of glasses, bought a few new outfits (since my old wardrobe was almost entirely Land’s End – my mom’s favorite). This is when I started developing an eating disorder. It was just in my thoughts at first- I wanted to be different since I felt so invisible. It got worse in high school and my family was worried. My soul was crying out for help but was afraid to receive it, so I managed it, and was “okay” all through high school and college. It was an exhausting, never-ending search for self-acceptance and perfection. Even after all those years at “failing” to be perfect I thought I had finally found the one path that would make me perfect.
Just as I thought I could leave the old “me” behind in 6th grade, I thought I could now leave the 22 year old “me” behind when I entered Religious Life, including the eating disorder. I got rid of my clothes, my job, my car, everything! But it stowed away in the few possessions I brought to the Convent.
I managed pretty well the first year of Postulancy as I had for so many years. When I entered Novitiate I was so excited because I was genuinely excited, but also because I thought I was a new person. The habit covered a lot of my body but it didn’t hide my past. My new name didn’t take away the hatred I had towards my old self, since – shockingly – it was the same self! Shortly after entering Novitiate, my eating disorder got progressively worse and my Novice Director noticed the darkness I’d held inside me for over 10 years. I was terrified, but consoled to finally be able to let this disorder not control me and my life. I went through Counseling for a while but it became clear that I needed more intensive treatment. And so after two and a half wonderful, beautiful, and blessed years, I departed with two outfits and my nun shoes, feeling sorrow but great peace and clarity that it was God’s Will.
I knew when I left that, even in a community dedicated to proclaiming the dignity of life, I could tell anyone else they were a beautiful, unrepeatable gift of God, but I could not believe it for myself. I knew that God was going to help me know that I was beautiful and loved.
Misericordia works for her home diocese, is a caffeine addict, and loves swimming.