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 M. Cabri
Over a year and a half ago when I left a religious community, everything in my life seemed to be broken. My family seemed to have fallen apart while I was thousands of miles away, and I could not seem to maintain emotional equilibrium. I alternated between extreme joy and deep interior darkness. Inside, I tried not to be blinded by the fear of not understanding what was going on, and the growing sense, which I refused to accept, that I may have to leave the community. My spiritual life had been undermined as well, and I alternated between wondering if it was spiritual dryness or something I had done terribly wrong. I felt burdened by the obligations of communal prayer in a monastic community. I seemed to fall asleep in both of my meditations every day no matter how hard I tried to keep watch with Our Lord. I received no consolation at daily Mass. Whenever I went into the chapel to pray the Divine Office, rosary, or make a Holy Hour, it couldn’t be over fast enough. I was painfully agitated and restless. The silence seemed to crush me. When I could speak, I never seemed to be able to say what I needed to my superiors, which left me feeling hopeless and desperately alone.
In the months before I left, I cried myself to sleep more nights than I can count. I never seemed rested when I woke up in the morning. Every day I dragged myself to my chores, trying to tell myself wholeheartedly and joyfully that this was all for Jesus, but I found that I wasn’t even able to convince myself of that anymore. For the first time in my life, it truly seemed like Jesus was taking away the grace to live a life I had dreamed of for so long. I remembered how happy I had been as a postulant and new novice and couldn’t make sense of the inner darkness I felt now. I wrestled with feeling like I never could be enough for Him, that all my prayers and labor was in vain. I even began to wonder if He still was there, loving and supporting me. I couldn’t even look at my Sisters without crying. Finally, I just broke.
For a few blissful and painful days, I lived in a limbo of dreading I must leave and knowing my Sisters did not know what would happen. I felt interior joy (or relief) at the prospect. I sensed all I wanted was freedom from what had become oppressive to me, not realizing that I was pining for earthly treasure which could not satisfy my heart. His grace (or my willfulness) seemed to keep me in one piece long enough to smile and say goodbye to my Sisters without dragging them into my inner chaos.
From that place, I came home across the country, hoping that somehow everything would be better again. Those painful first days, I could barely go outside because I felt unable to face the world as I was. I felt immodest walking around habit-less, horror that I had left the community, shame for my shaved head and an unshakable sense of failure. I could barely tolerate going to Mass or praying, because I felt divorced by the One I had promised to marry, whom I still love. Everything reminded me of the Sisters I had left behind who were now dead to me. I saw their faces everywhere and heard their voices in my head, sharing their joys, sorrows and spiritual growth with me. To this day, I still do. I still do.
Over a year later, after being in therapy and having the advice of a wonderful spiritual director, I approached the community again. The prompt reply was that they did not think I had a vocation to their community and should discern elsewhere. The experience was like leaving all over again. I feared that no community would ever want to talk to me.
In the six months since that conversation, I have approached two communities. From both, I have received understanding, love and support. One vocation directress even praised me for my courage in continuing discernment of consecrated life. Both emphatically assured me that I could have been refused simply because the community had too many applicants that year or did not have the resources to invest in a young woman for a second try at religious life. After a long struggle, those words are beginning to set me free.
It is easy to see everything as a personal rejection. Many of us already see ourselves as damaged goods, irreparably broken and unlovable. The great mystery of salvation is that Christ does not merely come to make everything externally appear better, leaving the root problem intact. He wants to, and DOES, heal the inner brokenness! We are all wounded and damaged by sin, either our sins or the sins of others. He sees the brokenness and what He can do to make those scars radiant. We are all like shards of glass which individually can be unimpressive. But when the chips are filled, edges polished, and we are pieced together with the rest of the Body of Christ, we will be more beautiful than we ever could have imagined. The more perfect and transparent each individual piece is, the more light will shine through that piece and make the whole window radiant.
Jesus wants to shine through your life so that the world will come to know Him through you. The more you reflect Christ, the more His light will shine on people around you. Offer up your suffering, grow in holiness, and above all, continue to hope when all seems hopeless! The Body of Christ needs your suffering; don’t waste it! He IS faithful, even when we cannot feel it! Let Him heal you and know that all the saints and all of us who are journeying this path with you are praying for you!
Twenty-five years ago, I stood at the cloister door of the Poor Clares, knocked, and asked to be admitted to their community. I was young, confident, and excited to begin my new life that I just knew was going to be permanent. During the first weeks, I thrived, so much so that I was allowed to move from Candidate to Postulant in four and a half weeks rather than the usual six.
By the end of the year, I had made a complete turnaround. Beset by chronic ear infections, the loneliness that came with the lack of my family’s support, and the regular adjustments to religious life, I felt I had no more to give. However, by the time I had reached home, I regretted my decision. Those days were filled with so many tears and headaches from the stress! Over the next few weeks, though, the pain subsided, and I began to pick up where I had left off. Five years later, I would be walking down the wedding aisle, content and at peace with my decision.
My time in the cloister was invaluable to me as a wife and mother. I had learned to submit myself to someone else, a certain amount of detachment, and the importance of obedience. Six children later, I was pleased with my little family, but even in this state of satisfaction, the truth was that deep inside, I still grappled with what I saw as the loss of my vocation. Regular dreams visited me in which I was released to enter religious life, only to realize that I belonged with my husband and children and return to the world. Over and over, God needed to show me the holiness of family life in these little dreams until I learned the lesson.
Then an accident resulted in the loss of my two boys. A daughter should have joined them in their heavenly abode, but by miraculous intervention, she was spared. The bigger miracle, however, was a complete healing of the disappointment of my youth. From that moment on, I added those virtues which are so loved in good mothers: patience, long-suffering and cheerfulness.
Since that time, I have learned that God gives two separate and distinct graces in religious life: one to enter religious life and the other to persevere in it. God often gives the first without giving the second. He has things to teach which are best learned in an atmosphere of retreat that may last anywhere from a few days to a few years before sending us out into the world. Religious life not only is the seed bed for those who will live there until death, but it also cultivates the life of virtue of those who will become the mothers and fathers that God desires.
A few days ago, my oldest daughter stood at the cloister door, knocked, and asked to be admitted to her new community. She is young, confident, and excited to begin her new life. So now we have come ‘round full circle. The end of my vocation story means the beginning of hers.
It was about four years ago now. I was on a discernment retreat and I heard Jesus speak to my heart that he was not calling me to be a religious sister. He was calling me to marriage.
I told Him about the beauty of religious life, how these women give everything to Him, their parents and siblings, their desires for children and for a spouse, their sexuality, and their hearts, to receive so much in return. I spoke to Him about how their hearts are so directed toward Him that at the hour of their death, they will not be staring into the unknown, but into the future they have with their Maker and their Husband.
He spoke to me of the great sacrifice He required of me, one that the religious life could not pull out of me in the same way that an imperfect man could. A sacrifice that would challenge me in a unique way, and squeeze love out of me, requiring me to respond with a love that is not my own. He spoke to me of a love that would pour over me every day, begging me to pour it out onto others. He heard what I spoke to Him, and yet still said, “But I will show you a still more excellent way.”
I was heartbroken, but I believed Him.
Three years after that, I lived the reality that I was not married, engaged, or dating. I was (and still am), “single as a pringle,” as one of my friends likes to say. As I tried to adjust the reality that I was not called to the religious life, but serendipitously, both of my sisters were, to two different communities, which were both different than the one I was discerning with. I felt far away from God in a way and I was tempted to wonder if I did enter the convent, how holy would I have been? Would I have been like Saint Therese in her little way, or like St. Teresa of Avila, in her big way? In response though, I was sobered by the Holy-Spirit-inspired question: is hypothetical holiness more important than obedient faith? Of course not; “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.”
Almost exactly three years from that discernment retreat, I went on a day retreat, one based on Theology of the Body, and the keynote speaker was Dr. Janet Smith. Her words were maybe new, maybe repeated, but this time they stuck. She said that, “Marriage does not eradicate man’s loneliness, but only alleviates it.” Wow. She said that, “every human relationship, especially marriage is a sign, a symbol, of our real relationship with God.” Wow. She said that, “In images of the Coronation, Mary is the woman being crowned, but Mary is a type of the church, and thus a type of each one of us. In the image of the Coronation, imagine yourself being crowned by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” Wow. She said that “the Church is the bride of Christ, and thus each one of us is a bride of Christ.” Wow. She encouraged us to spend time in prayer imagining God the Father crowning us as His daughter, Jesus crowning us as His bride, and the Holy Spirit crowning us as His spouse. Wow.
In that moment, I realized that since the weekend I heard Jesus direct my steps away from the convent, I thought: He doesn’t want me to be His bride. He doesn’t want me. I regarded myself as unlovable and undesired. But, of course, that was (and is, and is to come) far from the truth. The expression of the spousal call may be different from the way it would be for a sister in vows, but as Dr. Smith said, I AM A BRIDE OF CHRIST simply because I am part of his Church. He is the one who makes me His bride. It is not a religious community that makes me Jesus’ bride. It is Jesus who makes me His bride. He has chosen me, and chooses me daily to be His bride. He reaffirms His love for me every day, an innumerable number of times, in a myriad of locations in the world, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. There, on the cross, my bridegroom offers Himself to me. I am loved. I am lovable. I am his bride.
I do not now have a husband, fiance, nor a boyfriend (See pringle comment above). I have not found the secret to thinking something was so right for you and living the reality that you are called elsewhere. And I do not know my future. I do know that I am imperfect, I am sometimes emotionally constipated, I say the wrong things, and embody awkwardness in all of its delights. But I also know that I am lovable and loved. I know that God looks upon me and loves me. I learned from the religious community of one of my sisters that, “God sees you like no other person sees you. God loves you like no other person loves you. God does not look at you in your limits, in your failings. He looks at what is limitless in you. He looks at you in what is most profound in you.”
I have moments (days, weeks, months, etc.) when I doubt my future. When I give in to fear that what God promised
will never happen. It is in those moments that I must remind myself, that I must preach the Gospel to my own heart: everything is about Jesus. There is no relationship that has greater gravity than the one I have with Jesus. There is nothing greater than Jesus. It is in those moments that I repeat the words of St. Teresa of Avila:
“Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end.”
To read the first installment of this three-part series, click here.
When praying about which of the many aspects of Theology of the Body to cover in this blog series, I really felt the Holy Spirit tugging at my heart to focus most importantly on one word:Hope. Honestly, I don’t even know if this word is mentioned once in the audiences of Theology of the Body, but that is the topic the Spirit wants me to develop. Specifically, hope in our identity as daughters loved infinitely by God, seen particularly through the witness of Mary.
The main reason I found these audiences of St. John Paul II so life-changing was that it helped me focus on a very important reality that was missing in my life- my identity as a daughter of God. When experiencing depression, extreme self-centeredness, and low self-esteem, I seemed to lose a sense of knowing my worth and even start to fear my own self.
In this beautiful catechesis that God placed in my life, I found support in my inner struggle. It helped me answer the following questions I was asking in my heart, “Who am I? What is my purpose?” In the asking of these questions, I found that I needed to become rooted in my identity first, and then to go forth from that into my mission.
We are all called to communion and love. Out of all the desires of our hearts, the one that is at the center is the desire to love and be loved- to enter into communion and union with another. This desire in each and every human person is a very good desire, and not only that, it points to the deepest desire that God has put in man- the desire for communion with Himself.
How do we live out this desire for union? We must know of our identity and receive. Women have the special gift of receptivity and receiving the love of another. We can see this especially in the example of Mary. She was the most beautiful example of authentic womanhood, and following her example, we can be the women God has created us to be.
Mary became a living vessel of God’s presence and love through her receptivity, seen particularly in the Incarnation. She had the particular gift in her femininity to receive and bear forth life through such open receptivity. Mary knew her identity came from God, and so had the confidence in His love and providence for her. In knowing of God’s love for her, she was able to give her “fiat” in trust, love, and freedom.
Likewise, by rooting ourselves in our immense dignity as daughters of the Father, purchased by the precious blood of Christ, we can open ourselves to receive all the love that God has for us. Even amid your own struggle of coming home from the convent, know that it is part of the beautiful plan of God, even if you do not understand right now. Trust in Him and be open to receive His love for you!
Even though it has been over a year since I left the convent, I still feel like I do not know where my life is going or what God really wants for me. Great things have definitely happened in my life this past year and I don’t doubt my decision of leaving Religious Life, but I still feel like I wish I had more clarity in everything. My heart is still restless about the day-to-day things and I have flashbacks to the convent where things “seemed” so much more clear and directed. It is hard to trust that God really does have something better for me out here in the world.
A few weeks ago, I went back and visited my previous community for their celebrations of Final and Temporary Vows. I am sure anyone who has been back to their communities after leaving can relate to this. The experience was really painful yet blessed all at the same time. I can see that I really needed to go and see myself as separate, but it was incredibly painful to be on the “outside” of everything for the first time and to be at a distance from those whom I entered the community with. Some Sisters were better than other at making me feel welcome, and for others I could see discomfort at my presence. I just wish it didn’t have to be that way. I wish we could just keep our friendships in some normal way, but I know that our relationships have to change for the good of them and me as well.
As I work through the painful separation from the life of a Religious Sister, I see Saint Monica as a source of hope. She persevered her whole life praying for something that seemed crazy to everyone around her and God blessed her perseverance. Saint Augustine eventually converted from a crazy life to life lived for God alone. So many days I just want to give up my prayer life and everything that goes along with my relationship with God, but I know that if I persevere, He will bless me and show me whatever He has waiting for me out here in the world. As Saint Augustine says, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” My heart may still be restless a year after leaving the convent, but I know the answer to that restlessness lies in God alone and persevering in my relationship with Him.