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.
How to deal with anxiety, from the pen of a paranoid schizophrenic.
By Stephanie Grace Cesare.
Jeremiah 29:11: Yes, I know what plans I have in mind for you, Yahweh declares: plans for peace, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.
Trust has been a major problem in my past, but if we believe in God’s goodness, how can we not trust in Him completely? Every second of our life God knows and allows to happen to us. “There is a spiritual world all around us, can you not see it?” – Jane Eyre.
Because of my condition I am always worried that the worst thing possible is going to happen at any second. The only way I could overcome that was to believe in God’s loving providence: to actually live second to second with a great belief that everything was in some kind of play book for my life. It is when the waves start crashing in on us, when we think we are alone and will drown, that God says, “O you of little faith”. In that moment the Apostle Peter cried, “Lord, we are going to drown, don’t you care?” Whenever we take our eyes away from God, that is when we become anxious, scared, feeling we are on our own and will drown in worries: that is when we need to cry, “LORD!”
This is where suffering must be understood.
Luke 11:11-15 says, “What father among you, if his son asked for a fish, would hand him a snake? Or if he asked for an egg, hand him a scorpion?” Suffering as the saints know it has infinite worth. God allows suffering to come upon us for this reason, that we may fill up what is lacking in the wounds of Christ, and that we may actually participate in God’s salvific mission for the world. God works through us when we accept life’s difficulties
2 Cor 12:7-10: “Wherefore so that I should not get above myself I was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan to batter me and prevent me from getting above myself about this. I have three times pleaded with the Lord that it might leave me but he has answered me, “My grace is enough for you.” For power is at full strength in weakness. It is then about my weaknesses that I am happiest of all to boast, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me, and that is why I am glad of weaknesses, insults, constraints, persecutions and distress for Christ’s sake, for it is when I am weak that I am strong.”
Some examples in my life… God is in the details. To let go and realize every detail of the day is God’s will, will give you an extreme amount of peace. One day I realized I wasn’t going to be able to have a job because it was so stressful so I gave it up to God. I am a cosmetologist and I am supposed to take the next person on the computer list no matter what they want done, so I said, “Lord, please send me the people that I would be able to handle.” This went really well. Every time I went to the list I had the confidence that the Lord would help me with the next customer. He must really want me to have this job so I trusted.
I was in a religious community when I was having signs of schizophrenia and had decided to leave. I went into an extreme depression that landed me in the hospital several times. I didn’t know how a good God could push me away from him and not want a girl who dreamed all her life since the age of reason to be his spouse; to be incapable of it! How could a good God abandon me like that? “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” – that just wasn’t true – or, “She has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” – hmm, what about that one? I was telling God how to make me holy rather than trusting that he knew the best way. Then one day, I read that God sent the man who had asked to be his disciple to go home and be a witness to his family and home town – “How can I do that?” I thought. Well, I have had the chance to help those in the world with me more than I ever had in the convent with my peers, family and customers. I am planning on volunteering at a nursing home so I can talk to the infirm about God while doing their hair. I never had this in the convent…the chance to get close to people and love them. To get to know them, unlike I would ever have in the convent. That’s when I realized I was called to the single life and so be a witness.
One night I was crying hysterically over the fact I left the convent when my parents came home from Louisville with a note from a homeless person on the street to me. It said, “I have chosen you to bear fruit.” That was the quote at my clothing in the convent on my card. It made me realize that I have a mission greater than I could ever imagine as long as I did God’s will.
I was chosen, but how and for what? The most anxiety you go through is not knowing your calling in life and the second is not trusting and giving up your will to God. Mother Teresa said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”.
The teenager days are usually the most arrogant. I’m going to be rich, I’m going to change the world, I’m going to be famous. There is nothing wrong with having these goals, as long as we give our will to God, but many do not and go into despair when they do not accomplish what they desire. This has caused many college-age students to commit suicide because their goals are so high. Many people come out of religious life and this can be devastating to live a humble life of a lay person or the married state. In Abandonment to Divine Providence, Fr. Caussade explains that it is not in seeking holy things or circumstances, but seeking holiness in all our circumstances, that makes saints.
We will never have peace unless we trust that doing what is in front of us is God’s will and that doing it well (little detail by little detail) will take away the anxieties of life and will lead to greater, wonderful things. Think, when you offer your life to God in your daily duties, of how much more God in his generosity will give you to accomplish in your life. He is all goodness, so do you not believe he will give you a grand adventure – one that will bring you to heaven?
In living each moment the way God calls (the little details) God will give greater things for you to do. I love St. Therese because she taught the little way to heaven. Doing every little thing because it is most humbling and therefore more meritorious in the eyes of God. Once we realize the great worth of these small details, the more at peace we will be. Believe in PROVIDENCE! Just realize that our daily duties are so important when done with love – how much more at peace. God will always outdo us with love, and the more we offer up these small things, the greater the things he will call us to, and we will be at peace in his love.
Psalm 131, song of quiet trust: “O Lord my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high. I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me, but I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child that is quieted at its mother’s breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego: “Listen, put it into your heart, my youngest and dearest son, that the thing that disturbs you, the thing that afflicts you, is nothing. Do not let your countenance, your heart be disturbed. Do not fear this sickness of your uncle or any other sickness, nor anything that is sharp or hurtful. Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more? Let nothing else worry you, disturb you.”
Oh good, I thought to myself when the words Regina Caeli appeared in the list of chants for choir practice before my one and only conventual Easter. I know how to sing the Regina Caeli. It’s easy. You just go –
Until, that is, everybody else sings:
Easter in the religious life came on in a heady rush of music: the Exultet sung by Father at the vigil on Saturday evening, the vibrant Invitatory Psalm at Morning Prayer, and the familiar (thank heavens!) words of “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus!” at Mass on Sunday. In the midst of it all, though, was one song that initially didn’t seem to fit.
Christ the Lord is ris’n again! Christ hath broken ev’ry chain!
Hark, the angels shout for joy, Singing evermore on high, Alleluia!
All those exclamation marks make it look lively enough, but the melody to which we sang it is something completely different; slow, subdued and with a plaintive tone that somehow seems better suited to Lent than Easter.
It was sung by the community every day throughout the Octave, and I loved it, but couldn’t quite grasp what it was doing there amongst all the cheerful music that surrounded it.
Then I left the convent, and the next Easter, the mixture of joy and sorrow was easier to understand. The words were written by German Protestant theologian Michael Weisse in the 16th century, a time of upheaval and confusion among the faithful as the rift between Catholicism and Protestantism grew deeper. For his optimistic words, he chose a haunting ancient chant tone that expressed something of the sense of loss that must have filled Christianity as theological conflicts tore families and monasteries like his own apart. We rejoice in a world that is redeemed by Jesus’ death and Resurrection, it says, but with a sense of loss and a yearning that cannot be filled until His return at the end of time. In an incomplete and imperfect world, even joy aches. Will there ever be an Easter that’s not shadowed by the wish that I were celebrating it in the convent?
And yet, even through the sober melody, the hymn reminds us that Christ hath broken every chain! – the chains of our grief included. For all the sorrow of our world, every Easter is a sign that the turning point of history has already occurred, and every celebration of the Resurrection brings us another year closer to the Kingdom of God.
Now He bids us tell abroad, How the lost may be restored,
How the penitent forgiv’n, How we, too, may enter heav’n, Alleluia.
And, from the breviary for the morning of Holy Saturday: Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces, but He will heal us; He has struck us down, but He will heal our wounds; after a day or two He will bring us back to life, on the third day He will raise us and we shall live in His Presence (Hosea 6:1-3a).
“I, in my old age, strive after that which I was hindered from learning in my youth… therefore I blush to-day and greatly dread to expose my ignorance, because I am not able to express myself briefly, with clear and well-arranged words, as the spirit desires and the mind and intellect point out.” – From The Confession of Saint Patrick.
He wasn’t joking, either: modern versions of Patrick’s Confession are frequently prefaced with complaints about the clunky and ungrammatical Latin with which the translators have had to work. Nonetheless, God called him to be a bishop and a missionary – raised him, in Patrick’s own words, like a stone from a deep mire – to confound the wise and learned.
Like the (much) later Saint John Vianney, Patrick had a strong and decisive vocation, but struggled to acquire the practical skills needed to fulfill it: unlike his companions in formation for the priesthood, Patrick had had his education interrupted at the age of fifteen by a six-year period of slavery in the hills of Ireland, and spent the rest of his life knowing that he could never really make up for what was lost in that time. Beneath the saccharine songs about his subsequent triumphant return to Ireland as a free man and a bishop lie several harder realities that Patrick does not try to gloss over:
– He was in his early twenties when, in a dream, he saw the pagan peoples of Ireland begging him to come and walk among them once more, but between this dream and its fulfillment lay over a decade of priestly and monastic formation in Gallia (modern France). Every day of those long years he must have ached to begin the work that God had given him, but understood that he wasn’t yet equal to the task set before him. If you ever feel as though your whole life is on hold, waiting for God to pick up the other end of the line and tell you when and where to go, this may be a comfort: one of the greatest missionaries who has ever lived was in exactly the same boat, hearing the voices of the Irish people calling to him across the sea and waiting to return to them. “Thanks be to God,” he writes as an old man, “that after very many years, the Lord has granted them their desire!”
– He experienced the same wrenching separation from his family as anyone whose loved ones don’t support their vocation. He thanks the Lord for “the great and salutary gift to know or love God, and to leave my country and my relations, although many gifts were offered to me with sorrow and tears. And I offended many of my seniors then against my will. But, guided by God, I yielded in no way to them, not to me, but to God be the glory, who conquered in me, and resisted them all.” The first time he left, he was snatched from them abruptly by slave traders, but the second time, he left of his own accord to follow a burning sense of vocation that they could neither perceive nor understand – and none escaped without pain.
– Even with a clear vocation, Patrick didn’t find the long separation from home and family easy. For decades afterward, “though I could have wished to leave (the Irish church), and had been ready and very desirous to go to Britannia, as if to my country and parents, and not that alone, but to go even to Gallia, to visit my brethren, and to see the face of my Lord’s saints; and God knows that I desired it greatly. But I am bound in the spirit, and he who witnesseth will account me guilty if I do it, and I fear to lose the labor which I have commenced, and not I, but the Lord Christ, who commanded me to come and be with them for the rest of my life.”
Patrick was a Saint who learned to wait for his calling from God to be fulfilled in its own time, to accept with true humility the shortcomings and failures that he experienced, and to cope day by day with loss and loneliness. On his Feast day, may we ask him to help us in our own struggles to come nearer to God.
“But I beseech those who believe in and fear God, whoever may condescend to look into or receive this writing, which Patrick, the ignorant sinner, has written in Ireland, that no one may ever say, if I have ever done or demonstrated anything, however little, that it was my ignorance. But do you judge, and let it be believed firmly, that it was the gift of God. And this is my confession before I die.”
The day I left the convent, I thought, was the most difficult day of my life. I had to leave behind a life I patiently waited for and desired to live for such a long time. Yet, what proved to be even more of a challenge for me were the days that lay ahead. I was in the convent for only a short period of time; despite that, I had to transition back to life in the world. I had to venture into the world of secular college classes. I had to learn how to deal with the questions, comments and judgments of others who had no idea why I had to leave and who, of course, had no clue about the extreme interior struggles and doubts I was going through.
It has now been over seven years since I left the convent. The life experiences, growth and maturity, and self-knowledge that I have gained throughout these past seven, almost eight, years are invaluable. I can look back with a grateful heart and see the many ways the Lord has worked in my life: the relationships I was/am able to form, the education I was/am able to gain, the ministries I was/am able serve in. The busyness of my life, however, often conceals that deep ache in my heart. It is that deep-seated longing I still have for religious life, a longing which many of my friends who have left religious life have also expressed to me.
Not long ago I found myself, for probably the one millionth time, asking God, “Why?” I was weeping at the empty tomb, like Mary Magdalene, wondering where my Lord had gone. Overwhelmed with tears, I stood looking out the
window of my high rise apartment through miles and miles of the city and surrounding suburbs, crying out and wondering where He was. And then suddenly I knew that He was not somewhere out there but rather was standing next to me, like He has been these past seven, eight years. Just as He called me by name over seven years ago to leave the world behind and enter the convent, so He called me by name when it was time to leave, and even now, He continues to call me by name for what is to come.
Even through the sadness and tears, there is hope: hope for the future and what lies ahead. My time in the convent was a time of great grace and blessing and even though I am no longer there, in each and every day, in each and every task, there is purpose and grace and His love. Whether God will call me back to a convent in the future or will leave me in the world, I am comforted in the knowledge that He never abandons us but calls us by name.
“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare, not for woe! plans to give you a future full of hope. When you call me, when you go to pray to me, I will listen to you. When you look for me, you will find me. Yes, when you seek me with all your heart, you will find me with you, says the LORD.”Jer. 29:11-14a