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
I experienced God’s indisputable sense of humour (hey – He’s the AUTHOR of humour!) on the day that I left the convent. Through a strange act of Providence, I was rostered to do the First Reading at Mass with the Community on the morning that I left. Attending Mass was my very last act in Community – afterwards, I was whisked away to gather my things, eat a quiet breakfast and prepare to leave for the airport, whilst the rest of the community all went to community breakfast.
The fact that I was the reader for the day meant that I absolutely couldn’t become distracted or zone out during the reading. The significance of every word I read is even still with me. But what has me gobsmacked (yes, even now!) is the particular reading it was that day – Is 62:1-5. Here is a snippet from it:
“No more shall people call you ‘Forsaken’ or your land ‘Desolate’, but you shall be called ‘My Delight’ and your land ‘Espoused.’ For the Lord delights in you and makes your land his spouse. As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so shall your God rejoice in you.”
I really don’t think it was an accident that this particular Scripture passage was the reading for my last day wearing a religious habit, responding to a religious name, and belonging to a religious community. I think He had a message of comfort, and hope and deep, intimate love for me that day, one to carry within my heart for the rest of my life. Perhaps He also intended this message for each of you – my brothers and sisters in Christ who have experienced similar life changes of late in “discerning out” of your religious order or seminary.
Those questions that so many of us ask upon returning to the world: does God still love me? Doesn’t He want me to have an intimate relationship with Him anymore? If I have to be out in the world, can I still make my life all about God? Can I still bring others to Him as a lay member of the faithful?
This reading is His answer to me…
… and maybe to you as well?
He calls each of us to intimacy with Him. And even if we are not being wed to Him in the same mystical sense described in Canon 607, there is still a spousal element to our relationship with Him, by virtue of our membership in the Church, His Bride, for whom He freely laid down His life.
“Religious life manifests a wonderful marriage brought about by God… a gift of self by which their whole existence becomes a continuous worship of God in love…” ~ from Canon 607
But aside from all of that, He is my Builder and my God, and HE DELIGHTS IN ME!! *shakes head* I still don’t get that! It’s a mystery, but I trust that it is true. He delights in you too.
To conclude, here are some passages to sit with; as scattered as they might seem at first glance, they unite in a very definite, and comforting, message of hope and promise:
Mt 28:20 | Songs 3:1-4 | Jer 29:12-13 | Is 54:4
One can view the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus from either a cosmic or a personal viewpoint.
From a cosmic viewpoint, the Resurrection is the ultimate triumph of God’s love and power over the forces of evil, whether seen as human or Satanic. The failure of the woman and Adam in the garden becomes the happy fault, the necessary evil which is wiped away by the bloody sacrifice of Jesus, the Son of God. As he left the tomb, he stomped upon the head of the serpent who now has no power to destroy us humans. The gates of the garden have swung open and we humans may now return to paradise to where we were originally destined. God’s love has triumphed over human venality and selfishness, the sources of evil and man’s inhumanity to man, the causes of so much human pain and suffering. And while this world has not passed away and evil still roams the earth, there is now the hope of overcoming evil and of living an eternity of bliss.
From a personal viewpoint, the Resurrection gives meaning to our every day. Even if we wake up in pain, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, we can believe in God’s love, we can expect healing. Without the Resurrection, the Crucifixion merely mocks our suffering; with the Resurrection, the Crucifixion says I love you: I love you so much I would undergo all this for you so that, whether you are happy or sad, in pain or not, limping or dancing, you can know I understand and your pain is not the end of the story. There is hope.
Resurrection is around the corner. You can believe in that, you can trust in my love, you can look forward to better days, and in that way ease your pain. The Resurrection says don’t give up. We must not only take up the cross to follow Jesus; we must also take up the Resurrection!
By Fr. Benjamin Russell, O.P.
Fr. Benjamin served for many years as the Formation Director of the Central Dominican Province of St. Albert the Great in Chicago. He is now enjoying semi-retirement with the Friars of the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana.
Lately, my nephew has been working on potty training and he has had a few incentives proposed to get him going to the bathroom in the toilet. When he goes #2, he gets some ice cream. And his parents told him that if he did it multiple days in a row in the toilet, they would get him a fish.
For the last few days he has done this with a great deal of success.
So he got a bucket of water out of the kiddie pool in the backyard and proudly dragged it up to Mom and Dad and told them he had the water ready because he knew he was getting a fish. Mom and Dad were surprised because, though he had been doing well, they didn’t think it was quite long enough for the fish reward. However, the amazing cuteness of the situation won them over. They made plans to go to the store and purchase a fish.
Situations like this make me think of God the Father. Does He have gifts He wants to give us? Yes. Can we encourage Him to do that a little sooner by being super cute (a.k.a. child-like)? I would think so.
Going back to the fish, what loving parent could deny such a request? My brother and sister-in-law intended to eventually get a fish for my nephew, but he helped move the process along with his humble and expectant request. I’ll bet God is similar.
I, on the other hand, at times seem to demand things from God and throw temper-tantrums. Do I give in to my niece or nephew when they throw a fit? Nope. Family rule: “You never get what you want when you throw a fit.” And yet I do that to God.
To continue the story, the fish was purchased and brought home that night with great fanfare. The kids went to bed excited. Sadly, the fish died about one hour later. When Mom and Dad, tired from a long day, discovered the dead fish, what was their reaction? “We have to go to the store tonight and get a new fish.”
If two human beings are so anxious to please their child who is trying so hard to be potty trained, wouldn’t a God who loves us infinitely desire to give us so much more? And yet I have trouble believing it.
I’ve learned so much about God and the spiritual life through children. How about you?