This is the first instalment of a three-part series on the Theology of the Body of Pope John Paul II, and its special meaning for women who have left the religious life.
“For my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9) Have you ever thought of these words, especially as you struggle day by day, or even moment my moment in your transition home from the convent? In my own life, my time of coming home from the convent helped me to see how utterly helpless I was, and there were times that I felt so overburdened with my fragility that I wondered how God would bring good out of it. While I believed the mystery of the cross – that God brings good out of every evil and weakness – I found such difficulty experiencing it in my own life.
I doubt I was the only person that experienced immense guilt, fear, shame, and acceptance when I came home. Honestly, speaking with many of the young women from my class who also left, it is a common experience. Even though I made the decision to leave the convent after much discernment, I constantly doubted myself if I did the right thing. Before I knew it, I was absorbed in fears of making any decisions due to an immense feeling of shame.
While I knew these were lies from the evil one, I could not seem to shake off all these struggles, even as months went by. It was then that I knew that that God was calling me to abandon all to Him and to let Him take my weakness. I knew that He had the most perfect plan for me from before I was born and so would take my weakness and use it for His glory. It was amidst all this that God reached out to me and healed me through St. John Paul II’s catechesis called Theology of the Body.
I came across Theology of the Body in St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Women” in a Catholic study group called Endow (Education on the Nature and Dignity of Woman), and this began to touch the deep recesses of my heart. Amidst my pain and suffering of trying to figure out who I was again, St. John Paul II encouraged me that I had an immense gift to give to the world as a woman. Through his letter to women, this saint led me to encounter the heart of God the Father in a profound way.
In my own life experience of coming home from the convent and adjusting, God called me to know ever more deeply of my immense dignity as His child, and to trust in His Divine Providence. When coming face-to-face with my own fears and inwardness, God touched me with the beauty of human relationships and what it truly means to love through Theology of the Body. I hope to share that with you in the coming posts of how this catechesis led to deep healing in my experience of coming home from the convent, along with how it might help you in your journey. I pray that in this blog series, God speaks to your heart in how he calls you to love and communion with Himself in your experience of coming home from the convent.
On the Feast of Saints Anne and Joachim, parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Elissa Jasko reflects on her vocation to motherhood and finding holiness within the family.
A child running by half clothed, a baby crying, bathwater puddles on the floor and toilet, a toothpaste painting all over the lower half of the mirror, and a frustrated child trying to put an upside down and inside out pajama shirt on like pants. This is a common scene at our house between 7:30 and 8:30pm. Chaotic? Yes. Unnerving? Yes. Beautiful? Absolutely. It is beautiful because if you look closer you may see a father helping one child brush her teeth while patiently listening to another enthusiastically describing a superhero, ninja turtle, firefighter who fights villains with tube sock nunchucks. You may hear a 2 year old quietly singing to the baby while trying hard to do it all “myself!” I hope you would see a mother closing her eyes, taking a deep breath and choosing to act in charity instead of frustration.
The family is a path to holiness. Siblings are one of the greatest gifts you can give your children. The family is a domestic church. I have heard each of these phrases many times. As parents, my husband and I have a continuing dialogue about all the choices we make for our family. During one recent conversation, we began to internalize what I think these phrases about family are trying to describe: the only goal that really matters is doing everything in love. It does not matter if our kitchen floor more closely resembles the before shot in a Lysol commercial or if we manage to pull off a Pinterest perfect birthday party for each of our children every year. What matters is taking every opportunity to teach our children to love God and others even when the baby is screaming. Even when water is dumped all over bathroom floor. Even when there is a month’s worth of Kid’s Crest artfully spread across the mirror. Even when we really just need the kids to get in bed so we can fold the laundry without the piles being used as step stools to get onto the couch. Instead of focusing on everything in our life that is not “going right” we need to use all of these naturally occurring opportunities to teach our children to love each other, to value people over task lists, and to have peace. Lord help us!
We pray that as we move toward our eternal destination, we prepare our kids to know Jesus and to let His Love into their hearts so it can overflow to everyone they meet. While this responsibility is huge, we are discovering that must be accomplished through minute by minute choices to “do small things done with great love.”
By Petra Stella
Are you one of the many former religious who will sit in Mass this Sunday hearing Father mention that it is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, and immediately feel that painful twinge in your heart? It probably feels like yet another painful reminder of the “Year Of Not Me” all over again!
It’s easy to fall into that trap… thinking this is not about you.
After all – this is the Year of Consecrated Life, and it’s the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.
But if you think this isn’t about you, you aren’t paying attention! You – and I – and all the women in our situation: we need the graces and guidance that will come of the World Day of Prayer for Vocations as much as anyone else… perhaps more than anyone else!
About 2 weeks before I returned back to the world, I was sick in bed with influenza, and remained in my cell for a few days. During that time, I re-read Christifideles Laici. At this stage I already knew I’d be approaching my superior about returning home when I was well and she was back from her retreat… and so I read it with very much a searching mindset. And with a great deal of hope and excitement, not yet tinged by the grief of loss that was to come after actually leaving.
As I read this beautiful gem from among the legacy of St John Paul the Great, I was struck by the important reminder that ALL of us are consecrated. Our Baptism is a consecration, and religious life is one very beautiful way of deepening that consecration. It is not the only way.
So how do I live out MY consecration? I may one day be called to marriage, or I may be called back to religious life down the track… but if I’m consecrated by virtue of my Baptism, then I need to be living out this consecration NOW… not just waiting to deepen it some way in the future. Christifideles Laici reminds us that there are many different kinds of workers in the Vineyard of the Lord, and there is much work to be done. How can I bear fruit if I stand around idle all day? I want to bear fruit for Him!!
I gave my “yes” once upon a time to the Lord when He asked. This “yes” hasn’t changed, and every so often on special occasions, I renew this “yes” to Him. Wrapped up in this response was a realisation that even though I thought I was assenting to religious life, I didn’t really know what the future would hold, but I said “yes” to it all – everything He asked of me, no matter how little, how big, how crazy. I meant it then. I mean it now. Like Therese, I choose all. My “now” is part of this all. I’m out in the world again because He asked me to be. He has a purpose in this, and He wants me to be fruitful. Yes, Lord. I choose and embrace this “now” in which I find myself. Bless the work I undertake out here in Your Vineyard. May You bring this work that You have begun in me to completion!
I would really recommend following the link above to the Vatican website and reading Christifideles Laici prayerfully, if you are seeking guidance as to how to live your “now” fruitfully. I’d also prayerfully read – and take comfort in – Chapter 15 of John’s Gospel. This advice was given to me by a wise friend last year, and it brought me much comfort and guidance in my own situation.
And so I exhort each of you – as you lend your voice to the many that are praying for vocations today… realise that YOUR vocation, whatever that is, is every bit as much the target of any resulting grace. 🙂 Today is a World Day of Prayer for YOU.
Today, as we celebrate the gift of Life we pray in a special way for the unborn children who are vulnerable to the threat of abortion. We also lift up mothers who have suffered from abortion or who have been pressured to do so, and that the rights of women may be respected – including the right to give birth to their child and the right to raise their children in a safe environment. We also pray for those who are involved in abortion and any attacks on the dignity of life, that the Lord will open their eyes to the gift of their own lives and those around them.
In today’s world we see so many attacks on life. We have heard most recently about the attacks on Christians in the Middle East and other atrocities. And even in our own country there are victims of trafficking, all kinds of abuse, domestic violence, euthanasia, mistreatment of the poor, the sick, and the disabled.
What can we do? What can I do? Where do we start and how can I even make a difference?
A simple answer came to me when I was visiting my family for the birth of my nephew. As I watched my sister, her husband, and their new son I was struck by the simplicity and the overwhelming beauty of life and love. I saw in the love of my sister and her husband the pouring out of the love of our Heavenly Father and the love of the Son returning it all back without reservation. Out of that love was born a new person, who embodies that love between them, as the Holy Spirit is created out of the love of the Father and the Son.
And if there could be so much love on earth, in one small hospital room, between
three people… how much more does the love of God surround us? As my sister looked down at her son, just seconds old, the pain was now forgotten. Only he mattered. And she didn’t hold the pain against her precious little one. That pain only made her more in love with him, and the suffering only made him belong more intimately to her who had waited nine long months to hold him in her arms.
Isn’t this a reflection of the love of Jesus for all of us? After he
poured himself out upon the Cross for us, he didn’t look at us with annoyance, shame, or guilt because we had “caused” him such pain. Rather, it only brought us closer to His Most Sacred Heart, and it only strengthened His love for each of us.
How precious must we be to God! How precious must you be to Him! Experiencing His love gives us the context to celebrate the gift of life and to reverence each life no matter the circumstance.
Even the greatest sinner and those who commit acts of violence, even they are looked upon as precious, and they especially are deserving of our love and prayers. So must we dare to love! Without reservation and without counting the cost we love even those who have hurt us. We can love them because they too are children of God.
I realized the truth of each person’s preciousness in the Eyes of God and how close He keeps each of us to His Heart as I looked down upon my nephew, only a few minutes old. The Lord will never let go of us even when we feel abandoned and alone. For any of you who have left Religious Life and feel that you have failed God, remember the mother who does not cease loving her child when he cries as an infant, or when he screams and has temper tantrums as a toddler, or when he gets in trouble or struggles with addiction as a teenager, or when he loses his job as an adult, or even if he fails to be there when she is dying. Her love is always and forever.
How much more then is the love of God, who loved us into being?
With the end of October, we conclude our themed posts about the lives of Leonie and Therese Martin. This last theme post shows an exchange of letters between the Martin sisters a year after Leonie left the convent for the third time in July 1895, aged thirty-two. The two letters from Leonie are found on pages 65-66 of A Difficult Life by Marie Beaudin-Croix, and the reply from Therese is from a copy of The Story of a Soul that is now in the public domain.
Leonie to Therese, 1st of July 1896.
My dear little sister, if only you knew how often I think of you, and how sweet these thoughts are to me; they bring me closer to God. I understand your desire to go to meet Him soon, to be completely lost in Him; I, too, desire this. But you, my darling, are ready to go to meet God; you will surely be well-received. But I will face Him empty-handed; and yet I have not the temerity to be afraid. Do you understand that? …
If only you knew how much help I need, if I am not to abandon myself to the pleasures and vanities of the world. All the good will in the world cannot prevent one from being almost imperceptibly drawn to them; and if one does not find death there, then at the very least, all one’s piety and love for Jesus are spoiled, and one has nothing left to offer Him but faded flowers – how many have I offered Him! Dear sister, you will prevent me from making my old mistakes, won’t you? I am so weak; you know how I rely on you.
I beg of you, ask God very specially to deliver me from my scruples; I am always turning in on myself, and this does me terrible damage, and hinders my attempts at perfection. You may be sure I am showing you my wounds as clearly as I can.
Your little sister, who loves you with all her heart,
Leonie to Celine, 9th of July 1886.
Only twenty days left in La Musse; I am not unhappy about it, although I have made the same life for myself here as in Lisieux. More and more, I see the meaninglessness of all that passes, and this does me good, gradually increasing my detachment; but there is always this sadness, deep within me, which I can never completely overcome. Although I feel that I am, for the moment, where God wants me to be, I suffer – I suffer terribly – and my exile seems very long to me. Only Jesus knows what it costs… When you write to me, my dear, give me all the news of my little Therese. Please, don’t hide anything from me; I want to know everything.
Therese to Leonie, 12th of July 1896.
MY DEAR LITTLE LEONIE, I should have answered your letter last Sunday if it had been given to me, but you know that, being the youngest, I run the risk of not seeing letters for some considerable time after my sisters, and occasionally not at all. I only read yours on Friday, so forgive my delay.
You are right, Jesus is content with a tender look or a sigh of love. For my part, I find it quite easy to practise perfection, now that I realise it only means making Jesus captive through His Heart. Look at a little child who has just vexed its mother, either by giving way to temper or by disobedience. If it hides in a corner and is sulky, or if it cries for fear of being punished, its mother will certainly not forgive the fault. But should it run to her with its little arms outstreteched, and say; “Kiss me, Mother; I will not do it again!” what mother would not straightway clasp her child lovingly to her heart, and forget all it had done? . . . She knows quite well that her little one will repeat the faultâ€”no matter, her darling will escape all punishment so long as it makes appeal to her heart.
Even when the law of fear was in force, before Our Lord’s coming, the prophet Isaias said, speaking in the name of the King of Heaven: “Can a woman forget her babe? . . . And if she should forget, yet will I not forget thee.” What a touching promise! We who live under the law of Love, shall we not profit by the loving advances made by our Spouse? How can anybody fear Him Who allows Himself to be made captive “with one hair of our neck”?
Let us learn to keep Him prisoner – this God, the Divine Beggar of love. By telling us that a single hair can work this wonder, He shows us that the smallest actions done for His Love are those which charm His Heart. If it were necessary to do great things, we should be deserving of pity, but we are happy beyond measure, because Jesus lets Himself be led captive by the smallest action. . . . With you, dear Leonie, little sacrifices are never lacking. Is not your life made up of them? I rejoice to see you in presence of such wealth, especially when I remember that you know how to make profit thereby, not only for yourself but likewise for poor sinners. It is so sweet to help Jesus to save the souls which He has ransomed at the price of His Precious Blood, and which only await our help to keep them from the abyss.
It seems to me that if our sacrifices take Jesus captive, our joys make Him prisoner too. All that is needful to attain this end is, that instead of giving ourselves over to selfish happiness, we offer to our Spouse the little joys He scatters in our path, to charm our hearts and draw them towards Him.
You ask for news of my health. Well, my cough has quite disappeared. Does that please you? It will not prevent Our Lord from taking me to Himself whensoever He wishes. And I need not prepare for that journey, since my whole endeavour is to remain as a little child. Jesus Himself must pay all its expenses, as well as the price of my admission to Heaven.
Good-bye, dearest one, pray to Him without fail for the last and least of your sisters.
The following excerpt is from Collected Little Flower Works by Albert H. Dolan O.Carm, published in 1944. An American Carmelite priest, Father Dolan travelled across France in the 1920s, and managed to charm, wheedle, and shamelessly beg interviews from just about everyone who had known Saint Therese while she was alive. His incredible persistence has paid off: almost a century later, we have the accounts that he wrote of his interviews with Pauline, Marie, Celine and Leonie Martin at the Carmelite and Visitation monasteries. This is his encounter with Leonie…
In a few moments an elderly Sister entered the parlor. It never occurred to me that it might be Leonie, but I inquired her name and to my great surprise, I found that it was Leonie. We are inclined to think of the Little Flower’s sisters as being of the same age as she was when she died, twenty-four, but they were all older than she and she has been dead now for twenty-nine years. Leonie is 61 years of age now. She is thin and short and dark and her face, at least when it is in repose, is not especially attractive or distinguished. In fact the personal appearance of Leonie would be disappointing were it not for three redeeming features: bright, black eyes full of kindness and amiability, a most attractive and pleasing smile, and a most courteous and charming manner. It was easy to understand why the Little Flower’s father always called Leonie “My good Leonie.” She was goodness and kindness itself, and throughout the interview there was always that willing readiness to do everything asked.
I explained my work in America and she was most interested and asked many questions about the Little Flower Society. Leonie was very pleased with the design of our reliquary which I showed her, the reliquary being in the form of a golden rose branch, each rose of which contains one of the five major relics of the Little Flower. I asked her if she would autograph the picture which had already been autographed by her three sisters. She agreed and I passed the picture to her through the bars of the grille and when she returned the picture she gave me with it a little relic of the Little Flower.
Then, knowing that she had been present in the Little Flower’s girlhood when Saint Therese was miraculously cured by the smiling statue of the Blessed Virgin, I said to her, “Sister, did you see that smiling vision of our Blessed Mother when Therese was cured?”
“No,” she answered.
“But you were in the room with her, were you not?” I questioned.
“Yes,” she replied, “but I saw nothing. Marie saw everything because she was kneeling at the head of the bed next to the Little Flower, whereas I was kneeling at the foot of the Little Flower and Therese had taken such a sudden turn for the worse that I, thinking that she was dying, buried my head in the bedclothes, weeping and praying at the same time, and so I saw nothing until we all saw a few moments later that she had been instantly cured.”
Then I said to her, “Sister, are you not lonely here sometimes in this convent so far from your other sisters?”
She answered, “No, Father, I am where God wants me to be and I wouldn’t be imitating my little sainted sister if I were to be sad in doing God’s will. Of course all who leave home are a little lonely sometimes, n’est-ce pas, Father, but it is necessary to smile, n’est-ce pas? And the Little Flower helps me to smile.”
I said, “But Sister, do you not regret sometimes that you did not enter the Carmelite Convent instead of the Visitation Convent? It seems to me that if I had a sister who had become a saint and who had made a convent famous for its sanctity and had three sisters in that convent, I would regret that in my youth I had not entered that convent. Do you not feel that way?”
“No, Father, I have no such regrets because I had no vocation to the Carmelite Convent but to the Visitation rule and instead of regrets I have nothing but gratitude to God for having given me my Visitation vocation which I love.”
I then said, “I suppose, Sister, that the Little Flower bestows many favors upon you, her sister.”
“Yes,” she answered, “many, many favors.” And then, with a twinkle in her eyes, she added by way of a “come-back” to my doubts about her happiness in the Visitation Convent, “And not least of the favors she gives me, Father, is to preserve my love for my Visitation vocation.” All this was said with the most charming gentleness and that ever-present exquisite smile which gave her some resemblance to the Little Flower in spite of her advanced age of 61.
I then asked her to write a little message, a little spiritual bouquet, in her own handwriting, as a souvenir of my interview with the sister of the Little Flower. She readily agreed and asking the loan of my fountain pen, wrote as follows, “I shall daily ask my little sainted sister, Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, to bless your mission of promoting devotion to her amongst the Americans.” She signed her religious name, which is “Sister Frances Therese,” and under it, at my request, she wrote her family name, “Marie Leonie Martin.”
Then I asked her would she sent a message to the members of the Little Flower Society in America and to all lovers of the Little Flower. Unlike the other three sisters, she didn’t hesitate a moment. She must have been asked similar questions before because immediately she said, “Give them this message, Father: tell them that if we would please the Little Flower, we must be humble as she was, and we will be humble if we will repeat frequently every day the ejaculation, “Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto Thine.”
The Little Flower’s sister’s message to us, my dear friends, will bear many a meditation and much pondering. Let us heed that message; we may indeed be sure that we will not be proud or haughty, if we say frequently every day, “Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto Thine.”
Leonie had nothing more to say that is important and I left the Visitation Convent with a prayer of thanksgiving in my heart to the Little Flower for having made it possible to talk at length with all four of her sisters.