“The Little Flower of Jesus”… this title and blessed saint certainly touched my heart as a little girl before I even knew how to read her story. Since I only ever wanted to be a nun (even before I knew what it was) it was inevitable that this young, gentle-looking nun in my Fr. Lovasik Picture Book of Saints would attract me. Had I known how my life would unfold, perhaps I would have gone more for Leonie (or someone who at least seemed to struggle with their vocation) as a role model and patroness. But since Therese had managed to find me first, this “greatest saint of modern times” had gotten herself another devotee in the enamored heart of a little girl with big dreams.
At first, Therese was my “secret patroness” because I knew pretty much everyone loved her and so I resolved to love her more than anyone but not let anyone else know (you see how this has changed drastically)! I wanted to follow her example as closely as I could.
I was 15 when I became convicted that I too was called to Carmel and I probably would have gone straight to the Holy Father as well were it not for the fact that I didn’t feel ready. I was told that one could enter at the age of 17 if she had a High School Diploma and her parents’ permission. I had my goal! But my heart was constantly in Carmel and I became very impatient with the waiting. Therese had been my confidante over the years because I felt that she understood better than most people what it was like to desire Religious life from a young age, and so I went to her with my impatience as well. She had an answer for me. I read how she had spent her own time before entering Carmel (though I mentioned to her that she only waited 3 months while mine became nearly 3 years!):
“I was unable to hold back my tears at the thought of such a long wait… I really want to believe I must have appeared unreasonable in not accepting my 3 months’ exile joyfully, but I also believe that, without it’s appearing so, this trial was very great and made me grow very much in abandonment and in other virtues.” (Story of a Soul, Ch. 6)
She said, I understood the value of the time being offered… and she spent it in breaking her own will and loving very much through “little nothings”. (Here in lies the secret to her rapid growth in holiness, I believe.)
Two years passed, not nearly as well spent as hers no doubt, yet there was a small dream I had not yet attained before entering the cloister. Like Therese had, I wanted to make a pilgrimage to the “Eternal City”, and while there, I could not pass up the opportunity to see experience Lisieux, France! I would have no one but Therese as my guide for, while visiting the Churches and Holy places of Rome, Assisi, Paris and Lisieux, I devotedly carried with me Story of a Soul. Everything she had experienced I wanted to as well and since my heart was longing for Carmel throughout I felt that our hearts were indivisibly united by desire and empathy. Naturally, Lisieux was the highlight for me as I walked the grounds and re-lived the scenes of my heroine. I felt so close to her there and thought I was truly following in her footsteps, for everything she loved, I loved. (God only knows how far my soul was from being as pure and holy as hers). Somehow, I knew that she had helped me come to this place, desire Carmel and that now she would walk with me through those doors still.
When that day finally came, it was evident that she had been with me for, though I had not chosen the date, I entered on January 2nd, (the Birthday of St. Therese and my deceased baby sister, Gemma Therese)! They held my hands as I was “born” into that new life.
As you have all most likely experienced postulancy, I have no need to explain how you once again become a child in every way. This is when the spirituality of my patroness really came alive for me. To be a child… to be love in the Heart of Church… to be a hidden soul… to be a Victim of Merciful Love! Of course, with my ideals and youthful zeal (I entered only a month before my 18 birthday); this last devotion appealed to me most of all. I, too, wished to offer myself using the beautiful words that she did in her Act of Oblation (see Appendix from Story of a Soul). I gave myself to the life of Carmel and its sacrifices with much vigor, striving so hard to follow my sister Therese and become a saint myself. I believed I knew what a “perfect Carmelite” was and I constrained myself to follow this.
My little Act of Oblation was accepted, though not in the way I imagined it should be and with much ignorance of the real sacrifice Our Lord would ask of me. I became ill shortly after making my First Profession. I thought, All right then. If Jesus is going to allow me to suffer then I will do it like Therese and hope that I too would be brought to Heaven speedily. Suffering was not as glorious or easy as I had imagined and though I waited for the final blow, it did not come in the way expected. As my mysterious illness progressed I became unable to live as the other sisters did (as a good Carmelite did) and with this I struggled. I read and re-read the analogy St. Therese made of the little bird who gazes at her Divine Sun and sees the great eagles (saints) soaring towards It, while she cannot fly. This little bird is not discouraged, but fixes her gaze on the Sun of Love and does not look away, even when dark clouds conceal It from view. The eagles take pity and come to her defense against the demons who would prey upon her, for she is destined to be the prey One who will catch her up and carry her with Him to the “inaccessible light.” This gave me courage to believe that, even in helplessness, I could be Love in the Heart of the Church.
The opportunity for the real oblation came when, to my great surprise, I was suddenly told that I was not meant to live this way and should return to my family to heal and discern God’s will for my life. I couldn’t believe it. This was my dream! Sure, I was struggling but wasn’t that just my cross? I complained to Our Lord, and He once again sent Therese to console and enlightens me. This time it was with her story of the Ball of the Child Jesus. This plaything allowed itself to be pierced and thrown in a corner by Him, deflated, yet it was at peace. I realized that I had to allow my grand ideals and plans for my life to be pierced through and deflated as well and only then would I find the true peace of being completely His! In my heart I prayed, “Lord, it is dark on this path, but I wish to close my eyes and place my hand in yours. Lead me and do with me what you like. I trust you.” I left Carmel with such peace and joy that it continues to amaze me when I reflect upon it. At last I knew the joy that Therese had experienced in her Act of Oblation, in her suffering, in her struggles. Her trust in the Loving Father from her child-like heart was so great that even being “pierced and cast aside” could not shake her. She knew that He still always loved her, that even when all seemed lost and she abandoned, He was only sleeping in her boat. She would not wake Him, but let Him sleep as the storm raged. My boat had started to drift in a different direction than I had wanted and Therese showed me that I could not steer it (no matter how much I wanted to be a certain way). She’s always been in the boat with me, I cannot explain it any other way and she has guided me lovingly to see my own littleness and allow the Father to be my Greatness! Instead of a role model, Therese has become a friend, a sister, a mother and I know she is not done teaching me. I pray that now I may say with her, “My one purpose then would be to accomplish the will of God, to sacrifice myself for Him in the way that would please Him.
For a long time I have not belonged to myself since I have delivered myself totally to Jesus, and He is therefore free to do with me as He pleases.” (Story of a Soul, Ch. 10)
At Mass one morning, it dawned on me that I had forgotten a service opportunity downtown. Forgetting the miracle taking place before me, all I could think about was how lazy I was for spending a Saturday lounging and catching up on my own life while there are people suffering and in need.
But then I thought about it for a minute. Ok, do I even remember the first reading? No, good thing it was mentioned in the homily! At least one of the letters of St. Paul was mentioned, so I assume that is what was read. Am I being present to the Lord who is deserving of all my love? Am I grateful that He has brought me to receive His Love in this beautiful old Dominican Chapel? Well, I was then!
I started thinking about charity, and how sometimes I feel motivated towards works of charity not because of love, but because of a need to feel good about myself. As I continue my spiritual and psychological healing and readjusting to “the world,” I notice that I am sometimes motivated to serve others because interiorly I feel a certain emptiness. And this emptiness always seems to return until I busy myself more with work, helping someone, or being “useful” in some way, shape, or form.
This little light is another part of what God has been trying to tell me about the concept of identity, especially after such a life-changing transition. I was reminded that my identity is not based upon how productive I am, what I “am” to others, how helpful or useful I have been, etc. etc. I am not necessarily “better” because I have done “more”, or “worse” because I have done “less”.
During the walk home from Mass, I was thinking about how charity/love is first given by the Lord, who is the only One who can fill that emptiness, and then, after His love permeates our whole being, we can be love for all. The Lord also provides us with MANY opportunities to practice charity. It doesn’t have to be a set day or time or number of hours or even a scheduled service opportunity (as good as those things are, and as much as I should try and take advantage of them!). He, however, is present in every soul we encounter, and therefore we can reverence Him in everyone we encounter and everyone we keep in prayers. I thought of Mother Teresa, and contemplated what she might say. The image that comes to mind is that of light. To everyone entrusted to our prayers we can keep vigil, lighting a candle in the sanctuary of our hearts, and on the altar we can sacrifice our prayers, works, time, etc.When I was a block away from my house I saw two figures standing just outside my house, clothed in white with a tint of blue. It couldn’t be… yes, it was. Two Missionaries of Charity walking the opposite way down the same street. This circumstance isn’t extremely out of the ordinary, given that there is a Missionaries of Charity Convent about a mile away. However, I knew that God’s Providence was stirring something within my soul, urging me to take this concept to prayer… and to Leonie’s Longing.
Both in and out of the Convent it can be easy to become so busy with giving that there is no room to receive the other or the charity of others. I remember feeling so worthless as a Postulant, when my responsibilities were reduced to making my bed, vacuuming the parlor, and occasionally pouring water for breakfast! And after leaving the Convent I had a hard time accepting myself without possessing some sort of work or project or service to another. My identity was still rooted in what I did.
I have learned from Blessed Mother Teresa, whose Feast we celebrate today, that charity will naturally flow out of a heart given to God. May you receive the Love of Christ today so that you may be Christ to the world!
I pray that you will understand the words of Jesus, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Ask yourself “How has he loved me? Do I really love others in the same way?” Unless this love is among us, we can kill ourselves with work and it will only be work, not love. Work without love is slavery.
“Little things are indeed little, but to be faithful in little things is a great thing.”
By Cora Cantata.
If you have, in any way, ever felt rejected, dumped or abandoned by Christ, especially by being asked to walk away from religious life, either by your Superior or by God in your personal discernment, I am writing this blog for you.
He was the One whom you trusted to love you unconditionally, with whom you could be completely vulnerable without ever being told that you are not good enough, was He not? And yet, here you are, confused, alone and broken. I too, have encountered and wrestled with this emotion and brokenness since I left the convent over two years ago. However, after I humbly offered up my woundedness many times, confessing that I felt rejected and even accusing the Lord of abandoning me, He finally got through to me. As I listened, He spoke clearly to my heart a message that has given me great peace and consolation. I now feel convicted to console you and tell you that I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).
I have always felt that my experience of living and leaving religious life was much like Peter experiencing the Transfiguration and saying to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents.” I will stay here, make this my home and my life, here where the presence of your Divinity is so evident and intimate. Likewise the Father responded, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” But Jesus came and touched (me), saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid,” (Matt. 17). Then I was lead down from the mountain and back into the world filled with people who have never experienced this Epiphany, and can not understand the ache of losing that vision, that glimpse into the Divine. However, Christ’s mission could not have finished had they had not left. Furthermore, Jesus did not stay on the mountain while banishing Peter, James and John, but went into the world with them to complete the good work that He began.
As it turned out the Bible verses that spoke to my heart and convicted me to enter religious life had a tendency to add insult to injury after I had left. I feel that it is easy to fall into the temptation of believing that we no longer have a calling. If God really called me to enter the convent, He has since un-called me, changed His mind and “hung up,” so to speak. There is no longer a plan for me. My plot in life is now to float out here in this abyss of unconsecrated singleness. But wait, God says, “For I, the LORD, do not change, and you, sons of Jacob, do not cease to be” (Mal 3:6); “But the plan of the LORD stands forever, the designs of his heart through all generations” (Ps 33:11). This must mean that God never changed His mind or His plan. From all eternity He knew every step we would take. Everything is Divine Providence and we have to trust that it is for our greater good because God is all Good and Holy.
Sometimes He just waits until we settle and believe that we’ve found our place and purpose to take us by the hand and say, “Talitha koum; Little girl, I say to you, arise!” (Mark 5:41). I will allure (you) now; I will lead (you) into the wilderness (Hosea 2:16). Where is the wilderness more wild, more lonely, more bare than in the world where Christ and his followers often go either unnoticed or hated and rejected? However, Jesus encourages us, saying, “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you; plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope. When you call me, and come and 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 I will let you find me (Jer 29). Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine, because you are precious in my eyes and honored, and I love you. Fear not, for I am with you. All who are called by my name I created for my glory; I formed them, made them: You are my servant whom I have chosen to know and believe in me and understand that I am he. See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Is 43).
See, I am doing something new! He is not un-calling us but calling us to something new, something greater. Religious life may be a higher calling but it is a calling that we cannot call ourselves to. We will only be fulfilled when we submit to our calling. What does it matter if your soul is like a thimble or a cup, so long as it is full? No matter what state in life, career, suffering or joy you are experiencing trust that His love, will, and heart remain the same. Every single day He is present and waiting in the Eucharist, calling, “Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come.How beautiful is your love. For you have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride; you have ravished my heart with one glance of your eyes and I thirst, for you,” (ref. Songs &. John 19:28). My sisters, we experienced the Epiphany for a reason and it was meant to transfigure us. We are called to go into the world and reflect the radiance, the joy and the light of a God who’s love is Divine, unconditional and never changing.
And (Mary) became three years old, and Joachim said: Call for the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled, and let them take every one a lamp, and let them be burning, that the child turn not backward and her heart be taken captive away from the temple of the Lord. And they did so until they were gone up into the temple of the Lord.
And the priest received her and kissed her and blessed her and said: The Lord hath magnified thy name among all generations: in thee in the latter days shall the Lord make manifest his redemption unto the children of Israel. And he made her to sit upon the third step of the altar. And the Lord put grace upon her and she danced with her feet and all the house of Israel loved her.
(From the Protoevangelium of James, Chapter VII.)
All things considered, the idea of a religious vocation is often a lot harder for parents than it is for the young person who has fallen in love with God. Saints Anne and Joachim brought Mary to the Temple with joy, but many other parents wave goodbye at the train station or airport with an aching heart, wondering whether their daughter will be happy in the convent, and whether they will be able to live with the separation that she has chosen. One essay by a Sister, published in the book Why I Entered the Convent (1954), describes the difficult weeks leading up to her departure in a way that many who have felt called to the religious life will recognise:
God really wanted me, and I really wanted Him. But the crux of the whole matter, then, was to do something about it. In almost every narrative, particularly in “success stories,” – and definitely in this particular one – here is the precise point where the obstacles begin to appear, or where, as the melodramatist says, “the plot thickens.”
Actually, “thickens” is a very thin word to describe the obstacle that was for me the most formidable one. For the first time in my life my parents and I could not understand each other. We had always been affectionately and intimately “the Big Three.” Division was a new and painful experience. They saw separation where I sought soul-deep union; they knew only sacrifice where I would reap fulfilment; for them it seemed the end while for me it was a most wonderful beginning.
When those whom you love dearly and who love you even more cannot share your desire – or worse, misinterpret and oppose them – it takes high courage and nothing short of divine grace to keep on desiring. The sharp conflict of loyalties to Christ and to them waged an almost shattering battle of mind against heart, of faith against feeling.
Entering a convent is hard and always has been, for the woman and for her family. Even though you’ve returned to the world, God will surely remember the sacrifice – however reluctant – that they made in remaining behind as you tested your vocation in a religious community.
If God permits His grace to flow to others through her, they have helped to put the channel at His disposal. He is the Potter, but they have contributed the clay. Best of all, they know that with our common loyalty to, and generosity with, God now during life will some day be a major cause for the “Big Three” being wondrously united for all eternity, with each other and with Him.
Lord, God of our fathers,
You bestowed on Saint Joachim and Saint Anne
this singular grace
that their daughter, Mary,
should become the Mother of Your Son, Jesus Christ.
Grant, at their intercession,
the salvation that You promised to Your people.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, amen.