A few weeks ago I (Cate) received an email with a unique and fun contribution to the blog – a post-leaving playlist. This submission from Catherine reminded me that I had my own list of songs written down somewhere – songs that had given me hope and emotional release in those months (and even years) after I left my community. Music is a powerful tool and can be a means of great healing.
Here’s what Catherine has to say:
Not sure about you, but I’m one of those people who likes to have a “theme song” or two for the significant moments and stages of my life, including entering and leaving religious life. I find that music helps me to connect with and process my emotions, make sense of all that’s going on and understand how I can respond to it.
So, here’s my “post-leaving playlist.” I’ve tried to include a mix that covers the spectrum of emotions and stages of processing that happens. Some of these are songs to cry to, others to dance to. Some are Christian, others secular. In all of them, there’s a note of hope and encouragement.
On February 1, 2014, I rode away from my community in my dad’s Honda Civic, which held all of my belongings. I chatted with my dad about what kind of job I could find in my hometown as we drove through the rolling hills of Southeastern Ohio. I hoped that I might still explore consecrated life, but for now I had to simply be a “regular” person.
The following day, February 2, I was the Godmother at my nephew’s baptism. It was also the World Day of Consecrated Life, which the lector did not fail to mention during the petitions at Mass. I won’t say that it was exactly sad for me in that moment, but it was certainly strange.
In the months that followed I would wrestle with the question of vocation and calling. No longer being “consecrated,” what was I? I took some comfort in knowing I was a daughter of the King and consecrated to Jesus through Mary, even if my calling didn’t have a specific name. But it was still hard. Something of my identity was missing. I wasn’t in a consecrated way of life or a missionary any more. I just was.
On that World Day of Consecrated life my baby nephew received the indelible mark of the Sacrament of Baptism. Which of those celebrations was more important? Baptism, by far! But sometimes I would forget that. Desiring a vocation that had a name, I would forget that I was called by name by my God, baptized into His family. If I was to be called to religious life, my vows would be a deepening of the vocation I received at Baptism. But even without religious vows, I still had a vocation at Baptism.
A religious profession, as beautiful and significant as it is, is still not one of the seven sacraments. It’s not my intention to devalue the vows and that beautiful vocation– but remind all of us that the vows that we made at Baptism (or that were most likely made for us) are sacramental.
It can be devastating to discover that we have not been called to commit ourselves for life to a vocation as a sister, nun, or consecrated woman, but nothing can remove the indelible mark of Baptism from our souls. Not leaving, not being asked to leave, not wondering and wandering, not growing older without clear purpose. Nothing.
It’s hard to have a vocation that doesn’t have a name or a form. It’s hard to be a “regular” person after aspiring to the “higher calling” of religious life. It can even feel like…a demotion in the Church.
But nothing could be further from the truth. My dear sister in Christ, as we wrap up this Lenten season and prepare to renew our vows – our Baptismal vows – at Easter, let us reflect on the meaning of that call. It does not need to be “fulfilled” by religious life—if that is not where we’ve been called to stay. In Baptism you have been called. You are known to Him by name. Your name. You are His.
I return “home” after the Christmas holidays with my family–a beautiful time that I am still learning to appreciate at it’s proper value. I savor the memory of this experience, yet the feelings are still so new–almost hard to embrace fully. It’s only the second Christmas for me since returning to lay life, after a full nine years of life in the convent. Unlike last year, I don’t wonder this year if I could ever go back to my convent, or any convent, back to the liturgical grandeur of the celebration of the birth of the Lord. However, though my family’s love warms my heart, and I soak it up gratefully, I do not yet feel totally at home again taking part in the family traditions.
The “home” that I’ve now returned to is the house I’m renting with two grad students, near the college I attended so many years ago. I love the smallness of this town, its familiarity, and the possibilities that being close to a college exude. These are possibilities of a future that on the one hand I want, and on the other make me hesitate–for I am not yet ready to embrace them.
On January 2nd, the birthday of St. Therese, I made it to 1 year and 6 months since leaving religious life. 1 year and 6 months. That is really not that long. I breathe a long, slow, and deep sigh of relief. Tears rise in my eyes, and simply hang there. I’ve been through so much. The questions within me no longer seem to be darkened by I thought I would be farther by now. They seem…well…normal. They are: What am I doing? What should I do next? Where am I going? Not only that, but who are my friends? Who should I call? With whom do I belong? These are big, and hard questions. And it’s such a grace and gift actually, for me, to be able to write about it.
Right now I have a part time job working at a local specialty grocery store. It has been good for me to just get my feet wet. I tried a full time job for a startup company earlier last year, and well, it didn’t go so well. I ended up quitting. I think I’m going to have to build up to a job just like I’m building up to a life. Slow but steady. Plunging might work for some people, but it’s just not for me.
What this piece is about however, and what I’d like to share with you, my sisters, is the astonishing realization that my reflections at this time have led to, and I simply wonder if you may share as well.
There is one thing I don’t understand: how am I staying sane in all this? I would expect that someone who is asking the questions I am, who is so deeply ungrounded as I am, would be deeply shaken! Well, I will not deny I have dealt with a lot of both anxiety and depression, but now I see this as absolutely part of the journey. I am not ashamed to seek the help of a therapist.
But what has helped me a great deal–and I recognize it now more starkly and with awe and gratitude–has actually been my experience in entering religious life. Whatever God did to my soul in giving it to Him, He has blessed, and made strong… so that I know that He is my God, always. I am grounded in Him.
It is precisely because of going into religious life that I am able to face this now. I’m certainly not afraid. I am at peace, deep within, and I know that nothing can take that away–because God is God. I think that this is the gift that God has given to me, through what I’ve offered Him. And the peace itself that He gives me is the reassurance that I have done the right thing all along. He, God, is the life of my life. I feel that truly–even though a lot of things have changed in my spiritual life, and dramatically so, throughout my journey. I think it’s only when you’ve left everything for the Lord that perhaps you know …not in an abstract sense but in a lived sense, what the Lord can be for you.
What St. Paul says in Philippians 4:12 resonates with me, especially through this rocky time of transition: “In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.”
Jesus’ own words also strengthen me, and I can make them my own, even though not in the sense that He says them as the Son of God. He says, “The one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone.” – John 8:29.
So I too feel like the Father is always with me, within me, and He will never leave me alone–through the times of sweetness but also in the darkest night. I trust Him. This is the ground I can stand on.
Though it is not easy, I find comfort in this prayer, shared with me by my spiritual director, and I pray it now for all of you, my sisters around the world. And I pray that you too will experience, if not today, then down the road, the gift that your gift to God can be back to you:
Trust in the Slow Work of God by Teilhard de Chardin
Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. Yet it is the law of all progress, that it is made by passing through some stages of instability, and that may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you. Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow. Let them shape themselves without undue haste. Do not try to force them on as though you could be today what time–that is to say, grace–and circumstances acting on your own good will will make you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new Spirit gradually forming in you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. Above all, trust in the slow work of God, our loving vine-dresser.
You know the way for me, You know the time,
Into Your hands, I trustingly place mine.
Your plan is perfect, born of perfect Love, You know the way, Your way is love
Eight years ago, I was a young novice, Sr. Mary Inez. I spent 19 months in the convent before realizing I was called to a married vocation. Today I am a happy wife and mom, but re-entering the world was a great struggle for me. Here is a poem about my experience:
Once outside the convent
You still long to be inside it
The white curtained walls
The ancient creaking floors
The silence and the song.
He drew me in and I followed,
Hungry for the final Word in treasures—
His secret gaze pierced me, pleaded silently:
I left everything to find Him,
My home, my job, my family—
Stepping out of the boat into the deep waters.
In return, He gave me the Cross,
That bitter cure-all for a thousand ills,
But also a taste of Heaven.
19 months in His garden, and then He says,
“Go home and tell your family all that I have done for you.”
I sat in my first job interview after leaving the convent. I remember clearly being asked, “What’s your five year plan?” by the financial lead of the organization. I mean this was a typical job interview question, but you may chuckle at the absurdity of the question if you asked a nun this question, which is what I was not too long prior. For a sister, your identity is in who you are, not what you do. As a religious, you are the bride of Christ. That is your identity.
In my monastery, you get assigned your new “job” every three years. You learn to have a peaceful acceptance of whatever it may be as the will of God, coming from the wisdom of the superiors. Even if you’re not too keen on the job, this is the daily obedience that you promise when you take vows. It comes with the lifestyle of a sister. For active sisters, these could mean moving to a whole new state for a teaching assignment every three years. For a cloistered sister, perhaps switching from your duties as the sacristan and helping with chapel ministries to the head cook for all the sisters. There is a detachment that is at first learned in religious life.
Detachment. Not a common word in our everyday lingo. What does it mean to you? It is very similar to St. Ignatius’ methods. A beautiful way of thinking of it is a desire to please God. A desire to focus on the things above not on the things below, no matter the consequences. It does not base questions on if you want or don’t want to do something. It is a detachment of self and the identity, job, salary, skills, etc. you held previously in the world to attach to the things above, to heavenly things. Pretty different from what we’re used to, huh?
For example, do you delight in your favorite ice cream? Of course. Do you jump for joy if given your least favorite ice cream? Why not? Sound like a crazy notion? The goal in this path of holiness as a religious is to be unattached from every human desire to only be attached to that of Christ and follow that which Christ lays before you. ‘Do I want this job?’ is not a question to be asked. ‘Does He want me to have this job?’ is a better question. If given prayerfully by your superiors, then yes, it is within His will and under the vow of obedience, you say yes. One sister once told me, “Stop thinking ‘Is this what I want?’ or ‘Is this what I think He wants?’ ” It is rather asking for a divine surrender to the Will of God. Trust. Jesus, I trust in Thee.
Saying ‘yes’ to Him and to this lifestyle is a daily dying to self. It is waking at 5 am everyday to join the sisters in chapel. It is rushing off to ring the bell 10 times per day to remind the sisters it is time for prayer, a meal, etc. because that is the task of the postulant. It is constantly watching your watch so you do not lead the sisters into the chapel late for their time of singing the Psalms in unison. Saying ‘yes’ is dusting the chapel three times a week since it is the task assigned to you. It is cleaning the bathrooms at the same time on Wednesdays with the novice mistress showing you spots you missed. It is watering the garden and pulling out weeds thinking that if your family saw you now they wouldn’t believe it!
Dying to self is receiving a package in the mail but asking for permission to keep it. You really desire to talk to a particular sister, but it is asking permission from your mistress to see if that is allowed. You want to speak during dinner prep but it is not the life or the call so you stay quiet. A sister needs a new glasses case and you would like to offer yours, but the exchange cannot go through you. The sister must speak to the novice mistress on your behalf to see if the exchange is allowed. Dying to self is getting up at 1:50 am three days a week to attend your middle of the night holy hour, losing sleep, but telling yourself it is worth it, to doze back to sleep until prayers a couple hours later.
You become like a child. Dying to self in little ways over and over. Making no decision for yourself. Every decision must be approved, run by your novice mistress. It is trust that He called you here and that He will give the grace of perseverance in each of these actions that keeps you going. You accept each little cross, rather, this different culture altogether, as a shedding of the old you and the growing pains of trying to live holiness in the radical way He has called you to. You see a transformation of yourself and see the secular version of yourself that once was being peeled away in this life you have chosen and that He humbly has given you if you wish to accept.
In the monastery I often wondered what it would look like to go back into the world for my first home visit, when I was usually immersed in the sanctity of perpetual adoration and song of praise, and how I would be able to handle the reverse culture shock. How would I go back to a world that was way too loud, sprinkled with evil, and try to live my life that had transformed so evidently? So here I was, applying for a secular job post monastery. So what did I answer the financial officer in my job interview for my five year plan? Thankfully, this was for a Catholic organization and someone else in the interview had left religious life long ago too. I remember collecting my thoughts and answering, “If you would have asked this question not too long ago I would have told you to be a religious sister, but now, my five year plan is to be a mom.”
It was not the secular answer most job interviews expect, in a world where job ranking, salary, and working up are emphasized. I said this with complete uncertainty of the road ahead. I had chosen to leave the monastery, I reminded myself. The pangs of ‘Did I fail?’ or ‘Did I leave what was my call because I could not handle the difficulties?’ rang strong in my ears. The uncertainty of the future and the possibility of the disappointment of who I was preparing to espouse echoed loudly. Trust. A level of trust I had never known before is what leaving the monastic way of life entailed to the core.
I pray this helps those understand the way of life a bit better and gives accompaniment to my sisters who also discerned out. Christ’s peace.
It’s now been about two and a half years since I left my monastery. Yes, it’s still my monastery and my sisters, but now is the time to share the rest of the story.
I had been in the cloister for one year when it was time to go on my week long silent retreat to prepare to enter the novitiate. Yes, a silent retreat in an already silent monastery, but everyone needs a retreat sometimes, to step away from people and figure things out a bit.
Anyway, I was preparing to receive my new name, Sr. Maria of the Immaculate Heart, the name that was second on the list of three names I gave the prioress. My feast day would be the Feast of the Immaculate Heart. I would be attending my Clothing or Investiture Ceremony and receive the beautiful white Dominican habit and blessed scapular, the white veil of novices, and the fifteen decade rosary on my left hip, the pillar for the Dominicans. I had submitted my reasons for wanting this, I had gone through my interview with the Council to make sure this was where I was to be, and the other sisters had voted that they felt this was my calling as well. I was on track. It was not until my time away on retreat that I began to truly reflect and dig deeper.
Six months prior I had my misgivings. Through prayer in another week long retreat I felt like I was supposed to be fighting this battle but in the world. Like Moses holding his arms up for the Israelites to win the battle (Exodus 17:11) , I felt the nuns were to be raising his arms while I was to be on the front lines, in the world, fighting a battle that would be coming in the Church. I didn’t know what that meant, but I asked, like I do in big moments in my life, for a sign. I was confused as to why I should leave, but I figured God would show me the way. I lay on my bed in my cell and prayed for a flower once again. I said, “Lord, if it’s true I am to go home, please send me one white lily.”
That same day I was swinging on our back porch swing just praying, thinking, and reflecting. My novice mistress was passing me and usually we are not to talk during this hour of personal prayer before supper, but she called me over to look at something. I went over and she pointed, “Look at that lily. Isn’t that funny?” Sister knows all about flowers, unlike me, and she said it was odd to see that little flower in December of all times. It was one white lily all by itself, so I talked to the prioress.
Sister said I could go home and to call my family. I called Dad. He heard the confusion in my voice as to not understanding why this all was happening. He told me, “Jamie, the devil will try to confuse and attack you. I don’t think you have peace with this yet. Our Lady brings peace and clarity.” I needed his advice. I walked back to Sister and said I would stay. I talked with a priest spiritual director as well who said to give it six months and so I stayed.
Things went along with their usual bumps, but I was doing fine. As the Investiture approached, I sat in my little hermitage. It was our one bedroom and bathroom trailer in our backyard for sisters to go on retreat. I prayed and came upon a stack of CDs. I popped Fiddler on the Roof into the Boom Box and just listened. It was in listening to the songs of my favorite musical that I reflected on giving up music, movies, musicals, and other little things I loved. It was listening to love songs and knowing I wouldn’t have an earthly husband that I had hoped for for so long.
Also on this retreat I made my way to the piano. As Christmas approached, I sat and played. I reflected on a Christmas where I could sit and play with lots of kids and family around me singing along to their favorite Christmas tunes. It was a different kind of Christmas joy, something else I yearned for but would not get. I was desiring a different vocation, the vocation of marriage. For me, I have to be all in. And I wasn’t. I spoke with another priest spiritual director who said not to rely on signs but rather to stay if you wake up everyday and this is where you want to be, so I decided to leave.
It makes it difficult when the prioress has not announced the news to the community yet and a sister comes up to you in adoration asking you to stand as she needs another measurement for the habit she’s sewing for you. Or when another sister interrupts your prayer time to ask about the organ songs you’ve been practicing for Christmas Mass that is approaching. Finally, after keeping my eyes down low for a couple days, the prioress made the announcement and the goodbyes began.
It felt like a break up with twenty-six women. This was unexpected for them and saddening. It was not a decision I had been mulling over for a long time and hiding from the sisters or my family, but rather the decision came suddenly but with great clarity and peace. I would miss these women for years and years. What a gift to have them in my life.
Twelve months after I left, I came home. I walked into my parents’ home on December 22, 2018, while my family was hosting our annual large party for the anniversary of my family’s conversion to the Catholic faith. I greeted my family and prayer warrior Grandpa, completely unsure of what the future would hold.