Staring at the Crucifix, I cannot help but notice that there is an empty space on each side, as if for another person. I remember when I first entered the novitiate it was customary to set a small crucifix on top of your bed after making it every morning.
One time, I got really sick and had to lie down after breakfast. A sister kindly accompanied me to our common bedroom to help me out. As she was getting the bed ready, she said, “Jesus, it’s Your time to rest; make room for her because being in bed is her biggest cross. So it is now her turn.” (I really did hate being in bed!) As she set the crucifix aside, I looked at her and said, “Please don’t tell Him to leave me alone in the cross. There is an empty side just for me; we can share it. We become one through the cross. As Saint Paul said, ‘I want to complete in my flesh what is lacking in His passion.’”
I don’t know where that thought came from. At that, we both just looked at each other and smiled. The sister helped me get in bed and then left. As time went on, we would remind each other of that day, and whenever we would make our beds, we would kiss both sides of the crucifix, hoping to become worthy of sharing the cross with Jesus. It became our thing. A few years later, I heard a priest say in a homily, “There is no life without crosses, and there are no crosses without Christ.” And it reminded me of that day in the novitiate’s dorm.
Now, whenever the burden seems overwhelming and the cross too heavy to carry, these thoughts come back to my mind. It is comforting to know that we are not alone; Jesus is there with us and for us. Even though the pain (moral, spiritual, or physical) does not necessarily go away, it is through the cross that we unite ourselves to Him. In whatever state of life He has called us to, we belong to Him, and He is our ultimate end. And If the cross still feels too painful, we can remember that at the foot of the cross was Mary, the Mother of Jesus—and our Mother.
Jennifer shares her magnificat of what God has done in her life since leaving the monastery. She battled depression and anxiety, but through all of this, she has grown so much. She’s not called to be a nun, and that’s okay. God has called her to marriage, and this is the vocation through which she will serve Him.
Jennifer wanted to be a nun since she was 14, and she put her all into it. Sometimes we feel so sure about something, but God has another plan. It’s hard to let go. Jennifer offers encouragement to all who are struggling with letting Him lead.
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.
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
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.
I was on a very difficult discernment visit with a community, when a priest in confession assigned me to pray Psalm 23 as my penance.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . .”
As a 22-year old cradle Catholic, the words were so familiar that they had lost their meaning. But in this moment, they really took on new significance. In the midst of this stressful period, I felt Jesus reassuring me that he was there with me even though I didn’t feel it. He had led me here; he had started this journey with me and he would see me through.
He guides me along right paths for His name’s sake,
Even though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death,
I shall fear no evil, for you are at my side. . .
As I continued to read, in the chapel, before the giant crucifix that the community had behind the altar, the final verses of the psalm struck me like a lightning bolt:
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup overflows. . .
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
This hit me strongly, with both peace and anticipation. I sensed that the Lord was really getting my attention about something. I deeply felt a call from him, that despite the difficulties, he truly was calling me to enter this community and “dwell in His House” – this house. My cup did “overflow” with joy in response to this, and as I looked at the crucifix, it seemed to me that despite the struggles and sufferings I had encountered there, he had great graces to give me also, in that particular place with that community.
Fast-forward to the following spring, when I applied to this community, and despite the revelation I thought I had received, was not accepted.
If the experience in the chapel was a lightning-bolt showing me the way ahead, the rejection letter was a thunderbolt, appearing out of nowhere and painfully throwing me to the ground. I felt jolted by this on multiple levels. Not only were there the feelings of hurt and rejection, but there was something else, even deeper. I really had – so I thought – learned to recognize and listen to the Lord’s voice and followed an instruction direct from Him. And then, it would seem, he did not keep His promise. I fulfilled my end, and he failed to uphold his.
This disturbed me even more than the circumstances and misunderstandings that led to not being accepted by the community. For if something that I clearly heard God say was not Him, how could I ever trust Him again? More importantly, how could I ever trust myself again, in believing that he spoke to me?
I learned to pray anyway, even if it was more often complaining than anything else. I learned to go to Mass anyway even though my heart felt dead rather than alive in the Lord. I learned to go through the motions of my life, seeking his will for me in practical ways (job searching, finding God in friends and family). I took comfort that St. Francis too, thought that God spoke to him (“rebuild my church”) and it meant something completely different than he thought – in fact greater than what he thought. But something was missing, completely gone, to the point where I didn’t think it would come back and barely remembered what it was in the first place.
Fast-forward again to six years later. . . I had reached a place in my spiritual life that was more peaceful. I had learned to see the Lord in my daily life, even while I was unsure about the future. I had accepted that some things about his workings with us remain a mystery in this life; but it didn’t mean they weren’t real. Yet I still felt annoyed whenever I “ran into” Psalm 23. Like an old injury or pain that is mostly gone, but “flares up” under the right conditions, Psalm 23 was a sticking point in my relationship with God. I avoided it by skimming through when it came up in any reading I was doing, thinking about something else when it came up during Mass, and generally writing it off as a part of the Bible where God had something to say to everyone except me.
Then one cold winter day, I was sitting at my kitchen table with a warm cup of tea, doing my prayer-time for the day, and generally experiencing a pleasant time with the Lord. I opened the scripture readings for that day, and lo and behold, waiting for me was That Psalm. Its’ words jumped out at me from the page and danced before my eyes. They seemed to taunt me, reminding me how I didn’t trust God enough, reminding me how much I sucked at listening to him, and how prone I was to “getting it wrong” when it came to his message for my life. Oh no, not That Psalm! I thought. Not today. I will read the gospel instead.
Normally the gospels provide me much food for meditation. But that day it just left me restless. “That Psalm” kept distracting me. So I thought, perhaps, the Lord wanted me to go there after all. I turned the page, took a deep breath, and asked Him what he wanted to say. Then, by some small yet magnificent miracle of grace, when I read the words over again, they were no longer taunting at all. They came washing over me, like gentle waves that wore away at my resistance and washed over the hurt in my heart.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . .
He guides me along right paths for His name’s sake,
Even though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death,
I shall fear no evil, for you are at my side. . .
“This is still true,” he seemed to be saying to me. “I am still your shepherd. I always have been. Through the “deaths” of rejection and confusion, still I have been beside you. Even though you have stumbled in the dark, still you have not strayed from ‘right paths’ because I have been with you.”
You anoint my head with oil,
My cup overflows. . .
You spread a table before me in front of all my foes. . .
I realized I had been anointed. Literally. At my baptism. That was where he had chosen and called me. And that call in itself, was unique and beautiful. He had not chosen me for religious life; at least at that time, in that community. But he had chosen me to be baptized. And he called me and chose me still, out of all the others on earth who could be privileged to know His name and yet, by some mystery, hadn’t been. It was a great honor and a great responsibility. “My cup overflowed” again, for different reasons, but even more so than the first time.
I felt in that moment too, that he had “spread a table in front of all my foes” because the darkness and the devil were vanquished, in a very significant way. The “fear of being wrong” in prayer began to lose its’ power.
And then finally. . .
Only goodness and kindness follow me, all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Previously I had misinterpreted this to mean “only blessings follow me” (in my relationships with other people) all the days of my life. But now I realized, these words were not the Lord’s promise to me. They were my promise to Him, in return for His goodness as my shepherd. I would choose to be kind, to bless others, that even the smallest encounter with me would grant them an encounter with Him. And “his house” – beyond being the Church I was privileged to belong to — was also His presence. In that, I could choose to dwell always, regardless of success or failure.
These revelations were profound for me. That Psalm that taunted me was transformed into the first place I now go for consolation. When other storms have come, that is where I have found Him.
I pray that this experience of mine grants His peace to each of you reading it. I hope that it gives you a foretaste of the healing he has for you and the nearness he wishes to restore to you, even in the scriptures or devotions that you now find most painful. He makes all things new, even the thing you find most “ruined” at the moment.