Asperges Me: Autism and Religious Life

By Penny.

Written for Autism Acceptance Month, April 2019.

‘I am very pleased with Marie; she is a great comfort to me. I only wish my poor Léonie were more like her. I cannot understand her character; the wisest sages would be out of their depth with her. But I hope that some day good seed will sprout in that soil.’ (A Difficult Life p. 17)

Saints Louis and Zélie Martin had five daughters who survived to adulthood. Four were bright, pretty, affectionate, and charming. One wasn’t.

Marie and Pauline, the two eldest, were very close; Céline and Thérèse, the youngest, were like ‘two little bantam chicks’ that could not be separated from each other. Léonie, in the middle, spent much of her childhood on her own, getting kicked out of school because of her strange and rebellious behaviour and causing more worry to her parents than the other four put together. At the time that Zélie wrote to her brother about her ‘poor Léonie’ in 1871, the girl was an awkward, angry nine-year-old who struggled to understand her lessons or control her overwhelming emotions. Were she alive today, she would doubtless be diagnosed with moderate to severe learning disabilities, but in the late nineteenth century she was simply a slow, ‘trying’ child.

Like all of her sisters, Léonie would eventually grow up to become a nun. Unlike her sisters, however, she became a nun on her fourth attempt. Today, she is known as the Servant of God Sister Françoise-Thérèse Martin VHM, and the cause for her canonisation is underway in France. She is the patroness of our apostolate, named Leonie’s Longing in her honour, which provides support for women around the world who have left the religious life at any stage of formation. Interestingly enough, there is also another Catholic lay association which holds her as its patroness: the Leonie League for the Advancement of Autistic Persons.

Posthumous diagnosis of someone who lived over a hundred years ago is an ambiguous exercise at best, of course. Nonetheless, Léonie’s social difficulties, academic struggles, ‘loneliness of spirit’ (as she described it in her own words) and lifelong difference from others have made her an instantly familiar, approachable older sister to autistic Catholics who have experienced all of these things themselves. I know. I’m one of them.

When I was a child in the 1990s, autism was still largely seen as an exclusively male phenomenon: the province of small boys who sit and rock in corners, refuse physical contact, and recite train timetables to themselves over and over. Even now – though this is improving – the diagnostic criteria are still heavily weighted toward the male presentation of symptoms, meaning that boys are often diagnosed and supported in early childhood while girls (who present the same patterns but in different ways) tend to flounder along on their own until their twenties, thirties, or even later. I began to wonder whether I might be on the autism spectrum while I was at university in my early twenties, but concluded from my reading that I couldn’t possibly be: I can hold a normal conversation, make eye contact, feel empathy for other people, and I have a rich and complex inner world, all of which are supposedly beyond the reach of autistic people.

Except when they aren’t.

This is the video that popped up in my recommended list on YouTube in October 2017 and changed everything I thought I knew about myself:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wKb5TUX49U

Even if you don’t know anyone on the spectrum, I’d encourage you to watch it, not least because it breaks down the stereotype of there being any one ‘typical’ form of autism. The host is a young woman from the UK, and watching her on screen was like watching myself – lively, quick-talking, and animated in a way I’d been told that autistic people couldn’t be, but with the admission that this social persona had been developed through years of deliberate trial and error, and aimed at camouflaging the fact that she was most often out of her depth when communicating with other people. Exactly the way that my persona was. I had few friends as a child and none (except online) as a teenager because I was so odd that others my age avoided me; my brain was a powerful computer attached to the social awareness of a child less than half my age, excitable and tactless, and with a sense of humour involving things that weren’t funny to other people and vice versa.

I started changing in my last year or so of high school, which was – not coincidentally at all – also the time I began discerning a vocation to the religious life. For the first time, I began to want to fit in with other people and get along with them. I learned to mask the physical mannerisms, odd laughter and blunt social comments that had made me stand out, and by the time I got my first job in my early twenties, I could usually pass for normal. (Like many people on the autism spectrum, I object to being labelled ‘high-functioning’ – dammit, I work hard for that functioning!) Every now and again, I’ll still slip up and someone will look at me oddly and say, ‘That was weird,’ but by and large as an adult I manage to roll the dice and land on ‘endearingly quirky’ rather than ‘fruitcake.’

I went through the psychological testing process for autism in November 2017, and was diagnosed formally in early December that year. (Under previous versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, I‘d have been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. In the current version, Asperger Syndrome has been folded into the umbrella diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.) My response? Pure relief. Suddenly, I could explain why I do peculiar things like borrow forty non-fiction books at a time from the library and read them at every spare moment (information being my brain’s version of crack), quote textbooks verbatim Hermione Granger-style, and struggle so much with time management (because the executive function of the brain, which is responsible for organising things, works more slowly in autistic people). Even more importantly, it also began to help me understand why I had crashed and burned out of religious life at twenty-four with a force that wrecked my physical and mental health, along with my spiritual life, for years afterward.

It’s a myth that autistic people don’t feel emotions. We do. Almost unbearably, so deeply we could drown in them, but rarely in a way that we can put into words at the time. Think of Léonie, who loved her family beyond measure but had no idea how to express that love in a form that they could see or understand. Or me, crying silently in my cell because I had no idea why I was failing so badly and being corrected all the time. I’m not writing this for sympathy, but because I know that you, my sister in Christ – even if you’re not on the spectrum yourself – will understand exactly what I’m talking about when I describe sleepless nights, mysterious stress-related illnesses, bewilderment at how something so longed-for could hurt so much, and the deadening grief for your vocation that begins even before you leave the convent. That part is common ground for all of us.

What diagnosis gave me was that all-important why. Why I had caused the Sisters such frustration with my slow working style and hesitation in moving from one task to another: when I was told to do something, the delay that my executive function needed to process the instructions and come up with a plan of action would have looked from the outside like foot-dragging. Or why I was sometimes corrected for mistakes as though they had been deliberate acts of disobedience: because the Sisters had been signalling me with their eyes or gestures not to do something, and I either hadn’t seen their signals or didn’t understand what they meant, because non-verbal hints are almost invisible to people on the autism spectrum. So I went ahead and blundered headlong across the community’s rules and customs, over and over and over, and kept not learning because I couldn’t identify a pattern in the things I was doing or failing to do. The Sisters’ corrections were justified – if I had seen their directions and carried on anyway, it really would have been disobedience – but it took an autism diagnosis five years later to reveal to me how much I must have been missing under the surface of things.

I would watch others to see what they did, but without knowing which of those numerous things I was supposed to do as well (is the way she pours her glass of water a community custom, or her own personal preference?), imitation was largely a matter of guess-work. Interestingly, by the time I left, the novice who sat next to me at meal-times had started to pick up on this and developed a system of signals with meanings that she explained to me directly: ‘When I do this, it means you need to do that.’ I’ve never forgotten the courtesy she showed me; it became one of my anchors in the refectory, which had nearly as many customs as the chapel.

I’d been studying the principles of religious life intensely for more than half a decade before I entered – forty books at a time from the library, remember? – and that was a convenient mask for the fact that, in day to day community life, I actually had very little idea what was expected of me or why. Could I have asked for help? Perhaps, if I had known why I was floundering. Lacking the understanding that my brain structure was actually objectively different from that of the women around me, however, all I could see was that there was a method to all of this somewhere, but not what it was or where it was. Looking back now, I can see that I was trying to live within a system of unspoken rules and norms, ancient and modern traditions, and the complex social interactions required when a group of people live in such close proximity to each other… and I was oblivious to most of it. I therefore carried on doing what autistic women do best: camouflaging my difficulties with a smile and trying to appear normal. Until, finally, I couldn’t keep going.

I left the convent just before my mask broke: I had a cell inspection and a mid-postulancy review coming up within a couple of days of each other, and knew beyond doubt that one or the other of them was going to be the end of my ability to cope. I wanted to stay. No, strike that; I needed to stay. My whole heart was in the religious life, and I wanted nothing else. I had friends among the Sisters, enjoyed my studies, and immersed my soul in the deep, ancient rituals of convent life, just as Léonie Martin had over a hundred years before. So what do you do when desire isn’t enough?

‘O my God, in my life, where you have put so little that shines,’ Léonie wrote in 1934, ‘grant that I, like You, may choose true values, disdaining human values to prize and desire only the absolute, the eternal, the Love of God, through constant Hope.’ (A Difficult Life p.96.)

I now have the benefit of knowing that I’m on the autism spectrum; there are hundreds of books and websites out there that help me to understand the unique wiring of my brain, compensate for my blind spots, and make best use of the many unusual strengths that come with the territory. I finally understand that (apart from those caused by my own character flaws) the worst difficulties that I had in the convent weren’t my fault. They weren’t the Sisters’ fault. They weren’t anyone’s fault. I was just wired differently, and nobody (including me) knew it.

Léonie’s path was far harder: doggedly conquering her social difficulties, sensory sensitivities and overwhelming emotions minute by minute for the rest of her life without ever knowing why she was different, but slowly learning endurance and fortitude by following the Little Way of her younger sister Thérèse. In a letter to her Carmelite sisters in 1936, five years before her death at the age of seventy-eight, she described herself jokingly (but with a quiet air of wistfulness) as a ‘broken window’ in the convent (A Difficult Life p.112). She was loving and loved in her community, but the constant work of being different never got easier. A year later, in her retreat resolutions, she wrote:

‘It is inappropriate for me to moan over my faults, as I have done until now; I realise now that it is pride. As our Holy Founder said, it is no wonder that weakness is weak; so I must humble myself, not vex myself. I want to be little, so little! Little children fall without hurting themselves badly – they are too small for that; this is the example I want to follow. I can feel that this is what Jesus expects of me.’ (A Difficult Life p.96).

Like me, and like all of the women who read this blog, Léonie knew what it meant to fall, and fall hard. When desire wasn’t enough to match some external or internal circumstance that forced us out of the religious life, we went through every stage of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, please God, acceptance – just as she did. Through all her struggles within the convent and without, it was in God that Léonie found the ‘constant Hope’ of which she wrote in the final decade of her life. She struggled too much to have any confidence in herself, so she gave herself up to His mercy and turned to Him for the strength she lacked. Autistic or not, we’re all in the same boat here: as the Superior of my community said to me just before I left, sooner or later, in any vocation, God is going to require sacrifice.

The nature of sacrifice is that it hurts. Léonie surrendered herself to God even (and especially when) she was in pain; even (and especially when) she felt in her soul that she had failed. This is what makes her such a beautiful example for autistic people, who live by means of an ongoing process of trial and error in a world where most of the rules are hidden from us, and for women of all neurotypes who have had to re-construct a life outside the convent where they once hoped to remain forever. I’m in an area of overlap between the two groups – how’s that for a minority within a minority? – and with April being Autism Acceptance Month, this seemed like the right time to describe my own experience in religious life as a person on the autism spectrum, and to honour a woman who has therefore become my patroness twice over.

Back in January 2015, on the day that Léonie Martin received the title Servant of God, I wrote an article on the blog describing her as ‘the patron of the awkward, the naturally contrary, those whose personalities didn’t quite “fit” in the convent, those who didn’t get it right the first time (or the second, or the third) but somehow keep crashing their way up the narrow path that leads to heaven.’

Four years, an autism diagnosis, and much hard work of healing later, Léonie is still one of the people I most look forward to meeting after I die; a black sheep of Christ’s flock, a very human woman, and above all a faithful daughter of the Church.

‘Well, provided I have enough wit to love God with all my strength, living only by love and humility, that is enough for me.’   –  Léonie in 1910. (A Difficult Life, p.103.)

Servant of God, Sister Françoise-Thérèse Martin, pray for us!

 

 

Unofficial Checklist for Autism in Women by Samantha Craft: https://the-art-of-autism.com/females-and-aspergers-a-checklist/ 

References: Baudouin-Croix, Marie. Leonie Martin: A Difficult Life. Veritas Publications, Dublin 1993.

On the Threshold of Something Beautiful

By Cate (re-printed with kind permission from her blog Seeking Sunflowers) .

I turned right one street before I needed to—the route that led to my old apartment. Shoot, I thought to myself. I’m already running late, and now I have to drive around the block and lose more time. After turning left in order to get back to where I needed to be, I saw a male figure I recognized walking down the sidewalk. My hunch was confirmed as I approached his vicinity, so I pulled over and called out the window to him.

This man and his wife were friends of mine from high school. We reconnected several month ago, before I moved out of town for missions. I had thought about reaching out to them while I was home on break, but my schedule filled quickly, making it impossible to see everyone this time around.

I got out of my car, and we stood chatting for a few minutes in the cold, catching up briefly on life before exchanging hugs and wishing one another well. I was grateful for the happy accident—the seemingly wrong turn—that afforded me this encounter.

Isn’t that how life is sometimes? Unexpected turns lead us down roads that, in the end, we are happy we didn’t miss. In fact, some the greatest joys in my own life have been the result of turns that, at the time of choosing, I seriously questioned being the “right” choice.

I remember the state of my heart one dreary January afternoon several years ago. I was sitting at an office desk across from my friend Theresa, who had been supervisor, coworker, and mentor to me. I had just made a decision that rocked my world—to leave the Catholic organization I had been serving with practically my entire adult life up to that point. Through tears I verbalized to my confidant that I had just made the worst decision of my life.

My dear friend, who knew that the decision came as the result of much prayer and discernment, encouraged me to consider that this detour—if it was in fact a detour—was happening for a reason, and that perhaps there was something or someone along this path that I needed to encounter.

Theresa was right. As I look back, I no longer see in this decision a wrong turn, and I no longer believe that I took a detour. That was the way I was meant to follow, and the blessings that came as a result are ones that I can’t imagine not having as part of my life today.

Since that cold January day I have made plenty of other questionable turns in the road. Some I have made peace with. Other I still wrestle with in my mind. But on my better days I am able to see that all has served to bring me to where I am now.

As we begin a new year, and I begin a new chapter in life, the temptation can be to jettison the past and “begin anew.” While there is certainly wisdom in this approach, I have found the Holy Spirit leading me in a different direction presently.

One of the words I received for this year is build. While this was the one generated for me on a website, and not the one I received in prayer (more on that in another post), I have nonetheless been reflecting on its significance.

We tend to see time as linear: the past in the shadows behind us, and the future on the horizon ahead. But lately I have been challenged to see time as more horizontal. We build on the foundation of the past and ascend toward the future that awaits us. Our past—with its joys and sorrows, good and bad, triumphs and mistakes—all serve as a foundation for where we find ourselves in the present.

Today I stand on this foundation, on the brink of something new. In a few short days I will board a plane to Peru and begin to make a home in this new country. I have a different view than I did on that January day. I now see that it was only by making that difficult decision, and many other that have followed, I am here, once again ready to step into the foreign mission field.

I am grateful for the roads I’ve traveled, for the wisdom gleaned from each chapter, for the beautiful, the challenging, and the grueling. My good God has allowed each and every piece of the journey to bring me to where I stand today, on the threshold of something beautiful.

Desert Poem

By Katita Luisa

“Go to the desert and you’ll understand”.

So I went there this year.

I dipped my toes in that hot sand

and out of love for Him,

I was soon all in

with each grain rubbing against me,

scratching and removing what I wanted most,

purifying me

and my dreams

and my will.

I went there.

I stuck my neck out in that unrelenting heat,

feeling the burn on the most delicate of skin,

reddening,

but out of love for the Son,

I continued-

realizing He was not merciless

but rather merciful,

exposing and toughening

my weaknesses

for the path that would unfold.

I went there.

I reached for my canteen

only to find it empty,

surrendering

my own preparations,

expectations,

wishes

and comfort,

and was invited

to rely solely on Him,

embracing the unknown,

thirsting for Him alone.

And out of love for me,

we went there.

We grew closer rather than apart.

I found refuge in His Heart.

I even saw flowers bloom in that desert-

promises fulfilled,

so unexpected

yet expected,

because I can take Him at His word.

Lessons taught and learned,

my heart broken only to start to heal,

making room for Truth to sink in,

deeper than the cracks of my sin

and the holes of my doubt.

Yes, my cup overflows,

only because it had to be emptied first.

And as we left and I dusted off the sand from my sandals,

I took His hand and said,

“Out of love for You,

I’d do it all again.”

He looked at me, smiled, and said,

“Now you’re beginning to understand.”

Stained Glass

By M. Cabri

Over a year and a half ago when I left a religious community, everything in my life seemed to be broken. My family seemed to have fallen apart while I was thousands of miles away, and I could not seem to maintain emotional equilibrium. I alternated between extreme joy and deep interior darkness. Inside, I tried not to be blinded by the fear of not understanding what was going on, and the growing sense, which I refused to accept, that I may have to leave the community. My spiritual life had been undermined as well, and I alternated between wondering if it was spiritual dryness or something I had done terribly wrong. I felt burdened by the obligations of communal prayer in a monastic community. I seemed to fall asleep in both of my meditations every day no matter how hard I tried to keep watch with Our Lord. I received no consolation at daily Mass. Whenever I went into the chapel to pray the Divine Office, rosary, or make a Holy Hour, it couldn’t be over fast enough. I was painfully agitated and restless. The silence seemed to crush me. When I could speak, I never seemed to be able to say what I needed to my superiors, which left me feeling hopeless and desperately alone.

In the months before I left, I cried myself to sleep more nights than I can count. I never seemed rested when I woke up in the morning. Every day I dragged myself to my chores, trying to tell myself wholeheartedly and joyfully that this was all for Jesus, but I found that I wasn’t even able to convince myself of that anymore.  For the first time in my life, it truly seemed like Jesus was taking away the grace to live a life I had dreamed of for so long. I remembered how happy I had been as a postulant and new novice and couldn’t make sense of the inner darkness I felt now. I wrestled with feeling like I never could be enough for Him, that all my prayers and labor was in vain. I even began to wonder if He still was there, loving and supporting me. I couldn’t even look at my Sisters without crying. Finally, I just broke.

The great mystery of salvation is that Christ does not merely come to make everything externally appear better, leaving the root problem intact. He wants to, and DOES, heal the inner brokenness! Click To Tweet

For a few blissful and painful days, I lived in a limbo of dreading I must leave and knowing my Sisters did not know what would happen. I felt interior joy (or relief) at the prospect. I sensed all I wanted was freedom from what had become oppressive to me, not realizing that I was pining for earthly treasure which could not satisfy my heart. His grace (or my willfulness) seemed to keep me in one piece long enough to smile and say goodbye to my Sisters without dragging them into my inner chaos.

From that place, I came home across the country, hoping that somehow everything would be better again. Those painful first days, I could barely go outside because I felt unable to face the world as I was. I felt immodest walking around habit-less, horror that I had left the community, shame for my shaved head and an unshakable sense of failure. I could barely tolerate going to Mass or praying, because I felt divorced by the One I had promised to marry, whom I still love. Everything reminded me of the Sisters I had left behind who were now dead to me. I saw their faces everywhere and heard their voices in my head, sharing their joys, sorrows and spiritual growth with me. To this day, I still do. I still do.

Over a year later, after being in therapy and having the advice of a wonderful spiritual director, I approached the community again. The prompt reply was that they did not think I had a vocation to their community and should discern elsewhere. The experience was like leaving all over again. I feared that no community would ever want to talk to me.

In the six months since that conversation, I have approached two communities. From both, I have received understanding, love and support. One vocation directress even praised me for my courage in continuing discernment of consecrated life. Both emphatically assured me that I could have been refused simply because the community had too many applicants that year or did not have the resources to invest in a young woman for a second try at religious life. After a long struggle, those words are beginning to set me free.

It is easy to see everything as a personal rejection. Many of us already see ourselves as damaged goods, irreparably broken and unlovable. The great mystery of salvation is that Christ does not merely come to make everything externally appear better, leaving the root problem intact. He wants to, and DOES, heal the inner brokenness! We are all wounded and damaged by sin, either our sins or the sins of others. He sees the brokenness and what He can do to make those scars radiant. We are all like shards of glass which individually can be unimpressive. But when the chips are filled, edges polished, and we are pieced together with the rest of the Body of Christ, we will be more beautiful than we ever could have imagined. The more perfect and transparent each individual piece is, the more light will shine through that piece and make the whole window radiant.

Jesus wants to shine through your life so that the world will come to know Him through you. The more you reflect Christ, the more His light will shine on people around you. Click To Tweet

Jesus wants to shine through your life so that the world will come to know Him through you. The more you reflect Christ, the more His light will shine on people around you. Offer up your suffering, grow in holiness, and above all, continue to hope when all seems hopeless! The Body of Christ needs your suffering; don’t waste it! He IS faithful, even when we cannot feel it! Let Him heal you and know that all the saints and all of us who are journeying this path with you are praying for you!

Rejection and the Rosary

By Bernadette Monica.

Three years after leaving my former community it seemed like all the pieces in the puzzle of my life were finally coming together. I had found another community and everything appeared to be indicating that this was truly what the Lord had planned for my life. The community’s spirituality and charism resonated with my heart in a way I never could have imagined. With each faltering step forward I took, each time expecting to find myself falling flat or hitting a dead end, I was surprised to find myself filled with a peace and joy unlike anything I had ever known. The whole experience was so different to discernment the first time around – where formerly I had discerned out of external pressure, anxiety and fear, here instead I found freedom, beauty, and goodness. Even when facing the remnant fears I had from my previous discernment of religious life, I felt more exhilarated than afraid at the possibility of taking a leap of faith and placing everything in the hands of our Lord, trusting everything to His grace and providence. And so it was that, after spending 6 months or so discerning with the local mission of this new community, I found myself on a plane from Sydney to the US to visit the community’s Motherhouse, and discern if this was really where I was being called.

I half expected to arrive and feel like a fish out of water, having the realisation that I was not where I was meant to be, like when I had visited other communities in the past. Instead I felt completely at home, and fell in love with the community and their way of life. One of the postulants and one of the novices even remarked how well I fit in with the community and how they hoped to see me enter in a few months, God-willing. It seemed that the only obstacle remaining was that my family were not supportive, and even on this front I was sure that in time they would come around, even if there might be some challenges in the meantime.

Imagine then my surprise and shock on the day before my departure when I finally had an interview with the vocation director only to be informed that she didn’t think I would be able to cope with the demands of their community life. I always knew it was a possibility that a community might discern such, or that I might decide myself that it wasn’t the right fit, but her impression was so at odds with the peace and sense of belonging that I felt, and I wasn’t satisfied with the vague reason she gave as justification. Even so, it wasn’t an absolute no, and it was agreed that on my return home I needed to really take everything to prayer and discuss things with my spiritual director, and that I could continue to be in contact with the vocation director to discern a path forward.

After a challenging day filled with confusion and heartache I awoke on the final morning of my 12-day visit aware of the challenges that lay ahead, but also full of hope and trust that the Lord would remove this obstacle if it was His will. I returned home and it felt like I had a foot in each of two worlds. I prayed and sought spiritual direction, and after two months, though aware of the possibility of refusal or the likelihood of being asked to undergo a longer period of discernment to discuss and work through her concerns, I contacted the vocation director asking to speak with her again, and expressing that I felt I was being called to take the next step in discernment. We arranged to speak on the phone, and in the 20 minute conversation that ensued it was made clear to me (albeit in the kindest and gentlest way possible) that the door to discerning with the community was no longer open for me. In the space of a few minutes all the growing hopes and dreams I had treasured in my heart were dashed, and the Pearl of Great Price was pulled far from my reach. To say I was heartbroken would be an incredible understatement. I was recently struck by a line from Ted Danson’s miniseries adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels that seemed to sum up where I was at very poignantly:

“We love words, we humans; we use so many, so easily, ‘til they’ve lost all their meaning. But when I say as that last day dawned my heart was breaking – I have never known such awful pain and loneliness.”

I cannot describe my emotions and the testing of my faith over the past few months. I have never really dated, but I imagine that on some level this is akin to enduring a breakup of a longstanding relationship when from your own end you thought everything was going really well and were perhaps even expecting a proposal. After the traumatic experience of leaving my former community and all the growth and healing of the following years, to find a community that was healthy, vibrant, on fire with love for the Lord, and seemingly such a perfect fit for me only to be turned away even from applying felt almost too much to bear.

Over the last month or so the initial intensity of emotions and the agony of rejection has ebbed somewhat, but I’ve been painfully aware that around this time is when sisters will be receiving the habit and professing vows, and that in a few short weeks a new group of postulants will be entering various communities.

Upon learning that the postulants I knew during my brief time at the Motherhouse would have received the habit and their new religious names in the past day, and that the novices will be making their first profession of vows tomorrow, I sat down this morning to pray a rosary for them. It’s a Saturday, so it seemed very appropriate that I should be praying the Joyful mysteries for them. I’m so happy for these women reaching these milestones in their own vocational journeys, but I was aware of parallels I could see with the mysteries I was praying and the experiences of these women, and how this contrasts with my own experience. My own discernment feels more suited to the Sorrowful mysteries. I took this to our Lady as I prayed, and she gave me some beautiful insights which I want to share in the hope that it might bring others a little bit of peace and hope in their own struggles and confusion.

Firstly, on the Joyful mysteries. Perhaps many of you can relate to how these seem to tie in with religious formation, at least as I was seeing it.

The Annunciation: That unexpected and surprising moment when the Lord first presents to a young woman’s mind and heart the possibility of a call to religious life. “How can this be…?” she might ask. But like Mary she is exhorted to not be afraid, and assured that nothing is impossible for God, and that it is through His power that His will will be done, if only she gives him her Fiat.

The Visitation: The vocation starts to become more concrete. A woman finds a community she feels drawn to, and her apparent vocation begins to be affirmed by others – friends, family, her spiritual director, members of the community. And with Mary, the woman rejoices at the marvels the Lord is working in her life.

The Nativity: A birth; new life. The time comes for a woman to enter her community and leave her old life behind. A time of change and growth as she starts out on the new road she has been called to walk.

The Presentation in the Temple: At the appointed time, the woman begins her formal initiation into the community. First she receives the habit and her religious name; later she will make her first profession of vows, offering her life to “be designated as holy to the Lord” (c.f. Lk 2:23) and having her gift accepted by Him through her superiors. It strikes me only now as I sit down to write this that it was at 8 days that our Lord was circumcised, given his name and was formally initiated into the Jewish community, and at 40 days that he was presented in the Temple and redeemed according to Jewish custom and law – there is surely a parallel here with the process of being initiated into a religious community!

The Finding of Jesus in the Temple: Perhaps some might tie this in with a woman’s final profession of vows when she becomes forever a bride of Christ. I see it as something a little more abstract – those moments perhaps years down the track when she grasps a deeper understanding of the mystery of her vocation, or reaches a more profound level of intimacy with her bridegroom. This might perhaps come after a period of spiritual dryness, just as Mary spent three days searching for the missing Jesus, and like Mary, on finding Jesus once again the woman will be filled with joy, and is left to ponder the mysteries of God’s workings, and the purposes He fulfils in all things.

In contrast to this I can see in my own recent experiences a shadow of the Sorrowful mysteries:

The Agony in the Garden: That fateful conversation with the vocation director where she initially questioned my suitability for the community’s way of life; my wrestling with this, questioning, “Why me?” and wondering what it was that she saw in me that she hadn’t seen in the others who did end up applying, or alternatively, what she hadn’t seen in me that she had seen in them; wondering if there was a red flag over my head because of my having previously been in a community; the confusion over how everything had seemed to lead to this point and everything seemed to fit so well only to have the shadow of doubt cast over it all; and finally, reaching the point in prayer of being able to accept the cup I was being asked to drink, and coming to an understanding that if this truly was my vocation then the Lord would remove all obstacles at the appointed time, and that if it wasn’t then nothing I could do on my part could it make it so.

The Scourging at the Pillar: The return home and the months of prayer and discernment. Grappling simultaneously with the very real possibility of rejection and the hope that things might still work out; having others affirm that they thought I was on the right path, while knowing the odds were stacked against me. The feeling of flesh being torn from my side as I prepared to speak with the vocation director once again, laying my heart on the line while knowing there was a very real possibility that I may not receive the answer I was so desperately hoping for.

The Crowning with Thorns: That definitive moment of having the door of what I had hoped to be my vocation closed and bolted on me. Being prepared for the possibility did little in the moment to ease the pain of having thorns pushed cruelly into my flesh. In the hours and days that followed that fateful phone call it felt like there was a ring of thorns around my heart, slowly shredding it to pieces.

The Carrying of the Cross: The weeks and month following my rejection have involved a long process of coming to terms with the situation, working through my emotions, and trying my best to keep moving one step at a time, to get back up when I’ve fallen, to accept help from the Simon’s of Cyrene in my life, and to place myself at the foot of the cross. I’ve had to learn to see this as a way of becoming more united to Him, and to trust more and more in His plans, even when they make no sense to me. I’ve had to make a conscious decision to trust in His promises and to believe that He is indeed working for my good.

The Crucifixion: I can see here an invitation to lay down my life in a radical way to the will of God. An earlier Leonie’s Longing blog, Sacrificing Sacrifice, has proved very helpful in coming to an understanding that, where I had hoped to lay down my life for God through religious consecration, perhaps what is more pleasing to Him and sanctifying for me is accepting His will and choosing to trust even when it proves painful, or when I’m being asked to let go even of the truly good and honourable desires of my heart. Like Christ on the Cross we are invited to place our lives completely into our Father’s hands, accepting and trusting in whatever His will might be.

On another level I can see in the Sorrowful mysteries parallels with the experience of leaving my former community. Perhaps you may relate to some of these:

  1. Troubles, doubts or difficulties in the lived experience of community life
  2. Perhaps a difficult conversation with a superior, or some painful growth in self-awareness
  3. The experience of actually deciding to leave, or particularly of being asked to leave where that has been the case
  4. The aftermath of leaving your community and readjusting to lay life
  5. Learning to accept and surrender to God’s will, and for those who have left dysfunctional communities, healing and learning to forgive and let go.

While praying the rosary I had a few insights from our Lady in light of all of this which I found comforting and encouraging. Firstly, she affirmed to me that the Sorrowful mysteries don’t make sense on their own. It is only in the light of the Resurrection that our Lord’s Passion and death have any meaning or salvific effect. Without the Resurrection and the Glorious mysteries, none of the other mysteries take on their full meaning and power. Without the Resurrection the Sorrowful mysteries would also cast shadow, doubt and confusion on both the Joyful and Luminous mysteries, as well as these mysteries not making any sense in and of themselves. What could be the purpose in the Nativity by itself for example, let alone if it was all only to end in our Lord’s painful and humiliating death on the cross?

The Resurrection gives us hope, and is a promise of things to come. Perhaps we are now in a luminous period in which we are slowly having the Lord’s will revealed to us, and through which He has something to teach us and areas in which He wants us to grow. In the meantime we can look to the Glorious mysteries as a promise of the hope that is surely to come. I am reminded that, after all, my vocation is not the final destination but only a pathway to aid me in reaching it, and if the Lord is allowing a few detours en route I can still trust that in the end He will bring me to the final destination of perfect union with Him, and that we will be united all the more closely through the times He has allowed me to carry the cross alongside Him through the sorrowful mysteries of my own life.