“Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.”(1 Corinthians 9:24)
Reading these words made me wonder, what does it take to win a race? What does it take to not only cross the finish line, but to cross the finish line first? And how can I relate that to the spiritual life? So I read the autobiography of an athlete. My athlete of choice was Jessie Diggins, a cross-country skier who won the first gold medal for the United States in any Olympic cross-country skiing event. Although her autobiography “Brave Enough” is secular in nature, there are many parts that are relatable to running this great race and participating in this pilgrimage to Heaven. Running a race takes an individual. Winning a race takes making good decisions each day, words of encouragement and truth, and the support of a great team.
It’s all in the moderation and balance, and before I do anything, my first thought is, how will this impact my racing? (p. 185)
There are a lot of decisions to make after leaving religious life – decisions that perhaps earlier were made for us. What will I wear? What will I eat? What time will I get up? How should I spend my free time? When will I pray? Athletes too face many daily decisions during their months – or even years – of preparation for a race. Jessie approaches these decisions with the end goal in sight: she asks herself, “How will this impact my racing?” I have found it helpful to ask myself the same question as I make decisions in the world. Of course, by “racing” I don’t mean an Olympic cross country ski event, but rather that pilgrimage to Heaven. Through that lens, the decisions usually become clearer and perhaps even easier.
Sometimes the right decision means striving to grow just a little bit more. One exercise that some competitive skiers do is roller ski 100km (that’s 62.1 miles!). Jessie completed this one year, or so she thought. When she got to the end of the route she plotted out the tracking device only read 96 kilometers… so she immediately roller skied four more kilometers. I was struck by how she gave that workout her all, even if there weren’t crowds cheering her on and she could have easily called 96 kilometers good enough. For us, sometimes the right decision will be just managing to sit through Mass. Or perhaps it is filling out one more job application, or even an act of generosity or patience when we feel like we have nothing left. Whatever it is, sometimes the right decision is to stretch ourselves and ski those last four kilometers.
And sometimes the right decision is rest. I was struck by the importance that athletes give to rest – and not just physical, but also mental. Athletes need physical rest, a whole day of it per week (doesn’t that sound familiar?), so that their muscles can be allowed to recover and build after all of the exercise. It means no going hiking or anything that could be physically demanding, even if that is something she wanted to do that day. In preparing for a race, mental rest was also needed. For Jessie, sometimes the right decision was to watch a movie with a teammate to relax and calm down when things were getting stressful. Reading about the intentionality and importance of rest inspired me to try to find ways to be more intentional about how I treat Sunday. This day of rest is more than just a day off or a day to go to church. If I treat it more intentionally, perhaps it will become a day of restoration and growth for my soul, much like it is for athletes.
Lastly, and perhaps the favorite thing I noticed, is that sometimes making the right decision is in the little things. For Jessie, an important part of preparing for a race is glitter. Putting glitter on her face before a race reminds her that racing is fun. Glitter is a little decision that positively impacts her race. Perhaps there are little, seemingly insignificant, decisions that we can make that will positively impact our relationship with Jesus. One little decision I have recently made is to smile at Jesus, to let my delight in Him be shown as I would a friend. That little decision of allowing a visible sign of my love for Him appear on my face has brough much joy to my prayer life.
Words are a powerful thing. (p. 175)
One of the pivotal moments in Jessie’s story is when her coach, Matt, said to her “Who you are is good enough,” and she believed him (p. 123). After having had many difficult experiences with a previous team, those words gave her the freedom to be herself and to trust that she would be loved and supported as she was. Of course, “Who you are is good enough” doesn’t mean that she was ready to win a gold medal right then and there. Of course there was still work to be done, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that she is good enough. She is someone her team is ready and willing to support. She is someone who has what it takes to race well. She is good enough.
Sadly, words can also have a negative impact. In a 10K Olympic race, Jessie missed the podium by 3.3 seconds. The media implied that she should be very disappointed that she failed to achieve the first Olympic medal of the US women’s team by a hair. But she wasn’t disappointed. She gave that race everything she had. She made the right choices leading up to the race. She had a good race. That was the true victory. And the media took that away from her. They were telling her she wasn’t good enough.
I think many of us who have left religious life face a similar temptation. We each have our own story of why we left, and we need to remain faithful to the truth. Sometimes we know the truth about leaving immediately, and sometimes it is a truth that unfolds after we have left. But we cannot let others take that truth from us. One of the lies that perhaps many of us face after leaving religious life is that we’re not enough. Those are not the words of the Father. In those moments, we need to turn to Jesus who is the Truth and allow Him to speak His words into our hearts. We need to allow Him to tell us that we are good enough. That we are still called to live lives of great holiness, lives of what Caryll Houselander calls “undiluted, heroic, crucified love.” That we are loved. Fully. Here and now. That He will never abandon us, and never has. Jesus wants to say those words to us. He wants to say, “Who you are is good enough.” Who you are is someone He can contine to lead along the path to holiness. Who you are is fully loved by Him here and now. Who you are is good enough.
It was the start of what we called the “fifth leg of the relay” because it was our way of saying that the alternate was our most important leg. (p. 126)
Selection for a 4 X 5K relay is hard when there are more than four skiers on the team. Someone is going to get left out of the race. The first year that this happened with the US National team the skier who was left out, Ida Sargent, turned it into the most important leg of the race. She showed up to the course on race day – even though she didn’t have to – and cheered her teammates on for over an hour. Her enthusiasm was so exuberant that some skiers wondered who that crazy person was yelling herself hoarse!
In a way, those of us who have left religious life are now a part of “the fifth leg.” Others were chosen and we are left out. But the reality is, whether or not we or our communities act like it, we are on the same team. We may no longer be a part of the particular community, but we are still a part of the Body of Christ. Ida set a precedent for the US National team. Perhaps some of us could help set a precedent for those of use who have left religious life. What if we could act like we still have an important role to play? What if we acted like our prayers and sacrifices do matter? Maybe the team that we left doesn’t have the camaraderie that would make imitating Ida easy. A rough transition can really make being a part of the fifth leg difficult. But we can still try. I can still try. You can still try.
“Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins!”
When you watch her gold medal finish at the Pyongyang Olympics, it may seem like she is on her own to strive for that finish line. But she’s not alone. Her team not only supported her though all the training, but was also there for the race. Her family was there. The announcer shouting “Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins!” as she edges past the other skiers knew her. She had family and friends watching the race on television. She was not alone in her race. And we are not alone in ours either. Some of us, I’d hope many of us, have the strong support of family and friends as we run this race to Heaven. Regardless of whether we do or don’t, sometimes it can be too easy to focus on the shortcomings of the earthly teams we are a part of, and forget that we are a part of an incredibly beautiful team. A beautiful team that is on our side. We have the Communion of Saints supporting us. We have the angels, and Mary, and Joseph. We have the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are not alone. And perhaps, when we do cross that finish line, we will hear the enthusiastic roar of all those who have been cheering for us along the way.
Images of Jessie Diggins from Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons Licence.
Attribution: Granada • CC BY-SA 4.0
Attribution: Cephas • CC BY-SA 3.0
By Mary Rose Kreger.
Eight years ago, I was a young novice, Sister Mary Inez. Today I am happily married and a mom of two. I had an amazing convent experience, but God never meant for me to stay there. Here is my story.
In August 2012, I joined a community of Dominican teaching sisters. The Lord began calling me to religious life during a retreat that spring. When I felt certain Jesus wanted me to go, I quit my job, sold my car, and became a postulant.
Being a new sister was hard. The other postulants and I had to adjust to a new routine of prayer, work, and study. The hardest thing for me was all the silence. Regular silence and profound silence. Silence in the chapel and silence in our airy, white-curtained cells.
All that silence made it impossible for me to hide from myself. It was like Yoda’s cave in Star Wars:
“What’s in there?” Luke asked about the mysterious cave.
“Only what you take with you,” Yoda wisely replied.
Inside the Cave
I didn’t know it at the time, but I brought a lot of baggage with me into the convent cave. Every time I made a mistake, I was assailed by negative thoughts:
You don’t belong here. You could never be a religious sister. No one could ever love you. Jesus loves everybody in the world except you.
These hurtful words stung like physical blows. Adding to this interior misery was the back pain I’d experienced since I was a teenager. In January 2013, I finally told my novice mistress about my struggles.
“I want to stay in the convent, Sister,” I said. My aching body stood hunched over in her doorway. “But I need help.”
Even more, I needed healing.
My novice mistress first gave me permission to see a back doctor. I went to physical therapy and had some X-rays done, but the X-rays didn’t show much. My back pain was invisible on the charts, but still very real.
“Ask the Lord to reveal if there’s a psychological reason for your back pain,” my novice mistress suggested. So I prayed, and soon received an answer.
On Easter Monday, I was working in the convent kitchen. I put a few spoons in the wrong drawer, and the sister next to me – my closest friend there – shot me a look of exasperated fury. That minor event stirred up a far more serious incident from the past:
In the winter of 2000, someone whom I loved got very angry with me and hit me. In front of everybody, at a party. They apologized later, but they never explained why.
I was 14 then. I wasn’t sure what to think. What had I done to deserve this? To make sense of it, I decided someone must be to blame: me.
“There’s something wrong with me,” I decided that day. “Something, very, very wrong.”
I didn’t mean my sins. I knew that sins could be forgiven, washed away in the confessional. I also knew God loved to be merciful. No, I believed there was something wrong with me that was unchangeable. Something unredeemable.
And so I began believing an unconscious lie:
There’s something wrong with me. If I did not exist, I would fix what is wrong with the world.
This thought didn’t make sense logically, but emotionally it felt real and true.
Before that winter, I had an optimistic look at my freshman year of high school. Afterwards, I remained cheerful on the outside, but I was deeply depressed on the inside. My back pain started a few months later, and never stopped.
Seeing Sister Mary
I told my novice mistress about my discovery, and how I thought it was linked to my back pain. When she saw my distress, she sent me to see Sister Mary*.
“You need someone to talk to. Sister Mary can help.”
I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to share my ugly wounds with a complete stranger. But I knew Jesus would want me to go, so I went.
I talked to Sister Mary, and she listened. I told her how I was hurt at 14, and all the nasty things I heard in my head. Over several months, Sister helped me. She offered simple words of wisdom, and a clearer vision. She taught me to put those lies from the Devil at the foot of the Cross.
“The Devil is always accusing us, reminding us of our faults,” she said. “But Jesus offers love, forgiveness, healing.”
The more I talked to Sister Mary, the more the pain got out of my head and into the open. My heart, made numb from past hurts, began to feel again. It was a painful experience, but liberating.
Acknowledging the Truth
Through prayer and meetings with Sister Mary, I saw that what had happened to me at 14 was only one piece in a much larger puzzle. I grew up in a household with sometimes unrealistic expectations of perfection. As a consequence, we sometimes ignored the imperfect situations within our own family. This left me hungry for justice, rightness, the truth.
At 14, I couldn’t see that truth. But at age 26, I could acknowledge that my family was loving and supportive, but not perfect. I could also find comfort in Jesus, who came to heal the brokenhearted.
“Sometimes Jesus allows us to suffer physically, as part of His plan for us,” my novice mistress explained. “But He always wants to heal us spiritually.”
Jesus helped me along the difficult road to healing. I surrendered my wounds to Him, wrote to Him in my journal, and begged for healing and perseverance. Finally, I wrote a letter to the person who’d hurt me, saying that I forgave them and that Jesus had healed me.
Sister, What Do You Desire?
Afterwards, however, convent life continued to be difficult. I felt like I was slogging through quicksand. Still, I kept going, determined to stay where God wanted me, as long as He wanted me, here in the convent.
I visited Sister Mary one last time. “I’m healed, Sister. My back pain is gone, and I can feel again.” I sighed. “So why do I feel so unhappy?”
Sister Mary gave me a long look.
“Sister, what do you desire?” she asked.
I stared behind her, into the grey. “I want…a tangible kind of love. I try to give it to my sisters here, but no one wants it.” At night, I’d peer into the bathroom mirror, just to confirm I was still there. I felt invisible. “I want…to be seen, known, loved.”
“What does that sound like?” she prompted.
The answer came to me all at once. “Oh. Marriage. It sounds like marriage!”
In that moment, I knew right away that I wasn’t called to be a sister. I was supposed to get married! No one could have been more surprised than me. I felt so much joy!
I smiled and leapt to my feet. “I have to go home, Sister. My husband is waiting for me!”
A Future With Hope
One week later, I left the convent. Six weeks after that, I met my future husband for the first time. We’ve been married for six years now, and have two beautiful children.
God healed me in the convent, but He didn’t heal me just so my back would stop hurting, or to free me from depression. He healed me so I could see the truth that had been there all along: I was called to marriage, not religious life. And later, to a vocation of writing, not teaching. Healing allowed me to discover my true vocation and calling.
Saying “Yes!” to Jesus led me to a wellspring of grace and healing. The Lord truly took my broken soul and gave me a future “filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
* Name changed.
About the Author:
Mary Rose Kreger lives in the metro Detroit area with her family, where she writes fantasy for teens, and blogs about her spiritual journey: before, during, and after the convent on www.monasteryinmyheart.com.
By Mary Rose Kreger, republished from her shared blog Monastery in My Heart.
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.”
And so I do. I go home and tell of
The white curtained walls
The ancient creaking floors
The silence and the song.
Six weeks later, I meet James,
The man whom I will marry
Whose birthday is Christmas like
The First Beloved of my heart.
We work and we play, we talk and we pray.
We are married, find a home,
Have a son, then a daughter—
Make friends, lose friends.
Die a hundred tiny deaths, and
Rise a hundred times again.
We share our lives together.
The Lord makes us new—He kisses me
With James’ touch, and embraces me with
Lukie’s arms, and gazes at me
With my daughter’s eyes.
He still wants me, even if His rose was
Never meant to stay in His convent garden.
No, rather to struggle and labor
In this world, pretending to fit in
When my heart has been spoiled for anything
On the outside, endless motions,
Movements of faith, hope, love—
And grit and survival, too, for this
Long journey is hard.
On the inside, a tiny-heart-home,
Always longing for the white curtained walls,
The ancient floors, where I first saw Him.
There, I tasted heaven once—
A darkness that was Light—
And I can no more return to my
Heathen ways than a child to her
Mother’s womb. I tasted heaven once, and my
Heart is ruined for anything else.
By Jamie, reposted from her blog Bloom Where You’re Planted.
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.
By Theodosia Burress
Prior to religious life, I didn’t have much interest in fantasy books besides The Chronicles of Narnia series and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Since returning to lay life, (as a result of recommendations), I’ve read many books in this genre. Much to my surprise, I’ve discovered some meaningful stories with excellent characters.
I just read Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson, the 3rd volume of The Stormlight Archive. One of the things I now realize about fantasy (at least the fantasy that I have enjoyed) is that it explores questions of life in a creative way.* This gives my intellect and heart a new way to look at and process life experiences. I find this aspect of Sanderson’s work particularly appealing.
About 2/3 of the way through this book, one of the characters named Shallan is devastated by the events that have transpired in her life which culminate in a particular tragedy. To add to the pain, another character has told Shallan it would be better if she (Shallan) were dead. As Shallan mourns this event and reviews her life, she fears that this assessment is correct. She recounts all this to a character called Wit, to which he responds,
“You mostly failed. This is life. The longer you live, the more you fail. Failure is the mark of a life well-lived. In turn, the only way to live without failure is to be of no use to anyone.” (Pg 789)
This dialogue hit me like a ton of bricks. Lately I have compared myself to others or to an idealized picture of what “I should be.” I felt like a complete failure and wondered what was wrong with me. Circumstances flashed before me …
But is it really true that I’ve failed in these areas? And if they are failures, is that a negative thing?
Reading the above exchange in the book gave me a different perspective on failure. What does “failure” actually indicate? What conclusions should actually be drawn from “failing?”
What do I do with the “failures” in my life? Hate them? Ignore them? Pretend they don’t exist? Avoid potential future failure?
The conversation goes on, “Then live. And let your failures be a part of you.” (Pg 792)
Yikes! Do I want to do that? Can I? And how?
Shallan realizes that she needs “Forgiveness. For herself.” (Pg 793)
Later, Wit says, “It’s terrible…to have been hurt…but it’s okay to live on.”
You need to, “…accept being you.”
“You are worth protecting… it’s all right to hurt.”
The conversation ends with Wit saying, “Accept the pain, but don’t accept that you deserved it.” (Pg 794)
Saint Mary Magdalene, Feast Day July 22nd.
I needed to read these words and “hear” them about my situation. I needed permission to grieve my failures. I needed to realize that I had slipped into thinking I deserved pain or was being punished. Fortunately, this book provided me with the opportunity to recognize these lies so I could combat them.
A successful businessman had been previously bankrupt. Survivors of tragedies use the experience to recalibrate life and inspire others. The greatest sinners become the greatest saints. “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” We “know” these truths, but they are easy to forget, aren’t they?
It is, as Wit says, terrible to have been hurt, to have experienced failure. But that is not what defines us. It is necessary to live on, and to do so with courage. Because failure isn’t the mark of a wasted life but of one well lived.
*Check out “On Fairy Stories” by Tolkien https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Fairy-Stories