L-R: Bek (Technology Coordinator), Theresa (President), and Penny (Blog Mistress)
Almost three months to the day after I promised to write this blog post, I am sitting down at my laptop with the resolution not to budge until it’s done.
What I set out to write back in January was a lively, cheerful account of a week spent with two friends I’d met through Leonie’s Longing, and an introduction to the video blog that we made together. Ever since then, I’ve been writing short, stilted paragraphs that have instantly hit the recycle bin (literally for the paper drafts, and figuratively for the typed versions). What made it so difficult to put it all together as a narrative?
I think the key is in an insight that Theresa, the President of Leonie’s Longing, had during the long drive down from Sydney to Melbourne: when you meet someone else who has been in the convent, the normal process of conversation is reversed. Usually, to get to know another woman, you’d ask what she does for a living, what books she likes to read, how many pets/kids/siblings she has and so forth, and only after weeks or months would you move on to more personal topics. But when you meet someone who was in the convent, you ask things like: “What community were you with? What drew you to them? How long had you been discerning? How did your family react when you told them you were entering the convent?” Then, eventually, you take a deep breath and ask the difficult questions: “Why did you leave? Are you still discerning a religious vocation?” And, more importantly, you’re able to understand the answers.
It doesn’t matter what country your community was in (mine was Australian; Theresa and Bek, our Technology Coordinator, were in the US); if you’ve been in the convent, you have a shared understanding of things like familial freak-outs when you mention the word “nun,” the process of clearing out your former life as you enter, the experience of living such a disciplined life, and of battling the most difficult aspects of it and then finding yourself back out in the world. The part of me that hoped to become a bride of Christ is a sister to the part of you that longed for the same. In a parallel universe, we might one day have met at a seminar for religious, you in your habit and me in mine. (“I declare, ours is the only sensible one here!”) And yet, here we are, out in the world again together. We’ve walked the same road separately, and found suddenly found ourselves on it together. It’s hard to pin that connection down in words, which makes it that much harder to write a blog post about. Still, here goes!
If you read this blog regularly, you’ll have seen Bek’s “couch-surfing” journey across the United States, visiting friends from her former community. It was in about August last year that Theresa first raised the idea of making Bek’s journey in reverse, and coming to visit our two Australian LL volunteers. By November it was a fact, and in December we planned it all out in detail: she and Bek would travel around Sydney for a week or so, and then drive south to Melbourne, meeting me at the halfway-point, Albury, along the way. It’s a fair trip.
In Melbourne we would walk through the Door of Mercy at the cathedral, wander around the famous arcades and visit the museum dedicated to Saint Mary Mackillop, our only Australian Saint so far (though several more causes are underway). We’d also drive along the Great Ocean Road and have lunch on the beach, and then make some time for karaoke. Excellent plan. Nothing went according to it.
On the morning of the fifth of January, still bleary-eyed from a monastic wake-up time several hours earlier, I sat back in my seat on the train to Albury and sent off what is in retrospect a remarkably awake-sounding text to Bek: “Howdy! I’m making good time, currently passing through Wangaratta – how are you going in your travels? Hope you’re having a pleasant run!”
Alas, they were at that moment stuck in the McDonald’s drive-in queue from hell in Yass, about four hours out of our designated meeting place on the border between Victoria and New South Wales. They’d set out from Sydney at six in the morning, roughly the same time I’d dragged my weary bones onto a tram into Melbourne, but by the time the three of us finally converged on Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Albury, I’d had a peaceful train journey and they were ashen-faced from a long, long drive and the prospect of more to come. This is where the invisible bond between former religious that I mentioned earlier became all-important: we met in front of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and six hours together in a tiny car became a mixture of singing, prayer, serious spiritual conversation, and funny-awful jokes. What the other unsuspecting folk in the rest-rooms at Seymour thought of being serenaded with O Salutaris Hostia as we compared the versions we’d learnt in our respective communities, we’ll never know.
We reached Melbourne late at night, many hours later than planned. After Mass the next morning, another part of our grand plan fell through: the Door of Mercy at the cathedral in Melbourne is now only open for one hour a week during Sunday Mass, so we weren’t able to walk through it together as we’d hoped. However, as we stood on the steps of the Door, I was able to make a formal presentation to Leonie’s Longing of a medal that I had touched to the relics of Saint Therese and her parents the year before. (May the Saints of the Martin family intercede for our apostolate, and all who visit our website!)
Then, as Bek and Theresa had been “collecting” Doors of Mercy, it was my turn to take the photo:
We never did get to the MacKillop Museum (next time… next time…), but we did have dinner with another ex-conventual friend of mine. Four women, four very different experiences of religious life, four different personalities, accents, and senses of humour, but with a shared understanding of post-convent life: a conversation that could only have come about through Leonie’s Longing.
We didn’t drive down the Great Ocean Road, either – circumstances including but not limited to a bushfire saw to that. Instead, we drove down the other way to the Mornington Peninsula, and spent the day with my mother!
(The black ship in the background is the SV Notorious, the only replica fifteenth-century caravel in the southern hemisphere.)
Part of our intended tour of the Peninsula that day was a trip to the lighthouse at Cape Schanck, but we didn’t get there. Instead, we made a coffee-inspired detour to the lookout at Arthurs Seat, and found, not coffee, but…
Sisters! Specifically, the Servants of the Two Hearts, whose apostolate is primarily youth ministry, and who had gone up to the lookout on a detour at the last minute just as we had. Once more, Theresa’s theory about post-convent conversations was proved correct.
When we explained to them who we were, the Sisters asked us which communities we’d belonged to, how long we’d stayed, and whether we were still discerning – the kind of in-depth conversation you can only have with others who have that understanding of the religious life in common. We didn’t end up finding any coffee, but instead, something far more significant: the realisation that God was guiding our journey together, even when we were fatigued or led astray by the GPS, or the doors that we thought would be open were locked, or we ended up at the top of a mountain we hadn’t expected to climb. All things considered, I think there’s a metaphor in that.
Stay tuned next week for our first-ever video blog post, made by the three of us together, on the topic of “finding community away from the community”!
In July 2015, Aussie former-Dominican Bek Griffin embarked upon a journey across the Pacific to the USA where she visited other former religious sisters from a range of different States and communities and enjoyed some of the very best couch and futon accommodation that the “Land of the Free” and the “Home of the Brave” had to offer. The experience was both vacation and pilgrimage, both restorative and prayerful… and a heckuva lotta fun!! She shares this experience in the hope of inspiring others in post-convent transition to prayerfully consider responding to the unexpected manifestations of God’s love that bring healing and joy.
ex-Con: n. a former resident of a convent; a former member of a religious community.
Called to vAcation: permission to be joyful!
When we enter religious life, we give the Lord our unconditional “yes” to whatever He may ask of us for the entire remainder of our lives. For those of us who leave and return to the world, this doesn’t cease to be the case. Rather, it takes on a radically different appearance to that which we thought it would. My act of returning to the world after a year and a half in community was fundamentally in continuity with that very first “yes” I gave the Lord in May of 2010 when, praying the 10th Station alone in a candle-lit chapel I responded to the totality of the Lord’s gift with my own offering of my life to Him – small in comparison to His infinite gift, but the very best I had to give, and in some way, pleasing to His loving and adorable Heart.
My act of returning home was a step forward in raw trust, a deep conviction that He was calling me out not as a rejection, but as a positive thing with a definite purpose… and so I took my step forward into the dark, and like Peter walking on water towards Jesus, my trust faltered at a certain point. I flailed and stumbled and found myself over my head amidst wild waves that served as a foil to show up my lack of faith.
My first mistake was to forget that I was not alone, to rely upon my own resources. After returning home, I was determined NOT to “sponge” off the charity of others for longer than necessary (a.k.a. I succumbed to pride.) I put a great deal of pressure on myself to find employment and to become equipped to pull my weight financially. While the intention was to take responsibility for myself and to minimise the impact that my unexpected transition had on those I loved, the impact to ME was that I forgot, for a little while, just how much the Lord loves me! Life took on a bleak and burdensome flavour and this made my interior post-convent processing that much harder. I threw myself into work, and in a stunning act of kamikaze madness, undertook also to complete in the space of about 10 months another Masters degree in my “spare time.” Full-time work and full-time study whilst still maintaining one’s responsibility to be present to one’s family means that, even when you DO uncompromisingly schedule prayer time for the Lord, you don’t have a whole lot of energy left to give to Him! He gets time… but not necessarily quality time. I was aware of my thirst for Him… and yet did not allow room in my life to frequently approach the Well from whence Living Water can be drawn. Occasional bursts of mercifully gifted fervour kept a little flame alive… just.
It’s the battle we all face, I suppose, out here in the world. And yet as we stumble in the dark, our Kindly Light is ever there to lead us on, if only we dare to trust and follow. I made a resolution for the new year. I would build back into my life the pattern of daily mental prayer that I lost when I left community life. It HAD to work – it was at His invitation, after all. It would happen by His Grace.
So it was some 18 months after returning to the world that I found myself in my third post-convent job, a little more stable and lucrative than those prior. Prayer was a more fruitful fixture in my life than it had previously been. Further, I belonged to an international community of women who loved the Lord intensely and were each seeking out ways to serve Him and share His Love with others – I had been in communication with a number of other women who had similarly left my former community, as well as a number of active members of Leonie’s Longing for some time. I realised that these were firm and worthwhile friendships – wonderful gifts! Over a period of about six months, the idea of travelling to the United States to visit some of these friends kept coming up in conversation and even in my dreams. I considered my options and my budget and realised that such a trip would be feasible if I saved carefully… could it be possible that the Lord actually actively wanted me to take a vacation?
It can be so easy, falling prey to my pride, to seek fulfilment in achievement. My academic pursuits left me wide open to this. Nevertheless, in moments of uncharacteristic clarity, I find myself wondering why I don’t just get out of my own way and let the Lord fulfil me!!
Somehow on this occasion I did exactly that. I listened to Him. I got out of my own way. I spoke to my friends and found out which of them would be happy to host me for portions of my adventure… and then I booked flights till my hip pocket could barely handle it anymore. Four very dear and generous friends with a whole lotta God-given love in their heart… and all He was asking me to do was let them love me – to let Him love me.
Things fell into place. My application for a month of vacation time at work was approved without incident. My travel preparations were unimpeded. I got on my flight and some 24 hours later I was hugging a dear friend I hadn’t seen in years! She and I had become very close while in community together; she entered about a year before I did, and left about a year before I did, and our time in the community only overlapped by 6 months. Now here we both were – her a teacher, me an IT professional in the education sector – let loose in the world!! As we road-tripped Texas together, I made the comment to her that seeing her in this new context… ordinary life… and just spending time with her and doing regular things… it somehow really affirmed for me on an interior level my decision to return to the world. There are many trials and dangers associated with no longer having the walls of the convent and the horarium and my religious community – but there are many joys and beautiful things to be experienced, too!
The purpose of my visit to Texas was purely and simply to spend quality time with my very dear friend.
Mission accomplished. Definitely. And that was the absolute highlight of my Texas leg of the trip.
Portrait of St Therese by her sister, Celine
It wasn’t all about staying in and eating icecream and catching up, though. Some of the secondary highlights included:
- meeting HEAPS of awesome, beautiful, hospitable people!!
- visiting the Basilica Shrine of St Therese of Lisieux in San Antonio and seeing the larger-than-life original of the portrait of Therese painted by her sister Celine
- being introduced to Tex Mex
- being told, in Texan drawl ” You’re in ‘Merica – you can do whatever you want!”
Cactus+Beer? I LOVE America!
- discovering the delights of Prickly Pear flavoured beer (whod’ve thunk?)
- kayaking in downtown Houston (I kid you not!)
- checking out the NASA Space Center
- checking out the Alamo
- Museum of Fine Arts in Houston
- finding the little hole-in-the-wall coffee joints that know how to serve up a “Flat White” just as well as any barista in Sydney
- rediscovering the much-missed comfort-food and friendly atmosphere of Chik-fil-A… we SO need this chain to open franchises in my country!
- playing chicken with traffic to get a photograph at the site of the Kennedy assassination
- discovering an awesome breakfast innovation that hasn’t yet taken Australia by storm: the Nest Egg… genius. Pure genius.
- enjoying the generous hospitality of a Venezeulan family who had never met me, didn’t know me, spoke in a different language to me but opened up their home and fed me delicious arepas!
Groovin’ at the Grassy Knoll
Next Stop: Denver, CO>>
(Stay tuned: part two of Bek’s journey will be published on Thursday December 10th!)