By Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP.
When I read Simcha Fisher’s article in America Magazine When a Catholic leaves seminary or religious life, I began to weep. I cried for all the young women who had entered my community and left, their choice or the community’s, over my 53 years as a Daughter of St. Paul.
I remembered when I was a postulant (1967) and a novice coming to the refectory (dining room) for breakfast and noticing that someone was missing. Gone without a good-bye, at that time never to be heard of again. It was so confusing that someone who was so much part of my group, or the upcoming groups, or even professed in temporary vows, could be gone. Just like that. If we said anything, the formator would shush us or glare at the person asking. One co-postulant told me later that it was thought if we talked about our missing companion that it might make the rest of us go, too. I was still in our high school aspirancy myself, but that lack of logic just further confused me (we discontinued our high school in 1991.)
Yet as I read through the article, tears flowing at the corner of my eyes, I recalled three times that I was asked to either drive someone to the airport, take another young sister home, or accompany someone in their discernment and then drop them off at her new residence after she decided to leave the community. I was part of the forgotten ones in this process of separation from a community that was no “gentle or conscious uncoupling” so to speak. I was one of the last members of the community a sister leaving might ever see. To me, this was the most heartbreaking thing I was ever asked to do in my years of religious life. It was traumatic for me. No one ever asked how it made me feel to be part of a person’s departure from this very intense and passionate way of life that we call religious life.
I recalled another sister who was often asked to take aspirants, postulants and novices to the airport, spirited out at dawn’s early light before anyone would miss them. It was during grand silence, too, so we were not to speak until after grace at breakfast if we did see suitcases by the elevator. I will call her Sister Mary. Sister Mary was chosen, I think, because of her gentle nature that would have a calming effect on the young woman leaving. I went with Sister Mary once to drive a sister in temporary vows to the airport as she was returning home. I waited in the car (the days when we could do so), but I was able to say good-bye and promise prayers before Sister Mary accompanied her inside the terminal. The hard thing was that I was told by the superior not to talk about the young woman’s departure to anyone.
The next time I was told, not asked, to drive a young sister home from one of our branch houses. Her family lived within driving distance. Sister Anna, an older sister, came along, too. The superior, who was very old school and stern, told Sister Anna and I that we were not even to get out of the car. Just let the sister off in front of her house, let her unload her suitcases, and drive off. I was told not to even talk to her. I was only in temporary vows, too, and had known this young woman since she entered though she was not in my group (or band, as some communities call our formation groups.) As soon as we pulled up in front of her house at about 7am, her family came out. Then Sr Anna surprised me. She hit my arm and said, “Say good-bye.” So, I did. I turned and gave the young woman a hug over the seat. Then Sr. Anna got out of the car, against orders, and accompanied the young woman to the front door, to her family. She stayed and spoke with the family for a bit, then came back to the car. We were both crying. Sr. Anna, one of my favorite nuns ever, told me through her tears, “You don’t need to say anything. Charity comes first.” And I never did until now.
I will not say too much about the third sister because we remain very good friends today. But I know she suffered greatly as she discerned her way from religious life into a serene life “in the world” as we call it. I was the local superior when she was sent to the community for the purpose of discernment, at her request. As she met with a spiritual director, I was the community member she related to the most. It was a difficult separation for many reasons, and we both cried many times, not least of which was the day we went to buy her a new meager wardrobe at the mall and the final day I drove her to her new residential job after she was dispensed from her vows. This was like dying to her and to me, two different ways of dying. I had known her from before she entered and now, these many years later, I was there when she was leaving, following what she believed was God’s will for her. I did not disagree with her discernment, but her leaving was as if she was pulling off her skin to reveal a new identity that was still taking shape. It was so painful. She is one of the bravest people I know, and I love her for her courage, perseverance, and love for ministry that has never wavered.
I shared this blog post with Sister Mary and she commented:
I do regret in hindsight not having more of Sr. Anna’s wisdom of heart. Most of the time I drove very young ones to the airport or bus station. I was sent to be a kind presence and to assure that they made it to their gate safely. Some left singing and some left sorrowing, so as their last contact I had to keep things light and loving. As you say, we are in a better place now. The young ones are already women and the formation program is so much more mature, so we don’t have half the drama anymore. I always pray for those who are wavering even if I don’t know who they might be, and I send them on their way with love and blessings.
In one way I was a willing participant in the departures of these young women from religious life but in another way, I was unwilling because I knew that if I were suffering from a profound sadness, the young woman was probably suffering so much more. I have always tried to do everything asked of me, but some things were too hard and had to change, and thank God, they have.
What did I learn from these experiences? That charity comes first, always.
We do things differently now. If a young woman at any stage of religious life discerns to leave (or is invited to do so by the community), she may share this information with whomever she wishes – and we can stay in touch. She can say good-bye to the community in the dining room or make a more discreet departure – her choice. But the sister or young woman is encouraged to be more transparent about her discernment because the entire community is transitioning with her as she leaves.
Sister Rose Pacatte in August 1967, at the San Diego convent of the Daughters of Saint Paul, the night before flying to Boston to enter the convent.
As we slowly moved from a pre-Vatican Council II way of doing things in our congregation in the U.S. to being, well, normal, we had a provincial who did something wonderful. This was in the later 1980s. I was on our provincial council then. She thought it would be a good idea to send a Christmas card and note to each sister (novice or postulant) for whom we had contact information, and let them know we remembered them, ask how they were doing, and that we continued to pray for them. This resulted in more open communication, visits to the novitiate, reconnecting with old friends, and oftentimes, healing.
I wish there had been Leonie’s Longing all those years ago so young women could receive counseling and referrals and moral support, and I am glad this organization exists now. God willing, I will celebrate my golden jubilee of profession in 2022 (and my 55th of entrance). If you are reading this, know that I remember everyone, and I wish you love, happiness and the peace of Christ. I hope you will forgive any suffering I may have caused or contributed to at a very difficult time of your life. I ask for your prayers.
The thing is, those who become part of our inner world, as we do in religious life, are never gone. We remain sisters in the heart of God – always.
Originally published in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, May 28th 2016. Reproduced here with permission from the author.
O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day
in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world.
I offer them for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart: the salvation of souls, reparation for sin, and the reunion of all Christians.
I offer them for the intentions of our bishops and of all Apostles of Prayer, and in particular for those recommended by
our Holy Father this month. Amen
As each dawn graces a new day, so should the first prayer of the day be the Morning Offering. Through it we give to Jesus the prayers, works, joys, and sufferings that will come our way until the next dawn. We strive to live day by day, yet our mind wanders. A smile may come as we dwell on these four areas. It can be easy to offer our prayers, works, and joys but the last area can be difficult.
No matter if an individual is a priest, religious or layperson, the prospect of physical suffering is an unpleasant fact, and never a welcome thought. Responses to sickness can range from creative growth to self pity. It can sanctify or darken a soul, and can bring out the best or the worst in a person. In other words, illness can be redemptive or destructive. It can be an opportunity for, or threat to, human and spiritual development. Indeed, suffering is a mystery.
What do the words—“strong,” “healthy,” “weak” and “sick”—suggest? If we place these labels on a descending scale, labeling becomes a risky business because it leads to inaccuracies, and negative mind sets, and supports attitudinal barriers. A person who has a physical handicap can be less limited by the handicap than by the attitudes of people regarding the handicap. Aren’t we all links in a chain, interdependent on each other? Doesn’t Paul, the apostle, tell us to bear one another’s burdens? How do we support and sustain each other? Each of us has gifts and limitations. A mark of spiritual maturity is to recognize and use talents, and to work through, around, or with, flaws. We need each other, and can help each other, look past limitations to focus on gifts. Illness can be a tutor of humility, as well as a channel for creativity, mirth, freedom, and happiness that was never known before. An easy sense of humor, and good common sense can be more valuable than perfect physical health
It has been customary for Church professionals to see people who are physically disabled as a ministry. This is similar to health care professionals, who identify their patients by a disease, or to vocation directors who focus on a walker used by a well-qualified candidate. In the long view, no one is immune to physical suffering, and whatever causes the suffering is only part of a person’s existence. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the thirty-second president of the United States, was a central figure in world events, who brought this country out of the depression, and led it through World War II. He used a wheelchair. Itzhak Perlman is a virtuoso violinist, a teacher of master classes, and a conductor. He uses crutches.
Disability can be a blessing in disguise by deepening contact with spiritual realities on which the soul depends. A disease, accident, or injury that has residual limitations can change a person’s priorities. Searching the soul, listening at prayer, and a renewal of faith infuses beautiful graces into one’s life. Therese of Lisieux said, “Life is not a destination, it is a journey.” There is no lasting city. All things are passing on the road to heaven. In the light of eternity, doing things that seem so big and important dim in the holiness that radiates from doing simple, daily occupations.
Daily physical suffering, united with the sufferings of Christ, can achieve enormous good. There is a fulfillment that only Christ can give. Spiritually inclined women who live with fragile health, or physical disabilities, can, in fact, enrich religious life through their internal strength, discipline and spiritual ardor.
Almighty God, thrice holy,
I would be wholly thine,
A branch by grace engrafted
Onto the living vine.
Throb through my veins, O Love,
Enable me to bear
The baptism of suffering
I am constrained to share.
Lord Jesus, suffering Servant,
Suffuse me with compassion;
The cup of suff’ring overflows
The Garden of thy Passion;
Consume me with thy peace, thy love
And joy of knowing thee,
As I pray thy Passion payer
As in Gethsemane.
I tread the winepress, daunted:
Must it be daily trod?
The Cross repels yet draws me close
To union with God.
I quest the Lord in Eucharist
And from the chalice drink
The wine of sacrificial love,
While from the Cross I shrink.
Yet, to the Crucified I cry,
“Nail me to the Cross.
Permit thy light to shine through me
To be theotokos;
Transform me by thy saving power,
My darkness purify;
Impart the glory of the Cross
My life to deify.”
O, Spirit of the Living God,
With love my soul attire,
To manifest the choicest fruit
Thy presence can acquire
To incarnate the Spirit,
The will of self efface,
Absorbing love to render love
By God’s perfecting grace.
When the cup of suffering is full,
Spilling o’er the brim,
May th’ world discern God’s glory
In a life poured out for him.
Thy Passion toil will then seem light,
Such is glory’s weight:
That burden, too, is heavy,
But the privilege so great.
January – March 2013
Does our Lord call only the strong and healthy to live contemplative religious lives consecrated to him? Father Maurice Gaucheron did not believe this to be true. During the late 1920’s he was serving at the renowned Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris, France. While there, he came to know several women who wanted to become contemplative nuns, but their less than robust health, or physical handicaps, made them undesirable candidates for religious life. No monastery would accept them. Father Gaucheron believed that illness and physical fragility were a viable means of following Jesus deeper into the paschal mystery, and could be an asset rather than an impediment to living the contemplative life, provided the vocation was authentic. He shared this proposal with Suzanne Wrotnowska. She could bring out the best in people, and had a great trust in the providence of God. Moved by grace, Suzanne envisioned a religious community that would welcome women in both strong and fragile physical health, as well as women with physical handicaps. Father Maurice and Suzanne began to seek out people who would support this unique way of monastic life, and women who were interested in living it. On April 11, 1930, Suzanne and four other women dedicated their lives to the future congregation through an Act of Consecration during Mass in the crypt of the Sacred Heart Basilica. At that time, Suzanne Wrotnowska became Mother Marie des Douleurs.
In 1933, the sisters were recognized as a religious community by the local bishop, Frédéric Lamy. They opened their first priory, St Joseph’s, which is near Paris, and is the congregation’s motherhouse. Over time, and with grace, canonical steps confirmed them as a monastic congregation of pontifical right. Their lifestyle is based on the Rule of St. Benedict, and they are known as the Benedictine Sisters of Jesus Crucified. Their charism within the Benedictine family is to embody a joyful reverence for, and deep participation in, the paschal mystery of Christ. “Amen, Alleluia!” is their motto. Their “amens” to Good Friday’s dark and difficult times carry the sisters to the “alleluias” of Easter Sunday’s light and new life. The “amen” to Jesus’ passion blossoms in the “alleluia” of his resurrection.
Today, the sisters have two monasteries in France, one in Japan, and one in the United States. Whatever the level of a sister’s physical health, with the aid of grace, all sisters strive to create an environment where each sister is valued, supported, and respected. The sisters are like a family that values a grateful love for their vocation, and for each other. Love is their ideal, and is made manifest by selfless acts of kindness toward each sister, and humor regarding the strange quirks of each sister. (Does God smile at the strange bird in each one of us?) Notre Mere, as Mother Marie des Douleurs was affectionately called, said in a conference:
As are all human beings, we are called upon to be dispensers of divine bounty. And the more we give, the more we ourselves shall have, and in superabundance. Let us give; let us give! Let us remember that we are obliged to give! Let us understand that every day we have a duty to smile, and be amiable, to give good example and advice; perhaps, to help those around us in some major way; or perhaps, only to please them in some small way! To bring back a little clarity into a soul, a little serenity into a face—isn’t that a fine and beautiful thing?” (Joy out of Sorrow, Mother Marie des Douleurs, p 11)
One of her sisters wrote: “The joy and peace to be in God’s house, and consecrated to him, is something that can never be explained.” This was Notre Mere’s gift to her spiritual daughters. She entered eternal life on December 10. 1983. On her memorial card are her words:
Because of the faithful mercy of the Lord, and only because of it, we can leave the night and the tomb behind, having left there all our evil that has now been conquered by the love of our God.—Mother Marie des Douleurs
The Benedictine Sisters of Jesus Crucified make a sincere effort to live in the light of redemptive suffering. So should all of us live redemptive suffering. It is a grace, and requires choices that draw out good from the confusion, difficulties, and trials of each day. On-going suffering is an obscure mystery that pulls an individual deeper into the mystery of Christ. In the light of redemptive suffering, we see that we are not alone. Jesus sustains an unwavering faith that gives our lives meaning and hope that keeps us moving forward. Suffering brings a person to the foot of the cross where she gets to know Jesus, which is distinctly different from knowing about Jesus. When an individual lives the cross, she grows in self-discipline and self-giving. Because of Jesus, suffering can be used well. When Jesus was dying on the cross, suffering became the gateway to resurrection.
Francis of Assisi helps all members of the Church militant. He explains that perfect joy does not come from talents and abilities, since these are not ultimately ours, but are gifts from God. He said the only true gifts we can give God, which are not from God, are our sufferings.
On the natural level, we do not want suffering but, if we strive toward living the Beatitudes, we can accept suffering with joy. Instead of trying to avoid or deny pain and trials, we try to accept them in a spirit that would allow us to offer this rarely appreciated gift to God. Francis found that suffering was the only thing that he had which he could give back to the Lord. Therefore, he lived the Beatitudes on a supernatural level. If we strive to imitate Francis, we are able to say: “I will not glory, save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Then we find true joy in fidelity to God, consistency in prayer, and patient endurance of the gifts we give to God. Joy is an interior state independent from that which affects us externally. Beneath the hardships is the fundamental reality of joy. The background to all suffering is complete faith in the ultimate triumph of the cross of Christ. Edith Stein said: “For now, the world consists of opposites. . . But in the end, none of those contrasts will remain. There will only be the fullness of love. How could it be otherwise?”
Mother Angelica, who was a Poor Clare nun, (and who died early his year) was well-known for her accomplishments, which include the founding of EWTN, a global Catholic network. Because of complications from a stroke, and other medical problems, she withdrew from EWTN at the end of 2001. In 2004, a program, EWTN Live, was aired, that featured Father Mitch Pacwa, S.J. and Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R. During the program, Father Pacwa said that during the last two years, EWTN had grown more than at any other time in their history. The growth was attributed to Mother Angelica’s offering of her suffering to God during those years.
Human beings thrive by giving and receiving gifts from each other. We depend upon each other. God says to St. Catherine of Siena: “I could well have supplied each of you with all your needs, both spiritual and material. But I wanted to make you dependent on one another so that each of you would be my minister, dispensing the graces and gifts you have received from me.
-Tr Suzanne Noffke, O.P, Catherine of Siena, (New York, Mahwah, 1980, p. 38)
(The following story is taken from: “A Spirituality of Suffering and Healing,” Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., Religious Life Review, September – October 2012.)
Many suffering people need help. This may be a painful humiliation. And yet it may be an invitation to us all to be freed from the monstrous illusion that anyone of us is self sufficient. It is part of the beauty of being human, that I need others, in order that I may become myself. People with disabilities, who need help to get up in the morning or wash or shop, remind me that I, too, need others if I am to be truly human. Let me give you the example of my brother Vincent, who died a year ago. Vincent was blind from birth. He never saw another human face. He entered the Order when he was young, and soon became one of the most beloved members of the province. This is partly because he was a deeply lovable person, who was strong and humorous, and has utterly no self-pity.
When I was provincial, every community asked me if I would assign Vincent to their community. Not only was it because he was loveable; Vincent gathered community around him. You cannot have someone in the community who is totally blind unless you really are a community. You have to ensure that nothing is in his way when he feels his way down the corridors, and that the milk in the fridge is always in exactly the same place, so that he can find it. All our decisions about our common life have to bear Vincent in mind. And this is not a burden but a joy, since around him we discover each other. He summons us beyond the silly Western illusion that anyone is self-sufficient. In his needs, we discover our own need for each other. He frees us to be brothers, mutually dependent. Because he was blind, he depended upon his hearing. He heard sound bounce off the walls. He navigated around the rooms with his ears. And this meant that he was wonderfully sensitive to what the brethren say. He was appointed to the Formation Team, because he could spot what was happening in the lives of the young, their strengths and weaknesses, more than most of us. His disability was a gift. He picked up the nuances that others miss. He heard our secret fears and hopes in our voices. We are all blind and deaf in some way, and sometimes the blind teach us to hear, and the deaf teach us to see, and the lame give us the courage to take another step.” (Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.)
A journey through life with fragile health can be a uniquely maturing experience. A person can only strive toward wholeness. Nobody is there yet. When illness comes along, an individual accepts it, and accepts ways that reduce its effects, or eliminates it. A person tries to be as well as he or she can be. A sickness or a handicap should not negatively effect, but can refine, one’s personality. A world view is broadened as well. To offer suffering to God the Father is an act of love for the entire world. Patient and uncomplaining suffering is a strong faith witness. Pain can be a motivator of change toward the good, and can lead to a deeper emersion in God. Unencumbered by being busy with many things, people who suffer can become channels of the love of Jesus crucified. When an individual feels broken, she can unite herself to Jesus on the cross, and send her love to the broken people, and broken places in the human family.
God sends his heaviest crosses
To those he calls his own,
And the bitterest drops of the chalice
Are reserved for his friends alone.
But the blood-red drops are precious,
And the crosses are all gain,
For joy is bought with sacrifice,
And the price of love is pain.
As a garden is beautiful through the variety of flowers within it, so is a Carmelite monastery beautiful through the charism of the nuns who live there. Each monastery of Carmelite nuns has its own particular charism. One may have a strong devotion to Mary, another an emphases on silence, or living in the present moment, or the practice of simplicity. The Sisters of Jesus Crucified live a tried and true charism within the Rule of St Benedict. Even though Therese of Lisieux said, “Suffering is the very best gift he has to give us. He gives it only to his chosen friends…” the charism of the Sisters of Jesus Crucified is not available within the Carmelite Rule of St Albert. It should be. It would be a great blessing if the Carmelite family had a nun’s Carmel with a charism similar to the Sisters of Jesus Crucified in the Benedictine family. Physically healthy, and not so healthy women, would be welcome here if they had gifts that support a Carmelite contemplative life style.
Such a monastic foundation would be unique and quite valid. Teresa Margaret Redi said: “By entering Carmel, you undertook to reproduce in yourself the life of the Crucified.” Isn’t a peaceful, loving acceptance of suffering inscribed in the heart of a Carmelite vocation? A wise Carmelite once said: “If you want to be a Carmelite, you can expect the cross.” Teresa of Avila was a master of the interior life, but she did not have good health. When a sister in poor health was up for profession, Teresa said to profess her even if she were bedridden. That sister became an outstanding prioress.
At the center of the garden in a Carmelite monastery of nuns, there stands a great crucifix. Edith Stein said: “May Jesus always lead me by the way of the cross.” A portion of the Angelus says: “. . .that we. . .may, by his passion and cross, be brought to the glory of the resurrection. . .” Gazing at a crucifix helps a vibrant soul thrive in a fragile body. The sisters in this proposed monastery would strive to live a joyful and deep participation in the paschal mystery of Christ which presents daily challenges and new discoveries. Being a Carmelite is less about how many holy activities one participates in, and more about how well one adapts to difficult circumstances that come one’s way. Living in the light of redemptive suffering fosters an ever deeper relationship with the Triune God through the passion of Jesus. No matter what their state of health, each sister would be important, and would contribute to the community. Less emphasis is on voluntary penitential acts, and more on offering to God, with a tranquil heart, that which is not chosen. A sister desires to kneel, but cannot do so through no fault of her own. She would have never chosen this limitation; however, in the spirit of the Beatitudes, she offers it as a gift to God. A sister is not disturbed by the way another sister walks or looks because true beauty is deeper than physical beauty. Accepting what comes without making a fuss about things, cheerfully willing to accept or give help, not giving in to negative thinking, and acting as if evil is winning, tests a sister’s mettle. When self-pity, or negative thoughts, knock on a sister’s door, she remembers: “Let nothing disturb me, let nothing frighten me, all things are passing, patience, patience, patience.” Although it is sometimes very hard to see, victory is already won by Christ.
Because the paschal mystery is ever new, each sister tries to maintain a positive attitude, and tries not to complain. Edith Stein said: “The road of suffering is the surest road to union with Our Lord. The redeeming power of suffering, joyfully borne, is greatly needed in our world today.” Hardships, joyfully borne, lead to the cross, and the cross leads to prayer for all who suffer in the human family. Because evil is real, tangible and frightening beyond words, prayer is what is most important, and most needed in today’s society. Carmelites should be specialists in prayer. Prayer at the foot of the cross helps a Carmelite to become more thoughtful, more sensitive, and more kind to those around her. It also can uncover courage that was previously unknown. Teresa of Avila notes: “One must not think that a person who is suffering is not praying. He is offering up his sufferings to God, and many a time, he is praying much more truly than one who goes away by himself and meditates his head off, and, if he has squeezed out a few tears, thinks that is prayer.”
When Father Gaucheron shared his idea with Suzanne Wrotnowska, she replied: “It’s very beautiful, Father, it is probably not impossible, but the realization will be difficult.” Their idea blossomed into a simple but profound, singularly beautiful and sound, expression of Benedictine contemplative monastic life. Women in good health and women with certain physical limitations, who seem to have the call to live a contemplative Carmelite life, should have the opportunity to live in a monastic setting.
With trust in God, and benevolence from grace, all things are possible. There is so much beauty in Carmel’s garden yet to discover.
Readers who desire to help with a Carmelite expression of this life are welcome to contact the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
A short video (now sadly removed from public view) popped up in my recommended list on YouTube in October 2017 and changed everything I thought I knew about myself. The host was 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.
I was sitting at a table happily conversing with a group of girlfriends when I saw her walk in. She had made some attempt to look put-together, though her puffy eyes and downcast demeanor implied otherwise. I knew she struggled emotionally and had a lot of marital drama, so I wasn’t surprised. I watched her walk past my table and choose a seat at a distance from everyone else. Apart from the bride-to-be, whose shower had brought us together that day, I’m pretty sure I was her only other friend in the room.
“Friend” was a challenging term to use here. Only a few years my senior, she had been my boss for three years. Our strong personalities often clashed. I felt stifled by her, and I think she felt threatened by me. Our rocky relationship eventually drove me to leave that job.
Both of us had become close with another coworker—a kind and deeply compassionate young woman who was preparing to marry the love of her life. This woman and I had spent a lot of time together, even outside of work, and our friend circles intertwined. I knew half of the people in the room that day, but I was well aware that my former boss, who normally feigned confidence, was like a fish out of water here. As I continued my comfortable conversations, I felt a nudge to go over and speak to the lonely one. I ignored it. I continued to catch glimpses of her out of the corner of my eye but continued to suppress the inspiration to do the kind and uncomfortable thing. In a little while, I thought. But before I ever had the courage to respond to a simple prompting, she had left the party.
Thankfully, I had a more pleasant encounter with her at the wedding a month later and some positive text exchanges in the weeks that followed. At that point, the three of us who had once worked together a part of a tight-knit (albeit dysfunctional) team had all moved on and were on the verge of new chapters in life. The former boss expressed in a group text one day how much she missed our team, and in a genuine gesture, I texted back suggesting that we meet for lunch soon at her favorite Italian restaurant. Maybe I could make up for my neglect of charity a few months earlier. She responded affirmatively.
But the shared meal of bread sticks and gnocchi soup never happened. Three days after that text conversation, she took her life. She left behind a husband and five children whom she decided would be better off without her.
As I tried to process the news, memories rolled through my head. I spent the first three years after leaving my community with this person, day in and day out. She hired me for my first-ever career-type job and allowed me to gain experience in a field that I came to love. We had more than our fair share of challenges, but we both made some attempt to bond over those things we had in common—like an appreciation of unique foods and a love for cinematic music. While the memories and tears flowed, one phrase echoed through my head: I wish I had loved her more.
I had planned to work that secular job for a year or so while I searched for a new ministry to pour myself into. What I had failed to realize was that God placed ministry opportunities right in front of me. He gave me people who needed to be loved. He gave me moments to sanctify and challenges to offer. I was no less called to be His disciple in this job than I was in my community or in any other full-time ministry. I shed some tears as I thought back over those years and recalled the day of the bridal shower. I prayed for God’s mercy on this woman’s soul and for her family. For myself, I asked that I not be so blind in the future. Sure, I may not have been able to change the course of this person’s life, but I know I could have made some small attempt to love her more.
Recently I was attending another bridal shower. As I walked back to my table after refilling my iced tea, I noticed a woman sitting alone, as everyone from her table was helping the bride-to-be with gifts. I felt a gentle prompting and walked over to her. I introduced myself and invited her to come sit at my table. She smiled and accepted the invitation. I recognized the God moment, and I praised Him in my heart for another chance to love.