By M. Cabri
Over a year and a half ago when I left a religious community, everything in my life seemed to be broken. My family seemed to have fallen apart while I was thousands of miles away, and I could not seem to maintain emotional equilibrium. I alternated between extreme joy and deep interior darkness. Inside, I tried not to be blinded by the fear of not understanding what was going on, and the growing sense, which I refused to accept, that I may have to leave the community. My spiritual life had been undermined as well, and I alternated between wondering if it was spiritual dryness or something I had done terribly wrong. I felt burdened by the obligations of communal prayer in a monastic community. I seemed to fall asleep in both of my meditations every day no matter how hard I tried to keep watch with Our Lord. I received no consolation at daily Mass. Whenever I went into the chapel to pray the Divine Office, rosary, or make a Holy Hour, it couldn’t be over fast enough. I was painfully agitated and restless. The silence seemed to crush me. When I could speak, I never seemed to be able to say what I needed to my superiors, which left me feeling hopeless and desperately alone.
In the months before I left, I cried myself to sleep more nights than I can count. I never seemed rested when I woke up in the morning. Every day I dragged myself to my chores, trying to tell myself wholeheartedly and joyfully that this was all for Jesus, but I found that I wasn’t even able to convince myself of that anymore. For the first time in my life, it truly seemed like Jesus was taking away the grace to live a life I had dreamed of for so long. I remembered how happy I had been as a postulant and new novice and couldn’t make sense of the inner darkness I felt now. I wrestled with feeling like I never could be enough for Him, that all my prayers and labor was in vain. I even began to wonder if He still was there, loving and supporting me. I couldn’t even look at my Sisters without crying. Finally, I just broke.
For a few blissful and painful days, I lived in a limbo of dreading I must leave and knowing my Sisters did not know what would happen. I felt interior joy (or relief) at the prospect. I sensed all I wanted was freedom from what had become oppressive to me, not realizing that I was pining for earthly treasure which could not satisfy my heart. His grace (or my willfulness) seemed to keep me in one piece long enough to smile and say goodbye to my Sisters without dragging them into my inner chaos.
From that place, I came home across the country, hoping that somehow everything would be better again. Those painful first days, I could barely go outside because I felt unable to face the world as I was. I felt immodest walking around habit-less, horror that I had left the community, shame for my shaved head and an unshakable sense of failure. I could barely tolerate going to Mass or praying, because I felt divorced by the One I had promised to marry, whom I still love. Everything reminded me of the Sisters I had left behind who were now dead to me. I saw their faces everywhere and heard their voices in my head, sharing their joys, sorrows and spiritual growth with me. To this day, I still do. I still do.
Over a year later, after being in therapy and having the advice of a wonderful spiritual director, I approached the community again. The prompt reply was that they did not think I had a vocation to their community and should discern elsewhere. The experience was like leaving all over again. I feared that no community would ever want to talk to me.
In the six months since that conversation, I have approached two communities. From both, I have received understanding, love and support. One vocation directress even praised me for my courage in continuing discernment of consecrated life. Both emphatically assured me that I could have been refused simply because the community had too many applicants that year or did not have the resources to invest in a young woman for a second try at religious life. After a long struggle, those words are beginning to set me free.
It is easy to see everything as a personal rejection. Many of us already see ourselves as damaged goods, irreparably broken and unlovable. The great mystery of salvation is that Christ does not merely come to make everything externally appear better, leaving the root problem intact. He wants to, and DOES, heal the inner brokenness! We are all wounded and damaged by sin, either our sins or the sins of others. He sees the brokenness and what He can do to make those scars radiant. We are all like shards of glass which individually can be unimpressive. But when the chips are filled, edges polished, and we are pieced together with the rest of the Body of Christ, we will be more beautiful than we ever could have imagined. The more perfect and transparent each individual piece is, the more light will shine through that piece and make the whole window radiant.
Jesus wants to shine through your life so that the world will come to know Him through you. The more you reflect Christ, the more His light will shine on people around you. Offer up your suffering, grow in holiness, and above all, continue to hope when all seems hopeless! The Body of Christ needs your suffering; don’t waste it! He IS faithful, even when we cannot feel it! Let Him heal you and know that all the saints and all of us who are journeying this path with you are praying for you!
In the United States we are celebrating Thanksgiving. It’s a great time to stop and express gratitude for the many blessings in our lives. It’s also a great chance for me to reflect on this day a few years ago.
I returned to lay life not long before Thanksgiving. It made the transition easier and harder. It was fun to be with my family, whom I missed very much while in religious life. However, it was challenging to be back during the holiday season. Many people assumed I was home visiting. It was difficult to know when to correct this assumption and when to roll with it.
One part of the long story about the founding of Leonie’s Longing takes place on that Thanksgiving Day. I attended Mass and the Gospel reading was The Healing of the Gerasene Demoniac (Mk 5:1-20). It’s a memorable passage with shocking images.This is where the demons call themselves Legion and the poor man is bruising himself with stones. It concludes:
As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed pleaded to remain with him.
But he would not permit him but told him instead, “Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.”
Then the man went off and began to proclaim in the Decapolis what Jesus had done for him; and all were amazed.
I heard this passage in a completely new way after being in the convent. This man wanted to follow Jesus. He pleads! And Jesus said no. Instead, he sent him back to his family. It seems a bit crazy because it often appears that Jesus is trying so hard to get people to follow him. And yet this? It challenged me to reflect on my situation. Jesus is not rejecting this man; he simply has a different plan for him. Could it be possible that this is true for me too?
I had focused my hurt and sadness on what I had lost. I missed living with Jesus and my sisters. My future was uncertain and I had no idea what I would do next. The list goes on and on. These feelings are very real and I still experience them somewhat today. But it did not dawn on me that the Lord had something else in mind until I heard the above passage.
Each passing year has brought me more healing and wholeness. I am convinced that will be your experience as well if you aren’t there yet. You should grieve what you have lost. But also enjoy and appreciate the opportunities you have gained. If you need help starting a gratitude list, please send me a message. I am more than happy to help.
Finally, I’d like to express my thanks for you, dear reader! It’s a joy to hear from you and know that you love the site. I also want to thank our volunteers and donors; without your help, this would not be possible. And most importantly, thank you to Almighty God for this mysterious experience and work to which you have called us. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
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By Aimee Dominique.
Journaling is a means by which I prefer to pray. I dialogue with God, ask Him questions, listen to His Word and sometimes write down what I’m grateful for at the end of the day. I like to go back and re-read my prayer journals to see how God has answered prayers, taught me, consoled me, forgiven me, and walked with me. Often I need a reminder of how God has been leading me, how much He has done for me. Sometimes I am surprised to see that I am tempted by similar things from year to year. Journaling has been a privileged means of seeing God’s presence in my life. Through journaling I get to see how God wants to work with my apparent failures.
Honestly, leaving religious life has felt like nothing less than leaving one culture and entering into another. It’s even more challenging when the culture I’ve returned to is supposed to be that of my own, that of my own people, my own country, yet it feels foreign to me. When over 10 years ago, I entered the convent for the first time, much of what has become the social norm didn’t exist. I never used a smartphone before and I feel lost when it comes to so many new forms of technology. I left religious life a little over two years ago and I continue to realize that the transition from the convent into the world is no less demanding than “sacrificing all” to follow the Lord to the convent in the first place.
One day I was expressing to God my pain and frustration—why does my life seem like a contradiction and a failure? (That may seem a dramatic assessment, but I would imagine that others who have left religious life have experienced similar doubts and feelings from time to time.) As I was pouring out my heart to the Lord in journaling prayer, I wrote to Him about feeling dizzy:
Dizzy—this world, my American culture, with its Instagram, Facebook, social media madness makes me dizzy… Job searches that end in a laundry list of competencies and required abilities, licenses, etc. make me feel dizzy… My own weakness makes me feel dizzy…
Not only can the first steps back into the world make you feel dizzy, this feeling can linger for years. There is the challenge of finding work, perhaps re-discerning a vocation, making friends, relating to people who you once knew, among so many other daily adjustments that often go unnoticed by those around you, but are felt with every step you take.
God recently revealed to me an explanation of my feeling of dizziness which consoled me. He reminded me of a passage in the Old Testament from the book of Jeremiah. God says to the prophet Jeremiah to go and visit the potter’s house. While there, Jeremiah discovers the potter is working at his wheel. Jeremiah writes, “whenever the object of clay which he was making turned out badly in his hand, he tried again, making of the clay another object of whatever sort he pleased” (Jeremiah 18:4). As Jeremiah witnesses the ingenuity and perseverance of the potter, the word of the Lord comes to him saying, “Can I not do to you, house of Israel, as this potter has done?… Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand…” (Jeremiah 18:6). From this, God helped me understand that I feel dizzy because He is working on me right now. I’m His clay and I’m on the wheel spinning, but I’m in His hands. That’s what matters.
Clay is soft and impressionable. It doesn’t resist change but feels it very acutely, if clay could feel. If it was self-aware, clay might wrestle with feelings of shame about “turning out badly” in the hands of the potter on the first try. The important thing though is that the potter has a different perspective. The potter doesn’t get discouraged or frustrated with the clay. He tries something new. He is determined to continue his work. This is what God does with us. God revealed to me that it’s okay to feel dizzy and it’s okay to try something that doesn’t work out. He’s going to make everything work out in the end. He never gives up on us. St. Paul had this hope and perspective when he wrote, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6). We just need to trust, trust, trust, and surrender ourselves into His hands.
What? A single vocation? You may be thinking, “this book must be about the vocation of the consecrated virgin living in the world.” This book definitely speaks to a woman seeking or already living that state in life, but does not limit itself to that particular vocation.
When I left religious life, I knew of three vocational options: religious life, marriage, or consecrated virginity. Later I became aware of and inquired into that very hidden vocation of persons dedicated to God in secular institutes. For various reasons, none of these vocations could be “it” for some of us LL followers. We remain “uncategorized,” even years after leaving religious life.
This book offers another way, for those who believe God invites them to it: that is, to choose perfect chastity for the sake of Christ as a single person in the world. From this book, we see that any woman who desires to take Christ alone as Spouse need not be hindered from doing so by her inability to enter religious life or another of the more formal ways of consecrated life. The author presents, to anyone who desires to be His and is single in the world, the option of making a private vow or simple dedication of oneself in celibate love to the Lord. Written before the vocation of the consecrated virgin living in the world was re-instated in the Church, it also alludes to, first and foremost, this particular call, but does not limit itself to that call. This is a message of hope for anyone out there who desires consecration but cannot enter religious life and, for whatever reason (and there can be reasons other than not being a virgin), cannot become a consecrated virgin.
I quote from the book, page 102: “This vocation…may be chosen even though one is forced to stay out of the other vocations…It should, in fact, be a vocation primarily for those normal and psychically sound people who deliberately choose it…[but also for] those who…are not eligible for the religious life…who could, however, choose the married state if they so desired” but who wish to be espoused only to Christ.
Fr. Unger also includes among those who could choose the state of perfect chastity in the world: widows, persons who were married but are now permanently separated, single moms, persons who would like to have gotten married but have not found a suitable companion, those who desired the religious life but could not enter, and penitents who have turned from a life of un-chastity and chosen to live their lives now in perfect continence for the love of Christ. (pages 100, 105-108).
Fr. Unger says of this grace to choose and promise celibacy in the world, “God usually gives His grace and call by making a person fit to live this type of life and by inspiring the correct motives for choosing it, and, at times, by allowing circumstances that will hinder one from choosing any other vocation…The choice can still be free, even when circumstances conspire against choosing any other vocation. If one would like to have married but must remain unmarried because of circumstances, or if one is prevented for various reasons from entering…religious life, one may…make the best of circumstances and freely consent to live in perfect chastity, since that is God’s will.” (page 100)
As for motives to live this way of life, on page 101 Fr. Unger writes, “One should have a well-balanced attitude toward life and toward the other vocations,” so as to point out that it cannot be chosen because one looks negatively at any of the other states in life. He continues, “The highest motive…is the undivided love that one wishes to bestow on Christ” and he contrasts this to “a single person living in the world who might, for all that, be doing very much good, but who lives in the unmarried state very regretfully.” And he writes of a secondary “supernatural motive of charity toward fellow men, since it frees one for a wholehearted devotion to the service of the Church and humanity.”
The vow or dedication can be made privately, by way of “internal resolution and no further formality. One could also recite a special prayer of consecration, privately, either in one’s home or before an altar in Church.” (page 59) I would also like to mention that in Volume One of An Introduction to the Vocation of Consecrated Virginity Lived in the World by the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins, Raymond Cardinal Burke is quoted on page 39 as mentioning that a woman may also offer a private vow before a bishop or priest in the context of Holy Mass.
On a personal note, I came across this book—I can’t even remember how—not long after I left religious life. At that time, I was not at all attracted to staying in the world as a single person. I wanted to enter religious life again, and as much as I wanted a life of consecration, would have preferred marriage to consecration (so I thought) if I had to remain in the world! The thought of remaining single in the world repelled me. So when I read it, I did so “at arms’ length”, and several miles distant from my heart.
Now here I am, years later, actually recommending it to my fellow Leonie’s Longing followers, because I have found so much hope and refreshment for myself in it!
I think that when a woman meets her husband, she doesn’t choose a way of life, but a person. If that person happens to serve in the military, or politics, or becomes handicapped…he remains one’s husband. Where, what environment, what lifestyle, even if it entails loneliness at times and other sufferings, is not of paramount importance. To belong exclusively to the one you love, that is what matters.
For those of you out there still trying to figure out your particular vocation, this book can help you to prayerfully consider whether or not some form of consecration in the world—either as a consecrated virgin or by making a private vow or dedication—could be the way of Love Our Lord may beckon you to. For those of you who already have chosen this route, I suspect you will find this book to be a source of great consolation and encouragement. So, read on! The Lord of Mercy has a plan of Love for each one of us. Alleluia!
The Mystery of Love for the Single: a guide for those who follow the single vocation in the world
by Fr. Dominic J. Unger, O.F.M. Cap
Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1958, reprinted by Tan Books and Publishers, 2005.
Twenty-five years ago, I stood at the cloister door of the Poor Clares, knocked, and asked to be admitted to their community. I was young, confident, and excited to begin my new life that I just knew was going to be permanent. During the first weeks, I thrived, so much so that I was allowed to move from Candidate to Postulant in four and a half weeks rather than the usual six.
By the end of the year, I had made a complete turnaround. Beset by chronic ear infections, the loneliness that came with the lack of my family’s support, and the regular adjustments to religious life, I felt I had no more to give. However, by the time I had reached home, I regretted my decision. Those days were filled with so many tears and headaches from the stress! Over the next few weeks, though, the pain subsided, and I began to pick up where I had left off. Five years later, I would be walking down the wedding aisle, content and at peace with my decision.
My time in the cloister was invaluable to me as a wife and mother. I had learned to submit myself to someone else, a certain amount of detachment, and the importance of obedience. Six children later, I was pleased with my little family, but even in this state of satisfaction, the truth was that deep inside, I still grappled with what I saw as the loss of my vocation. Regular dreams visited me in which I was released to enter religious life, only to realize that I belonged with my husband and children and return to the world. Over and over, God needed to show me the holiness of family life in these little dreams until I learned the lesson.
Then an accident resulted in the loss of my two boys. A daughter should have joined them in their heavenly abode, but by miraculous intervention, she was spared. The bigger miracle, however, was a complete healing of the disappointment of my youth. From that moment on, I added those virtues which are so loved in good mothers: patience, long-suffering and cheerfulness.
Since that time, I have learned that God gives two separate and distinct graces in religious life: one to enter religious life and the other to persevere in it. God often gives the first without giving the second. He has things to teach which are best learned in an atmosphere of retreat that may last anywhere from a few days to a few years before sending us out into the world. Religious life not only is the seed bed for those who will live there until death, but it also cultivates the life of virtue of those who will become the mothers and fathers that God desires.
A few days ago, my oldest daughter stood at the cloister door, knocked, and asked to be admitted to her new community. She is young, confident, and excited to begin her new life. So now we have come ‘round full circle. The end of my vocation story means the beginning of hers.