By Gertrude Heartwood.
In Fr. (now Bishop) Robert Barron’s video series Catholicism, he points out that Our Lord Jesus did not have any religious status in his society. He was not a member of the priestly class and was neither a scribe nor a Pharisee. He was a manual laborer, a member of the laity. So now are we, who once had “religious status” as members of a religious community, counted among the laity.
All states of life were elevated by him, for although he was a regular working man, he also was the model for all in religious life, living poverty, chastity and obedience; and he is the Eternal High Priest. We know that all priests derive their priesthood from His; that all religious follow him more closely in the evangelical counsels; yet he is simultaneously a lay person.
Reflections like these can comfort those of us who pursued religious life and left, but we can never get away from the fact that we no longer remain in what is considered by the Church to be the objectively more perfect way of life which persons in religious vows have been called to live.
Lay people are not called like priests and religious to a supernatural vocation. We may be chosen for the married state of life, or for some ministry in the Church, but this is not the same sort of call that a priest or religious receives…a summons to a way of life that can only be lived because of the grace that is available from the Redeeming Act of Christ. Prior to Christ, the celibate priesthood and the consecrated life did not exist. These are possible only because of the new economy of grace brought about by the Blood of His Cross.
So here we are, just regular folk, living a regular type of life. Some of us are single, some of us are married. But our states in life are nothing new, nothing particularly Christian. All cultures and religious traditions have married people and single people. We are just plain Janes.
And yet, are we really?
In the purely lay state, having no Church status to rely upon, we can show forth the essentials of the Christian gifts, the changes that Christianity brings to human beings. We look, dress, talk, live like secular folk. But we have the Holy Trinity within us. We have a mother in heaven who watches over us. We have a guardian angel. We have grace upon grace upon grace. We are new creations. Furthermore, if we are married, we can live that state in life at a higher level, at the level of grace, because it has been elevated to a sacrament.
These hidden treasures of grace we possess within are like jewels sparkling out quietly from within us, upon a world that is inhabited by darkness. People will catch the sparkles if we remain in His Love, and be drawn to Him too. And that is all we have. Those sparkles of grace. We don’t have a habit, or religious vows, we don’t have a collar, we aren’t set apart. When people look at us and interact with us, it is as persons just-like-them. The only things we have to rely upon to draw people to Christ is His grace inside of us and our cooperation therewith. No one will look at us in a habit and be moved to think of God. But if we wear a smile for them, they may see that they have dignity and that they are loved. If all our interactions with them bear the Light of Christ, the heaviness of their darkness can be lifted from them, if even for a moment.
At the same time, we see the goodness in them, these regular folk like us…though not Christian, they can make us marvel at how they too reflect God’s goodness. His goodness in us, His goodness in them…we and they, regular folk, yet carrying too, the wonder of God’s generous presence.
By Christina M. Sorrentino, re-printed with permission from her blog https://calledtoloveosb.blogspot.com/
One of the greatest blessings of living in a monastery or convent is being able to live with the Blessed Sacrament. When young women would come on a discernment retreat and ask me what my favorite part was of being in religious life, I would always tell them, “Being in the constant presence of the most holy dwelling place”. There were some nights I would go down to the Eucharistic chapel and simply sit quietly alone with Jesus in the darkness with only the sanctuary lamp as my light. I cannot explain the feeling that would come over me as it is indescribable, and it is a feeling that I miss the most after leaving the monastery. I can no longer at night right before bed go downstairs and sit in the stillness before the Blessed Sacrament, and I can say that is my greatest sadness and loss of no longer being in religious life.
As in the words of Fr. Michael E. Gaitley, MIC, I find myself with a sort of “holy envy” in that I wish that I lived in the same house in such closeness to the Eucharist. Religious sisters and nuns are truly blessed in that they actually live in the same house as the Blessed Sacrament, and can visit with Jesus as often as they wish to visit him. I remember after Compline visiting the Eucharistic Chapel on my way back to the Sisters’ residence, and whispering to Jesus, “Good night”.
My heart yearns for the day when I will once again be living in the same house as the Blessed Sacrament. I do not find it a coincidence that not too long after my departure I was given an image of the Divine Mercy, which is such a beautiful image of his grace. I told my father I wanted to hang the image on the wall in my parents’ living room, and I was surprised when he told me that I could do so, and already I knew that Jesus was pouring out his merciful love.
Although the image is not the Blessed Sacrament, it will be a reminder of the merciful love of Jesus for me and for my family. The Divine Mercy Image Enthronement is an invitation to allow Jesus to reign not only in our home, but also in our hearts, and I will remember to trust Jesus and his divine will. This image of great grace brings Christ into our home, and until the day that I can once again live in closeness to the Eucharist I will consider myself blessed that the Image of Divine Mercy will remind me that Jesus is always with me, and to trust him.
It’s been years now since I left the convent: I’ve passed through all those different stages of grief (or rather, bounced back and forth between them like a ping-pong ball) and finally come to something resembling acceptance. The pain is no longer raw and immediate, which is a relief. However, there’s a drawback: it’s harder to find inspiration than it used to be. How do I set the world on fire, as Saint Catherine of Siena exhorts, when my usual aspiration is simply to use a limited supply of energy to get out of bed and make it through a day at work? And how can anyone rejoice while holding on to the memory of religious life, or even sometimes the Catholic Faith itself, like the remnants of a parachute that failed to open?
The message of Advent is, “Stay awake and keep watch! He is coming, and we do not know the hour!” These four weeks have compelled us to be alert, both practically, as we handle the pre-Christmas rush at work and family duties at home, and spiritually, with reminders of the immanent coming of Christ and exhortations to be prepared to receive Him – and we’re tired.
The message of Christmas, however, is, “Rest.”
The Guest for Whom we were preparing is here, and has fallen asleep in the manger. Christmas is gentle, domestic: a young mother asleep on a hay bale beside her Son, surrounded by quiet beasts and watched over by her husband. We are weary, drained and battered in soul – so were they. They had walked a long way in uncertain times. At Christmas, though, they have reached a place of shelter, safety and peace, and they offer us the same.
It’s not easy to be Catholic, and the longer you make a sincere effort to be so, the harder it gets. God can seem distant to women who have left the convent, but every Christmas we remember how close He came to us, and in the gentlest, least imposing way He could: who could be afraid of a baby? A baby can’t answer the questions we most need answered – why couldn’t I have stayed in the convent? What am I going to do with my future? – but instead, simply looks up at us with the dark, solemn eyes that newborns have, and invites us to set aside our fears and be with Him for a while. We still seek God, and in this octave we remember that He also came to seek us.
If you’ve had a rough year, this is the turning point: a baby is always a sign of the future, and this Baby more so than any. May the peace of Christ be with you, and may you have a gentle, happy year ahead.
I have always seen Advent as a beautiful season of hope and joyful expectation. I fell in love with Advent when I entered my religious community. There’s something about the quiet waiting of our Blessed Mother that has resonated so deeply with me.
For the first time in eight years, I am spending Advent at home with my family, instead of in the convent. I made the decision to leave the community six months ago, after more than seven years as a religious Sister. I chose to leave during a period of intense desolation, and looking back, I see that I acted in haste, without any true discernment. At the time, I was sure I was at peace with my choice, but my former postulant directress very wisely told me, “What you feel is relief, not peace.” I brushed her off as not understanding my situation, but after six months, I see the truth in what she said. I have yet to find the peace I thought I had. Instead, I came very quickly to deeply regret leaving the convent, and do not yet know if it would be possible for me to return.
This Advent, I find myself seeing Mary in a new way. I reflect upon her months of pregnant expectation, and for the first time, see more than just her joy. It must have been a time of great uncertainty for her, and also of learning whole-hearted trust in the God of the impossible.
How critical are hope and trust during the pregnant pauses in our own lives. In times of “limbo,” pain, or uncertainty, the temptation can be to fall into anxiety and even despair. Blessed are we to have Mary to guide us and be our example in these times.
As we enter the final days of Advent, I picture myself sitting alongside Mary in the later months of her pregnancy. The initial excitement has passed, and in the silence, perhaps Mary’s heart has begun to fill with questions of what the future will bring. I acknowledge the questions rising up in my own heart…questions of discernment, of God’s will, of doors that may or may not be closed before me. But rather than give in to the fear and uncertainty, I fix my gaze on Mary.
Very gently, she takes my hands in hers. She places my right hand over her heart, and the steady beating makes her hope, faith, and trust almost tangible to me. I cling tightly to Mary’s hope and trust, as I seem to have so little of my own right now. Then she presses my left hand to her belly, and as I feel the movement of the baby within her, I am reminded that times of uncertainty and waiting are really moments pregnant with God Himself. It is only by being faithful in the waiting that the sacred new life can be born.
If you, too, find yourself in a season of uncertainty, take heart. Hold tightly to our Blessed Mother, and know that something new and beautiful is in the waiting.
When I was in college, a good friend told me that we don’t have to find the saints – they find us. God places them in our lives at pivotal moments, to shed light on our own following of him. Since she said this, I have found it to be true on multiple occasions.
After six adventurous years of serving as a missionary, youth director, and other such exciting positions, I now work as a secretary at a church. I’ve realized God is calling me to a time of being still, and to use the advantages of a stable schedule to allow him to speak to me more deeply. While I am profoundly grateful for this position, and confident that God placed me here (through uniquely providential circumstances) I still feel that I am not doing enough. I miss my adventures. I am in tension between the peace that I am where He wants me, and yet a gnawing feeling of “not enough” that creeps in. I am happy to serve in the hidden tasks, yet can’t help noting the irony between the grandeur of what I did before (giving talks to teens, counseling others in their walk with Christ etc) and the exasperating minutiae of what I do now (fighting with the copier, spending hours on hold with Comcast!).
Underneath all this, is the ever-present tension that surfaces about what I am doing with my life in the long-term. I am at peace that I have given God all I can for now, but plagued by the same gnawing of “not enough.” I want to know the answer to the all-important question – what is my vocation, my purpose in life. I want to know why God will still not reveal it despite my earnest and faithful seeking.
Recently, into all these tensions, across the years, through a powerful thing called the Communion of Saints, came the perfect heavenly friend for me. While on hold yet again on a call for the parish, I was sorting through piles of paper on my desk and stumbled across an article about the life of a woman named Julia Greeley. I learned that her cause for canonization was currently underway, and was instantly intrigued. (For what is more fascinating than a canonization process currently underway in your own country?)
Julia Greeley was a Catholic, African-American laywoman who lived a poor and humble life. Her path to holiness was the epitome of the “hidden yes.” Recently recognized as “Servant of God” by her archdiocese in Denver, Colorado, Julia Greeley’s life was lowly and uncelebrated. She was born into slavery sometime between 1833 and 1848, and finally freed in 1865 by the state of Missouri’s Emancipation Act. Little is known about the intervening years, except that when she was a young child, she lost her right eye to the whip of an angry slave owner. Once freed, Julia made a living cooking, cleaning, and caring for children as a nanny.
In 1880, she became Catholic and was received into the Church at Sacred Heart Church in Denver. The Sacred Heart then became the central mystery and mission of her life. She would walk for miles to share devotional Sacred Heart pamphlets and medals with as many people as she could. She was also a dedicated servant of the poor. Though she herself lived in poverty, she gave of what she had, and also went begging for the needs of others. Friendship was a central characteristic of her life, in which she transcended the racial and societal divides of her time. White and black, Catholics and non catholic, rich and poor, old and young alike were numbered among her friends. Young children in particular were drawn to her and delighted in her presence. Her funeral overwhelmed her tiny parish church as over 1,000 people from all walks of life came to pay their respects.
She attended daily Mass faithfully, and in fact, died on her way to Mass, on the feast of her beloved Sacred Heart in 1918.
Fast-forward to June 2017 – nearly 100 years later – her remains were recently transferred to the Cathedral in Denver. She is the very first person to be buried there. As the bishop, Jorge Rodriguez, who presided over the ceremony pointed out “[Julia Greeley] will be the first person buried in Denver’s cathedral. Not a bishop, not a priest – a laywoman, a former slave. Isn’t that something?”
The humble are exalted. The last shall be first. Even to this day, few people know about Julia Greeley. In her life, she served in the lowliest (and even despised) roles. She had no “status” in secular society. In the Church, she was never a religious, theologian, or leader. And yet, it is her, whom God has lifted up and placed before our eyes.
Her life intersected with mine at just the right moment, to teach me what truly matters. Not only are the hidden yesses more powerful than we realize, but they are enough to bring us to Heaven. Julia Greeley’s life was all about the hidden yes.
The “yes” to forgive the grave wrongs of slavery and physical abuse that she suffered. . .
The “yes” to lead a joyful and charitable life in the midst of an unjust and still-segregated society. . .
The courageous “yes” to enter a Church in a time when there were few to no Catholics of her culture and racial background. . .
The “yes” to literally walk across the societal divides of her time. . .
The “yes” to travel miles on her errands of mercy and evangelization despite painful arthritis . . .
(this particular “yes,” in fact, remained hidden until the very recent examination of her bones during the exhumation process for her canonization!).
And the overarching “yes” to be the love of the Sacred Heart to all whom she encountered.
She has given me a different perspective. Everything has value. Where I am now could, as I believe, just be yet another stop along the way to where God ultimately wants me. Yet even if eternity were tomorrow, it could be ENOUGH to make me a saint. If I but choose to respond.
So, I now try to make jokes, when I finally get through on the Comcast call. Their customer service agent is a person too, whom Julia would have seen as a friend. I win my fight with the copier, knowing that I’ve made the pace of life smoother for everyone else even if they never know about it. And when anxiety about the future creeps in, I try to whisper, “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I trust in You!”
Servant of God, Julia Greeley, Pray for Us!
Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!
Former slave Julia Greeley first to be buried at Denver’s Cathedral