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!
You may have noticed a marked improvement in our social media in 2018. That would be because of our wonderful volunteer Cate. Not only did she post our blogs and help link to interesting articles from other sites but she also created beautiful graphic content for us. It’s been a pleasure working with her and to say thanks I thought it might be fun to interview her and learn a little more about her.
How did you first hear about our site?
I’m pretty sure I found LL through a link on another blog I was reading. It was during my first year back home after having discerned to leave my consecrated community, and I was searching Google on topics that would help with the transition.
What did you like about the site?
I liked that it was serving a need in the Church that I felt should be addressed. I had wanted to start a blog myself where I talked about my discernment journey, and thought of inviting others who had been in consecrated life. I only got as far as taking some notes and drafting up a few first paragraphs of potential blog posts before happily discovering that this type of thing already existed.
Did you find Leonie’s Longing helpful? If yes, how?
Yes, it was certainly helpful to feel solidarity with other women who had similar experiences. There were some blog posts that spoke to me in a particular way and gave me insight and encouragement as I navigated this new chapter. Perhaps one of the greatest fruits was learning to be patient with myself in the process. More difficult than anything was the guilt of possibly having made the wrong decision in choosing to leave. It helped to correspond with others from LL and express those feelings with people who could relate.
What made you decide to volunteer?
I had written a couple of blog posts and had considered volunteering for a while, but my schedule always seemed too packed to add one more thing. However, when Theresa and I were emailing and she asked me if I would consider volunteering, the timing was right. It was during the slower winter months and in the midst of a rough time for me. I almost immediately knew it was right, not only because I could honestly dedicate time to it, but also because I saw that an opportunity like this would be a good outlet for me.
Cate & Theresa meet IRL!
What was your favorite part about volunteering?
Other than evening brainstorming chats with Theresa, which contained a fair amount of random chit-chat and laughter? 🙂 I enjoyed doing something where I really understood my target audience. As I looked for quotes and created graphics, and as I read articles and decided to share them, I knew that if something struck a chord with me, it would likely be helpful to others here.
Did anything surprise you?
I’m not sure that I expected it to be such an overall positive and joyful experience. I loved being part of the team and feeling connected other volunteers and those we serve.
What are you doing next?
I’ve discerned to do two years of foreign mission work with Family Missions Company. I’ll be leaving for training very soon and will receive my assignment in the next couple of months. Being a lay missionary feels like a great fit. It wasn’t an easy step, but it’s one that I’m very grateful to be taking. Thanks be to God!
If you knew someone who was unsure about volunteering what would you say?
Go for it! You have a unique experience to share with others. We need to use our own experiences to help one another. God will use it not only for the benefit of other women but for your own growth and healing.
By Bernadette Monica.
Three years after leaving my former community it seemed like all the pieces in the puzzle of my life were finally coming together. I had found another community and everything appeared to be indicating that this was truly what the Lord had planned for my life. The community’s spirituality and charism resonated with my heart in a way I never could have imagined. With each faltering step forward I took, each time expecting to find myself falling flat or hitting a dead end, I was surprised to find myself filled with a peace and joy unlike anything I had ever known. The whole experience was so different to discernment the first time around – where formerly I had discerned out of external pressure, anxiety and fear, here instead I found freedom, beauty, and goodness. Even when facing the remnant fears I had from my previous discernment of religious life, I felt more exhilarated than afraid at the possibility of taking a leap of faith and placing everything in the hands of our Lord, trusting everything to His grace and providence. And so it was that, after spending 6 months or so discerning with the local mission of this new community, I found myself on a plane from Sydney to the US to visit the community’s Motherhouse, and discern if this was really where I was being called.
I half expected to arrive and feel like a fish out of water, having the realisation that I was not where I was meant to be, like when I had visited other communities in the past. Instead I felt completely at home, and fell in love with the community and their way of life. One of the postulants and one of the novices even remarked how well I fit in with the community and how they hoped to see me enter in a few months, God-willing. It seemed that the only obstacle remaining was that my family were not supportive, and even on this front I was sure that in time they would come around, even if there might be some challenges in the meantime.
Imagine then my surprise and shock on the day before my departure when I finally had an interview with the vocation director only to be informed that she didn’t think I would be able to cope with the demands of their community life. I always knew it was a possibility that a community might discern such, or that I might decide myself that it wasn’t the right fit, but her impression was so at odds with the peace and sense of belonging that I felt, and I wasn’t satisfied with the vague reason she gave as justification. Even so, it wasn’t an absolute no, and it was agreed that on my return home I needed to really take everything to prayer and discuss things with my spiritual director, and that I could continue to be in contact with the vocation director to discern a path forward.
After a challenging day filled with confusion and heartache I awoke on the final morning of my 12-day visit aware of the challenges that lay ahead, but also full of hope and trust that the Lord would remove this obstacle if it was His will. I returned home and it felt like I had a foot in each of two worlds. I prayed and sought spiritual direction, and after two months, though aware of the possibility of refusal or the likelihood of being asked to undergo a longer period of discernment to discuss and work through her concerns, I contacted the vocation director asking to speak with her again, and expressing that I felt I was being called to take the next step in discernment. We arranged to speak on the phone, and in the 20 minute conversation that ensued it was made clear to me (albeit in the kindest and gentlest way possible) that the door to discerning with the community was no longer open for me. In the space of a few minutes all the growing hopes and dreams I had treasured in my heart were dashed, and the Pearl of Great Price was pulled far from my reach. To say I was heartbroken would be an incredible understatement. I was recently struck by a line from Ted Danson’s miniseries adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels that seemed to sum up where I was at very poignantly:
“We love words, we humans; we use so many, so easily, ‘til they’ve lost all their meaning. But when I say as that last day dawned my heart was breaking – I have never known such awful pain and loneliness.”
I cannot describe my emotions and the testing of my faith over the past few months. I have never really dated, but I imagine that on some level this is akin to enduring a breakup of a longstanding relationship when from your own end you thought everything was going really well and were perhaps even expecting a proposal. After the traumatic experience of leaving my former community and all the growth and healing of the following years, to find a community that was healthy, vibrant, on fire with love for the Lord, and seemingly such a perfect fit for me only to be turned away even from applying felt almost too much to bear.
Over the last month or so the initial intensity of emotions and the agony of rejection has ebbed somewhat, but I’ve been painfully aware that around this time is when sisters will be receiving the habit and professing vows, and that in a few short weeks a new group of postulants will be entering various communities.
Upon learning that the postulants I knew during my brief time at the Motherhouse would have received the habit and their new religious names in the past day, and that the novices will be making their first profession of vows tomorrow, I sat down this morning to pray a rosary for them. It’s a Saturday, so it seemed very appropriate that I should be praying the Joyful mysteries for them. I’m so happy for these women reaching these milestones in their own vocational journeys, but I was aware of parallels I could see with the mysteries I was praying and the experiences of these women, and how this contrasts with my own experience. My own discernment feels more suited to the Sorrowful mysteries. I took this to our Lady as I prayed, and she gave me some beautiful insights which I want to share in the hope that it might bring others a little bit of peace and hope in their own struggles and confusion.
Firstly, on the Joyful mysteries. Perhaps many of you can relate to how these seem to tie in with religious formation, at least as I was seeing it.
The Annunciation: That unexpected and surprising moment when the Lord first presents to a young woman’s mind and heart the possibility of a call to religious life. “How can this be…?” she might ask. But like Mary she is exhorted to not be afraid, and assured that nothing is impossible for God, and that it is through His power that His will will be done, if only she gives him her Fiat.
The Visitation: The vocation starts to become more concrete. A woman finds a community she feels drawn to, and her apparent vocation begins to be affirmed by others – friends, family, her spiritual director, members of the community. And with Mary, the woman rejoices at the marvels the Lord is working in her life.
The Nativity: A birth; new life. The time comes for a woman to enter her community and leave her old life behind. A time of change and growth as she starts out on the new road she has been called to walk.
The Presentation in the Temple: At the appointed time, the woman begins her formal initiation into the community. First she receives the habit and her religious name; later she will make her first profession of vows, offering her life to “be designated as holy to the Lord” (c.f. Lk 2:23) and having her gift accepted by Him through her superiors. It strikes me only now as I sit down to write this that it was at 8 days that our Lord was circumcised, given his name and was formally initiated into the Jewish community, and at 40 days that he was presented in the Temple and redeemed according to Jewish custom and law – there is surely a parallel here with the process of being initiated into a religious community!
The Finding of Jesus in the Temple: Perhaps some might tie this in with a woman’s final profession of vows when she becomes forever a bride of Christ. I see it as something a little more abstract – those moments perhaps years down the track when she grasps a deeper understanding of the mystery of her vocation, or reaches a more profound level of intimacy with her bridegroom. This might perhaps come after a period of spiritual dryness, just as Mary spent three days searching for the missing Jesus, and like Mary, on finding Jesus once again the woman will be filled with joy, and is left to ponder the mysteries of God’s workings, and the purposes He fulfils in all things.
In contrast to this I can see in my own recent experiences a shadow of the Sorrowful mysteries:
The Agony in the Garden: That fateful conversation with the vocation director where she initially questioned my suitability for the community’s way of life; my wrestling with this, questioning, “Why me?” and wondering what it was that she saw in me that she hadn’t seen in the others who did end up applying, or alternatively, what she hadn’t seen in me that she had seen in them; wondering if there was a red flag over my head because of my having previously been in a community; the confusion over how everything had seemed to lead to this point and everything seemed to fit so well only to have the shadow of doubt cast over it all; and finally, reaching the point in prayer of being able to accept the cup I was being asked to drink, and coming to an understanding that if this truly was my vocation then the Lord would remove all obstacles at the appointed time, and that if it wasn’t then nothing I could do on my part could it make it so.
The Scourging at the Pillar: The return home and the months of prayer and discernment. Grappling simultaneously with the very real possibility of rejection and the hope that things might still work out; having others affirm that they thought I was on the right path, while knowing the odds were stacked against me. The feeling of flesh being torn from my side as I prepared to speak with the vocation director once again, laying my heart on the line while knowing there was a very real possibility that I may not receive the answer I was so desperately hoping for.
The Crowning with Thorns: That definitive moment of having the door of what I had hoped to be my vocation closed and bolted on me. Being prepared for the possibility did little in the moment to ease the pain of having thorns pushed cruelly into my flesh. In the hours and days that followed that fateful phone call it felt like there was a ring of thorns around my heart, slowly shredding it to pieces.
The Carrying of the Cross: The weeks and month following my rejection have involved a long process of coming to terms with the situation, working through my emotions, and trying my best to keep moving one step at a time, to get back up when I’ve fallen, to accept help from the Simon’s of Cyrene in my life, and to place myself at the foot of the cross. I’ve had to learn to see this as a way of becoming more united to Him, and to trust more and more in His plans, even when they make no sense to me. I’ve had to make a conscious decision to trust in His promises and to believe that He is indeed working for my good.
The Crucifixion: I can see here an invitation to lay down my life in a radical way to the will of God. An earlier Leonie’s Longing blog, Sacrificing Sacrifice, has proved very helpful in coming to an understanding that, where I had hoped to lay down my life for God through religious consecration, perhaps what is more pleasing to Him and sanctifying for me is accepting His will and choosing to trust even when it proves painful, or when I’m being asked to let go even of the truly good and honourable desires of my heart. Like Christ on the Cross we are invited to place our lives completely into our Father’s hands, accepting and trusting in whatever His will might be.
On another level I can see in the Sorrowful mysteries parallels with the experience of leaving my former community. Perhaps you may relate to some of these:
- Troubles, doubts or difficulties in the lived experience of community life
- Perhaps a difficult conversation with a superior, or some painful growth in self-awareness
- The experience of actually deciding to leave, or particularly of being asked to leave where that has been the case
- The aftermath of leaving your community and readjusting to lay life
- Learning to accept and surrender to God’s will, and for those who have left dysfunctional communities, healing and learning to forgive and let go.
While praying the rosary I had a few insights from our Lady in light of all of this which I found comforting and encouraging. Firstly, she affirmed to me that the Sorrowful mysteries don’t make sense on their own. It is only in the light of the Resurrection that our Lord’s Passion and death have any meaning or salvific effect. Without the Resurrection and the Glorious mysteries, none of the other mysteries take on their full meaning and power. Without the Resurrection the Sorrowful mysteries would also cast shadow, doubt and confusion on both the Joyful and Luminous mysteries, as well as these mysteries not making any sense in and of themselves. What could be the purpose in the Nativity by itself for example, let alone if it was all only to end in our Lord’s painful and humiliating death on the cross?
The Resurrection gives us hope, and is a promise of things to come. Perhaps we are now in a luminous period in which we are slowly having the Lord’s will revealed to us, and through which He has something to teach us and areas in which He wants us to grow. In the meantime we can look to the Glorious mysteries as a promise of the hope that is surely to come. I am reminded that, after all, my vocation is not the final destination but only a pathway to aid me in reaching it, and if the Lord is allowing a few detours en route I can still trust that in the end He will bring me to the final destination of perfect union with Him, and that we will be united all the more closely through the times He has allowed me to carry the cross alongside Him through the sorrowful mysteries of my own life.
Some time ago, I had a conversation with a friend who, like me, left a religious community during formation. We were light-heartedly discussing which communities we would think about entering if we tried again, and she mentioned one which is famous for educating all its sisters to an extremely high level.
“I wondered about them…” she began.
“Me too…” I said, and then in unison:
“But I’m not smart enough.” (In the ordinary course of things, getting a couple of former Dominicans to admit to that would necessitate the pulling of teeth.)
Not long after that, I started reading David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. While exploring ways in which underdogs throughout history have been able to turn the situation to their advantage and beat apparently stronger opponents, he asks whether it’s better to be a big fish in a little pond, or vice versa. One interesting case study is a brilliant young science student who opted to go to one of America’s most elite universities, attracted by the excellence of its science course and the prospect of being surrounded by equally intelligent and committed peers. Within months she was flailing desperately in her studies, convinced that she was stupid, and ended up dropping out of the course in despair. How, Gladwell wonders, does someone who would have been at the top of the class almost anywhere else become convinced that she is not only backward, but hopeless?
And what does this have to do with religious life?
For me, it was an important insight into why I ended up leaving a community that had seemed to be exactly right: devout, traditional, monastic, academic – everything I wanted. Before I discovered Leonie’s Longing, I’d had trouble finding biographies by former nuns with whom I could identify, mainly because they seemed to have left religious life largely for moral or spiritual reasons: conversion to another religion or even to atheism, dissatisfaction with the Church’s teaching on priestly celibacy, women’s ordination, Humane Vitae, or something else along those lines. That wasn’t me, though. I left the convent for a single, purely human reason – because, when I was there, I felt like a failure. Having prided myself on getting high distinctions at university, I entered the convent to find myself failing one essay after another and being placed in a scaffolded writing program. In choir, in the refectory, and in my chores, it wasn’t any better. And I kept wondering, how on earth was this happening? I wasn’t stupid or crazy… was I?
Here’s where Gladwell’s point comes in, and it applies in a big community or a small one: any group of people will have a bell curve of ability, and in an elite institution some highly intelligent and capable people are going to end up in the bottom quarter of that bell curve. Here’s how it might work in a religious context:
Option 1. A young woman joins a postulant group of, say, twenty. She’s warned from the outset not to compare herself with her companions, but she hears others in her class making insightful comments about concepts that she hasn’t yet fully grasped, or she starts getting essays back with marks lower than any she’s ever had before. She makes more mistakes than they do, or feels as though she does. She starts to worry about getting weeded out by the superiors. In an environment where no-one is average, an above-average sister gets shuffled down to the bottom of the class while, actually, producing work of a quality that would excel anywhere else. She becomes the bottom of the top.
Option 2. Or, perhaps, the young woman joins a small community in which she is the only postulant or even the only one in formation, and the curve gets even steeper. In theory, nobody expects her to keep up with sisters who are years ahead, but if she’s the only one who can’t perform a simple task in the proper way, she’ll stand out – and the danger then is to start accepting any and every correction or criticism as the truth, the better to try and fit in. She, too, starts to worry about her place in the community. She, too, becomes the bottom of the top.
You know that truism we’ve all heard, that “religious life is not about what you do, but who you are”? When a young sister is having difficulties, it’s perilously easy for her to flip that around into the negative and think that she is therefore failing not at what she does, but at what she is. If any cup ever bore the label poison, that would have to be it. A nun who deliberately chose to live selfishly would fail at what she was (as Mother Mary Francis, the late Poor Clare Abbess, says), but not the one who tries to press on in love through and in spite of suffering until, finally, she can’t.
Therefore, if this was you and you think you failed in the religious life, what I’m saying straight out is that you didn’t. Chances are that you were at least above average – both in intellect and in generosity – when you entered, and got shuffled downward by the environment in which you lived. (How much heartache could have been prevented if we’d been warned about this possibility beforehand, I wonder?) On that note, Gladwell points out that Yale has introduced a program in which elite athletes whose marks are lower than the usual cut-off are admitted to academic courses, so that, even if they become the bottom quarter of the bell curve, they have an alternative outlet for excellence and don’t burn out trying to compete. He also notes that the top students in average universities score higher on an objective measure of success (publication of research papers) than students who are considered ‘average’ in elite institutions like Yale, largely because they haven’t been subjected to the psychological carnage which comes with that sense of across-the-board failure. So, how to apply this to discernment, the second time around?
Awareness of the psychological factors that may affect someone in religious formation could help in adjusting to life in the right community in the future (or at least, reducing self-flagellation over having left the wrong one in the past), but it’s only the beginning of discernment. That God’s plan for each person’s life is the most important thing of all goes without saying, but this leaves us with the difficult task of finding it – and if grace builds on nature, then our main duty is to develop our nature into a firm foundation for it. I’m not a doctor (and nor do I play one on TV), but here’s a pertinent quote from someone who is:
“If a young woman’s sense of worth comes from being a good novice, she must cling in desperation to her façade of obedience and piety, lest she let slip from her grasp that which she has never really held securely” (from Conflict in Community by Dr Robert J. McAllister, 1969, p.27).
I don’t know whether or not that was you in religious life, but it was definitely me – and when I found myself unable to keep up, that sense of worth collapsed and I fell out of religious life and back into the secular world. What went wrong?
“It is characteristic of a woman to want to belong to someone and be responded to. She wants to be recognized for herself. Sisters used to say they belonged to Christ, but there must be a psychological gap in such a relationship for those who are still in the purgative way. Sister must have felt this remoteness… perhaps (she) now needs to belong to herself so that she can keep herself not fragmented by people and activities that see her in parts, but entire and intact so that she may grow in a kind of internal expansion of charity that flows to others without losing herself or her value in that process” (p.64).
So, how to find that way forward, to become whole enough to serve God and to receive His graces, in order then to share them with others?
“The person entering religion gives herself to God, but the needs which she brings with her are a sort of divine dowry which God gives the community. This uncut and unpolished stone may have many flaws, or it may be a jewel of great excellence. It comes from God; it is the product of His hand. But the process of polishing it remains that work of the individual and the community. Only God knows the potential for perfection of each stone” (p.102).
If your community didn’t recognize your talents as something it could use, and you crashed and burned while striving against your nature to become something that it could, then perhaps – as Gladwell suggests in a more secular context – look again at a community or a way of life that wasn’t your first choice, and see whether there’s something there. There is truth to the cliché that it takes all kinds to make a community, but not every community will have the right place for every talent. One convent loses a novice who was told off for being too slow and cautious in her work – and another ends up, thirty years down the track, with the silver jubilarian who’s the only one they trust to manage their accounts. One community values academic excellence and lets go of the one who didn’t quite make the cut – and so she takes her compassionate nature to a secular nursing home or a childcare facility instead. Another woman finds herself empty and lonely in religious life, but ends up five years later happily chasing around after the children she never expected to have. Hard as it may seem to believe it sometimes, there’s a vocation ahead of each of us that will make us saints in heaven, and God is helping us grow toward it.
All of our talents were given by God, and He asks us to put them at His disposal. Our first vocation is our baptismal one, to serve the God Who loves us – and wherever He guides us, to meet Him there. I couldn’t enter the religious life again now (good Lord, no!) with any chance of staying, but thankfully He’s not asking me to just yet. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready (Romans 3:2). Perhaps one day He will ask, but first, there’s work to be done.
In His love, may He put the pieces back together and build us all into vessels – even clay ones – to contain His grace. Let’s pray for each other.
I’ve been following the work of Leonie’s Longing for a few years now, even though I’m having the opposite problem from many others who might read this: my circumstances mean that I am having a hard time *entering* a convent, rather than transitioning out of one. I’ve been discerning a call to consecrated life for 4 years and counting…what a wild, unexpected, eye-opening, hilarious, frustrating, love-filled adventure!
The soundtrack to much of it has come from one of my favourite artists: Audrey Assad. I donated to a crowdfunding campaign for her new album Evergreen a few months ago. Thanks to the behind-the-scenes glimpses she gave, I knew most of the words before it was released to donors at the end of January. (Now it’s available for the wider public – on iTunes, Spotify, and other major services.) I’ve had a lot of time to contemplate the lyrics, and have found them to be a blessing in this current “stagnant” season of my discernment. I’ve found myself asking “Is God working, when I haven’t seen any ‘progress’ towards His plan for me in months? Is He still there?”
I suppose it’s not that different “on the other side” of the convent…thinking that God’s plan was for you to live in a religious community, when, at least for a time, you’ve been called back out into the lay world with no idea of what’s next. As I wrestle with Him, I’m grateful to know that at least one other Catholic out there has admitted that faith doesn’t come easy for her. Kudos to Audrey for being been brave enough to share her story in a culture that expects faith to provide constant happiness and easy answers. I thought a song-by-song review of the album was the best way to pass on what her prayers have taught me.
#1 – Evergreen – The album opens with one of the most perplexing ideas of our faith: God on a cross – who would have thought it? This place looks nothing like Eden. And yet the Cross – and our God exhausted, suffering, totally spent as He’s on it – is what saves us and brings us to new life. We meet someone who has not completely worked through a trial in her faith yet, but is learning to find God in the strange, unknown, untamed places He has led her. Here in the wild, my hands are empty, and yet I’ve had all I needed. There is no drought out here in the desert; I’ve found a water that’s living. Out past the fear, doubt becomes wonder…rivers appear and I’m going under…” I get the sense that the struggle could have destroyed her, but didn’t. In having no other option but to trust God, she has learned that he can be trusted. Instead of asking whether God will provide for her, she is amazed to find out how. The tree of life is evergreen, indeed – remaining with us, showing us that divine life and love will have the final word, even when all seems lost.
At first, I thought these words were an odd choice to begin the album. Why start with a song about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel? But I’ve come to see it as encouragement from a friend, saying “I’ve made it through the worst part of this situation and grown in it. You can too.”
#2 – Deliverer – If you read the lyrics the way I did originally, you might be a bit shocked. You are not possessive; You respect all things. You are not invasive; You have no envy. You are not insistent…And then your mind, like mine, might ramble for a bit… “WHAT!? Aren’t You supposed to be…well…jealous? Aren’t You supposed to invade and ruin our ideas of what is good, right, true, and brings joy? One of the prayers at Mass says that we are ‘a people of His own possession!’ Didn’t my desire to orient every part of my life towards God bring me on this path in the first place? Didn’t I start traveling down this road because He asked me to consider it?”
Audrey wrote a blog post explaining her intentions here – God may rule over us, but as the song later says, He does not “force us” to love Him. Instead, His love “is freedom” and will always surpass our human impulse to make what we love into our own image. True callings from God – to religious life and elsewhere – are asked of us, not demanded. They include the possibility of saying no.
The best part, by far, is the bridge: In the ruins of my heart You preach to the poor, turning over stones to show me there is more – more than all I ask, more than I’m looking for in the ruins of my heart. Putting together all these realizations about who God is not, and what he does not expect of us, is painful. It’s so different from what we might be used to. Getting to the ruins of our hearts will have forced us to see our poverty and weakness…but all of it is met with such abundant love.
#3 – Little Things With Great Love – This song was first featured on the fantastic “Work Songs” album by the Porter’s Gate Worship Project (on Spotify here and iTunes here). Audrey was inspired by a phrase often attributed to Mother Teresa: This You have asked of us – do little things with great love.
My favourite saints tend to be those who see everything as an opportunity for love and holiness – St. Therese, St. Gianna, and yes, Mother Teresa, to name a few. Like them, Audrey reminds us that no flower grows unseen…No simple act of mercy escapes His watchful eye. For there is One who sees me; His hand is over mine.
The second verse is a bit more personal. When Work Songs was released, I had just found out that a childhood friend of mine was accepted as a postulant in a certain convent. Another of my best friends had already lived there for a year…and it was the same one that I’d been dreaming of since I was a teenager. It felt like the Lord was rubbing it in – “You can’t be there, so here’s your consolation prize!” Of course, God is not that cruel, and I needed Audrey’s words to remind me of the truth for the next few months. In the kingdom of the heavens, no suffering is unknown. Each tear that falls is holy, each breaking heart a throne. There is a song of beauty on every weeping eye. For there is One who loves me – His heart, it breaks with mine. He does not mock my pain and desperation…He shares it.
#4 – The Joy of the Lord – The first line sounds so much like the impasse I’ve reached. Mountains ahead of me and valleys behind – the road may be narrow, but your mercy is wide. Having to climb those mountains doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve gotten God’s will “wrong.” God’s love is with us no matter how lost or “off-track” we feel. And then the deepest truth: Sorrow may linger and last for the night but I am never alone. The joy of the Lord is my strength… I am on this path because of the Lord – because I have known His love and want to return it wholeheartedly, because that kind of answer will bring joy to my Love’s heart and my own. And as I gather courage to take the next step, I may be weak, but I’ll cling to the vine. I’m pressed but not crushed, for You are making new wine. Wounds may be opened and weakness revealed, but I will be healed in the fire. I am reminded of my weakness, and my need to trust that these obstacles have a purpose. (St. Therese’s attitude to her own delay in living her vocation comes to mind. She treated her period of waiting to enter Carmel like a “training ground” to grow in virtue. That image gives me such hope! I hope it does the same for you, no matter what your future holds.)
#5 – River (feat. Propaganda) – “River” isn’t as obviously connected to discernment…but the frustration and hope of people seeking justice, and God’s “reaction” to the movements of their hearts, will stand out. She could not even follow the Lord and live. ‘God will be with you just as you say he is.’
#6 – Unfolding – This is a cry of desperation. How do I grieve what I can’t let go? It’s got a hold on me. How do I mourn what I cannot know? It’s got a hold, it’s got a hold on me… None of us know what life with the communities we love and cannot remain with would have been. Having to grieve what might have been doesn’t always make sense, and can feel like a waste of time. At its deepest, it can lead us to question Who God is, how He sees us, and even make our own identity a mystery. Oh my God, I don’t know what this was, am I a child of your love or just chaos unfolding? How do I keep what I cannot find – I’m letting go, I’m letting go of You. (Well, not entirely, but getting rid of old, ill-fitting ideas of who God is and what He wants from us can be frightening at times.) I don’t have the answer to any of these questions, and neither does Audrey…but at least we aren’t alone?
#7 – Teresa – Mother Teresa is known around the world as an example of faith. It was only after her death that the decades of desolation she experienced came to light. Again, while I’ve only known small bits of this darkness, it’s not hard to see myself in the pleading questions she must have had for her Divine “Lover”: did you call my name just to plunge me deep into the darkness? I, too, find it hard not to listen to the accusers around me…whispering to me that I’m wilfully blind and clinging to nothing. If God has really called me to be His, wouldn’t He make it easier and more obvious? If you’ve just left community life, it must seem like even more of a betrayal. Does Jesus still love you if you were not meant to live for Him in this particular way?
Mother Teresa’s attitude towards His absence is an extraordinary. She wanted to admit her pain privately, but to hide it from everyone else she came into contact with. She wanted to smile even at Jesus – after all, I trusted your promise, I gave you my life. We should strive to imitate that perseverance and loyalty. At the same time, I find it comforting to know that one of the greatest saints also questioned His love for her.
#8 – Irrational Season – More than anything else on the record, this one comes the closest to capturing the current state of my heart. I’m at a standstill, and it doesn’t make sense Nothing sensible has yet appeared in this irrational season…but the light is wilder here, out on the edge of reason. I may have a lot of desires, but I’m trying to have very few expectations. That way, God is almost “more free” to act. My plans won’t prevent me from seeing the radical love in His vision for my life, which expands far beyond my own. At the same time, I can see that Love burns bright and clear out where I cannot seize Him.
Again, we find that real Love does not want to possess or be possessed. I personally know what I am meant to do (Be His. Make self-giving service and prayer the point of my life. Tell other people how much they are loved.) The how is still a mystery. (Religious life? Consecrated virginity? Who knows!) To see God revealing a “destination” in the lives of people I love, while I am still traveling towards mine, is extremely frustrating…but it’s yet another call to cultivate trust.
#9 – Wounded Healer – I love the Celtic sound Audrey explores here! God may be mysterious, and His work might even leave us hurt and confused, but He is not distant. Pain is not foreign to Him. As Isaiah says, by your wounds we shall be healed. God’s power is not the brute force of a dictator, bending us to His unpredictable whim. Instead, its aim is to heal and unite us to Him in love. His arms stretched out not to part the seas, but to open up the grave. Blood poured out not for war, but peace and to show us God’s own face. His way contains no fire, no fury, just death into life. over and over, till all things are right. Knowing that he suffers with us makes it so much easier to say Wounded Healer, we give our hearts to you.
#10 – When I See You – Audrey has said that this song is inspired by the Prodigal Son. I can see two stages of his (and our) approach to the Father: You have loved me well, in a million ways, but my wounds are all I know. So I turn my head and I hide my face, too afraid to come back home. From where some of us stand, it might sound like “Why should I come to You with this wounded heart when my response to Your love seems to be the cause of it?” We might even wonder whether He’ll look down on us for thinking that way. The second verse shows the adventure we’re being called to: When my fear comes close, and it robs me blind, oh, how Your love provides for me. What a winding road, what a river wild, being Yours, becoming free! We will not feel abandoned, miserable, or captive forever. That’s not the state God intended for us. The once-paralyzing fear grows cold in the light of Your love once we see Him as He really is.
#11 – Immanuel’s Land – Depending on where you are in your healing, this will either be the easiest or hardest song to hear. Christ, He is the fountain, the deep, sweet well of love…fuller than the ocean, His mercy does expand…no problem there. I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved’s mine!? For most of my post-conversion life, I have believed that such intimate expressions of love belong only to…well, nuns! Not so. C.S. Lewis even embraced the term; the line “And this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me Beloved.” is hidden towards the end of the Narnia series. We are the ones God loves, whether we’re in the convent or out, whether we’ve discovered our vocation and made a permanent commitment to love or not. Jesus, of course, does not give Himself to us halfway.
For me, the most important wisdom is found in the “bride’s” priorities. Love has revealed Himself to her, and so she eyes not her garment, but her dear Bridegroom’s face. She will not gaze at glory, but on my King of grace – not at the crown He giveth, but on His pierced hand. None of the beauty around her is as captivating as its Source.
I am trying not to worry about my own “garment.” Will I swap shopping sprees for habits one day? Is a wedding dress completely off the table? I have no idea. At times I’ve found myself so distracted by thoughts on what might be that I miss what is. I’m not going to be an expert on love just because I’ve made some kind of commitment. The ways I am asked to love today will shape the ways I love in my permanent vocation. I should realize that now, and keep fighting the temptation to look in at myself all the time.
12 – Drawn to You – Plenty of Christian songs are inspired by the enthusiastic, all-consuming commitment of a new convert. Evergreen finishes with a similar profession of sorts, reflecting Audrey’s faith in its current stripped-down form. All my devotion is like sinking sand. I’ve nothing to cling to but Your sweet hand. No clear emotions keeping me safe at night; only Your presence, like a candle light. The “fragility” she faces is not so different from the setbacks we face in discovering our vocations. We can’t rely on our hearts alone to tell us what is true. Even the circumstances in front of us do not always tell us of God’s goodness as clearly as we’d like. As painful as the “refining” process has been, she has discovered how much she needs to rely on Jesus. After everything I’ve had, after everything I’ve lost, Lord, I know this much is true. I’m still drawn to you. Sorrow has become precious. Even her tears have been transformed into an offering of the highest praise. Most importantly, none of this is “accepted” in a grumbling, obligatory way. Audrey and her “offering” are welcomed by the Lord as-is. There is no need for perfection or masks with this God who sees and loves all the imperfections. Can we remain faithful to Him after everything’s been said and especially after everything love cost? (Think of two friends who don’t need to be caught up in conversation to enjoy spending time with each other.) Audrey’s experience proves that love transcending feelings may not always be pleasant, but it is possible.