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.
By a Leonie’s Longing reader.
Photo credit: the fifth image in this sequence (the broken umbrella) is used under Creative Commons licence, CC By S-A 2.0. The owner is Matias Garabedian.
By Sackcloth Dreams.
Recently, I was part of a discussion about theology students wearing the roman collar. One side said that seminarians shouldn’t wear the collar because it confuses people and they think a guy is a priest when he is not. But the former seminarian at the table explained how wearing the collar helped him feel more committed in his studies and the path he had embarked upon. It was interesting to hear.
The fact is, our bodies and our clothes matter, whether we like it or not. The outside reflects the interior, but our interior can also be shaped by our exterior. When I feel yucky in the morning, my initial reaction is to put on something comfortable and well-worn. I don’t want to put forth the energy to look nice. I want easy. But yet, if I stop myself and make the effort to look nice on the outside, it makes a difference in my attitude. There have been many days where I felt down but my usual clothes were in the laundry. As a result, I had to “dress up” because that was all I had. And it made a difference.
The day I entered the convent and changed into my postulant outfit was intense and most of it is a blur. But I do remember wanting to stand up tall and have proper posture to almost show respect to my new life and community, represented by my clothes. This feeling continued during my time there. My attire almost commanded me to carry myself a certain way.
When I returned to lay life, clothes were hard to come by. I don’t have sisters and I didn’t have any friends of the
same size/body type. As a result, I was given some ill-fitting clothes by people in order to get through and I used them for a long time (too long). I hate shopping with a passion and I didn’t have the money to get a new wardrobe. But I also didn’t feel like making the effort because I thought I wasn’t worth it. This created a cycle which I am still battling.
In “Searching for and Maintaining Peace” Fr. Jacques Philippe demonstrates the importance of the body and our actions. He says, “I should begin to strive to this peace in the easier situations of everyday life… to avoid excessive hurry in my gestures and the way I climb the stairs! The soul is often reeducated by the body!” (pg 82).
Haven’t we all experienced this? Don’t you pray differently when you are kneeling as opposed to sitting or lying down, for example? We have many times throughout our day when we sit, stand, lean, lie down, etc. But in Western culture we very rarely kneel or prostrate ourselves. This makes these postures meaningful. In regards to my surroundings, when I am in a beautiful church it is much easier to raise my mind to God. Furthermore, when I used to work in the Capitol I was often tempted to genuflect in the legislative chambers because the architecture was beautiful!
I had noticed this when thinking of postures in prayer, the beauty of a church and other more obviously “spiritual
matters” but I hadn’t ever thought about it in regards to my appearance. I am blessed to have a spiritual director who has been helping me grow and pray through my struggles with my exterior. He has constantly encouraged me to pray with these difficulties and be open and honest with the Lord. It is humbling to realize how much of our identity is wrapped up in our exterior. I tried to deny this reality for so long and now I am forced to surrender. It does matter.
So how about you? How did you feel about clothes? Was it hard to give up religious garb because it saved you from clothing decisions? Or did you immediately go to the trendiest store after returning and run up a big bill?
1) Latin adjective (masculine singular), from unus (one) + quisque (each). Eg: Each one looks to You to give food in due season.
2) Tongue-twister from the Dominican prayer book, bane of my life in the early weeks of postulancy (see also: gloriosissimae; necessitatibus; famulorum famularumque).
I don’t know whether, in your former community, you tangled with this monster during the formal grace in Latin as I did (it’s pronounced oo-noos-QUISS-quay, by the way, and getting it right for the first time is a real buzz) but if you were in Dominican formation I bet that you’ve encountered these other eight-hundred-year-old traps for the unwary:
- Courtesy of the angels who started handing out bread at the junior end of the refectory table, you get to go first in everything! Want to wait invisibly at the back and watch the senior Sisters to find out what they do? Actually, you’re leading the procession. Good luck!
- You (finally) make a perfect profound bow. Everybody else makes a head inclination. Hopefully they’re all keeping custody of the eyes and missed it.
- For anyone who’s not naturally a soprano:
no further explanation is required. I used to do my choir practice down the local cemetery, figuring that my paint-peeling rendition of this beloved chant would take years off Purgatory for any Holy Souls who happened to be listening.
- Processions in general. Did anyone else crash into furniture on the way around the chapel? Execute an impeccable turn, and then realise that a partner had been left stranded because you were supposed to bow to her first? Meander off too far to the side and get patiently towed back in by one elbow? (Or maybe it’s just me. Who am I to judge?)
Also, unless your written work rivalled the perfection of the Summa, you will have found yourself on the receiving end of that other profoundly Dominican gesture: the uncapping of a red pen. Veritas. The deepest instinct of these Hounds of the Lord is to find out what’s wrong, and, for the glory of God, fix it. While still in the convent, I read the results of a survey about religious beliefs sent out to different communities of nuns in the 1960s: lots of sisters dutifully filled out and posted back their responses, but, surprising nobody except the authors, the Dominicans corrected the questions before they answered them. (It certainly didn’t surprise me. I’d just failed an essay for the first time since my early years in high school.)
And you know something? I miss it all fiercely. As Dom Hubert Van Zeller points out, a yearning for the externals of the religious life doesn’t mean that my vocation was to stay in that community – of course I miss the processions of white habits, the candle-lit vigils before Jesus in the monstrance, the solemn Salve. It’s also obvious that when my health began to shatter under the demands of monastic life, all of those beautiful things weren’t enough to keep me there. So why, then, did I spend the better part of two years afterward fighting an irrational desire to turn up on the community’s doorstep one morning and ask them to let me have another try?
When I left, the most important thing that became forfeit was not my hope of wearing the veil that would set me apart for Our Lord, and the scapular for Our Lady, and nor was it the chance to spend my days with a lively, intelligent group of devoutly Catholic women of whom I had become fond. It wasn’t even the privilege of living in the cloister and chanting the Divine Office with them at the heart of the Church. What I surrendered was twofold: to be a bride of Christ, and a daughter of Saint Dominic. In my heart, I’m both. Officially, I’m neither. Worse is the thought that, if I died today, in heaven I’d be neither.
Of course, if it turns out after further discernment that I don’t have a religious vocation at all, I could become a tertiary, but I suspect for me that would feel a bit like winning the silver medal. Here’s why. The desire to be a sister first hit me in my teens when I was barely practicing the Catholic faith, and before the year was out I’d fallen head over heels in love with Jesus. Listening recently to the TEDx Talk on discernment that Jenni gave, I realized for the first time that, somewhere in those early days, I skipped a crucial step in the process: I wasn’t afraid of the path ahead. On the contrary, I was awed at having been noticed by God, and wildly excited about getting started in the religious life. Forget your people and your father’s house, for the King has desired your beauty!
Thanks to prosaic things like tertiary studies and the resultant debt, the better part of a decade passed before I got my wish. Enough time to get over the honeymoon, commit myself to some serious study, collect a few battle scars and get a realistic idea of what I’d be facing when I entered. It always surprised me, though, when people said, “Wow, that’s a big step to take! Aren’t you scared?” No, I’m not, was the honest reply – it’s just the next obvious step. Giddy romanticism dispensed with, I was still eagerly looking forward to entering: I’d discovered the Dominicans at World Youth Day, and found what I was looking for in a religious Order. Then, a few months after I entered, I finally met Saint Dominic.
I’d been struggling through an assignment about the founding of the Order (having, as previously mentioned, failed the first one) and, one morning, simply pushed all my other essays aside and buried myself for several hours in the life of this gentle, luminously holy man. The shy scholar who sold his books to feed the starving; the preacher with bleeding feet, on his own among thousands of heretics; the beacon of chastity whose sheepish deathbed confession was that he had sometimes enjoyed preaching to young women more than old; and the devoted spiritual father who promised after his departure to help the brethren by his prayers. By the time I put my books away and hurried off (as quietly as one can hurry down a cloister while dodging the squeakiest floorboards, that is) to help prepare lunch that day, I’d become a Dominican. An ordinary desire to follow Christ had crystallized into the desire to follow Christ just as Saint Dominic had, in contemplation and preaching of the Truth.
So, I’m starting discernment again from scratch, trying to find the place where my home on earth might be. And this time, I am scared. I know what can go wrong, and how badly – but also how beautiful it can be. That’s in the future, though. For now, I remember and continue to pray the exquisite Dominican prayers I learned in the convent – not in some useless pretence of monastic life, but because their meaning has become intertwined with my personality like silk threads woven into a piece of cloth, and I wouldn’t know how to pull them out if I wanted to. I’m still a Dominican inside. Please God, one day I’ll sing His praises in heaven as one, too.
Praedicator gratiae, nos junge beatis.
Here’s one thing that works to my advantage: I’ll never need to pay a psychoanalyst to decipher the hidden meaning of my dreams. Last night, for example, I was kneeling in my parish church when the Sisters from my former community unexpectedly walked in. They didn’t see me, but I watched them as they genuflected and took their seats near the front, and I wondered whether or not to go over and join them, since I wasn’t wearing my postulant uniform. Then I woke up.
Nearly two years out of the convent, my subconscious clearly still hasn’t quite let go of what might have been. Thankfully, it’s better than it was: at around the time I would have received the habit, for example, I started waking up in the middle of my Clothing ceremony several nights a week. (At least my community had the understated custom of giving the novice’s religious name at the start of the ceremony rather than the end, so I always got that far!) After about a year back in the world, I’d dream myself standing outside the convent in twilight, just as I had stood in real life while wheeling out the bins each week during postulancy, looking up through a window into the brightly-lit community room where the Sisters were gathering for evening recreation. Now, I wonder what that dream means?
For a long time after returning to the world, I slept a lot, but badly: going to bed at 8.30pm, waking up as late as possible the next day, and getting dizzy with tiredness sometime in the late afternoon. A number of times, I was appointed designated driver home from outings when, despite being stone-cold sober, by 10pm by I was definitely no safer to drive than anyone else in the car. (If I make it to heaven one day, I confidently expect that Saint Christopher will be waiting just inside the pearly gates to deliver a lecture on the subject that I’ll never forget.)
Not being a doctor, I can’t offer medical advice, but if you’re in this situation I can tell you a few things that have worked for me:
1) For a short-term rescue if you’re getting faint during the day, forget the sugar and eat a salami stick. I started carrying some around with me (the individually-wrapped ones), and found that the salt, fat and juices gave a much better energy boost than chocolate.
2) The biggest one: no screens for an hour before bed-time. No phone, computer or even TV, as the bright lights apparently interfere with the brain’s sleep cues. (Well, minimal screens, anyway. I cheat. I’m cheating as I write this now, in fact.) This one actually fixed most of my sleep problems in one go, and drastically reduced the dizzy spells next day.
3) Chamomile tea. If you’re like me, the challenge, waking or sleeping, is to find a channel in your mind that’s not playing repeats of Life in the Convent. Slowly drinking a cup of chamomile tea just before turning out the light can help gently disconnect those loops of thought and take you downward into sleep.
And then there’s the 2am demon: what if I’d…/perhaps if I’d…/if only I’d… (Or its evil twin, what if they’d…/perhaps if they’d…/if only they’d…) The only thing that helps here, unfortunately, is time and a conscious effort to understand and process the grief. It’s as though every memory of life in the convent, good or bad, is a sharp edge that needs to be gone over with sandpaper a certain number of times before it gets dull enough that you can handle it. However, it’s 2am and you’d really like to go back to sleep, so what can be done for some relief in the meantime?
Here, I’ll pass on three suggestions from the wise and patient priest who suddenly found a wildly unhappy recent ex-postulant in his confessional back in 2013.
1) If you’re playing certain scenes over and over, perhaps making magnificent speeches where you actually once stood mute, bring your sense of the absurd into play. Imagine the scene with Bert and Ernie in the background reacting to what’s going on, or Mr. T providing a running commentary. If it sounds extremely stupid, that’s because it is… but I actually laughed out loud the first time I tested it on one of my painful convent memories.
2) Or, if that’s just too silly for words, how about this? Imagine you’re sitting at a table so long that the far end disappears into the distance, and slowly, gently slide the people you’re angry with down the table away from you, further and further until they’re so small you can’t see them anymore. Keep them there and turn your mind to something else.
3) If all else fails or – worse – the person you’re angry with is yourself, then turn the light on and write down, very specifically, what is bothering you. Then (my own later addition), decide on something concrete that you will do in the morning to move on from that situation. I will say a decade of the Rosary for someone’s intentions. I will put $5 in the Saint Vincent de Paul box. I will make coffee for my parents/housemates. I will say the Office of the Dead for the souls in Purgatory. Anything, as long as it’s clear, charitable and constructive. Then turn the light off and, for heaven’s sake, go back to sleep.
And me? Self-evidently, I’m not “over” the most vivid months of my life just yet. But two years out is a hell of an improvement over two months out, no longer bittersweetly receiving the habit night after night being but one example. The Sisters still walk through my dreams sometimes (do I ever, I wonder, walk through theirs?), but slowly, a couple of years behind schedule, my heart and mind are catching up to my life in the outside world. Thanks be to God.