While at University I spent a summer on an archaeological dig. We lived in platform tents in the woods and drove about thirty minutes to get to our dig site and “town,” which was very small. A few people had cell phones but it did not matter because there wasn’t a signal there anyway. We had no TV, radio, internet, phone or anything like that at camp. We worked hard physically all day and sat around the fire talking and being silly at night. Then we went to bed and did it all again the next day.
On a holiday weekend a number of us drove to a bigger town which actually had a movie theater and we chose to see Moulin Rouge! If you have not seen this movie I would describe it as an explosion: intense visual images, singing and dancing, fast-paced editing, and over-the-top in every way. Many people who saw it found it rather overwhelming. My mother told me that a friend of hers went to see it and walked out of the theater because she hated it so much. For our group, which had been on a media fast for all intents and purposes, it was basically a massive sensory overload. We sat there with our mouths hanging open, not even sure what was happening to us.
Afterwards, we laughed about it and told our teammates who didn’t come to the theater with us all about our experience. It was fantastic to have a group of people who could understand. We made jokes about it, sang the songs at night and processed the experience together.
When I returned to the world from the convent, it felt much the same way. The world was loud, intense and overwhelming to my senses. But instead of being a two hour movie, it was constant and never-ending. And I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, to help me feel normal again.
At first I felt terrible. I thought, “There is something wrong with me!” But gradually I realized that I just needed to give myself time and permission to be human. Instead of forcing myself to hang out with my friends a few times a week, I cut it down to two times, and more if I felt up for it. I also limited my phone conversations. Slowly I adjusted and I could do more than that.
What about you? Did the world feel loud and wild when you returned? If so, how did you handle it? Did your family and friends help you adjust?
I experienced God’s indisputable sense of humour (hey – He’s the AUTHOR of humour!) on the day that I left the convent. Through a strange act of Providence, I was rostered to do the First Reading at Mass with the Community on the morning that I left. Attending Mass was my very last act in Community – afterwards, I was whisked away to gather my things, eat a quiet breakfast and prepare to leave for the airport, whilst the rest of the community all went to community breakfast.
The fact that I was the reader for the day meant that I absolutely couldn’t become distracted or zone out during the reading. The significance of every word I read is even still with me. But what has me gobsmacked (yes, even now!) is the particular reading it was that day – Is 62:1-5. Here is a snippet from it:
“No more shall people call you ‘Forsaken’ or your land ‘Desolate’, but you shall be called ‘My Delight’ and your land ‘Espoused.’ For the Lord delights in you and makes your land his spouse. As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so shall your God rejoice in you.”
I really don’t think it was an accident that this particular Scripture passage was the reading for my last day wearing a religious habit, responding to a religious name, and belonging to a religious community. I think He had a message of comfort, and hope and deep, intimate love for me that day, one to carry within my heart for the rest of my life. Perhaps He also intended this message for each of you – my brothers and sisters in Christ who have experienced similar life changes of late in “discerning out” of your religious order or seminary.
Those questions that so many of us ask upon returning to the world: does God still love me? Doesn’t He want me to have an intimate relationship with Him anymore? If I have to be out in the world, can I still make my life all about God? Can I still bring others to Him as a lay member of the faithful?
This reading is His answer to me…
… and maybe to you as well?
He calls each of us to intimacy with Him. And even if we are not being wed to Him in the same mystical sense described in Canon 607, there is still a spousal element to our relationship with Him, by virtue of our membership in the Church, His Bride, for whom He freely laid down His life.
“Religious life manifests a wonderful marriage brought about by God… a gift of self by which their whole existence becomes a continuous worship of God in love…” ~ from Canon 607
But aside from all of that, He is my Builder and my God, and HE DELIGHTS IN ME!! *shakes head* I still don’t get that! It’s a mystery, but I trust that it is true. He delights in you too.
To conclude, here are some passages to sit with; as scattered as they might seem at first glance, they unite in a very definite, and comforting, message of hope and promise:
Mt 28:20 | Songs 3:1-4 | Jer 29:12-13 | Is 54:4
To all of you who have twin siblings, you and I both understand deeply the concept of sibling rivalry. As an identical twin, my early life was a constant comparison. I loved (and still love!) my twin sister dearly, but I always felt self-conscious. I was never “as good” at things, even though I was the older twin, by eleven whole minutes!
When we were little, my “younger” sister loved pink and all the princesses in every story. However, I decided I was the queen. Why settle for princess when I could control everything (including the princess)? This seemed like a no-brainer to me!
The only problem was that the queen in almost every fairy tale is a villain…so my parents were slightly disturbed when I asked if I could be Maleficent for Halloween. But alas, I had to settle for being an octopus, which no where near resembled my second favorite queen, Ursula.
Eventually, I realized that the possibility of actually becoming a queen was unlikely! But more importantly, the Lord has personally shown me in adulthood that the less control I have over my life and that of others, the more room He has to work, and the more He can reign in my heart. So, as a former Queen-wannabe, I am preparing myself for the courts of the Kingdom of Heaven, where we are promised to be co-heirs with Christ.
Another lesson the Lord has taught me in my journey of Faith is that in addition to having a relationship with the King, I am also meant to have a relationship with the Queen of Heaven – Our Lady. She, however, is very unlike those I wished to emulate as a young child. First of all, she had no power over any earthly territory, not even her very womb, which she surrendered to the care of her Heavenly Father. Secondly, unlike fairy tale queens who succumb to jealousy and fear over losing their identity as the greatest or most fair, Mary at the Annunciation trusts the Lord when presented with the news that she could be both Virgin and Mother. And not only that but the Mother of God! And lastly, through her faith and hope, she was able to reveal to others how to live and love in total service of God and those around her.
Simply put, she knew who she was before God, and that was always enough, despite her material poverty, poverty of will, and the difficult circumstances she faced as a young mother who was not yet married. Her radical trust in God’s Providence and timing in all things was fuelled by the understanding of her identity and knowledge of her belonging to God. And consequently this fuelled her love of others, as she knew more than anyone the Love of God for their souls.
Even though we might know all of this intellectually, we can still feel ourselves distant from her because she is so holy, perfect, and immaculate, and we believe we do not possess any of the same graces. It is as though we see ourselves as a peasant in rags outside of the royal castle. However, her perfection opens the drawbridge for us. Her power was in her Assent to the Will of God, and the constant Fiat she lived in every action, word, and deed, was all for our salvation, that we may be one with her Son and the whole Community of Heaven. Thus, her seemingly untouchable holiness only brings us closer to her and the Blessed Trinity. She sees us approaching from afar and summons the guards to open the gates to us!
Similarly, her call to holiness was not only for her, the Queen of Heaven, the Queen of Angels and of Men, it is for all of us- all angels and men! We are asked to participate with her in the same spirit that she was given, the spirit that dwells in each of our hearts.
So I hate to break it to you, but no, we are not the fairest of them all. But are we searching for this perfection from mirrors, accolades, and the visible “successes” of our life conquests? Not to fear, because we can safely say that Our Lady truly is the fairest one of all! And praise God that we have so great a Mother to intercede for us at the Throne of the Most High God. The Queen of Heaven who watches over us, Sons and Daughters of the King.
Misericordia works for her home diocese, is a caffeine addict, and loves swimming.
By Nancy McCall, MS, LPC
In religious life, one is freed from having to make the mundane decisions about what to eat, what to wear, when and what to do for work, and when to pray. In this way of religious community, which involves self-effacement and obedience to others, one can focus on purifying the heart, growing in grace and on prayer for, and service to, others. It may take the religious person many years to progress far in purifying the heart. Meanwhile, she is growing in grace and does, at least formally, pray for others. When one exits religious life, one can come to believe that because she was free from those mundane decisions like what to wear and what to eat and when to talk, that she is somehow now rendered incapable of decision-making. No, not true at all. All the time while in religious life, the religious sister or brother was still making the most important decisions for himself or herself throughout every day.
You see, the important decisions involve the heart and eternal things. “Will I love today or only be placid?” “Shall I give fully or half-heartedly?” “Shall I bear difficulties patiently or become internally resentful?” “Shall I follow the way of Jesus or just go through the motions?” It is the same outside of religious life, only you must attend to the mundane things too.
Think for a moment and ask yourself, “Did I learn anything in religious life that will help me simplify my life now and be more attentive to God’s Holy Spirit?”
In religious life, there is a purpose for releasing you from the mundane decision-making you were likely used to prior to entering the convent. One purpose is that it is essential when living in community. If everyone decided what they wanted to eat, how would you have meals together? The other major purpose for this release from mundane decision-making is to free each person to focus on those things mentioned above: purifying the heart, growing in grace and on giving energy to prayer and service to the world. Now that you are not living in the same kind of community, naturally many mundane things of life will present themselves to you again and you must deal with them.
What is the best way to manage this new encounter with the diurnal? First, realize that while everything seems to have changed in your experience, nothing has actually changed in the larger picture. Your purpose in life is the same: to purify the heart, grow in grace and to pray for and serve others. Second, there is an art to living and one of your jobs right now is to study that art. For example, the best trick for deciding what to wear in the morning is to decide the night before. An easy way to decide what to do tomorrow is to decide this evening. And just as adhering to routine preserved simplicity for you in the convent, creating and adhering to routine will simplify and bless your life now.
What about that sense of community and common cause that you feel you are suddenly missing? How in the world can such a thing be replaced? You feel lonely, possibly rejected, and you are essentially on your own. Sometimes, the reason little daily decisions seem so difficult is because much bigger decisions are not yet made: in particular, the decision of overall vocation. What’s worse is that I thought I had that huge decision made. What a relief! Now it appears to be unmade. “Oh no!” So I think to myself, “what I was so certain of has unraveled before my eyes, how can I move on not even knowing which way to move?”
The best way to move on is to begin. It’s always easier for God to direct someone who is moving. Begin by choosing to look at your own situation in a fresh and beautiful way. Something beautiful has happened to you. It may look and feel ugly and awful, but it isn’t actually. And Jesus, who adores you, will show you its beauty in time – ask Him.
Second, remember, your decision-making abilities have not been surgically removed. Your emotions may have been badly wounded and your thought processes turned upside down because your circumstances were caught in a toad-strangling, unpredictable storm. You are going to recover, because God has not abandoned you, even if others have.
Third, routinizing all the important things and daily necessities can go far to normalize your life right now. Make a routine based on wisdom, your desires and practical needs. This may require prayer and could be aided by someone you trust who is especially good with routine.
Last, be attentive to self-care. Without good self-care, you will fail at everything. Here are some basics of good self-care:
Remember, you are still in a discernment process. This is an important time in your life. Seek God. Ask for wisdom (James 1:5) and open yourself to all the beauty that is about to be revealed to you.
I knew when I left that, even in a community dedicated to proclaiming the dignity of life, I could tell anyone else they were a beautiful, unrepeatable gift of God, but I could not believe it for myself. I knew that God was going to help me know that I was beautiful and loved.
But it wasn’t in the form of a bouquet of roses, or a romantic poem, it was in suffering. I was met with shame, guilt, sadness, depression, and a whole host of other emotions and consequences I’m sure you all can relate to, after leaving. After a few months I found a part-time job near my friends, and found great treatment for my eating disorder. I thought I’d be done dealing with it in six months, have a full-time job or be getting my Masters’ in something. But a year later I was still working part-time, minimum wage, on Medicaid, and getting help from my parents so I could afford Therapy.
Now that I am finally just starting a real job, I can respond with a more authentic gratitude and joy at the gifts of God, which I realize now were so present amidst the sufferings and apparent loneliness. The Lord gave me time to heal and grow and the opportunity to see how He could take care of me. I realized I didn’t have to do it on my own or fix my broken life. I wasn’t alone, and every time I was turned down from a job or program or place to live I found Him presenting me with something even better. (This was usually after the temper tantrum I would have after seeing my failure, when I was throwing in the towel at life. Then I would sheepishly say thank you, and He would respond with graciousness and love.)
After I left I was still asking God to change me into something better and more pleasing to Him. But then I realized, in prayer and in my relationships- that I already was! Even in the midst of depression and despair, when I clung to my disorder rather than God, when I was convinced I would never be enough for Him, He still looked upon me tenderly. My leaving Religious Life had not been a failure but only His pursuing me so that I could discover how much He loves ME, all of me, independent of my state of life, my apparent success, or the number of minutes I pray: Where I saw failure, He saw a window into the core of my heart. I was finally weak enough to let Him enter and fill the dark spaces.
It continues to amaze me how much He really does love us, and how He makes our identity clear to us if we ask. Who are we? His Beloved Sons and Daughters- not collectively but individually- and each of you is His Beloved in a way that is particular and unlike any other person. We are precious. We are loved. You are precious. You are loved.
“Who am I in the Eyes of You Lord?” This is a question I keep asking the Lord. “What am I to You?” I sometimes get the courage to ask Him these questions and He always surprises me. I doubt my dignity and He overwhelms me with His Gaze and assurance of my preciousness to Him.
What do I want you to learn from my story?
- That leaving the Convent, Monastery, or Seminary is NOT a failure, it is part of your personal journey with the Lord, and He plans to care for you. You STILL have a vocation, you can’t fail it if you are in the Lord, and He will keep leading you towards whatever He has so beautifully designed for your heart.
- Reach out to the support that you have, whether it’s family, friends, counsellors, etc. Get involved in a parish if you can and build up your network of support. I certainly couldn’t have made it this far without my family and friends, other priests and religious, and other forms of support! Above all, run to the Sacraments even if it hurts because it’s not the same. The Lord will reveal an even greater depth of love! Because He is always faithful.
- Take your time! He sees the big picture- so don’t be overwhelmed by how fast or slow things move. Listen to the Holy Spirit when He is telling you that you’re not ready, even when you think you should be; or when you are afraid but God is saying it’s the right time.
- Pray with passages that help you to see what He sees. My personal favorites are the Baptism, the Annunciation, and many of the Healing Passages. Ask Him to reveal His Wounds to you as he did to Thomas, and dare to touch them. Ask Him what’s on your heart and don’t be afraid because He is more intimately with you now than ever before.
- He smiles upon you even when your hair is awkwardly short, you have no clothes, you genuflect in random places where there’s no tabernacle, you answer the phone with your old religious name, and yes, even when you have your old “nun” ID and people look at you funny. None of that changes your real ID, your preciousness to the Heart of Christ. So if it helps, make a new one out of scrap paper, holy cards, and that one Scripture verse that always reminds you that He is near. Pull it out when you feel a mess, alone, unworthy, or on the verge of a spiritual (or physical) temper tantrum.
Misericordia works for her home diocese, is a caffeine addict, and loves swimming.