Given that Monica Baldwin’s I Leap Over the Wall is perhaps the most famous book ever about leaving the convent, it’s surprising that it took me so long to read it. Or perhaps not. I’d read Father Richard Butler’s analysis of it in his book Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery, in which he thoroughly criticised her understanding of vocation, and other authors I’d encountered had also written about its shortcomings. So it was with some trepidation that I picked it up in my local library, and made a startling discovery: this book is funny.
Perhaps I should qualify that. Episodes from the author’s post-convent life (especially her work in a camp for munitions workers) can be harrowing, but she brings to everything a wry, ironic, and exquisitely British sense of humour that keeps it from getting weighed down. Baldwin was a genteel young woman of twenty-one when she entered an enclosed monastic community in 1914, and she returned to secular life in 1941 to find the world turned upside-down by two World Wars. I Leap Over the Wall is the story of her attempts to deal with new social mores (“an object was handed to me which I can only describe as a very realistically modelled bust-bodice. That its purpose was to emphasise contours which, in my girlhood, were always decorously concealed was but too evident”), find paid work (“who, in these days of battle, murder, and sudden death, wanted illuminated addresses or initial letters from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berri, or the Book of Kells?”), assist in the War Effort (“nobody who was not actually fingered one can have any idea of the degree of iciness to which a brussels sprout can attain if it really makes up its mind; nor of the rapidity with which this iciness can be communicated to the hands of anyone who attempts to sever it from its parent stalk at half-past eight on a cold and frosty morning in the early days of March”) and to try to catch up with a society that had left her behind in every way.
Her narrative is carefully structured: she’ll begin with an episode from her post-convent life – for example, people-watching in a stuffy train carriage on the way to the latest in a string of job interviews – and then shift into a comparison with religious life. (In this case, it was a discussion of the conflict between the two types of nuns one finds in a monastery: the Fresh-Air Fiends who want the windows open in every sort of weather, and the Fug Fiends who always want them closed no matter what.) She writes about her time in the convent with a blend of warmth and tension that anyone who has faced a violent interior battle to stay in religious life will understand perfectly. Occasionally, her detached story-telling style will shift into something like poetry as she describes, say, the hand-woven lace on the altar linens used in her community: “cream, foam-colour, ivory, linen-white, ghost-grey or palest oyster – all the faint, indescribable quarter-tones between white and white that exist only in lace; most of it was well over a yard in depth” or the rich pigments which she laid out for the work of illuminating manuscripts.
She doesn’t shy away from spiritual depth, either. Though it’s only at the very end that she states directly why she left the convent, her detailed discussions throughout about mental suffering, the difficulties of conquering the self, and the Dark Night of the Soul, give more than a hint. On a happier note, Chapter 8 includes a fascinating description of the attrait, a concept I hadn’t previously encountered – for someone interested in religious life, it’s worth borrowing this book from the library for these couple of pages alone. Baldwin describes the attrait as “the special angle or aspect of the spiritual life towards which a soul feels particularly drawn,” and, for nuns, a vocation within a vocation: “there was a nun to whom the doctrine of Grace as revealed in the Epistles of Saint Paul was everything; and another who offered her life, with its prayers, works, sufferings, and joys, for the Sanctification of Priests. Another – an Apostolic Soul – lived only to win the graces necessary for the Conversion of Sinners; another for the Foreign Missions; yet another was wholly inspired by the idea of membership in the Mystical Body of Christ” – different “facets of the million-faced jewel of religious life.”
Not that she can’t speak eloquently about the hardest aspects of religious life, too. But she isn’t bitter; if she suffered from the cold as a nun, she also suffered from the cold as a farm worker in her post-convent life, and doesn’t see fit to say which experience was worse. And, always, her descriptions are handled with a touch of self-deprecating humour that lightens the tone.
I picked up I Leap Over the Wall expecting to hate it. Instead, I found a book that wasn’t perfect (you have to skim over paragraphs of irrelevant details sometimes!), but which turned out to be a perceptive and often charming account of life as a fish-out-of-water in the wild world of England in wartime, and an interesting look at the religious vocation “from the point of view of one who had no such vocation.”
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
Leaving the atmosphere of religious life can feel like a big let-down. It’s easy to fall in love with that atmosphere, away from the seemingly pointless hustle and banality of our modern culture. It’s easy to think that you’ll never find the peace and tranquility you found “on the inside” again, and this fact alone drives many people who leave a community to near-madness. I know, it happened to me. But it doesn’t have to be like this.
One of the biggest problems I faced when leaving was despair. I worried about how I’d find work and where I would wind up and how I’d pay the bills. I worried that I’d failed God, or worse, that He and in particular His ministers in the Church had failed me. I wondered if He really cared about me or had a plan for me. I also felt that the world was completely against me, that worldly people would believe me to be a religious freak, and that without life in a religious organization I would be incapable of survival, in both the spiritual and material sense. Never in my life was I more wrong. What I desperately needed was a view of good things that can happen on the outside, and thankfully I got that.
I’m not advocating a foolhardy Pollyanna attitude, but I do know from first-hand experience that the world really isn’t quite so bad as that, and being a faithful and joyful Christian is possible out here. Here’s some things I discovered, in no particular order:
The world is a place filled with beauty. Beg, borrow, or steal a ride and go camping. Visit some place you’ve never been. Meet some new people. Or if you really can’t get very far, go for a long walk. Stare at the sky. Watch a squirrel closely. Listen to beautiful music. Then remember this: God made all this for you. God made you, and everything around you, because He loves you. This experience is His gift to you. This experience has been so necessary for me from time to time, because otherwise, if I’m trapped indoors or at work for a long time, I can easily assume that God isn’t close. When you’re in the convent or in a seminary it can be easy to forget to perceive beauty and God’s loving care for the world in places outside the Adoration chapel, the choir bench, or a beautiful traditional Mass. You’ll feel starved for love and beauty if you ignore the great beauty of the world around you.
Waste time with other people. It can be tempting to spend a lot of time working or praying, or working and praying, if you’re really into ora et labora. But humans are meant to be in relationship with others, and most often you’ll find that you can’t do that if you won’t just waste time with them. In a community it’s easy to take this for granted. You’re always together, doing the mundane things of life. When you’re outside, you won’t have this. So ask somebody to sit and eat with you in the break room at work. Talk about frivolous things and laugh. Even the most introverted of people can feel starved for this after leaving a community.
Remember that the world in a very real way needs you, and you will need the world. Remember that God has given you gifts, gifts that are meant to serve other people. Be prepared to be surprised at the ways your gifts get used by others. The skills that you thought would make you so perfect as a priest or a nun could very well make you an extremely effective counsellor or businessperson. Don’t be afraid to use these skills on the job and outside of it too. It will draw people to God in ways they do not expect, and He will reward you more than a human employer could do. There is little in this life that is more rewarding than that.
Finally, consider seeking new ways to pray. Without the community life of prayer you may find it very difficult to pray in the old ways. I found that after leaving seminary I could no longer pray the Office with anything other than a sense of reluctant recitation. I needed something else. So I learned lectio divina, and started taking a sketch pad with me to the parish Adoration chapel to draw what I meditated upon. God is a person who loves you and wants to spend time with you, so do not become discouraged if your old prayers seem lifeless and impossible. He will understand if things change.
Anthony is a thoroughly lovable former seminarian, artist, and Catholic blogger. He is not only the author of this week’s post, but also the creator of its featured image. If you’ve never seen his artwork, check out his blog at http://weaselsgonarf.blogspot.com/.
Especially during the first several months after I returned home from the convent, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out just what went wrong. Initially, I nearly exclusively blamed myself. I felt like it was my fault that I didn’t stay: I was too proud; I was too lazy; I wasn’t fast enough; I didn’t prepare myself well enough before I entered; I didn’t have enough experience dealing with people and life in general; I didn’t pray enough; I wasn’t detached enough; etc., etc., etc. I could go through a whole litany of other self-accusations that I made, but I think this small sampling gives you an idea of my state of mind.
But after a while, I came to a simple observation – one that now seems very obvious: The Sisters aren’t perfect! Perhaps it goes without saying that even the best, holiest community isn’t going to be perfect, since each community is made up of human, imperfect members. So maybe the system of formation should have been organized better, or communication could have been improved. This Sister could have been more patient; that Sister could have been more understanding. Of course, this isn’t an appropriate place for me to publicize the community’s shortcomings in detail. Nevertheless, I think it was important for me to realize that the blame (if the situation could even be considered to be one of “blame”) was not entirely mine.
During my time in the convent, one of the things I remember Mother and the Sisters emphasizing frequently was the importance of forgiveness. They especially taught us the importance of forgiving our parents for the mistakes they made in raising us. They pointed out that Mary and Joseph were the only perfect parents, and since they were not the ones who raised us, our own parents had most certainly made mistakes. However, we also have a lot to be grateful to them for. They worked hard and sacrificed much to provide for us, giving us the best they had. It took humility to accept this message, but it also brought a lot of peace.
As time has gone by since my return home, I have come to realize that I owe this same forgiveness to my former community. When I look back over the time I spent with them, I am filled with such gratitude for all they gave me, both materially and spiritually. They accepted me, they taught me, they were patient with my mistakes, they counselled me, they prayed for me, they took care of my physical needs. In innumerable ways they showed me love, affection, and support. Moreover, when I think of all the sacrifices the Sisters have made, I cannot help but be in awe of these beautiful, generous women I was blessed to live with for nine months. Yes, they had their shortcomings at times, but I really think they have more to forgive in me than I have to forgive in them. But truly, they gave me the very best they had, and for that, I am forever grateful.
So did I make mistakes during my time in the convent? Could I have done things better? Definitely.
Did the Sisters make mistakes? Were there things that they could have done better? Quite likely, yes.
Do I need to forgive both them and myself? Yes!
A few months ago, on the one-year anniversary of my entrance, I was having a hard time inside. I was blaming myself for all that had happened, feeling that if only I had tried harder, then everything would have worked out and I would still be in the convent like I was “supposed” to be. I was recording my feelings in my journal, then I paused. I offered up to Jesus everything that was in my heart, and I felt as though I and all my past was enveloped in Jesus’ Divine Mercy. At that moment I felt more peace than I had experienced in months; I knew that God had forgiven me and that everything was going to work out in His time and in His way. I just need to trust Him.
I confess that I don’t yet practice this trust perfectly. I still sometimes battle with feelings of guilt or with old hurts that arise once more in my mind. But deep down I know that God is going to use every part of this situation for good, and that everything I’ve been through is in some mysterious way part of His plan. I only need to put my hand in His pierced one, with all the confidence and love of a little child.
This childlike trust is so important. St. Peter Julian Eymard encourages us to “[a]bide in the home of the divine and fatherly goodness of God like his child who knows nothing, does nothing, makes a mess of everything, but nevertheless lives in his goodness.” I remember coming across this quote as an aspirant, and being very encouraged by it, since I so easily got discouraged by my mistakes and failings. It is not that we should deny responsibility for our sins, but rather, we must have total confidence that we are God’s little children. His tender, fatherly love and patience are so much greater than our human failings!
Jesus, I trust in You!!!