When my alarm went off and I sat up on my bed, my mind thought of God for a moment, then quickly asked the question, “What day is it?” It was Friday, and I still had to go to work. I laid back once again and scrolled on my phone. I checked emails, social media, and my bank account—nothing unusual for that day. Just a regular Friday.
It was not until the middle of my workday that it hit me. It was the sixth anniversary of my receiving the letter of acceptance into the postulancy. All it took was a memory to pop up on my social media, and just like that, my heart was hijacked by grief until I fell asleep in tears at 10:00 pm. Grief is a revolving door.
The post that made me realize the significance of the day in my personal history was that of a playlist I had listened to on repeat an entire evening when I found the anticipated letter in my mailbox. That playlist was filled with upbeat, uplifting music both in English and Spanish, including songs like “Happy” by Pharell Williams and “Try Everything” by Shakira.
For most of my life I had been dreaming of the moment my everything would change by entering religious life, and this letter was my passport to that life. Of course, I was happy, and of course, I blasted the music in my third-floor apartment and danced in my living room with the Mississippi River as my witness. I had not shared on Facebook the reason for my happy playlist, but it is impossible for me not to remember the motives behind my post. Only this time, looking back to a post from six years ago, instead of dancing, I was paralyzed by grief.
My heart asked for a witness right after I took a deep breath. I needed someone who could hold my grief with me for a moment, helping me come to terms with the wave of emotion. Six years before, my witness for joy had been the big river, but now only a few people would understand what I felt without much explanation. They too had lived and left religious life. For a moment, as I held my face over praying hands, I thought of how I was still alone with the sharing of my grief story. I considered not bothering these convent friends but instead going onto a social media group to post about my grief. However, I did not want to appear as if seeking sympathy.
Seconds later, I realized that there was at least one person who would be receptive and responsive to a message of this type. She had entered the same congregation with me and had left a couple of years after I left. Entering religious life had also been the dream of her life. So I trusted my instinct and texted her a screenshot of the memory, explaining the context for the playlist. She immediately responded like I had hoped. She also commented on the songs and her impressions of them. That was it. All I needed at that moment was a witness. However, my day continued.
My heart continued to be hooked up on the meaning of the day. At the end of my workday, I went grocery shopping, visited with family, and finally sat down to eat dinner alone in my new apartment. The quiet evening was certainly inviting me to dwell a little more on it all. I prayed to God about my pain, the dream He had placed in my heart, about how I had offered everything to him out of love, about how He also called me out of the convent, and about how I continued to be single and, seemingly, hopelessly alone. Tears dripped all over my shirt, my lap, and my sofa. As I allowed myself to have that moment, I worried that my neighbors would hear me sobbing. I couldn’t help it!
I went online and found a video about singlehood. The YouTuber shared her favorite psalm to pray with when she is yearning for connection. The psalm, she said, helps her offer her pain to God. I found myself falling asleep and somehow mustered the strength to brush my teeth, wash my face, put on my night creams, and make it to bed. My heart was certainly yearning for God and His love. Therefore, I pulled up my psalms and went straight to the one recommended by the YouTuber: Psalm 69. I prayed it like never before. It was painful. In seconds I was sobbing again and could not read anymore.
Then it came to me—I could only continue to trust God. He was always there, on my side, but I kept acting as if I doubted His love and glorious dreams for me. I laid back, turned off the light, and allowed my eyes to dry as I inhaled and exhaled, imagining myself on Jesus’ lap. He was the witness of my grief all along.
The revolving door of grief, though painful, had returned me once again to His presence. Grief was turned into gratitude.
Photo by Zack Yeo on Unsplash
Oh good, I thought to myself when the words Regina Caeli appeared in the list of chants for choir practice before my one and only conventual Easter. I know how to sing the Regina Caeli. It’s easy. You just go –
Until, that is, everybody else sings:
Easter in the religious life came on in a heady rush of music: the Exultet sung by Father at the vigil on Saturday evening, the vibrant Invitatory Psalm at Morning Prayer, and the familiar (thank heavens!) words of “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus!” at Mass on Sunday. In the midst of it all, though, was one song that initially didn’t seem to fit.
Christ the Lord is ris’n again! Christ hath broken ev’ry chain!
Hark, the angels shout for joy, Singing evermore on high, Alleluia!
All those exclamation marks make it look lively enough, but the melody to which we sang it is something completely different; slow, subdued and with a plaintive tone that somehow seems better suited to Lent than Easter.
It was sung by the community every day throughout the Octave, and I loved it, but couldn’t quite grasp what it was doing there amongst all the cheerful music that surrounded it.
Then I left the convent, and the next Easter, the mixture of joy and sorrow was easier to understand. The words were written by German Protestant theologian Michael Weisse in the 16th century, a time of upheaval and confusion among the faithful as the rift between Catholicism and Protestantism grew deeper. For his optimistic words, he chose a haunting ancient chant tone that expressed something of the sense of loss that must have filled Christianity as theological conflicts tore families and monasteries like his own apart. We rejoice in a world that is redeemed by Jesus’ death and Resurrection, it says, but with a sense of loss and a yearning that cannot be filled until His return at the end of time. In an incomplete and imperfect world, even joy aches. Will there ever be an Easter that’s not shadowed by the wish that I were celebrating it in the convent?
And yet, even through the sober melody, the hymn reminds us that Christ hath broken every chain! – the chains of our grief included. For all the sorrow of our world, every Easter is a sign that the turning point of history has already occurred, and every celebration of the Resurrection brings us another year closer to the Kingdom of God.
Now He bids us tell abroad, How the lost may be restored,
How the penitent forgiv’n, How we, too, may enter heav’n, Alleluia.
And, from the breviary for the morning of Holy Saturday: Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces, but He will heal us; He has struck us down, but He will heal our wounds; after a day or two He will bring us back to life, on the third day He will raise us and we shall live in His Presence (Hosea 6:1-3a).
A short while ago the Leonie’s Longing blog featured an article called “A Year of Not Me” This article invited the reader to reflect upon his or her interior response to the commencement of the Year of Consecrated Life.
It is both easy and tempting to become immersed in questioning one’s own identity before God; our Plan A had involved living the consecrated life and now we’re all “stuck with” Plan B.
At the time I read the article my response was that “A Year of Not Me” was an invitation to go beyond myself, to put aside for a time whatever suffering had arisen upon returning to the world, and to focus on serving others.
The Feast of the Presentation (which has about to be finished for me in Australia, but which is still in progress for those of you on the other side of the International Date Line) is an obvious day of significance, perhaps THE day of significance, in this special year for those living the consecrated life.
Now we know that the feast is often also referred to as Candlemas, and there is a great deal of emphasis on light: Jesus Christ is proclaimed as that light to enlighten the Gentiles in the Nunc Dimittis prayer of Simeon. Well this is going to blow your mind.
Who are the Gentiles?
Well, in the LITERAL sense, they are those outside of the Jewish faith.
Who were the Jewish people?
The chosen people of God, those who had been set apart for Him.
What does it mean to be consecrated?
To be called by God, to be set apart for Him.
So perhaps it isn’t too big a jump to consider that one possible allegorical sense of Simeon’s prayer is that those of us who are not consecrated are the ones to be enlightened here.
This feast is for us, too!!!!
Where does that leave us? In this year of “Not Me” I’m sitting here asking Christ, our Light, to enlighten me, a Gentile, as I meditate upon this special event in His life. One thing that jumps out at me as I ask for light is this: I cannot avoid suffering. Even His much beloved and blessed Mother found her heart on the pointy edge of a sword, even after her “yes,” her obedience, her total life of service and undivided love for Him.
And so I return to where I began: the grief and loss of my former Community? My confusion over who I am before God now that He has called me back out to the world? Those occasional feelings of frustration at the mess of it all, the complication of figuring out what life in His service now means? He shines like a spotlight, focused on His Mother, showing me exactly what to do with that suffering. It is real. It can’t just be dismissed. But in this year of “Not Me” it just doesn’t have to be the focus. My life doesn’t have to be about that. My life is about Him. And He and His Mother are both models of obedience, humility, service and authentic love.
Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
your word has been fulfilled:
my own eyes have seen the salvation
which you have prepared in the sight of every people:
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
This past week we explored the process of grief in the context of leaving the religious life. The final stage of grief, Acceptance, can seem a far way off when one is in the deep valley of anger, depression, or denial. Yet it does, and will come to all of us.
Today is Ascension Sunday, the day when Christ, in all His glory, is taken up to heaven to be with His Father. What a contrast to his prior exit from this earth – one of bloody defeat to one of triumphant victory.
Despite the contrast of Christ’s two exits from earth, one aspect remained – His wounds. Why did He keep them? Perhaps it is more than a symbol of what He did for us. Perhaps it is a lesson in suffering – that it has a purpose, that it shapes our identity and our mission in life. Our past wounds, Christ shows, are not to be hidden, but to be a sign of triumph and transformation.
The final stage of Acceptance is not forgetting about our loss, but embracing it as a part of who we are and who we are to become. It was said once that where our wounds are, there is our mission. How paradoxical that sounds. Yet, if you look around, you will find this truth.
By Wendy Macagno
Wendy has received her MA degree in Counseling Psychology from Regis University and her BA in Religious Studies from Benedictine College. She has served her community as a career coach in both the non profit and government sectors.