“Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.”(1 Corinthians 9:24)
Reading these words made me wonder, what does it take to win a race? What does it take to not only cross the finish line, but to cross the finish line first? And how can I relate that to the spiritual life? So I read the autobiography of an athlete. My athlete of choice was Jessie Diggins, a cross-country skier who won the first gold medal for the United States in any Olympic cross-country skiing event. Although her autobiography “Brave Enough” is secular in nature, there are many parts that are relatable to running this great race and participating in this pilgrimage to Heaven. Running a race takes an individual. Winning a race takes making good decisions each day, words of encouragement and truth, and the support of a great team.
It’s all in the moderation and balance, and before I do anything, my first thought is, how will this impact my racing? (p. 185)
There are a lot of decisions to make after leaving religious life – decisions that perhaps earlier were made for us. What will I wear? What will I eat? What time will I get up? How should I spend my free time? When will I pray? Athletes too face many daily decisions during their months – or even years – of preparation for a race. Jessie approaches these decisions with the end goal in sight: she asks herself, “How will this impact my racing?” I have found it helpful to ask myself the same question as I make decisions in the world. Of course, by “racing” I don’t mean an Olympic cross country ski event, but rather that pilgrimage to Heaven. Through that lens, the decisions usually become clearer and perhaps even easier.
Sometimes the right decision means striving to grow just a little bit more. One exercise that some competitive skiers do is roller ski 100km (that’s 62.1 miles!). Jessie completed this one year, or so she thought. When she got to the end of the route she plotted out the tracking device only read 96 kilometers… so she immediately roller skied four more kilometers. I was struck by how she gave that workout her all, even if there weren’t crowds cheering her on and she could have easily called 96 kilometers good enough. For us, sometimes the right decision will be just managing to sit through Mass. Or perhaps it is filling out one more job application, or even an act of generosity or patience when we feel like we have nothing left. Whatever it is, sometimes the right decision is to stretch ourselves and ski those last four kilometers.
And sometimes the right decision is rest. I was struck by the importance that athletes give to rest – and not just physical, but also mental. Athletes need physical rest, a whole day of it per week (doesn’t that sound familiar?), so that their muscles can be allowed to recover and build after all of the exercise. It means no going hiking or anything that could be physically demanding, even if that is something she wanted to do that day. In preparing for a race, mental rest was also needed. For Jessie, sometimes the right decision was to watch a movie with a teammate to relax and calm down when things were getting stressful. Reading about the intentionality and importance of rest inspired me to try to find ways to be more intentional about how I treat Sunday. This day of rest is more than just a day off or a day to go to church. If I treat it more intentionally, perhaps it will become a day of restoration and growth for my soul, much like it is for athletes.
Lastly, and perhaps the favorite thing I noticed, is that sometimes making the right decision is in the little things. For Jessie, an important part of preparing for a race is glitter. Putting glitter on her face before a race reminds her that racing is fun. Glitter is a little decision that positively impacts her race. Perhaps there are little, seemingly insignificant, decisions that we can make that will positively impact our relationship with Jesus. One little decision I have recently made is to smile at Jesus, to let my delight in Him be shown as I would a friend. That little decision of allowing a visible sign of my love for Him appear on my face has brough much joy to my prayer life.
Words are a powerful thing. (p. 175)
One of the pivotal moments in Jessie’s story is when her coach, Matt, said to her “Who you are is good enough,” and she believed him (p. 123). After having had many difficult experiences with a previous team, those words gave her the freedom to be herself and to trust that she would be loved and supported as she was. Of course, “Who you are is good enough” doesn’t mean that she was ready to win a gold medal right then and there. Of course there was still work to be done, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that she is good enough. She is someone her team is ready and willing to support. She is someone who has what it takes to race well. She is good enough.
Sadly, words can also have a negative impact. In a 10K Olympic race, Jessie missed the podium by 3.3 seconds. The media implied that she should be very disappointed that she failed to achieve the first Olympic medal of the US women’s team by a hair. But she wasn’t disappointed. She gave that race everything she had. She made the right choices leading up to the race. She had a good race. That was the true victory. And the media took that away from her. They were telling her she wasn’t good enough.
I think many of us who have left religious life face a similar temptation. We each have our own story of why we left, and we need to remain faithful to the truth. Sometimes we know the truth about leaving immediately, and sometimes it is a truth that unfolds after we have left. But we cannot let others take that truth from us. One of the lies that perhaps many of us face after leaving religious life is that we’re not enough. Those are not the words of the Father. In those moments, we need to turn to Jesus who is the Truth and allow Him to speak His words into our hearts. We need to allow Him to tell us that we are good enough. That we are still called to live lives of great holiness, lives of what Caryll Houselander calls “undiluted, heroic, crucified love.” That we are loved. Fully. Here and now. That He will never abandon us, and never has. Jesus wants to say those words to us. He wants to say, “Who you are is good enough.” Who you are is someone He can contine to lead along the path to holiness. Who you are is fully loved by Him here and now. Who you are is good enough.
It was the start of what we called the “fifth leg of the relay” because it was our way of saying that the alternate was our most important leg. (p. 126)
Selection for a 4 X 5K relay is hard when there are more than four skiers on the team. Someone is going to get left out of the race. The first year that this happened with the US National team the skier who was left out, Ida Sargent, turned it into the most important leg of the race. She showed up to the course on race day – even though she didn’t have to – and cheered her teammates on for over an hour. Her enthusiasm was so exuberant that some skiers wondered who that crazy person was yelling herself hoarse!
In a way, those of us who have left religious life are now a part of “the fifth leg.” Others were chosen and we are left out. But the reality is, whether or not we or our communities act like it, we are on the same team. We may no longer be a part of the particular community, but we are still a part of the Body of Christ. Ida set a precedent for the US National team. Perhaps some of us could help set a precedent for those of use who have left religious life. What if we could act like we still have an important role to play? What if we acted like our prayers and sacrifices do matter? Maybe the team that we left doesn’t have the camaraderie that would make imitating Ida easy. A rough transition can really make being a part of the fifth leg difficult. But we can still try. I can still try. You can still try.
“Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins!”
When you watch her gold medal finish at the Pyongyang Olympics, it may seem like she is on her own to strive for that finish line. But she’s not alone. Her team not only supported her though all the training, but was also there for the race. Her family was there. The announcer shouting “Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins!” as she edges past the other skiers knew her. She had family and friends watching the race on television. She was not alone in her race. And we are not alone in ours either. Some of us, I’d hope many of us, have the strong support of family and friends as we run this race to Heaven. Regardless of whether we do or don’t, sometimes it can be too easy to focus on the shortcomings of the earthly teams we are a part of, and forget that we are a part of an incredibly beautiful team. A beautiful team that is on our side. We have the Communion of Saints supporting us. We have the angels, and Mary, and Joseph. We have the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are not alone. And perhaps, when we do cross that finish line, we will hear the enthusiastic roar of all those who have been cheering for us along the way.
Images of Jessie Diggins from Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons Licence.
Attribution: Granada • CC BY-SA 4.0
Attribution: Cephas • CC BY-SA 3.0
By Jamie, re-published from her blog Bloom Where You’re Planted.
It’s now been about two and a half years since I left my monastery. Yes, it’s still my monastery and my sisters, but now is the time to share the rest of the story.
I had been in the cloister for one year when it was time to go on my week long silent retreat to prepare to enter the novitiate. Yes, a silent retreat in an already silent monastery, but everyone needs a retreat sometimes, to step away from people and figure things out a bit.
Anyway, I was preparing to receive my new name, Sr. Maria of the Immaculate Heart, the name that was second on the list of three names I gave the prioress. My feast day would be the Feast of the Immaculate Heart. I would be attending my Clothing or Investiture Ceremony and receive the beautiful white Dominican habit and blessed scapular, the white veil of novices, and the fifteen decade rosary on my left hip, the pillar for the Dominicans. I had submitted my reasons for wanting this, I had gone through my interview with the Council to make sure this was where I was to be, and the other sisters had voted that they felt this was my calling as well. I was on track. It was not until my time away on retreat that I began to truly reflect and dig deeper.
Six months prior I had my misgivings. Through prayer in another week long retreat I felt like I was supposed to be fighting this battle but in the world. Like Moses holding his arms up for the Israelites to win the battle (Exodus 17:11) , I felt the nuns were to be raising his arms while I was to be on the front lines, in the world, fighting a battle that would be coming in the Church. I didn’t know what that meant, but I asked, like I do in big moments in my life, for a sign. I was confused as to why I should leave, but I figured God would show me the way. I lay on my bed in my cell and prayed for a flower once again. I said, “Lord, if it’s true I am to go home, please send me one white lily.”
That same day I was swinging on our back porch swing just praying, thinking, and reflecting. My novice mistress was passing me and usually we are not to talk during this hour of personal prayer before supper, but she called me over to look at something. I went over and she pointed, “Look at that lily. Isn’t that funny?” Sister knows all about flowers, unlike me, and she said it was odd to see that little flower in December of all times. It was one white lily all by itself, so I talked to the prioress.
Sister said I could go home and to call my family. I called Dad. He heard the confusion in my voice as to not understanding why this all was happening. He told me, “Jamie, the devil will try to confuse and attack you. I don’t think you have peace with this yet. Our Lady brings peace and clarity.” I needed his advice. I walked back to Sister and said I would stay. I talked with a priest spiritual director as well who said to give it six months and so I stayed.
Things went along with their usual bumps, but I was doing fine. As the Investiture approached, I sat in my little hermitage. It was our one bedroom and bathroom trailer in our backyard for sisters to go on retreat. I prayed and came upon a stack of CDs. I popped Fiddler on the Roof into the Boom Box and just listened. It was in listening to the songs of my favorite musical that I reflected on giving up music, movies, musicals, and other little things I loved. It was listening to love songs and knowing I wouldn’t have an earthly husband that I had hoped for for so long.
Also on this retreat I made my way to the piano. As Christmas approached, I sat and played. I reflected on a Christmas where I could sit and play with lots of kids and family around me singing along to their favorite Christmas tunes. It was a different kind of Christmas joy, something else I yearned for but would not get. I was desiring a different vocation, the vocation of marriage. For me, I have to be all in. And I wasn’t. I spoke with another priest spiritual director who said not to rely on signs but rather to stay if you wake up everyday and this is where you want to be, so I decided to leave.
It makes it difficult when the prioress has not announced the news to the community yet and a sister comes up to you in adoration asking you to stand as she needs another measurement for the habit she’s sewing for you. Or when another sister interrupts your prayer time to ask about the organ songs you’ve been practicing for Christmas Mass that is approaching. Finally, after keeping my eyes down low for a couple days, the prioress made the announcement and the goodbyes began.
It felt like a break up with twenty-six women. This was unexpected for them and saddening. It was not a decision I had been mulling over for a long time and hiding from the sisters or my family, but rather the decision came suddenly but with great clarity and peace. I would miss these women for years and years. What a gift to have them in my life.
Twelve months after I left, I came home. I walked into my parents’ home on December 22, 2018, while my family was hosting our annual large party for the anniversary of my family’s conversion to the Catholic faith. I greeted my family and prayer warrior Grandpa, completely unsure of what the future would hold.
By Cate (re-printed with kind permission from her blog Seeking Sunflowers) .
I turned right one street before I needed to—the route that led to my old apartment. Shoot, I thought to myself. I’m already running late, and now I have to drive around the block and lose more time. After turning left in order to get back to where I needed to be, I saw a male figure I recognized walking down the sidewalk. My hunch was confirmed as I approached his vicinity, so I pulled over and called out the window to him.
This man and his wife were friends of mine from high school. We reconnected several month ago, before I moved out of town for missions. I had thought about reaching out to them while I was home on break, but my schedule filled quickly, making it impossible to see everyone this time around.
I got out of my car, and we stood chatting for a few minutes in the cold, catching up briefly on life before exchanging hugs and wishing one another well. I was grateful for the happy accident—the seemingly wrong turn—that afforded me this encounter.
Isn’t that how life is sometimes? Unexpected turns lead us down roads that, in the end, we are happy we didn’t miss. In fact, some the greatest joys in my own life have been the result of turns that, at the time of choosing, I seriously questioned being the “right” choice.
I remember the state of my heart one dreary January afternoon several years ago. I was sitting at an office desk across from my friend Theresa, who had been supervisor, coworker, and mentor to me. I had just made a decision that rocked my world—to leave the Catholic organization I had been serving with practically my entire adult life up to that point. Through tears I verbalized to my confidant that I had just made the worst decision of my life.
My dear friend, who knew that the decision came as the result of much prayer and discernment, encouraged me to consider that this detour—if it was in fact a detour—was happening for a reason, and that perhaps there was something or someone along this path that I needed to encounter.
Theresa was right. As I look back, I no longer see in this decision a wrong turn, and I no longer believe that I took a detour. That was the way I was meant to follow, and the blessings that came as a result are ones that I can’t imagine not having as part of my life today.
Since that cold January day I have made plenty of other questionable turns in the road. Some I have made peace with. Other I still wrestle with in my mind. But on my better days I am able to see that all has served to bring me to where I am now.
As we begin a new year, and I begin a new chapter in life, the temptation can be to jettison the past and “begin anew.” While there is certainly wisdom in this approach, I have found the Holy Spirit leading me in a different direction presently.
One of the words I received for this year is build. While this was the one generated for me on a website, and not the one I received in prayer (more on that in another post), I have nonetheless been reflecting on its significance.
We tend to see time as linear: the past in the shadows behind us, and the future on the horizon ahead. But lately I have been challenged to see time as more horizontal. We build on the foundation of the past and ascend toward the future that awaits us. Our past—with its joys and sorrows, good and bad, triumphs and mistakes—all serve as a foundation for where we find ourselves in the present.
Today I stand on this foundation, on the brink of something new. In a few short days I will board a plane to Peru and begin to make a home in this new country. I have a different view than I did on that January day. I now see that it was only by making that difficult decision, and many other that have followed, I am here, once again ready to step into the foreign mission field.
I am grateful for the roads I’ve traveled, for the wisdom gleaned from each chapter, for the beautiful, the challenging, and the grueling. My good God has allowed each and every piece of the journey to bring me to where I stand today, on the threshold of something beautiful.
I entered into reading Jennifer Fulwiler’s book One Beautiful Dream with a bit of apprehension. From my perspective as a single woman, most Catholic media are focused on spouse and family and have little that relate to my life experiences. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find this story of self-discovery challenging and inspiring for my state of life as well.
The book is an easy and fun read filled with amusing stories and anecdotes. But behind the silliness are some very important messages. One of the main concepts explored in the book is the idea of the “blue flame.” This is the thing that you are passionate about. It gives you energy to participate in it. It’s what you’re “made for.” She posits that married women with kids often leave these things behind in order to be a perfect parent, Catholic woman, etc. In my opinion, it seems as though this is an easy thing for any woman to slip into as she gets older and has increased responsibilities. Furthermore, entering religious life made me let go of my dreams and aspirations, and it’s been incredibly difficult to reconnect with them after returning to lay life. One must ask, “What am I passionate about? What do I need to make time to do?”
She also talks about guilt and comparison. How often do we make choices because we feel guilty? We think, “I shouldn’t do this because…” (it’s not holy, it’s not Catholic enough, what would people think?? etc). On the flip side is, “[insert name of model holy woman at Church] would never consider doing such a thing. What is wrong with me?” and other statements of comparison. Yuck. There’s no peace there.
In confession, she talks to a priest about her struggles with balancing her life, and he shares some beautiful thoughts, including: “‘We always think like individuals, like the work that we do has nothing to do with anyone else. God wants us to see what we do as just one small part of something greater…’” (pg 129). He then goes on to encourage her to really make her family a part of what she is doing. As someone without a family of my own, it’s easy to dismiss this concept as irrelevant. However, it is true that I approach things as an individual but it should not be that way. Who should I take into account as I consider my “blue flame?” Who can I ask to support me in these endeavors?
Next, I was buoyed by the idea that having constraints on my time is a good thing. I often lament the fact that I have to work full time, do my own laundry, cooking, and all the rest, and therefore have little time for hobbies or personal advancement. In her busy life, Jen Fulwiler feels similarly. However, she comes to realize this lack of time and forced pauses required her to be very focused while working and also gave her mental breaks in between which allowed her to “come back with a fresh, new perspective” (page 174).
Finally, she discusses the idea of “Resistance” from the book The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. The concept is that there is a force in the world trying to keep you from creating. Once you recognize that, you can combat it. I know I certainly have felt this way and I dealt with it rather badly – vacillating between anger and self pity. But once you know that this is a universal problem, you can take bold steps against it. How exciting!
It was the day before I was due to leave Walsingham, England’s Nazareth, and head back down to London for my flight home. I’d hoped that by that stage I would have figured out some answers: do I have a religious vocation? If so, where? And when? My pilgrimage was almost over, though, and no clear answers were in sight. Instead, during my penultimate Mass in Walsingham, the priest gave a homily about waiting that has stayed with me for months.
“Some of you,” he said, “may have heard of a boy named Jack Cornwell.” A lot of the older people in the congregation nodded. “He was a Boy Seaman, First Class, on board HMS Chester in 1916. The ship came under heavy fire from four German battleships, and all the sailors who were on deck manning the Chester‘s guns were killed or fatally wounded within fifteen minutes. Jack Cornwell was in one of the most exposed positions on the ship, but he remained at his gun awaiting orders from his captain – and that’s where they found him after the battle, barely alive and with his chest full of shrapnel, but still standing at his post, quietly waiting for orders.” He died two days later, at the age of sixteen. The priest went on to add that Boy Seaman Cornwell was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the highest – and rarest – military honour in Britain, for “gallantry in the face of the enemy.” (According to Wikipedia, he was the third-youngest person ever awarded the VC.)
Jack Cornwell’s gun, aboard HMS Chester.
“I often feel,” the priest continued, “that I’m not doing a very good job of following God’s will – so often when I try to find out what He wants me to do, and to do it, I end up falling short. I want to push harder and try and force things to happen, but end up getting nowhere instead. You may find the same thing sometimes. But all of us – priests, laymen, religious – we are all called by God to stay at our posts, waiting for Him to give us our orders. Even when we’re wounded, that’s the way we are called to live: whoever we are, we are all standing where God has placed us, and quietly waiting for orders.”
The readings for the first Sunday of Advent, too, are about watching and being ready, “for no one knows the day or the hour.” Sometimes we are called to take action and make a leap of faith, but more often, we are called to wait: to remain alert and watchful, so that we are ready when the time comes and God calls us to move. I’m grateful to the priest for his openness about the sense of falling short in service to God, and for cutting through my own impatience with the reminder that we can’t force our lives forward, even in paths that might be His will, before His time comes. The greatest honour lies, instead, in remaining steady and awake at the post in which God has placed us, knowing that when it is time, His orders for each of us will come.