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.
I call it almost-discernment: where you’ve been bruised by a brush with convent life and are in no particular rush to repeat the experience, but at the same time, the idea of becoming a sister is like a distant phone in the background of your life that never stops ringing. Like when you hear about a new religious community and think, simultaneously,
a) I wonder if that will be the community God wants me to join?
b) I hope not because I don’t really want to be a sister anymore,
c) but I wish I could stop thinking about becoming a sister. (That phone is starting to drive me berserk: Lord, I’d answer it if I could figure out where it is. Could You please either point me in the right direction, or make it stop ringing?)
Discerning a religious vocation the first time around wasn’t easy by any means, but at least it was comparatively straightforward. The explanation I came up with for my spiritual director was this: the first time you enter religious life, it’s like turning a compass slowly until the needle points north and everything falls into alignment. God is the magnetic pole Who draws you to Himself, and you need only keep your eyes on the compass and follow the path north to Him.
Leaving the convent is like dropping the compass.
Of course, you pick it up again, and it looks fine on the outside – the glass unbroken, the case undented – but when you try to follow it, sooner or later you’ll find it’s been jarred out of alignment. The needle swings back and forth without stopping, on any bearing, let along north. God is still out there somewhere, and you keep waiting more or less patiently for the compass to settle down and start pointing you in the direction He wants for your life… and when it doesn’t, there’s no option but to start walking regardless, because that phone is just going to keep on ringing until you do. Discernment the second time around means having the courage to take even a single step forward, knowing that you have no real idea whether you’re heading north or south-south-west.
My post-convent discernment path has been largely comprised of zig-zags, punctuated occasionally by an “oof!” as
my faulty compass guides me straight into a tree. (I went on a nine-day orienteering camp when I was fourteen. Didn’t like it. Can you tell?) Our Lord told us, though, to keep on asking, seeking, and knocking; without a functioning compass, the walk will take longer, but one day – in His time – the underbrush will part suddenly and a clear path to Him will become visible. And He asks us to trust that, when each one of us gets to heaven and looks back down on the times when we felt most lost and helpless, meandering pointlessly in the scrub, we will see only one set of footprints.
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?
Leaving the convent and returning to the world was quite the experience, to say the least. Did you feel the same way? I was in the convent, going about my day and then two days later I was in a car driving to my parents’ house. My routine was suddenly turned upside down.
I certainly did not know where I was going or what my future would hold. It was difficult to fight off the anxiety and fear. Now what? Where will I work? Can I find a job? What kind of job? Do I have clothes? Where can I live? Once the immediate needs passed, other questions set in. Do I have a vocation at all? Is there a plan? Do I have a path? Is my holiness in jeopardy now that I am back? Does God still love me?
Though I have been back for a few years, the latter questions still periodically crop up in my mind. As I am in the heat of the moment, feeling rather hopeless and confused about my future, nothing seems possible. I am a weak sinner and ending up in Heaven seems basically impossible. Oh, if only I were St. Teresa of Avila or St. Francis de Sales (for example), then I would be fine!
But recently I realized that they probably felt the same way at times. When they were alive and struggling through life just like me, they had to feel confused, lost, unsure, etc. because they did not know what would happen in the future. They did not know if they would end up in Heaven and they certainly did not know that they would be canonized by the Church!
But I know the end of their stories. Therefore, it is easy to view the difficulties they experienced as being “no big deal.”
Yeah, St. Therese died from TB, but so what? She ended up in Heaven, so it’s fine.
St. John of the Cross was thrown in prison but he was holy so I am sure that was easy for him.
Bl. Margaret of Castello was abandoned by her parents, but she totally got over it.
Really? Do I really believe this? That these saints were not human at all and did not struggle? It is ridiculous, and yet I think I slip into this very easily. And more than that, I somehow think that what I am experiencing is so much worse! It’s rather funny, actually.
So what can I learn from this? Today is passing and tomorrow will come and surprise us all. What I am experiencing right now will not necessarily determine my future. Many studies show that envisioning what you want and how you will attain it increases the chances of it becoming a reality. This is not the case only for material wealth and worldly success. I need to picture myself in Heaven with God and imagine myself acting in ways that will get me there! When St. Thomas Aquinas was asked, “What does it take to become a saint?” He answered, “Will it.” Is that not the same thing? We have to be like little children and trust that the Father wants us to be eternally with Him in Heaven infinitely more than we want it for ourselves!
Finally, we need to have confidence that what Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel is TRUE:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You have faith in God; have faith also in me.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.
If there were not,
would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?
And if I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come back again and take you to myself,
so that where I am you also may be.
Where I am going you know the way.”
By Rosa Mystica