By Mary Rose Kreger, republished from her shared blog Monastery in My Heart.
Eight years ago, I was a young novice, Sr. Mary Inez. I spent 19 months in the convent before realizing I was called to a married vocation. Today I am a happy wife and mom, but re-entering the world was a great struggle for me. Here is a poem about my experience:
Once outside the convent
You still long to be inside it
The white curtained walls
The ancient creaking floors
The silence and the song.
He drew me in and I followed,
Hungry for the final Word in treasures—
His secret gaze pierced me, pleaded silently:
I left everything to find Him,
My home, my job, my family—
Stepping out of the boat into the deep waters.
In return, He gave me the Cross,
That bitter cure-all for a thousand ills,
But also a taste of Heaven.
19 months in His garden, and then He says,
“Go home and tell your family all that I have done for you.”
And so I do. I go home and tell of
The white curtained walls
The ancient creaking floors
The silence and the song.
Six weeks later, I meet James,
The man whom I will marry
Whose birthday is Christmas like
The First Beloved of my heart.
We work and we play, we talk and we pray.
We are married, find a home,
Have a son, then a daughter—
Make friends, lose friends.
Die a hundred tiny deaths, and
Rise a hundred times again.
We share our lives together.
The Lord makes us new—He kisses me
With James’ touch, and embraces me with
Lukie’s arms, and gazes at me
With my daughter’s eyes.
He still wants me, even if His rose was
Never meant to stay in His convent garden.
No, rather to struggle and labor
In this world, pretending to fit in
When my heart has been spoiled for anything
On the outside, endless motions,
Movements of faith, hope, love—
And grit and survival, too, for this
Long journey is hard.
On the inside, a tiny-heart-home,
Always longing for the white curtained walls,
The ancient floors, where I first saw Him.
There, I tasted heaven once—
A darkness that was Light—
And I can no more return to my
Heathen ways than a child to her
Mother’s womb. I tasted heaven once, and my
Heart is ruined for anything else.
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.
12 lessons I learnt from my first leaving, that made my second so much easier.
When I was twenty, I was set for life. I was a happy and confident young woman excited to begin my postulancy in an active religious order.
Fast forward to twenty-one, and it was a very different picture. After a very difficult year, I’d been shown the door. I didn’t cope very well with this: I really struggled to process and accept this ‘catastrophe’ and have hope for my future again.
But five years after leaving my first community, God led me into another one. Life was good, and I was flourishing in this new (and much psychologically healthier) environment.
But, as you’ve probably guessed, this community didn’t work out either. I could’ve come out the other side from this community in an even worse state than I was after leaving the first time. But praise be to God, I’m actually handling things much better this time around! Less than a year on, and I’m in a place where I’m genuinely happy, fulfilled, stable, and generally content with life – probably the best I’ve been since before joining the first time. I definitely felt that having learned a bunch of lessons the hard way a few years ago, this leaving has been a lot easier to navigate. So I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learnt, so that maybe this can help a few others who find themselves in similar situations.
- God will provide what you need
Leaving can be scary, especially if it happens suddenly (like it did to me). You’re probably homeless and income-less, you don’t know what you’re stepping out into, you don’t have a plan, and you don’t have a safety net. Except for God.
My experience of my first leaving was that God truly did provide. Door after door kept opening just at the right time. I felt like I just walked into accommodation, employment, and a really great community.
When I left this time, I was homeless in the middle of a pandemic. But that didn’t trouble me. I knew that if we keep on turning to God, He does provide all our needs. And he didn’t let me down this time, either.
2. You need time to grieve and adjust
Leaving a convent is a major life event. It’s sort of like being divorced, losing your family and losing your job all in one hit – while also suffering the culture shock of being catapulted from the middle ages into the 21st century. You probably have mixed feelings about leaving: there can be hope and confidence and relief, but also grief, confusion and a crisis of meaning. Don’t expect the next year or so to be an easy one.
So go easy on yourself during this time! Give yourself the time and space to process all your emotions: to cry and rage and just sit with the sadness. Be careful not to take on too much. Be discerning about which friendships you will keep up or invest in: not every friend from your pre-convent life is going to be the right friend for you now. Make sure you are well supported, and get at least a couple of sessions of counselling.
3. God has a plan for you and He is in control
– even though it might seem like the devil has triumphed this time. He’s God. Just because you can’t see where He’s leading you, it doesn’t mean that you’ve fallen ‘outside’ of His plan or that He’s not going to lead or provide for you.
There’s a beautiful prayer written by Thomas Merton which has often helped me in times of tested faith:
O Lord God, I have no idea where I am going, I do not see the road ahead of me, I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, And that fact that I think I am following Your will Does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe That the desire to please You Does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire In all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything Apart from that desire to please You. And I know that if I do this You will lead me by the right road, Though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always Though I may seem to be lost And in the shadow of death. I will not fear, For You are ever with me, And You will never leave me To make my journey alone.
4. Nothing is ever wasted and God works all things to good
Again, it won’t often feel like this! But it’s not a shallow cliché, it’s a powerful truth. Look at the lives of the Saints: one of the common themes in their stories seems to be experiences of great suffering (in fact, I regularly consoled myself by remembering that God only seems to treat His special favourites like this!).
God’s much more powerful than anything of the devil. He can and does bring good out of the worst of experiences – much more good than there ever was evil in that event. But Rom 8:28 has a condition: God works all things to good for those who love Him. The choice to love and serve God in the midst of all their trials and sufferings was the difference that made the Saints.
I have seen in my own life how God has brought about so many amazingly good things that would have been impossible if I hadn’t left my first community. I don’t know if would’ve been better off staying there. To be honest, I don’t really care any more, because I’ve learnt to embrace a different set of goods for my life. And this new life isn’t just ‘good’, it’s great.
5. You have to forgive
Even though this can be really, really hard, it’s absolutely necessary. Unforgiveness will only hold you back, and make you bitter, twisted and resentful. You’ll be allowing the people who hurt you to keep you stuck in a miserable life.
One thing which held me back from fully forgiving was that it offended my sense of justice. Both times, I’d been very badly treated, and then left to deal with the consequences alone while it seemed like the people who hurt me could just move on as though nothing had happened. It didn’t feel fair.
But eventually I saw that in this attitude, I was trying to take God’s rightful place as their judge, and by Grace I was able to give that role back to Him. He’s God, He doesn’t let sin and injustice get ‘swept under the carpet’. Some day, somehow, they’ll each have to own their part in what happened. Maybe this confrontation has already occurred somehow in a way I’m not aware of. Maybe it will be at the moment of their particular judgement. Either way, the point is that I don’t have to be their judge. And that’s a great freedom.
6. Don’t miss the Grace of this time
This is a very unique time in your life. There are going to be particular Graces here, which won’t be available anywhere else. The experience of leaving can be a great Cross: but the Cross never comes without the Resurrection. In fact, I’ve found in my life that the Resurrection is very ‘Cross-shaped’!
It’s important to intentionally choose make the very most you can of this time and these Graces. When I finally made this decision three years after my first leaving, it was a major turning point. Nothing in my outward situation changed, but Grace started flowing, wounds began to heal, new possibilities were opening up, my happiness was increasing. I was truly experiencing a new springtime after a long winter.
This time around, too, this was a decision I needed to make: to stay close to the Cross, with all its Grace and all its challenges, over escaping all of this and living a numbed-out sort of existence. But no matter how challenging the road of the Cross is, it’s also infinitely more beautiful.
7. Take responsibility for yourself
God often uses dreams to tell me harsh truths about myself, probably because I don’t argue back when I’m asleep! A couple of weeks after my second leaving, I had a dream where I met someone else in my same situation. My advice to them was to ‘stop moping, and start doing the things which will set you up for the best possible life’. It was the kick up the backside I really needed!
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of blaming other people for our problems instead of taking responsibility for the direction of our life. But this is another attitude which will only hold you back. If you’re as wrecked as I was, you’ll only be able to take small steps at a time. That’s ok, just do what you can. Even a small step forward is a step in the right direction!
8. Keep up some form of apostolate
This might not be appropriate for everyone, but keeping up (a reduced level of) ministry was really good for me after both leavings. Loving and serving others takes you outside of yourself, brings joy and meaning, and can help keep you balanced and well connected with reality.
I’ve also found that staying in the same ministry after leaving is good for the people you reach out to as well. Just ‘disappearing’ will probably cause grief, disappointment and confusion. Continuing to have a ministry presence avoids all those things, provides reassurance that you do genuinely care, and gives them a chance to show their love and care for you.
9. You can choose your meta-narrative
Being part of, and then leaving a religious order, can be a very significant life event. But it doesn’t have to be what defines your life. It can be, if that’s what you choose. But I wouldn’t recommend that. Instead, you can choose to live in your true identity as a beloved daughter of God, in a meta-narrative of hope, of salvation, of Resurrection. It is a bit cliché, I know, but it’s true – and a much better way to live.
10. Seek full healing
Maybe you had a great experience in religious life. I really hope you did. But it’s not uncommon to walk away with a significant amount pain and anger – it’s just what comes of living in close relationship with a bunch of other broken and imperfect people.
If you’re one of the ones who are walking away wounded, I really encourage you to seek full healing. Don’t aim for anything less for yourself. You don’t want the effects of the bad experiences to keep on holding you back in life, or to be stuck in unhealthy patterns, or transferring negative emotions and expectations to new people and situations. It can be a long, hard process, but it’s totally worth it.
Although I’ve been through a lot of healing, I still haven’t made this full journey yet. I came into my second community still carrying a lot of baggage from my first. Maybe if I was more healed it could have worked out. Or at least not ended quite so badly. But with the help of God’s Grace, I’ll get there.
11. Your life/happiness isn’t over
Probably the hardest thing about the first leaving was that I felt that I was loosing my happiness, and that my life after this would just be a botched-together plan B, never quite as good as the life that I was really meant to have. After all, you can only be truly happy when you’re living your vocation, right?
I was once moping to my spiritual director about not having a charism to live out anymore made me feel very unanchored in life. His challenge back to me was to focus on developing my sense of my personal charism. Even if I were still in religious life, this was something I would have to do: as members of a community, we are not meant to be ‘carbon copies’ of the founder, but take up the charism in a way which is both unique and personal to us, and faithful to the spirit of our community.
God’s made you with a unique spirituality and mission. For me, I’ve found that my ‘personal charism’ hasn’t really changed over the course of my life as I go in and out of different communities and ministry roles. In fact, I’ve come to see the two communities I was part of as two ways in which I could live out my sense of charism. And now I’m discovering a third in single life. And I don’t feel like my vocation – or my happiness – is being compromised because of this change of state.
12. Your happiness isn’t in your temporal vocation anyway
This is probably the most important lesson! Don’t forget that you’re most important and fundamental calling is your Baptismal vocation: to know, love and serve God, and live forever with Him in Paradise. It’s God Himself Who is your joy, and loving and serving Him which is your fulfilment. Every other vocation is a particular way of living out this most important vocation, the only ‘essential’ vocation you’ll ever have.
So when a door like this closes – even if it was against your wishes and your discernment – it doesn’t mean game over for your life. It only means that God will provide another way to live out your ‘real’ vocation. A temporal vocation is a gift, an immensely great gift, but it’s not the gift-Giver Who we are called to seek above all things and find our true happiness in. Your happiness definitely isn’t over: perhaps, like I found, in being forcibly detached from a temporal vocation I was too attached to, your true happiness is only just beginning.
The dove painting featured in this article is used under Creative Commons Licence.
Attribution: Nheyob, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
By Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP.
When I read Simcha Fisher’s article in America Magazine When a Catholic leaves seminary or religious life, I began to weep. I cried for all the young women who had entered my community and left, their choice or the community’s, over my 53 years as a Daughter of St. Paul.
I remembered when I was a postulant (1967) and a novice coming to the refectory (dining room) for breakfast and noticing that someone was missing. Gone without a good-bye, at that time never to be heard of again. It was so confusing that someone who was so much part of my group, or the upcoming groups, or even professed in temporary vows, could be gone. Just like that. If we said anything, the formator would shush us or glare at the person asking. One co-postulant told me later that it was thought if we talked about our missing companion that it might make the rest of us go, too. I was still in our high school aspirancy myself, but that lack of logic just further confused me (we discontinued our high school in 1991.)
Yet as I read through the article, tears flowing at the corner of my eyes, I recalled three times that I was asked to either drive someone to the airport, take another young sister home, or accompany someone in their discernment and then drop them off at her new residence after she decided to leave the community. I was part of the forgotten ones in this process of separation from a community that was no “gentle or conscious uncoupling” so to speak. I was one of the last members of the community a sister leaving might ever see. To me, this was the most heartbreaking thing I was ever asked to do in my years of religious life. It was traumatic for me. No one ever asked how it made me feel to be part of a person’s departure from this very intense and passionate way of life that we call religious life.
I recalled another sister who was often asked to take aspirants, postulants and novices to the airport, spirited out at dawn’s early light before anyone would miss them. It was during grand silence, too, so we were not to speak until after grace at breakfast if we did see suitcases by the elevator. I will call her Sister Mary. Sister Mary was chosen, I think, because of her gentle nature that would have a calming effect on the young woman leaving. I went with Sister Mary once to drive a sister in temporary vows to the airport as she was returning home. I waited in the car (the days when we could do so), but I was able to say good-bye and promise prayers before Sister Mary accompanied her inside the terminal. The hard thing was that I was told by the superior not to talk about the young woman’s departure to anyone.
The next time I was told, not asked, to drive a young sister home from one of our branch houses. Her family lived within driving distance. Sister Anna, an older sister, came along, too. The superior, who was very old school and stern, told Sister Anna and I that we were not even to get out of the car. Just let the sister off in front of her house, let her unload her suitcases, and drive off. I was told not to even talk to her. I was only in temporary vows, too, and had known this young woman since she entered though she was not in my group (or band, as some communities call our formation groups.) As soon as we pulled up in front of her house at about 7am, her family came out. Then Sr Anna surprised me. She hit my arm and said, “Say good-bye.” So, I did. I turned and gave the young woman a hug over the seat. Then Sr. Anna got out of the car, against orders, and accompanied the young woman to the front door, to her family. She stayed and spoke with the family for a bit, then came back to the car. We were both crying. Sr. Anna, one of my favorite nuns ever, told me through her tears, “You don’t need to say anything. Charity comes first.” And I never did until now.
I will not say too much about the third sister because we remain very good friends today. But I know she suffered greatly as she discerned her way from religious life into a serene life “in the world” as we call it. I was the local superior when she was sent to the community for the purpose of discernment, at her request. As she met with a spiritual director, I was the community member she related to the most. It was a difficult separation for many reasons, and we both cried many times, not least of which was the day we went to buy her a new meager wardrobe at the mall and the final day I drove her to her new residential job after she was dispensed from her vows. This was like dying to her and to me, two different ways of dying. I had known her from before she entered and now, these many years later, I was there when she was leaving, following what she believed was God’s will for her. I did not disagree with her discernment, but her leaving was as if she was pulling off her skin to reveal a new identity that was still taking shape. It was so painful. She is one of the bravest people I know, and I love her for her courage, perseverance, and love for ministry that has never wavered.
I shared this blog post with Sister Mary and she commented:
I do regret in hindsight not having more of Sr. Anna’s wisdom of heart. Most of the time I drove very young ones to the airport or bus station. I was sent to be a kind presence and to assure that they made it to their gate safely. Some left singing and some left sorrowing, so as their last contact I had to keep things light and loving. As you say, we are in a better place now. The young ones are already women and the formation program is so much more mature, so we don’t have half the drama anymore. I always pray for those who are wavering even if I don’t know who they might be, and I send them on their way with love and blessings.
In one way I was a willing participant in the departures of these young women from religious life but in another way, I was unwilling because I knew that if I were suffering from a profound sadness, the young woman was probably suffering so much more. I have always tried to do everything asked of me, but some things were too hard and had to change, and thank God, they have.
What did I learn from these experiences? That charity comes first, always.
We do things differently now. If a young woman at any stage of religious life discerns to leave (or is invited to do so by the community), she may share this information with whomever she wishes – and we can stay in touch. She can say good-bye to the community in the dining room or make a more discreet departure – her choice. But the sister or young woman is encouraged to be more transparent about her discernment because the entire community is transitioning with her as she leaves.
Sister Rose Pacatte in August 1967, at the San Diego convent of the Daughters of Saint Paul, the night before flying to Boston to enter the convent.
As we slowly moved from a pre-Vatican Council II way of doing things in our congregation in the U.S. to being, well, normal, we had a provincial who did something wonderful. This was in the later 1980s. I was on our provincial council then. She thought it would be a good idea to send a Christmas card and note to each sister (novice or postulant) for whom we had contact information, and let them know we remembered them, ask how they were doing, and that we continued to pray for them. This resulted in more open communication, visits to the novitiate, reconnecting with old friends, and oftentimes, healing.
I wish there had been Leonie’s Longing all those years ago so young women could receive counseling and referrals and moral support, and I am glad this organization exists now. God willing, I will celebrate my golden jubilee of profession in 2022 (and my 55th of entrance). If you are reading this, know that I remember everyone, and I wish you love, happiness and the peace of Christ. I hope you will forgive any suffering I may have caused or contributed to at a very difficult time of your life. I ask for your prayers.
The thing is, those who become part of our inner world, as we do in religious life, are never gone. We remain sisters in the heart of God – always.