By Aimee Dominique.
Journaling is a means by which I prefer to pray. I dialogue with God, ask Him questions, listen to His Word and sometimes write down what I’m grateful for at the end of the day. I like to go back and re-read my prayer journals to see how God has answered prayers, taught me, consoled me, forgiven me, and walked with me. Often I need a reminder of how God has been leading me, how much He has done for me. Sometimes I am surprised to see that I am tempted by similar things from year to year. Journaling has been a privileged means of seeing God’s presence in my life. Through journaling I get to see how God wants to work with my apparent failures.
Honestly, leaving religious life has felt like nothing less than leaving one culture and entering into another. It’s even more challenging when the culture I’ve returned to is supposed to be that of my own, that of my own people, my own country, yet it feels foreign to me. When over 10 years ago, I entered the convent for the first time, much of what has become the social norm didn’t exist. I never used a smartphone before and I feel lost when it comes to so many new forms of technology. I left religious life a little over two years ago and I continue to realize that the transition from the convent into the world is no less demanding than “sacrificing all” to follow the Lord to the convent in the first place.
One day I was expressing to God my pain and frustration—why does my life seem like a contradiction and a failure? (That may seem a dramatic assessment, but I would imagine that others who have left religious life have experienced similar doubts and feelings from time to time.) As I was pouring out my heart to the Lord in journaling prayer, I wrote to Him about feeling dizzy:
Dizzy—this world, my American culture, with its Instagram, Facebook, social media madness makes me dizzy… Job searches that end in a laundry list of competencies and required abilities, licenses, etc. make me feel dizzy… My own weakness makes me feel dizzy…
Not only can the first steps back into the world make you feel dizzy, this feeling can linger for years. There is the challenge of finding work, perhaps re-discerning a vocation, making friends, relating to people who you once knew, among so many other daily adjustments that often go unnoticed by those around you, but are felt with every step you take.
God recently revealed to me an explanation of my feeling of dizziness which consoled me. He reminded me of a passage in the Old Testament from the book of Jeremiah. God says to the prophet Jeremiah to go and visit the potter’s house. While there, Jeremiah discovers the potter is working at his wheel. Jeremiah writes, “whenever the object of clay which he was making turned out badly in his hand, he tried again, making of the clay another object of whatever sort he pleased” (Jeremiah 18:4). As Jeremiah witnesses the ingenuity and perseverance of the potter, the word of the Lord comes to him saying, “Can I not do to you, house of Israel, as this potter has done?… Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand…” (Jeremiah 18:6). From this, God helped me understand that I feel dizzy because He is working on me right now. I’m His clay and I’m on the wheel spinning, but I’m in His hands. That’s what matters.
Clay is soft and impressionable. It doesn’t resist change but feels it very acutely, if clay could feel. If it was self-aware, clay might wrestle with feelings of shame about “turning out badly” in the hands of the potter on the first try. The important thing though is that the potter has a different perspective. The potter doesn’t get discouraged or frustrated with the clay. He tries something new. He is determined to continue his work. This is what God does with us. God revealed to me that it’s okay to feel dizzy and it’s okay to try something that doesn’t work out. He’s going to make everything work out in the end. He never gives up on us. St. Paul had this hope and perspective when he wrote, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6). We just need to trust, trust, trust, and surrender ourselves into His hands.
What? A single vocation? You may be thinking, “this book must be about the vocation of the consecrated virgin living in the world.” This book definitely speaks to a woman seeking or already living that state in life, but does not limit itself to that particular vocation.
When I left religious life, I knew of three vocational options: religious life, marriage, or consecrated virginity. Later I became aware of and inquired into that very hidden vocation of persons dedicated to God in secular institutes. For various reasons, none of these vocations could be “it” for some of us LL followers. We remain “uncategorized,” even years after leaving religious life.
This book offers another way, for those who believe God invites them to it: that is, to choose perfect chastity for the sake of Christ as a single person in the world. From this book, we see that any woman who desires to take Christ alone as Spouse need not be hindered from doing so by her inability to enter religious life or another of the more formal ways of consecrated life. The author presents, to anyone who desires to be His and is single in the world, the option of making a private vow or simple dedication of oneself in celibate love to the Lord. Written before the vocation of the consecrated virgin living in the world was re-instated in the Church, it also alludes to, first and foremost, this particular call, but does not limit itself to that call. This is a message of hope for anyone out there who desires consecration but cannot enter religious life and, for whatever reason (and there can be reasons other than not being a virgin), cannot become a consecrated virgin.
I quote from the book, page 102: “This vocation…may be chosen even though one is forced to stay out of the other vocations…It should, in fact, be a vocation primarily for those normal and psychically sound people who deliberately choose it…[but also for] those who…are not eligible for the religious life…who could, however, choose the married state if they so desired” but who wish to be espoused only to Christ.
Fr. Unger also includes among those who could choose the state of perfect chastity in the world: widows, persons who were married but are now permanently separated, single moms, persons who would like to have gotten married but have not found a suitable companion, those who desired the religious life but could not enter, and penitents who have turned from a life of un-chastity and chosen to live their lives now in perfect continence for the love of Christ. (pages 100, 105-108).
Fr. Unger says of this grace to choose and promise celibacy in the world, “God usually gives His grace and call by making a person fit to live this type of life and by inspiring the correct motives for choosing it, and, at times, by allowing circumstances that will hinder one from choosing any other vocation…The choice can still be free, even when circumstances conspire against choosing any other vocation. If one would like to have married but must remain unmarried because of circumstances, or if one is prevented for various reasons from entering…religious life, one may…make the best of circumstances and freely consent to live in perfect chastity, since that is God’s will.” (page 100)
As for motives to live this way of life, on page 101 Fr. Unger writes, “One should have a well-balanced attitude toward life and toward the other vocations,” so as to point out that it cannot be chosen because one looks negatively at any of the other states in life. He continues, “The highest motive…is the undivided love that one wishes to bestow on Christ” and he contrasts this to “a single person living in the world who might, for all that, be doing very much good, but who lives in the unmarried state very regretfully.” And he writes of a secondary “supernatural motive of charity toward fellow men, since it frees one for a wholehearted devotion to the service of the Church and humanity.”
The vow or dedication can be made privately, by way of “internal resolution and no further formality. One could also recite a special prayer of consecration, privately, either in one’s home or before an altar in Church.” (page 59) I would also like to mention that in Volume One of An Introduction to the Vocation of Consecrated Virginity Lived in the World by the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins, Raymond Cardinal Burke is quoted on page 39 as mentioning that a woman may also offer a private vow before a bishop or priest in the context of Holy Mass.
On a personal note, I came across this book—I can’t even remember how—not long after I left religious life. At that time, I was not at all attracted to staying in the world as a single person. I wanted to enter religious life again, and as much as I wanted a life of consecration, would have preferred marriage to consecration (so I thought) if I had to remain in the world! The thought of remaining single in the world repelled me. So when I read it, I did so “at arms’ length”, and several miles distant from my heart.
Now here I am, years later, actually recommending it to my fellow Leonie’s Longing followers, because I have found so much hope and refreshment for myself in it!
I think that when a woman meets her husband, she doesn’t choose a way of life, but a person. If that person happens to serve in the military, or politics, or becomes handicapped…he remains one’s husband. Where, what environment, what lifestyle, even if it entails loneliness at times and other sufferings, is not of paramount importance. To belong exclusively to the one you love, that is what matters.
For those of you out there still trying to figure out your particular vocation, this book can help you to prayerfully consider whether or not some form of consecration in the world—either as a consecrated virgin or by making a private vow or dedication—could be the way of Love Our Lord may beckon you to. For those of you who already have chosen this route, I suspect you will find this book to be a source of great consolation and encouragement. So, read on! The Lord of Mercy has a plan of Love for each one of us. Alleluia!
The Mystery of Love for the Single: a guide for those who follow the single vocation in the world
by Fr. Dominic J. Unger, O.F.M. Cap
Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1958, reprinted by Tan Books and Publishers, 2005.
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.
For three years before entering the convent, I had worn a chapel veil at Mass. As a child, I’d been attracted to the beauty of the veils themselves, and in college I became exposed to the theological reasoning behind the practice, which cinched the deal for me. I bought my first veil (a real mantilla!) in Madrid at World Youth Day and I’d worn one ever since. I loved veiling and adhered to it religiously (pun very much intended!), and I eagerly hoped and prayed that the day would come where I would wear a veil not just in the chapel, but “full time” as a religious sister.
When I finally heard and accepted God’s concrete invitation to join a religious order, I was ecstatic. Of course, there were difficulties with the decision to enter: Shortly after requesting entrance, I was offered several full scholarships for graduate study at prestigious universities, the Order asked me to do an additional “optional” year of formation as a prepostulant at a house in a foreign country, I needed to change my lifelong vegetarian diet in order to be able to eat “from the common table.” And I was asked not to wear a chapel veil as a prepostulant. While this last difficulty was not the hardest of those decisions (after all, I had the prospect of soon becoming a fully-habited religious sister in front of me!), I will admit that I struggled with it. It was one of the first tests of obedience that the Lord asked of me in religious life.
I grew a lot over the course of prepostulancy and during my two months as a postulant. And when I returned home from the convent, while it felt natural for me to continue veiling in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, it was with a very different mindset than when I’d begun the practice.
Thus, a week after leaving the convent, I found myself at daily Mass trying to push aside my anger with myself, my anger with some of my former Sisters, my feelings of deep vulnerability, abandonment, and loss, and basically just an overwhelming amount of inner turmoil. While I was kneeling in thanksgiving after Mass was over, an older gentleman approached me. “It’s so nice to see a young woman with her head covered at Mass! The Lord is granting you many graces for wearing that,” he said to me. Whereas before, this comment would have spoken to my pride and made me feel flattered (“I know! I’m such a good Catholic!”), now I just felt irrationally angry. I wanted to yell at him that “With that mindset, the Lord would probably be granting me far more graces if I were still in the convent! You don’t know anything!” Noting my anger and resolving to take it to prayer to examine it later, I responded instead with a weary smile and as much restraint as I could muster: “I hope the Lord grants me graces regardless of what I’m wearing on my head.”
During a personal Holy Hour a little later, I returned to that interaction. “The Lord is granting you many graces [for wearing a veil]”, I quoted in my journal. “Well,” I continued writing, “I personally hope the Lord is granting me graces because He loves me and because I love Him and try to follow His will, not because of some piece of lace on my head. In fact, I have a feeling that I received more graces in not wearing a veil as a prepostulant than I do now in wearing a veil as a laywoman, since the former was done in obedience.”
“But God doesn’t love me because I veil or because I pray or because I entered the convent. He loves me because that is Who He is. And because Who He is doesn’t change, His love for me will never change. His love for me is not dependent upon what I do or don’t do, on what I wear or don’t wear. I am loved no matter what because He is love and He loves me.”
Until that moment, I’d never realized or admitted to myself that I’d been trying to earn God’s love, but that’s what I’d been trying to do. I didn’t feel worthy of the Lord’s love, so instead of accepting that I am unworthy and He loves me
anyways, I tried to make it “worth it” for Him to love me. But somehow, in that place of brokenness, of realizing just how weak and sinful I am and how insufficient all my “great big efforts” to make myself “worthy” of being loved by God actually are, the Lord spoke Love into my heart. “Oh, little one,” I heard Him say, “My dear, sweet little one, you don’t need to try to win My love, you don’t have to earn it. You can’t earn it. My Heart is already yours and nothing you do will ever alter that.”
I am eternally grateful to that older gentleman for helping open my eyes to the reality of the Lord’s love for me and for helping open my heart to His healing. His comment led to a moment of deep insight and consolation that has been helping me navigate the stormy waters of these first few months of post-convent life.
I still wear a veil at Mass. I continue to love the tradition, and it helps remind me that I am both beautiful and His bride, even if I’m not a religious sister. But I now veil with more humility and less rigidity because I realize that it won’t “earn” me anything. It’s one of the many precious insights that the Lord has so graciously granted me since leaving my former community.
“You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride;
You have ravished my heart with one glance of your eyes.”
(Song of Songs 4:9)
September 8th, the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, was an important day for me in religious life. Not only was it the day that I had entered religious life, but it also became my personal feast day. Sisters discerned their feast days and I chose this one.
Reflecting on my time in religious life, I am struck by how Mary was interceding for me. I underwent a LOT of trials in the couple of years and especially the couple of months before entering religious life as well as during my time as a postulant and novice. WOW! I could focus on the cross or I could focus on how Jesus revealed His love for me more intimately during times of difficulty and how Mary became more of a mother to me.
When not “feelin’ much love” from one sister in particular whom I looked to for guidance and at times fearing that God would not love me in my many imperfections & weaknesses, Mother Mary at times gently stepped in to console me of God’s love for me, to remind me of the importance of prayer, and to stir into flame a desire more for motherhood, spiritual as well as perhaps physical. It was on two different Marian feast days that I had such a painful desire to have children. At the time I thought I was being asked to sacrifice this but now that I am no longer in religious life, perhaps my heart was really being prepared for something else: time will tell on that one! What I will speak to now is spiritual motherhood. This call grew in my heart while in religious life. I didn’t realize then that this is something all women are called to, not just religious sisters.
There is a quote about spiritual motherhood that I came across much later after leaving religious life. It’s from a book titled Discovering the Feminine Genius: Every Woman’s Journey by Katrina Zeno. The quote goes like this: “Spiritual motherhood…means nurturing the emotional, moral, cultural, and spiritual life in others. All women are called to give birth-physically and/or spiritually. All women are called to be Christ-bearers, to receive divine life in the womb of their souls and bear Christ to the world. All women are called to see in Mary’s spiritual motherhood a reflection of their own lives. If all women embraced the call to spiritual motherhood they would ignite a nuclear reaction that would spread the culture of life through the whole world. The feminine genius would set the world on fire!”
I felt the need to “just be” more after religious life and not get too involved with things. Slowly though through various life circumstances & even misunderstandings, I’ve found myself in different roles and involved in ministries where this call to spiritual motherhood could be further developed & lived out more. Keeping in mind that God could always re-open the door, I’ve shut the door to religious life and feel that I am in a sense “waiting”, perhaps waiting for my future spouse (while God is also still my Spouse!) while living life and allowing my heart to continue to heal & grow more. “God only knows” if one day I will give birth physically to children, but I have given birth to Mary more in my heart and she has helped me to give birth more to Christ in my own life & in the lives of others. This is all still very much a work in progress though!
There have been times when I’ve wondered if being in religious life for almost three years had any purpose. This may especially be true when I look back through the lens of all the personal sufferings I’ve experienced! However, I need to trust that a greater good came from suffering and that my time there bore fruit. Besides learning how to boil water and growing more in prayer, there was something that happened on my last day when taking a walk with the sisters in my “class” a couple of hours before leaving that struck me. Never had we seen anything like this before, but as we were walking (and it was a short walk in a residential area near the convent), we saw a set of little twins. We then walked a little further and saw another set of young twins. Near the end of our short walk, we came across three kids with their parents and one of my sisters stated that we should ask if two of them were twins. As it turns out, they were triplets! priest I shared this story with later seemed to think that this was God’s way of showing me that my time in religious life was not wasted. It gave life to others.
May we each give birth to Mary more in our hearts and ask for her intercession to help us carry Christ more & more inside of us and to bear Him to the world.