It’s been years now since I left the convent: I’ve passed through all those different stages of grief (or rather, bounced back and forth between them like a ping-pong ball) and finally come to something resembling acceptance. The pain is no longer raw and immediate, which is a relief. However, there’s a drawback: it’s harder to find inspiration than it used to be. How do I set the world on fire, as Saint Catherine of Siena exhorts, when my usual aspiration is simply to use a limited supply of energy to get out of bed and make it through a day at work? And how can anyone rejoice while holding on to the memory of religious life, or even sometimes the Catholic Faith itself, like the remnants of a parachute that failed to open?
The message of Advent is, “Stay awake and keep watch! He is coming, and we do not know the hour!” These four weeks have compelled us to be alert, both practically, as we handle the pre-Christmas rush at work and family duties at home, and spiritually, with reminders of the immanent coming of Christ and exhortations to be prepared to receive Him – and we’re tired.
The message of Christmas, however, is, “Rest.”
The Guest for Whom we were preparing is here, and has fallen asleep in the manger. Christmas is gentle, domestic: a young mother asleep on a hay bale beside her Son, surrounded by quiet beasts and watched over by her husband. We are weary, drained and battered in soul – so were they. They had walked a long way in uncertain times. At Christmas, though, they have reached a place of shelter, safety and peace, and they offer us the same.
It’s not easy to be Catholic, and the longer you make a sincere effort to be so, the harder it gets. God can seem distant to women who have left the convent, but every Christmas we remember how close He came to us, and in the gentlest, least imposing way He could: who could be afraid of a baby? A baby can’t answer the questions we most need answered – why couldn’t I have stayed in the convent? What am I going to do with my future? – but instead, simply looks up at us with the dark, solemn eyes that newborns have, and invites us to set aside our fears and be with Him for a while. We still seek God, and in this octave we remember that He also came to seek us.
If you’ve had a rough year, this is the turning point: a baby is always a sign of the future, and this Baby more so than any. May the peace of Christ be with you, and may you have a gentle, happy year ahead.
I have always seen Advent as a beautiful season of hope and joyful expectation. I fell in love with Advent when I entered my religious community. There’s something about the quiet waiting of our Blessed Mother that has resonated so deeply with me.
For the first time in eight years, I am spending Advent at home with my family, instead of in the convent. I made the decision to leave the community six months ago, after more than seven years as a religious Sister. I chose to leave during a period of intense desolation, and looking back, I see that I acted in haste, without any true discernment. At the time, I was sure I was at peace with my choice, but my former postulant directress very wisely told me, “What you feel is relief, not peace.” I brushed her off as not understanding my situation, but after six months, I see the truth in what she said. I have yet to find the peace I thought I had. Instead, I came very quickly to deeply regret leaving the convent, and do not yet know if it would be possible for me to return.
This Advent, I find myself seeing Mary in a new way. I reflect upon her months of pregnant expectation, and for the first time, see more than just her joy. It must have been a time of great uncertainty for her, and also of learning whole-hearted trust in the God of the impossible.
How critical are hope and trust during the pregnant pauses in our own lives. In times of “limbo,” pain, or uncertainty, the temptation can be to fall into anxiety and even despair. Blessed are we to have Mary to guide us and be our example in these times.
As we enter the final days of Advent, I picture myself sitting alongside Mary in the later months of her pregnancy. The initial excitement has passed, and in the silence, perhaps Mary’s heart has begun to fill with questions of what the future will bring. I acknowledge the questions rising up in my own heart…questions of discernment, of God’s will, of doors that may or may not be closed before me. But rather than give in to the fear and uncertainty, I fix my gaze on Mary.
Very gently, she takes my hands in hers. She places my right hand over her heart, and the steady beating makes her hope, faith, and trust almost tangible to me. I cling tightly to Mary’s hope and trust, as I seem to have so little of my own right now. Then she presses my left hand to her belly, and as I feel the movement of the baby within her, I am reminded that times of uncertainty and waiting are really moments pregnant with God Himself. It is only by being faithful in the waiting that the sacred new life can be born.
If you, too, find yourself in a season of uncertainty, take heart. Hold tightly to our Blessed Mother, and know that something new and beautiful is in the waiting.