By Sally Hoban.
On September 3rd (2019), the canopy of one the trees in my yard snapped and crashed down in our yard; it missed the house by a few feet. In many ways, the breaking of the top of this tree and the fact that it did not damage our house reminds me of my own path through this dark period of my life. The tree is no longer whole and the top that kissed the sky is now in a woodchip pile somewhere, but thankfully, the tree is still standing, and the damage done to the area where it landed was minimal. In so many ways, this parallels with me, however, I pray that the damage I have done in the depths of my despair and rage has not damaged beyond repair my relationships with those who love me.
As I start to feel the storm of despair and anger recede, I’m beginning to not feel blinded by the light around me. No longer do I recoil when I find myself looking out and wondering what next. No longer do I weep over the yearning to fulfill the call I heard to live out my life as with the congregation I love so much. Yet, I am now able to also acknowledge how painful and agonizing it was to constantly be in the throes of trying to prove my vocation to the decisionmakers within the congregation. So, how do I learn to live with this conundrum…
For so many months, I banged my head against a wall trying to make sense of all of this. I went round-and-round trying to make sense of hearing a call from God to pursue my vocation with this congregation and being rejected; blaming myself for being me, wishing I could have been someone the Provincial Team and the Vocation Director would accept; to replaying my mistakes and wondering how they could have been so great as to be summarily dismissed. I was so in love with God, my vocation and the journey of discernment that I believed nothing could stand in the way of fulfilling this yearning, but something did stand in the way…I was told by the Provincial, “The decision has been made to not continue the discernment with me.”
After the dust settled and I awoke to this reality, I found myself broken and shattered beyond repair. For the first year, I could barely get through a day without weeping and wishing to die. (Yes, I said it, I wanted to die!) I had spent over 40 years searching for meaning in my life. When the spark of living my life as a Catholic sister took hold, my whole being lit up. I found myself living from my heart from the early days of my discernment through the early days of February 2018, when I still believed that Jesus would sweep in rescue me and restore me back to my vocation with the congregation that rejected me. When I became aware that this was not going to happen, my life became a living nightmare and I rejected God and myself, the self that still believed and hoped for meaning in my life.
A few months ago, I was encouraged to embrace the phrase “fake it until you make it”. Since I was told this by one of the sisters from the congregation, it stung all the more. Yet, as the second year of this reality comes to a close, I am aware that in many ways, I have successfully utilized this task. I am back on my feet, albeit different feet than before, but nonetheless, I am gainfully employed, no longer weeping or lost in turmoil when I reflect on the current status of my life, and beginning to take in my life and contemplate a new path.
Like something that was broken and glued back together is never the same, I too am learning that I am broken and slowly being glued back together. I believe that Jesus not only has stood by me during this darkest time in my life, but saved me from the darkness that threatened my very existence. I’m still figuring out how to deal with this, because I am still angry with God over my rejection; however, I no longer have the energy to lash out at God when it arises, instead I find myself desiring to simply be honest by acknowledging this anger, sadness and hurt without losing myself in the depths of this despair.
Somehow though, I don’t want to go back to life before I was broken. I want to learn how to live from my brokenness. Can Jesus use my brokenness in God’s great mission? How can I live with my brokenness without letting it destroy me? How will Jesus to carry me in a new way? How might I use this longing to return to my religious vocation with the awareness that it is unlikely that I will return to my religious vocation with that congregation? Perhaps this leads to the question, do I really want to return to that?
I’ve often reflected upon my friend’s encouragement to write a book about my experience; however, I fear that my recounting of my experience would turn into a negative rant tied with fantastical dreams. Yet, I would like to utilize my keyboard to gain insight into how I might learn to live from this brokenness.
I’m not sure where this journey is leading me. So, I am utilizing my need to express myself, my hope to be heard (read) and the prayer that perhaps this might open a new path on this life’s journey…. Living from a place of brokenness…
Nearly a year after writing this with COVID-19, these words describe where I was. Where I am today is somewhere further down the road of discovering who I am and how I might learn from my experiences. While I don’t pine for what was and what isn’t, I wonder where might God be calling me. The other day my spiritual director reminded me that God isn’t finished with me yet, so I know I am living my next adventure right now.
During prayer, I have been hearing, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”, the line from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”. Some days, I am troubled by the question, as I wonder, what to do? Other days, I am on a mission to determine what I am called to do. Today, I realized I am simply living into this moment, and this is my “one wild and precious life”.
 Oliver, Mary, “The Summer Day” from Dog Songs: Poems , (Penguin Books, 2015).
We are currently in the midst of a loneliness epidemic in the western world. I’ve heard about research that has come out recently regarding this subject, but unfortunately, the media aren’t reporting on it very much. I’m sure, though, that you feel it within your heart and see it in the world around you. As women who have been in religious life, I think we can feel the sting of this loneliness in a particular way: we felt called to community, but yet we are not experiencing it in the same way now. Our world is getting progressively more isolated as people spend more time online and less time with friends and family. Even in faith communities we can feel as though we don’t belong. If we’re single and don’t have a defined state in life vocation, it’s easy to think that we are invisible and don’t matter to the Church. But this isn’t true.
I recently had a beautiful phone conversation with one of you. She said she hoped that 2020 transformed longing to belonging for me. I found that an encouraging thought. And I wish the same for all of you.
I hope that you are able to spend this year, especially this season of Lent, around people who love you and are supportive of you and your journey. If you feel particularly lonely I encourage you to take risks, be vulnerable, and reach out to others. If you have a home filled with love (and kids), please try to invite someone over who may be alone during this time (single people don’t care if your house is a mess btw). We all need each other. And the evil one does what he can to whisper lies to us and encourage us to put up barriers to protect our hearts. We think that these barriers will keep us from being hurt. They might do that. But they always keep us from experiencing love. And that is unfortunate because love is what we truly desire.
Leonie’s Longing has some great ideas that we are trying to put into practice soon. My particular hope is that we will be able to facilitate more connections and community between you all. Please pray for us as we explore ways to do this. And if you’d like to help volunteer so that we can move forward more quickly with these endeavors we would love to hear from you.
May God bless you during this Lenten season.
By Esther Caswell, reprinted with permission from her blog.
Jesus, we need to talk. Like the prophets of old or the Psalmist, I need answers to my complaint. My heart is racked in pain. I need you to answer me. Hope in you becomes my instrument of torture in this regard. Please apply the salve of truth.
Who are you to those who heard our cry as Bridegroom and who innocently followed you, who left everything behind and prostrated themselves before you giving you everything, these ones who entered your Church believing it was a Mother, a place of belonging only to be told in your Name that they were excluded, unfit, unwanted and unredeemable? Those who were tortured during lonely nights and told in the day to keep their selves tucked in and their brokenness hidden, that their love would cause harm. Who were told that any love they needed would come from you alone and reminded through correction how they ought to sit and stand and kneel when they pray? Who were told to spare the dramatics of tears in your presence like Eli told Hannah of old? Those who only wanted you and were told by the “voice of God” that they were not enough? Whom do you choose Jesus? What of these rejected? Are they like those who came to the wedding banquet improperly clothed and are now subject to wailing and gnashing of teeth? How is it that thieves, prostitutes, and public sinners are promised your Kingdom but these tossed away? And when they are tossed away because their white knuckles could no longer hold the death grip, who is there to catch them? They are regarded with suspicion and punished by all for falling off a pedestal that somehow the Church needs. Even the divorced woman in the back pew is better understood because we can all allow husbands to be weak.
How many now to prove their worth to you by a strange kind of “forced labor” for your Church, their own private Gulag, through work is their salvation? Some hold themselves to even higher standards as if all the good work and prayer could somehow wipe out the shame of being unwanted by YOU. Others already feeling the condemnation, fall the other way in despair hoping to find something that will numb the pain of this rejection. Like soldiers back from war they are mentally tortured by making sense of what does not make sense, by trying to find the God they only wanted serve.
I do not make this appeal to anyone but you because you know those of which I speak. You know well. Can you please tell me your heart breaks too? Please tell me, Jesus, that this is not you! Jesus, come to all those who have been wounded by your mediators. Come to those who find it hard to breathe in the presence of innocent enthusiasm for you because to them it represents the way the pain began. Come to those who cannot trust themselves or your voice in them because that place has been broken. Because they did and it led to their demise. Come to those who feel like they asked for a fish and were given a snake. Jesus, come to those who even still have made attempts to come to you and were turned away like a disease that can be caught.
Jesus, Abba, Holy Spirit: Tell me this is not who you are! Please I beg you, make it clear. You are God, I will follow no other but if I may claim my intimacy with your cross as my authority and remind you who you are. You are the God for the weak and abandoned who forgave the thief as you died. You defend the orphan and the widow, and Lord please your rejected bride! Jesus, I need you to go find them in their places of darkness and shame. I need you to bath them and clothe them. I need you to restore the integrity of your name. I come like Esther before the King. Jesus please, act on their behalf.
You and I both know there is no other way. You have to go yourself or send your Mother. No one in your Church seems to understand these ones and perhaps it is because they do not want to admit the Bride is broken because they will need more Faith in you.
Written for Autism Acceptance Month, April 2019.
‘I am very pleased with Marie; she is a great comfort to me. I only wish my poor Léonie were more like her. I cannot understand her character; the wisest sages would be out of their depth with her. But I hope that some day good seed will sprout in that soil.’ (A Difficult Life p. 17)
Saints Louis and Zélie Martin had five daughters who survived to adulthood. Four were bright, pretty, affectionate, and charming. One wasn’t.
Marie and Pauline, the two eldest, were very close; Céline and Thérèse, the youngest, were like ‘two little bantam chicks’ that could not be separated from each other. Léonie, in the middle, spent much of her childhood on her own, getting kicked out of school because of her strange and rebellious behaviour and causing more worry to her parents than the other four put together. At the time that Zélie wrote to her brother about her ‘poor Léonie’ in 1871, the girl was an awkward, angry nine-year-old who struggled to understand her lessons or control her overwhelming emotions. Were she alive today, she would doubtless be diagnosed with moderate to severe learning disabilities, but in the late nineteenth century she was simply a slow, ‘trying’ child.
Like all of her sisters, Léonie would eventually grow up to become a nun. Unlike her sisters, however, she became a nun on her fourth attempt. Today, she is known as the Servant of God Sister Françoise-Thérèse Martin VHM, and the cause for her canonisation is underway in France. She is the patroness of our apostolate, named Leonie’s Longing in her honour, which provides support for women around the world who have left the religious life at any stage of formation. Interestingly enough, there is also another Catholic lay association which holds her as its patroness: the Leonie League for the Advancement of Autistic Persons.
Posthumous diagnosis of someone who lived over a hundred years ago is an ambiguous exercise at best, of course. Nonetheless, Léonie’s social difficulties, academic struggles, ‘loneliness of spirit’ (as she described it in her own words) and lifelong difference from others have made her an instantly familiar, approachable older sister to autistic Catholics who have experienced all of these things themselves. I know. I’m one of them.
When I was a child in the 1990s, autism was still largely seen as an exclusively male phenomenon: the province of small boys who sit and rock in corners, refuse physical contact, and recite train timetables to themselves over and over. Even now – though this is improving – the diagnostic criteria are still heavily weighted toward the male presentation of symptoms, meaning that boys are often diagnosed and supported in early childhood while girls (who present the same patterns but in different ways) tend to flounder along on their own until their twenties, thirties, or even later. I began to wonder whether I might be on the autism spectrum while I was at university in my early twenties, but concluded from my reading that I couldn’t possibly be: I can hold a normal conversation, make eye contact, feel empathy for other people, and I have a rich and complex inner world, all of which are supposedly beyond the reach of autistic people.
Except when they aren’t.
A short video (now sadly removed from public view) popped up in my recommended list on YouTube in October 2017 and changed everything I thought I knew about myself. The host was a young woman from the UK, and watching her on screen was like watching myself – lively, quick-talking, and animated in a way I’d been told that autistic people couldn’t be, but with the admission that this social persona had been developed through years of deliberate trial and error, and aimed at camouflaging the fact that she was most often out of her depth when communicating with other people. Exactly the way that my persona was. I had few friends as a child and none (except online) as a teenager because I was so odd that others my age avoided me; my brain was a powerful computer attached to the social awareness of a child less than half my age, excitable and tactless, and with a sense of humour involving things that weren’t funny to other people and vice versa.
I started changing in my last year or so of high school, which was – not coincidentally at all – also the time I began discerning a vocation to the religious life. For the first time, I began to want to fit in with other people and get along with them. I learned to mask the physical mannerisms, odd laughter and blunt social comments that had made me stand out, and by the time I got my first job in my early twenties, I could usually pass for normal. (Like many people on the autism spectrum, I object to being labelled ‘high-functioning’ – dammit, I work hard for that functioning!) Every now and again, I’ll still slip up and someone will look at me oddly and say, ‘That was weird,’ but by and large as an adult I manage to roll the dice and land on ‘endearingly quirky’ rather than ‘fruitcake.’
I went through the psychological testing process for autism in November 2017, and was diagnosed formally in early December that year. (Under previous versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, I‘d have been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. In the current version, Asperger Syndrome has been folded into the umbrella diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.) My response? Pure relief. Suddenly, I could explain why I do peculiar things like borrow forty non-fiction books at a time from the library and read them at every spare moment (information being my brain’s version of crack), quote textbooks verbatim Hermione Granger-style, and struggle so much with time management (because the executive function of the brain, which is responsible for organising things, works more slowly in autistic people). Even more importantly, it also began to help me understand why I had crashed and burned out of religious life at twenty-four with a force that wrecked my physical and mental health, along with my spiritual life, for years afterward.
It’s a myth that autistic people don’t feel emotions. We do. Almost unbearably, so deeply we could drown in them, but rarely in a way that we can put into words at the time. Think of Léonie, who loved her family beyond measure but had no idea how to express that love in a form that they could see or understand. Or me, crying silently in my cell because I had no idea why I was failing so badly and being corrected all the time. I’m not writing this for sympathy, but because I know that you, my sister in Christ – even if you’re not on the spectrum yourself – will understand exactly what I’m talking about when I describe sleepless nights, mysterious stress-related illnesses, bewilderment at how something so longed-for could hurt so much, and the deadening grief for your vocation that begins even before you leave the convent. That part is common ground for all of us.
What diagnosis gave me was that all-important why. Why I had caused the Sisters such frustration with my slow working style and hesitation in moving from one task to another: when I was told to do something, the delay that my executive function needed to process the instructions and come up with a plan of action would have looked from the outside like foot-dragging. Or why I was sometimes corrected for mistakes as though they had been deliberate acts of disobedience: because the Sisters had been signalling me with their eyes or gestures not to do something, and I either hadn’t seen their signals or didn’t understand what they meant, because non-verbal hints are almost invisible to people on the autism spectrum. So I went ahead and blundered headlong across the community’s rules and customs, over and over and over, and kept not learning because I couldn’t identify a pattern in the things I was doing or failing to do. The Sisters’ corrections were justified – if I had seen their directions and carried on anyway, it really would have been disobedience – but it took an autism diagnosis five years later to reveal to me how much I must have been missing under the surface of things.
I would watch others to see what they did, but without knowing which of those numerous things I was supposed to do as well (is the way she pours her glass of water a community custom, or her own personal preference?), imitation was largely a matter of guess-work. Interestingly, by the time I left, the novice who sat next to me at meal-times had started to pick up on this and developed a system of signals with meanings that she explained to me directly: ‘When I do this, it means you need to do that.’ I’ve never forgotten the courtesy she showed me; it became one of my anchors in the refectory, which had nearly as many customs as the chapel.
I’d been studying the principles of religious life intensely for more than half a decade before I entered – forty books at a time from the library, remember? – and that was a convenient mask for the fact that, in day to day community life, I actually had very little idea what was expected of me or why. Could I have asked for help? Perhaps, if I had known why I was floundering. Lacking the understanding that my brain structure was actually objectively different from that of the women around me, however, all I could see was that there was a method to all of this somewhere, but not what it was or where it was. Looking back now, I can see that I was trying to live within a system of unspoken rules and norms, ancient and modern traditions, and the complex social interactions required when a group of people live in such close proximity to each other… and I was oblivious to most of it. I therefore carried on doing what autistic women do best: camouflaging my difficulties with a smile and trying to appear normal. Until, finally, I couldn’t keep going.
I left the convent just before my mask broke: I had a cell inspection and a mid-postulancy review coming up within a couple of days of each other, and knew beyond doubt that one or the other of them was going to be the end of my ability to cope. I wanted to stay. No, strike that; I needed to stay. My whole heart was in the religious life, and I wanted nothing else. I had friends among the Sisters, enjoyed my studies, and immersed my soul in the deep, ancient rituals of convent life, just as Léonie Martin had over a hundred years before. So what do you do when desire isn’t enough?
‘O my God, in my life, where you have put so little that shines,’ Léonie wrote in 1934, ‘grant that I, like You, may choose true values, disdaining human values to prize and desire only the absolute, the eternal, the Love of God, through constant Hope.’ (A Difficult Life p.96.)
I now have the benefit of knowing that I’m on the autism spectrum; there are hundreds of books and websites out there that help me to understand the unique wiring of my brain, compensate for my blind spots, and make best use of the many unusual strengths that come with the territory. I finally understand that (apart from those caused by my own character flaws) the worst difficulties that I had in the convent weren’t my fault. They weren’t the Sisters’ fault. They weren’t anyone’s fault. I was just wired differently, and nobody (including me) knew it.
Léonie’s path was far harder: doggedly conquering her social difficulties, sensory sensitivities and overwhelming emotions minute by minute for the rest of her life without ever knowing why she was different, but slowly learning endurance and fortitude by following the Little Way of her younger sister Thérèse. In a letter to her Carmelite sisters in 1936, five years before her death at the age of seventy-eight, she described herself jokingly (but with a quiet air of wistfulness) as a ‘broken window’ in the convent (A Difficult Life p.112). She was loving and loved in her community, but the constant work of being different never got easier. A year later, in her retreat resolutions, she wrote:
‘It is inappropriate for me to moan over my faults, as I have done until now; I realise now that it is pride. As our Holy Founder said, it is no wonder that weakness is weak; so I must humble myself, not vex myself. I want to be little, so little! Little children fall without hurting themselves badly – they are too small for that; this is the example I want to follow. I can feel that this is what Jesus expects of me.’ (A Difficult Life p.96).
Like me, and like all of the women who read this blog, Léonie knew what it meant to fall, and fall hard. When desire wasn’t enough to match some external or internal circumstance that forced us out of the religious life, we went through every stage of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, please God, acceptance – just as she did. Through all her struggles within the convent and without, it was in God that Léonie found the ‘constant Hope’ of which she wrote in the final decade of her life. She struggled too much to have any confidence in herself, so she gave herself up to His mercy and turned to Him for the strength she lacked. Autistic or not, we’re all in the same boat here: as the Superior of my community said to me just before I left, sooner or later, in any vocation, God is going to require sacrifice.
The nature of sacrifice is that it hurts. Léonie surrendered herself to God even (and especially when) she was in pain; even (and especially when) she felt in her soul that she had failed. This is what makes her such a beautiful example for autistic people, who live by means of an ongoing process of trial and error in a world where most of the rules are hidden from us, and for women of all neurotypes who have had to re-construct a life outside the convent where they once hoped to remain forever. I’m in an area of overlap between the two groups – how’s that for a minority within a minority? – and with April being Autism Acceptance Month, this seemed like the right time to describe my own experience in religious life as a person on the autism spectrum, and to honour a woman who has therefore become my patroness twice over.
Back in January 2015, on the day that Léonie Martin received the title Servant of God, I wrote an article on the blog describing her as ‘the patron of the awkward, the naturally contrary, those whose personalities didn’t quite “fit” in the convent, those who didn’t get it right the first time (or the second, or the third) but somehow keep crashing their way up the narrow path that leads to heaven.’
Four years, an autism diagnosis, and much hard work of healing later, Léonie is still one of the people I most look forward to meeting after I die; a black sheep of Christ’s flock, a very human woman, and above all a faithful daughter of the Church.
‘Well, provided I have enough wit to love God with all my strength, living only by love and humility, that is enough for me.’ – Léonie in 1910. (A Difficult Life, p.103.)
Servant of God, Sister Françoise-Thérèse Martin, pray for us!
Unofficial Checklist for Autism in Women by Samantha Craft: https://the-art-of-autism.com/females-and-aspergers-a-checklist/
References: Baudouin-Croix, Marie. Leonie Martin: A Difficult Life. Veritas Publications, Dublin 1993.
I was sitting at a table happily conversing with a group of girlfriends when I saw her walk in. She had made some attempt to look put-together, though her puffy eyes and downcast demeanor implied otherwise. I knew she struggled emotionally and had a lot of marital drama, so I wasn’t surprised. I watched her walk past my table and choose a seat at a distance from everyone else. Apart from the bride-to-be, whose shower had brought us together that day, I’m pretty sure I was her only other friend in the room.
“Friend” was a challenging term to use here. Only a few years my senior, she had been my boss for three years. Our strong personalities often clashed. I felt stifled by her, and I think she felt threatened by me. Our rocky relationship eventually drove me to leave that job.
Both of us had become close with another coworker—a kind and deeply compassionate young woman who was preparing to marry the love of her life. This woman and I had spent a lot of time together, even outside of work, and our friend circles intertwined. I knew half of the people in the room that day, but I was well aware that my former boss, who normally feigned confidence, was like a fish out of water here. As I continued my comfortable conversations, I felt a nudge to go over and speak to the lonely one. I ignored it. I continued to catch glimpses of her out of the corner of my eye but continued to suppress the inspiration to do the kind and uncomfortable thing. In a little while, I thought. But before I ever had the courage to respond to a simple prompting, she had left the party.
Thankfully, I had a more pleasant encounter with her at the wedding a month later and some positive text exchanges in the weeks that followed. At that point, the three of us who had once worked together a part of a tight-knit (albeit dysfunctional) team had all moved on and were on the verge of new chapters in life. The former boss expressed in a group text one day how much she missed our team, and in a genuine gesture, I texted back suggesting that we meet for lunch soon at her favorite Italian restaurant. Maybe I could make up for my neglect of charity a few months earlier. She responded affirmatively.
But the shared meal of bread sticks and gnocchi soup never happened. Three days after that text conversation, she took her life. She left behind a husband and five children whom she decided would be better off without her.
As I tried to process the news, memories rolled through my head. I spent the first three years after leaving my community with this person, day in and day out. She hired me for my first-ever career-type job and allowed me to gain experience in a field that I came to love. We had more than our fair share of challenges, but we both made some attempt to bond over those things we had in common—like an appreciation of unique foods and a love for cinematic music. While the memories and tears flowed, one phrase echoed through my head: I wish I had loved her more.
I had planned to work that secular job for a year or so while I searched for a new ministry to pour myself into. What I had failed to realize was that God placed ministry opportunities right in front of me. He gave me people who needed to be loved. He gave me moments to sanctify and challenges to offer. I was no less called to be His disciple in this job than I was in my community or in any other full-time ministry. I shed some tears as I thought back over those years and recalled the day of the bridal shower. I prayed for God’s mercy on this woman’s soul and for her family. For myself, I asked that I not be so blind in the future. Sure, I may not have been able to change the course of this person’s life, but I know I could have made some small attempt to love her more.
Recently I was attending another bridal shower. As I walked back to my table after refilling my iced tea, I noticed a woman sitting alone, as everyone from her table was helping the bride-to-be with gifts. I felt a gentle prompting and walked over to her. I introduced myself and invited her to come sit at my table. She smiled and accepted the invitation. I recognized the God moment, and I praised Him in my heart for another chance to love.