Twenty-five years ago, I stood at the cloister door of the Poor Clares, knocked, and asked to be admitted to their community. I was young, confident, and excited to begin my new life that I just knew was going to be permanent. During the first weeks, I thrived, so much so that I was allowed to move from Candidate to Postulant in four and a half weeks rather than the usual six.
By the end of the year, I had made a complete turnaround. Beset by chronic ear infections, the loneliness that came with the lack of my family’s support, and the regular adjustments to religious life, I felt I had no more to give. However, by the time I had reached home, I regretted my decision. Those days were filled with so many tears and headaches from the stress! Over the next few weeks, though, the pain subsided, and I began to pick up where I had left off. Five years later, I would be walking down the wedding aisle, content and at peace with my decision.
My time in the cloister was invaluable to me as a wife and mother. I had learned to submit myself to someone else, a certain amount of detachment, and the importance of obedience. Six children later, I was pleased with my little family, but even in this state of satisfaction, the truth was that deep inside, I still grappled with what I saw as the loss of my vocation. Regular dreams visited me in which I was released to enter religious life, only to realize that I belonged with my husband and children and return to the world. Over and over, God needed to show me the holiness of family life in these little dreams until I learned the lesson.
Then an accident resulted in the loss of my two boys. A daughter should have joined them in their heavenly abode, but by miraculous intervention, she was spared. The bigger miracle, however, was a complete healing of the disappointment of my youth. From that moment on, I added those virtues which are so loved in good mothers: patience, long-suffering and cheerfulness.
Since that time, I have learned that God gives two separate and distinct graces in religious life: one to enter religious life and the other to persevere in it. God often gives the first without giving the second. He has things to teach which are best learned in an atmosphere of retreat that may last anywhere from a few days to a few years before sending us out into the world. Religious life not only is the seed bed for those who will live there until death, but it also cultivates the life of virtue of those who will become the mothers and fathers that God desires.
A few days ago, my oldest daughter stood at the cloister door, knocked, and asked to be admitted to her new community. She is young, confident, and excited to begin her new life. So now we have come ‘round full circle. The end of my vocation story means the beginning of hers.
A short while ago the Leonie’s Longing blog featured an article called “A Year of Not Me” This article invited the reader to reflect upon his or her interior response to the commencement of the Year of Consecrated Life.
It is both easy and tempting to become immersed in questioning one’s own identity before God; our Plan A had involved living the consecrated life and now we’re all “stuck with” Plan B.
At the time I read the article my response was that “A Year of Not Me” was an invitation to go beyond myself, to put aside for a time whatever suffering had arisen upon returning to the world, and to focus on serving others.
The Feast of the Presentation (which has about to be finished for me in Australia, but which is still in progress for those of you on the other side of the International Date Line) is an obvious day of significance, perhaps THE day of significance, in this special year for those living the consecrated life.
Now we know that the feast is often also referred to as Candlemas, and there is a great deal of emphasis on light: Jesus Christ is proclaimed as that light to enlighten the Gentiles in the Nunc Dimittis prayer of Simeon. Well this is going to blow your mind.
Who are the Gentiles?
Well, in the LITERAL sense, they are those outside of the Jewish faith.
Who were the Jewish people?
The chosen people of God, those who had been set apart for Him.
What does it mean to be consecrated?
To be called by God, to be set apart for Him.
So perhaps it isn’t too big a jump to consider that one possible allegorical sense of Simeon’s prayer is that those of us who are not consecrated are the ones to be enlightened here.
This feast is for us, too!!!!
Where does that leave us? In this year of “Not Me” I’m sitting here asking Christ, our Light, to enlighten me, a Gentile, as I meditate upon this special event in His life. One thing that jumps out at me as I ask for light is this: I cannot avoid suffering. Even His much beloved and blessed Mother found her heart on the pointy edge of a sword, even after her “yes,” her obedience, her total life of service and undivided love for Him.
And so I return to where I began: the grief and loss of my former Community? My confusion over who I am before God now that He has called me back out to the world? Those occasional feelings of frustration at the mess of it all, the complication of figuring out what life in His service now means? He shines like a spotlight, focused on His Mother, showing me exactly what to do with that suffering. It is real. It can’t just be dismissed. But in this year of “Not Me” it just doesn’t have to be the focus. My life doesn’t have to be about that. My life is about Him. And He and His Mother are both models of obedience, humility, service and authentic love.
Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
your word has been fulfilled:
my own eyes have seen the salvation
which you have prepared in the sight of every people:
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
To all of you who have twin siblings, you and I both understand deeply the concept of sibling rivalry. As an identical twin, my early life was a constant comparison. I loved (and still love!) my twin sister dearly, but I always felt self-conscious. I was never “as good” at things, even though I was the older twin, by eleven whole minutes!
When we were little, my “younger” sister loved pink and all the princesses in every story. However, I decided I was the queen. Why settle for princess when I could control everything (including the princess)? This seemed like a no-brainer to me!
The only problem was that the queen in almost every fairy tale is a villain…so my parents were slightly disturbed when I asked if I could be Maleficent for Halloween. But alas, I had to settle for being an octopus, which no where near resembled my second favorite queen, Ursula.
Eventually, I realized that the possibility of actually becoming a queen was unlikely! But more importantly, the Lord has personally shown me in adulthood that the less control I have over my life and that of others, the more room He has to work, and the more He can reign in my heart. So, as a former Queen-wannabe, I am preparing myself for the courts of the Kingdom of Heaven, where we are promised to be co-heirs with Christ.
Another lesson the Lord has taught me in my journey of Faith is that in addition to having a relationship with the King, I am also meant to have a relationship with the Queen of Heaven – Our Lady. She, however, is very unlike those I wished to emulate as a young child. First of all, she had no power over any earthly territory, not even her very womb, which she surrendered to the care of her Heavenly Father. Secondly, unlike fairy tale queens who succumb to jealousy and fear over losing their identity as the greatest or most fair, Mary at the Annunciation trusts the Lord when presented with the news that she could be both Virgin and Mother. And not only that but the Mother of God! And lastly, through her faith and hope, she was able to reveal to others how to live and love in total service of God and those around her.
Simply put, she knew who she was before God, and that was always enough, despite her material poverty, poverty of will, and the difficult circumstances she faced as a young mother who was not yet married. Her radical trust in God’s Providence and timing in all things was fuelled by the understanding of her identity and knowledge of her belonging to God. And consequently this fuelled her love of others, as she knew more than anyone the Love of God for their souls.
Even though we might know all of this intellectually, we can still feel ourselves distant from her because she is so holy, perfect, and immaculate, and we believe we do not possess any of the same graces. It is as though we see ourselves as a peasant in rags outside of the royal castle. However, her perfection opens the drawbridge for us. Her power was in her Assent to the Will of God, and the constant Fiat she lived in every action, word, and deed, was all for our salvation, that we may be one with her Son and the whole Community of Heaven. Thus, her seemingly untouchable holiness only brings us closer to her and the Blessed Trinity. She sees us approaching from afar and summons the guards to open the gates to us!
Similarly, her call to holiness was not only for her, the Queen of Heaven, the Queen of Angels and of Men, it is for all of us- all angels and men! We are asked to participate with her in the same spirit that she was given, the spirit that dwells in each of our hearts.
So I hate to break it to you, but no, we are not the fairest of them all. But are we searching for this perfection from mirrors, accolades, and the visible “successes” of our life conquests? Not to fear, because we can safely say that Our Lady truly is the fairest one of all! And praise God that we have so great a Mother to intercede for us at the Throne of the Most High God. The Queen of Heaven who watches over us, Sons and Daughters of the King.
Misericordia works for her home diocese, is a caffeine addict, and loves swimming.
By Nancy McCall, MS, LPC
In religious life, one is freed from having to make the mundane decisions about what to eat, what to wear, when and what to do for work, and when to pray. In this way of religious community, which involves self-effacement and obedience to others, one can focus on purifying the heart, growing in grace and on prayer for, and service to, others. It may take the religious person many years to progress far in purifying the heart. Meanwhile, she is growing in grace and does, at least formally, pray for others. When one exits religious life, one can come to believe that because she was free from those mundane decisions like what to wear and what to eat and when to talk, that she is somehow now rendered incapable of decision-making. No, not true at all. All the time while in religious life, the religious sister or brother was still making the most important decisions for himself or herself throughout every day.
You see, the important decisions involve the heart and eternal things. “Will I love today or only be placid?” “Shall I give fully or half-heartedly?” “Shall I bear difficulties patiently or become internally resentful?” “Shall I follow the way of Jesus or just go through the motions?” It is the same outside of religious life, only you must attend to the mundane things too.
Think for a moment and ask yourself, “Did I learn anything in religious life that will help me simplify my life now and be more attentive to God’s Holy Spirit?”
In religious life, there is a purpose for releasing you from the mundane decision-making you were likely used to prior to entering the convent. One purpose is that it is essential when living in community. If everyone decided what they wanted to eat, how would you have meals together? The other major purpose for this release from mundane decision-making is to free each person to focus on those things mentioned above: purifying the heart, growing in grace and on giving energy to prayer and service to the world. Now that you are not living in the same kind of community, naturally many mundane things of life will present themselves to you again and you must deal with them.
What is the best way to manage this new encounter with the diurnal? First, realize that while everything seems to have changed in your experience, nothing has actually changed in the larger picture. Your purpose in life is the same: to purify the heart, grow in grace and to pray for and serve others. Second, there is an art to living and one of your jobs right now is to study that art. For example, the best trick for deciding what to wear in the morning is to decide the night before. An easy way to decide what to do tomorrow is to decide this evening. And just as adhering to routine preserved simplicity for you in the convent, creating and adhering to routine will simplify and bless your life now.
What about that sense of community and common cause that you feel you are suddenly missing? How in the world can such a thing be replaced? You feel lonely, possibly rejected, and you are essentially on your own. Sometimes, the reason little daily decisions seem so difficult is because much bigger decisions are not yet made: in particular, the decision of overall vocation. What’s worse is that I thought I had that huge decision made. What a relief! Now it appears to be unmade. “Oh no!” So I think to myself, “what I was so certain of has unraveled before my eyes, how can I move on not even knowing which way to move?”
The best way to move on is to begin. It’s always easier for God to direct someone who is moving. Begin by choosing to look at your own situation in a fresh and beautiful way. Something beautiful has happened to you. It may look and feel ugly and awful, but it isn’t actually. And Jesus, who adores you, will show you its beauty in time – ask Him.
Second, remember, your decision-making abilities have not been surgically removed. Your emotions may have been badly wounded and your thought processes turned upside down because your circumstances were caught in a toad-strangling, unpredictable storm. You are going to recover, because God has not abandoned you, even if others have.
Third, routinizing all the important things and daily necessities can go far to normalize your life right now. Make a routine based on wisdom, your desires and practical needs. This may require prayer and could be aided by someone you trust who is especially good with routine.
Last, be attentive to self-care. Without good self-care, you will fail at everything. Here are some basics of good self-care:
Remember, you are still in a discernment process. This is an important time in your life. Seek God. Ask for wisdom (James 1:5) and open yourself to all the beauty that is about to be revealed to you.
“Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. Whatever I have or hold Thou has given me; I restore it all to Thee, and surrender it wholly to be governed by Thy will. Give me only Thy love and Thy grace, and I am rich enough to ask for nothing more.”
—St. Ignatius of Loyola
On entering a convent, you surrender your life to God. On leaving a convent, even more so, you surrender your will as well. All of your plans, your desires, your hopes, your dreams, your struggles, your perseverance: these now seem completely pointless. You wonder if they meant anything at all.
The truth is: THEY DO!!!
What dearer things to your heart do you have to offer your Beloved than these? Only your will is fully yours; surrender that, and we have given Him everything!
It is hard to imagine that we could be happy while following a path that is different than what we originally wanted. But His path (this “road to Calvary” really), is your path to holiness, to Union with Him, which was the whole purpose of your having entered Religious Life in the first place!
What is Religious Life if not a gradual surrendering of our will in order to become conformed to His, and thus enter into complete union with Him? When He called you out of the convent, He desired to quicken that process. He did not wish to wait any longer to possess you entirely. Therefore, you are still called to this union; you are still called to give yourself entirely to Him; you are still His beloved Bride!
Now you have given Him your memories, understanding, your time, your work, your obedience, poverty, and chastity, your religious family, customs, and life: wait and see what He does with them, because He was the one who had given them to you for a time. You’ve grown, you’ve loved, you’ve surrendered; this is the image of His life on earth.
You are not as far as you think from living in a perfect imitation of Jesus’ life, which is the true “Religious Life.”
One word I must speak to You tonight,
In it is summed up in my heart’s prayer.
In it is my sorrow, joy, desires, love,
Gifts, pleasures, temptations, illness;
Ah, Jesus, everything!
I will not moan or groan at Your Hand,
Only Your will, my Jesus, is my own.
I have nothing to give, I am empty.
So take my whole soul, my yes,