This is the first instalment of a three-part series on the Theology of the Body of Pope John Paul II, and its special meaning for women who have left the religious life.
“For my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9) Have you ever thought of these words, especially as you struggle day by day, or even moment my moment in your transition home from the convent? In my own life, my time of coming home from the convent helped me to see how utterly helpless I was, and there were times that I felt so overburdened with my fragility that I wondered how God would bring good out of it. While I believed the mystery of the cross – that God brings good out of every evil and weakness – I found such difficulty experiencing it in my own life.
I doubt I was the only person that experienced immense guilt, fear, shame, and acceptance when I came home. Honestly, speaking with many of the young women from my class who also left, it is a common experience. Even though I made the decision to leave the convent after much discernment, I constantly doubted myself if I did the right thing. Before I knew it, I was absorbed in fears of making any decisions due to an immense feeling of shame.
While I knew these were lies from the evil one, I could not seem to shake off all these struggles, even as months went by. It was then that I knew that that God was calling me to abandon all to Him and to let Him take my weakness. I knew that He had the most perfect plan for me from before I was born and so would take my weakness and use it for His glory. It was amidst all this that God reached out to me and healed me through St. John Paul II’s catechesis called Theology of the Body.
I came across Theology of the Body in St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Women” in a Catholic study group called Endow (Education on the Nature and Dignity of Woman), and this began to touch the deep recesses of my heart. Amidst my pain and suffering of trying to figure out who I was again, St. John Paul II encouraged me that I had an immense gift to give to the world as a woman. Through his letter to women, this saint led me to encounter the heart of God the Father in a profound way.
In my own life experience of coming home from the convent and adjusting, God called me to know ever more deeply of my immense dignity as His child, and to trust in His Divine Providence. When coming face-to-face with my own fears and inwardness, God touched me with the beauty of human relationships and what it truly means to love through Theology of the Body. I hope to share that with you in the coming posts of how this catechesis led to deep healing in my experience of coming home from the convent, along with how it might help you in your journey. I pray that in this blog series, God speaks to your heart in how he calls you to love and communion with Himself in your experience of coming home from the convent.
“Fiat Mihi” -These words have always rung in my heart when thinking about religious life. Ever since I first thought about becoming a sister in fifth grade when hearing about Mother Teresa, the idea of giving everything God asked for appealed to me. When I was going through the application process with the Dominican Sisters nine years later, the vocation director wrote often to us, “Thank you for your continual ‘yes’ to God”. During the entrance weekend retreat, Mother Prioress encouraged us to give our “yes” to God, even when it was painful to leave family. On the feast of the Annunciation, our novice mistress’ feast day, one of the postulants asked what would be a wonderful thing to meditate on, and Sister told us, “Mary’s ‘yes’ to God”. Every day living the life of a sister, I woke up at 5 AM saying “yes” to the sacrifices that the day brought me in the convent. Looking back on these moments when I said “yes” over the past year and a half, while sometimes it was painful, there was joy, especially when I think of my application process. And yet, when it comes to saying “yes” to coming home from the convent, somehow it is not as easy as the other times.
God has truly blessed me with a family that has been supportive of my religious discernment. During the few days that my family visited and in their weekly letters, my mom would tell me to give my “yes” as Mary did at the foot of the cross. Little did she know that while I did love my life in the convent, there was an inner anguish I was going through as I struggled a lot interiorly while living the life of a sister. When I finally discerned that God was asking me to leave after nine beautiful months in the convent, my novice mistress talked to my parents in a parlor with a huge image of the crucifixion. That image has stuck with me during these past few months.
When you look at an image of Mary at the foot of the cross, you can somewhat understand what she felt at the Crucifixion. Mary, with hands touching the bloody feet of her own Son, who was being killed for our sins, did not fully understand. It must have been so utterly painful for her to look up at her Son suffering in agony, and yet not be able to do anything. And yet, she gave the same “fiat” that she did at the Annunciation, knowing it was all a part of God’s perfect plan. She never doubted, she just trusted in God. She may have seemed totally helpless, and yet her confidence in God gave her more freedom than if she struggled against Him and said no. It is by Mary’s fiat at the foot of the Cross that Jesus was able to show forth His glory, defeating sin and death on the cross.
When coming home, there are many things that one can worry about, such as finishing school, finding a job, or finding a place to live. It can be so easy to become depressed and ask, “Who am I supposed to be?” While it is so easy to get caught up in all these worries and questions, it is a perfect time that God gives to strengthen your faith and really give you freedom. Just like Mary at the foot of the cross, we may not understand, but we can have full confidence and trust that God will provide like He always has. A lot of times, the anxiety and fears that we feel during this time are the enslavements we put on ourselves, thinking that the world needs to be on our shoulders.
Entering the convent, you hope to live there forever in chastity, obedience, and of course poverty. The physical poverty that you experience gives you the freedom to rely completely on God. When coming home, I have found the poverty actually more intense. In the convent, while I was poor in the standards of the world, I at least had the security of my community, knowing where formation would take me. But now, God has taken that away from me. Now, I am even poorer than in the convent, for I do not know at this point which step God wants me to take next or even who God has created me to be in regards to my vocation. There is much uncertainty, and this can make one uneasy.
This is a great opportunity that Our Lord gives us, though, to strengthen our trust in Him. When feeling completely lost on what I am to do next, or who I am supposed to be, I have found that I am truly free when I put all my worries behind me, and just move forward with complete abandon, trusting in God. While I may feel as though I am walking in darkness, I trust that He is leading me by His Light. This is very hard to do, and yet, it brings the most freedom, taking the burdens of planning out your life off your shoulders. God creates each person for a particular purpose, and He is leading you on the path to that joy that only He can give. He is leading you through His own way to being the person He has created you to be. You only need to trust Him.
I cannot say I am perfect at abandonment, but God is giving all of us who have left the convent or seminary an opportunity to experience true freedom, a freedom that you may not have even had while living religious life. This freedom is abandonment amidst the uncertainties, the chance to live completely trusting in God’s providence, even though you do not know your vocation at this point. During this time of uncertainty, a wonderful opportunity given by God to grow in faith and trust, just look at the cross, and place yourself at Mary’s side, praying,
“Mary, you never doubted, you just trusted, please help me to do the same.”