Finding North

By Cinnamon.

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.

School of Love: much more than “Holiness Boot Camp”

Ever seen Kung Fu Panda?

I watched the movie with my postulant class and felt at the time like it pretty much described our early religious experience. Rigorous training and self-discovery were on the menu, served up with bok choy and steaming, hot rice. It got me thinking about what it is to prepare oneself for a life of service to Him. The Ignatian idea of soldiers for Christ comes to mind here. The similarities between military and religious life are manifold, after all:

– Early mornings.
– Obedience to Superiors.
– Intense discipline.
– Frequent exhaustion.
– Detailed schedule.
– Ordered sleeping quarters.
– Standard issue clothing.
– B-grade coffee **grin**

Even the standing, sitting, following in the breviary and bowing in unison of praying the Office together is somewhat analogous to the experience of ceremonial drill with synchronised marching and weapon handling.

By way of further illustration, allow me to share my own personal occasion of deja vu.

People had been murmuring all afternoon, you see. It was rumoured that there would be a midnight training exercise. We had been moved out of the Officer’s quarters for that evening, which was unusual. We were shifted to the enlisted flats. Unusual just doesn’t happen in the military. Routine happens. Predictability happens. People are squared away.

Instinct told me to go to bed partially dressed, and it is just as well that I did. At approximately 3.30am the following morning, the peal of an aluminium whistle simultaneously sounded with the thud of a shoe being whacked against the door of my quarters. We were ordered to report downstairs on the grass outside the flats, in full DPCUs (disruptive pattern camouflage uniforms) but with our running shoes instead of our boots, formed up in rank and file. Initially I congratulated myself. I was almost completely dressed – I only had to pull on and button up my camouflage shirt and pull my shoes on… wait… what shoes? I had my boots, but not my running shoes. My running shoes were in the trunk of my car, parked downstairs outside the flats.

I grabbed my car key and ran like a mad thing in bare feet out onto the dew-kissed grass to grab my shoes. I ran to my place in the line, secured my car key in a cargo pocket and managed to get one shoe on before time was up. It was mostly dark, and I put the other shoe on the ground partially on top of my unshod foot as we stood to attention and listened to the Warrant Officer brief us on the exercise that was about to take place. I played it cool and counted on poor visibility and the hope that an inspection would not take place to survive the next 5 minutes… and was grateful when we were given a minute between the briefing and the commencement of our first task, which was enough time to get the shoe on. My failure to be properly prepared had miraculously flown under the radar that morning. What followed was a “character building” road run of many miles, where we were required to drop to the side of the road every few miles to do pushups, where our hands held the curb, but our bodies had to go down a further 6 inches lower than the level of our hands in order to allow our noses to brush the asphalt. Such was the cruel creativity of our task masters. We were then required to travel a certain distance in walking lunges before teaming up with a fellow Officer Cadet and retrieving, in pairs, heavy ammunition boxes with the objective of getting them from one side of a deep water obstacle to another. All in all, these torments continued for approximately 90 minutes, at which point we were given leave to shower and get ourselves to the Officer’s Mess for a well-earned breakfast and some liquid gold.

Fast forward some 4 years.

I had been wearing a uniform of a very different kind for approximately 2 weeks. I was now a baby postulant.
At approximately 1.15am, the morning bell rang. I woke and groggily looked at my clock. Seeing the time, I was quite sure it was just a dream and I turned back over in my bed and went back to sleep. Meanwhile, more savvy and obedient sisters than I were dressing in the neighbouring cells, despite the hour. Rushing between cells and bathrooms transpired over the few minutes that followed before the message made it around the dorms that we were to go back to bed. Suffice it to say that rising at 5am after the drama a few hours earlier was… “sanctifying.”

After breakfast the following morning all novitiate sisters were asked to meet in the Community Room where the Novice Mistress addressed us to debrief the incident of the night before. It so happened that a sister who often struggled to wake to an alarm or a bell was responsible for ringing the bells that week to regulate the horarium. Her anxiety had been building over the course of the week, so determined was she to do her duties well for love of her sisters. She woke in the middle of the night, panicked and thought she had missed the time that she was supposed to ring the bell to wake the house, pulled on her slippers and her robe and ran out to ring the bell, not realising that we were still entitled to a further 4 hours and 45 minutes of sleep. Seasoned by my prior military experience, and skeptical about the explanation we had just been offered, I raised my hand and when the Novice Mistress called upon me, asked her directly in front of the rest of the novitiate: “Sister – are we being hazed?”

You can imagine the laughter that ensued.

Anecdotes aside, where is the point of distinction between “character building” and “sanctifying” ?? What makes two types of life with so many shared experiences remain so radically different in character??

I think the answer resides in a fascinating tension between love and duty, between glorification of God and glorification of self.

In my experience there is a sort of perfectionistic quality about the typical military officer, more pronounced in some than in others, coexisting with a desire to serve. The typical officer takes great pride in a polished appearance, in elite physical conditioning and in finely honed discipline. The typical officer seeks to be better, faster, stronger, smarter, more courageous… because the life of self and of others may depend upon that one day. This need not lack virtue if ordered correctly under God, but often this is not the case. Ordering one’s betterment within the framework of God’s plan and created order is certainly not the focal point of the training, that is for sure! Duty is the fulcrum and assiduous training the lever as the officer aspires to be propelled toward a successful military career. Duty. Training. Discipline. Courage. Loyalty. These are all good things, but at the service of oneself they are sold short!

There is, however, a good that is objectively higher: love.

There are still temptations in religious formation to want to glorify self, temptations to a disordered perfectionism that quite simply kills the love between sisters and bears no fruit. Yet opportunities abound to grow in love, and the community construct is uniquely fitted to the task of helping to motivate sisters to authentically love and to serve rather than to simply to better one’s capability. The eternal life of self and others may depend on that predisposition to love and serve in response to His grace, one day!

As one grows in obedience and self-knowledge, (perhaps without the bok choy and rice,) one learns to live by the dictum I first heard from my Postulant Mistress:

“Do the best that you can with the time you have for the love of God.”

My former superior used to speak of religious life as a school of love… but isn’t ALL of life that, really? Novitiate was like LOVE101. Back out here, in the world, amidst family, friends and coworkers? I feel like it’s just an extension of that other school of love – definitely the intermediate class!

So what has this former Air Force Officer learned so far?

I’m just a little one.

I don’t have to be better, faster, stronger, smarter or more courageous, as good as all of those qualities are.

All I need to do is learn to love in response to Love.

by Bek.

Neither Lilies nor Roses

By AfterEpiphany.

St Therese of Lisieux, when pondering the symbolism of the garden for which she has become so famous, wrote that she realised that we couldn’t all be roses and lilies. She personally identified more with a smaller, less significant flower, and she discovered beauty in being that flower rather than some of the others she had once longed to be.

The Little Way of St Therese is indeed a message of comfort to we former sisters, if only one can get past the contempt that comes with an over-familiarity with the general notion of The Little Way, and actually embrace it and live it.

In my former community I celebrated my feast day on the 1st of October and St Therese of Lisieux was my personal patroness. Anyone who knows me well knows that I tend to gravitate towards grand plans and big ideas… I really need a saint like Therese praying for me, teaching me to be who I am and flourish as such in the Father’s Garden!

Once, I dreamed I’d be a religious sister and I hoped I’d be a holy one. I longed to be a saint. I longed for union with God. I felt convinced that He had called me to be a garden enclosed – His sister, His bride. Some years on, I find that I am NOT a religious sister, nor am I holy – neither lily, nor rose, much less that garden enclosed. I still long to be a saint, and I still long for union with God… and thanks be to Him that through the life and witness of St Therese He has shown me that there is still a way… albeit a little way.

As I learn to live The Little Way out here in my “post-convent” reality, the 1st of October is still special to me.

I celebrate it almost as if it were my birthday… because any excuse for a party will do… but more seriously, because the day still has a significance that I can’t quite articulate. Unless you’re a close friend or family member, you may not notice anything different about the way I go about my day. OK… so I generally eat “solemnity food” (i.e. I indulge in sugar just a little bit), and if there are lunchtime meetings that interfere with my Mass plans, guess which one wins? I have a picture of St Therese in a cardboard frame that I received from one of my former sisters on the day I received the habit… I’ve kept that picture and it receives pride of place in my “prayer corner” on October 1st. I still think of it as “my feast day” and I still consider it a day to “ask big” with a trust in the Father so characteristic of St Therese… through her intercession. I pray in a special way for all my former sisters who shared that feast day.

All of these external things are so little… so little… but they help to make the day special internally. My friendship with St Therese has been such an important feature of my post-convent healing. She has been such a faithful friend and has helped to keep the lines of communication open with our Heavenly Father when my heart was hurting most and I was tempted to turn away.

I don’t know how successful this would be, but I’d love to open up some discussion here in the comments below, among you, the Leonie’s Longing readers. We’re a community, after all, and we share a life experience that unites us in Him. Each one of us once longed to be a part of that garden enclosed… perhaps lily, perhaps rose. Some of you will have been in religious life long enough to have had a religious name and/or feast day. Those of you who returned home before receiving a name, or who belonged to communities that retained Baptismal names, may still have had a particular saint you considered your patron. And so I ask you.. do YOU still celebrate your “feast day”? If so, how do YOU make it a special day?

This October 1st, my feast day, I will again “ask big” – this time for each of you, my sisters in Him.

A Book Review: Cosmas, or the Love of God

It sounds like a spoiler to say that the title character of Pierre de Calan’s 1977 novel Cosmas, or the Love of God is dead, but it isn’t: we find that out within the first two chapters of the book. Father Roger, the talkative novice master, begins the narrative by giving us a tour of his Trappist monastery, and points out a simple grave in their cemetery:

Brother Cosmas, novice.

February 1938.

Strictly speaking, Father Roger points out, Cosmas was not a novice at the time his life abruptly ended. Convinced beyond doubt of his vocation, but unable to bear the difficulties of monastic life, he had left the community twice, the second time seemingly for good. Why, then, has he been laid to rest among the brothers, wearing the habit of the community?

This is the force that drives de Calan’s story: the character study of a devout, sensitive and lonely young man, and the battle that he fought with himself in seeking the religious life. We know from the outset that Cosmas is dead, but it is the state of his soul and vocation at the moment of death that the reader must wait to discover. As writer Patricia Snow comments in an article entitled “Dismantling the Cross,” novels by Protestants tend to end with the neat conclusion of marriage, while “the Catholic novel, whose proper subject matter is the relationship of the individual to God, can only be finally consummated outside the bounds of the novel and even of life itself.” The ultimate moment of failure or redemption cannot be achieved during the hero’s lifetime, and so only in death can we find out whether or not his vocation was a true one.

I first read Cosmas while discerning a possible call to the religious life, and donated my copy to the convent library when I entered. After borrowing it herself, the Prioress instructed all the Sisters to read it, and Cosmas made it onto the community’s short list of novels that gave an accurate impression of the religious life. (To give an indication of how short this list was, the only other book on it was In This House of Brede.) Unlike Rumer Godden’s novel, Cosmas was originally written in French, and has a self-conscious European literary approach that may seem stilted to some readers (if you have read Song at the Scaffold by Gertrud Von Le Fort, you’ll be familiar with this style), but Father Roger is a likeable and engaging narrator, and he draws the reader slowly into the story of a determined, exasperating, struggling young man who will come to fulfil his vocation, one way or the other, in the final moments of his life.

Rejoice With Us!

Blessed be God!

We’re excited to inform you that on the Feast of Saint Francis de Sales, co-founder of the Visitation Order, our patroness Leonie Martin will receive the title Servant of God at a Mass celebrated by Monsignor Jean-Claude Boulanger of the Diocese of Bayeux-Lisieux.

Mgr Boulanger will formally open the process for her beatification on Saturday the 24th of January in the Monastery of the Visitation in Caen, in which Leonie – Sister Francoise-Therese – lived from 1899 until her death in 1941.

According to the French news website, it is also a possibility that Blesseds Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of Saint Therese, will be canonized this year at the conclusion of the Synod on the Family in October. We’ll bring you any further updates on this as we find them!

Here at Leonie’s Longing, we are under the special patronage of the Martin family, particularly its “black sheep” Leonie, and the Church’s recognition of her holiness is a sign of hope for all of us as we overcome the same struggles in discernment that she faced over a hundred years ago. 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 – she is the one who is being honoured today with the title Servant of God.

Having struggled her entire adult life to keep an explosive temper under control, making retreat resolutions year after year to become more gentle and humble, Leonie would have been amused and deeply embarrassed had anyone suggested in her lifetime that others might one day pray to her for help – and she would, beyond doubt, only have accepted a title from the Church for the sake of those who would embrace her as a patroness, and not for her own prestige.

Let us pray that the process begun today may reach its fullness in the declaration that Leonie Martin is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, and let us ask her intercession as we, too, search for the vocations to which God has called us as His beloved children.

Servant of God, Sister Francoise-Therese Martin, pray for us!

Saint Therese, pray for us!

Blesseds Louis and Zelie Martin, pray for us!