Staring at the Crucifix, I cannot help but notice that there is an empty space on each side, as if for another person. I remember when I first entered the novitiate it was customary to set a small crucifix on top of your bed after making it every morning.
One time, I got really sick and had to lie down after breakfast. A sister kindly accompanied me to our common bedroom to help me out. As she was getting the bed ready, she said, “Jesus, it’s Your time to rest; make room for her because being in bed is her biggest cross. So it is now her turn.” (I really did hate being in bed!) As she set the crucifix aside, I looked at her and said, “Please don’t tell Him to leave me alone in the cross. There is an empty side just for me; we can share it. We become one through the cross. As Saint Paul said, ‘I want to complete in my flesh what is lacking in His passion.’”
I don’t know where that thought came from. At that, we both just looked at each other and smiled. The sister helped me get in bed and then left. As time went on, we would remind each other of that day, and whenever we would make our beds, we would kiss both sides of the crucifix, hoping to become worthy of sharing the cross with Jesus. It became our thing. A few years later, I heard a priest say in a homily, “There is no life without crosses, and there are no crosses without Christ.” And it reminded me of that day in the novitiate’s dorm.
Now, whenever the burden seems overwhelming and the cross too heavy to carry, these thoughts come back to my mind. It is comforting to know that we are not alone; Jesus is there with us and for us. Even though the pain (moral, spiritual, or physical) does not necessarily go away, it is through the cross that we unite ourselves to Him. In whatever state of life He has called us to, we belong to Him, and He is our ultimate end. And If the cross still feels too painful, we can remember that at the foot of the cross was Mary, the Mother of Jesus—and our Mother.
In celebration of my clothing as a religious, some high school friends of mine gave me a rosary that they handmade together. The lavender- and blush-colored beads were linked together with little pieces of wire twisted in meandering loops. In their own words it was “janky”. But I delighted in it…even if you couldn’t pray through all five decades without it falling apart at some point!
When my novice mistress saw the state of this rosary, she offered to fix it for me. She asked if I would prefer she just re-shape some of the loose links, or completely re-do it. I said that I would prefer that she just repair some of the links. She instead proceeded to completely re-do it, despite my preference. When she was done, it didn’t look like the same rosary. Extra chain-links were added before the Our Father beads, and the cross had been replaced with a crucifix. It also was deemed “too nice” to use on a regular basis, and tucked away into a closet containing personal items of those in the novitiate—only to be used if asked for.
Later, after I left religious life, I found the rosary in a small box among the things that came home with me from the monastery. I took it out of the little cardboard jewelry box and tried to pray with it, but the metal my novice mistress remade it with must have been too soft, because it always left a grey dust on my fingers after finishing those decades. So back it went, tucked away in a shoebox of monastery related items, forgotten for a time.
About two years after leaving the monastery, I opened the little cardboard box that held the rosary. The post-it note from our chaplain that read “Blessed!” was even still there. I didn’t want it to stay unused. So I began to work. I took my pliers and began to replace the wire, link by link. And clean each bead, one at a time. And I removed the extra chain-links, piece by piece.
The gesture of repairing the rosary reflected so well where I was at with having left religious life. When I entered there were some kinks that needed to be set right, but the process at the monastery was not the right fit for those beads— all those little mysteries, joyful and sorrowful and everything in between, that make up who I am. Wire that may have made a beautiful rosary with a different set of beads ended up creating a rosary that, although it looked nice, was actually not functional.
So, with the original wire gone and the replacement wire being a poor match, I found new wire. I entered into a new context through which to live that call to holiness. The old wire, the person I was before I entered the monastery is gone. I changed a lot. The replacement wire—religious life—was a poor match, at least with this particular community. So I am left with this new life I am beginning back in the world. It is a life that brings together all those joys and sorrows in a new way. I am discovering new ways to live out motherhood, to care for the people God has entrusted to my care. I am experiencing the delight of the Father in His daughter in unexpected and beautiful ways. I am encountering new opportunities for sisterhood with friends, old and new. I find the Holy Spirit guiding me to new ways of loving and being loved.
Sometimes I wonder what was meant to happen. Was the rosary really meant to go through having every link replaced? And then to have every single link replaced again? It seems like just fixing the kinks would have been so much easier. Yet, perhaps the only way that the Rosary would have received new wire, and a lot of love, was precisely through enduring being remade.
I never did find the original cross to the rosary amongst the items that came home with me from the monastery. When I shared this story with a friend, she noted that this too was fitting, because at the monastery I received the Cross. A quote attributed to Léon Bloy observes that “There are places in our heart that do not yet exist and into it suffering must enter so that they may.” Leaving monastic life was very painful for me. Yet through this pain I have found greater intimacy with Jesus and a greater compassion for the Father’s dear children. I received suffering and, in a beautiful way, I have received a new capacity for love.
In my former community, we would comment–in a somewhat light-hearted way–about the age of thirty-three being the “year of crucifixion.” Perhaps those community sisters of mine who had already passed that age spoke with more truth than I realized. While there are certain moments of more intense suffering and offering at different stages of life, independent of age, the “year of crucifixion” didn’t pass by without reminding me very clearly of the cross.
At thirty-one, I said goodbye to my community family and embarked upon a new way of life. At thirty-two I met a knight in shining armor and seriously opened myself to the possibility of marriage. And not more than a day after my thirty-third birthday, my knight and I–after a long conversation and many tears–decided that we needed to step back from the relationship. God had not given me the peace I needed to move forward in that vocation.
In some ways it was more painful to end an eight-month relationship than it has been to leave my community of many years. Or perhaps the one was now compounding the other. I was working through not one loss but two. In spite of feeling peace in the rightness of the decision, the sadness continued for many months.
Providence would have it that I had already intended to renew my Marian Consecration on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The Consecration day itself had its share of crosses, not the least of which was my inability to attend Mass due to my “worldly duties.” Yet on the following day–the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows–I had a moment of heart-to-heart prayer with My Mother. The previous few months had been painful. I needed to be with her at the cross. I wrote this reflection:
“With Mary I stand at the foot of the cross. No…I don’t stand. I fall. It’s hard, so hard. It’s painful. Why? Because of love. Love can hurt. I may have to leave at the altar of the cross something that I love dearly. Why? Because the love of Christ is more, and if He is asking the sacrifice, I can’t refuse it.
But I really have nothing on Mary when it comes to pain, suffering, and loss. Talk about a broken heart! No…her heart was pierced but not broken. She knew suffering like no other yet was not driven to despair. She hoped against all hope. She offered, she loved. And it is with her that I walk through this valley of tears. I’ve renewed my consecration to her – and if I take this act seriously, how much more does she? She is my faithful companion. I know that she does not abandon her children.”
The tears didn’t magically disappear that day, my heart wasn’t healed in an instant,nor did the twists and turns suddenly make sense. But I had a new awareness of Mary’s presence in my life. If Mary could maintain faith and hope in the midst of unimaginable suffering, can she not help me to do the same in my sufferings, small by comparison? She accompanies me at the foot of the Cross, consoles me and reminds me that I have reason to hope. Because if thirty-three is the year of crucifixion, it is also the year of resurrection. We all have that to look forward to, my friends – in small ways in this life and a glorious way in the next.
Your human nature gripped by fear
Though union’d with Divinity
You grasp at root, at dust, at stone
Lor Jesus, on Your knees, alone.
The night so still, an eerie glow
interrupts shadows cast by the moon
No wind to sift through leaves below
Stark silence since the upper room.
As moments pass, chest heaves in pain
You see the wrong that I will do
Yet endure gladly for my stain
To draw my heart nearer to You.
Allow me, Lord, to come and help
You get up off Your knees
To wipe the blood-sweat off Your face
Your agony appease.
Not e’en one hour I wait with You
Now on Your knees again
I drift to sleep whilst You pour out
Your heartfelt plea for men.
Though spirit willing, flesh is weak
And my will, weaker still
You make me know it’s You I seek
that You alone fulfil
The night wears on and You, O Lord,
begin to tire from grief
Tormented by our hardened hearts
our sins, our unbelief.
I would not dare to interfere
with Your foretold redemptive act
But let me walk the way with You
At least in prayer if not in fact.
Now others to the garden come
Your victory will soon be won.
You freely choose the bitter cup
To torture and death You give Yourself up
Taken by thugs, betrayed by a friend
Your death: our bond with Father, mend.
By AfterEpiphany, written during her postulant year.
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)