Few women in the twenty-first century would be able to enter the convent in the way that Leonie did a hundred and twenty-eight years ago today: on impulse, while on holiday with her family. On the sixth of October 1886 she was sightseeing around Alencon, and the next morning she woke up in the cloister. Later, Therese was to write that, “Leonie’s surprising entry into the convent distressed me; I was very fond of her, and I never had the chance to kiss her goodbye before she left. I will never forget the kindness and bewilderment on my poor father’s face when he came to tell us that Leonie was already wearing the habit of the Poor Clares.” (Leonie Martin: A Difficult Life by Marie Beaudin-Croix, page 39.)
The world has changed so much since then that this scenario now seems almost inconceivable. Even a woman who has managed to avoid a vocation-crippling college debt will usually spend months on “live-in” retreats with a community before being accepted as an aspirant, and will typically also be subjected to every psychological examination from a stack of inkblots to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. What could Leonie have done to convince a Poor Clare abbess to admit her to the cloister within a single day?
Despite the difference in time and culture that separates us, I think it’s possible to guess. The abbess approved her for the same reason that the senior Sisters of your community ultimately voted to grant you admittance: they saw a sincere, concrete desire for God, and they wanted to see where it would lead. Do you remember how hard it was to sit with your future superior, even one who was gentle and encouraging, and try to pin down for her in ordinary words something that God had been forming in you for so long? Quite probably, it wouldn’t have been your hesitant speech that convinced her to let you in, but something larger than you that she sensed behind the words.
Like many of the women who visit this website, Leonie had spent years thinking about becoming a nun, having longed for a religious vocation since childhood – that impulsive entrance was an aberration in the slow, difficult process of discernment throughout her young adulthood – and she would have sat before the grille with a quiet, compelling fire in her voice as she tried to explain her desire to give herself to God. And so she was granted admittance. Therese adds:
“Poor Leonie, in her new outfit, was very sweet. She told us to look into her eyes, because we would never see them again: Poor Clares keep their eyes lowered. But God was satisfied with two months of sacrifice, and Leonie came back to us, to show us her blue eyes again, although they were often wet with tears.” (Ibid.)
The austere Poor Clare life took its toll on Leonie’s health, leaving her with no choice but to return home to her family, and her years of prayer and preparation boiled down to just eight weeks in the cloister. Sick and heartsore, Leonie once again walked up the path to the front door of Les Buissonnets: two major life changes, entry into and departure from the religious life, followed each other with a speed that must have left her reeling. She had wanted to follow God’s will, and instead found herself back at square one, grieving the loss of something that had barely begun. Perhaps, in the early stages of grief, she regretted having made such an attempt in the first place.
And yet, she tried again. In June the following year, she set out for the Visitation Monastery – with her family’s blessing this time. It wasn’t a miraculous bounce-back: Leonie’s biographer notes that her arrival at Les Buissonnets was followed by a period of depression which impeded her return to health. Her story after leaving the religious life, like many of our readers’ stories and perhaps like yours as well, was one of holding on, of getting up in the morning and simply putting one foot in front of the other until God calls again.
Calls to do… what? Email another religious community? Write to the archdiocese for information about becoming a consecrated virgin? Introduce yourself to that good-looking fellow you’ve seen at Holy Hour? What if you find yourself ten years down the track, reasonably secure financially and with a job you enjoy… and suddenly feel that God wants you to give it all up to make another attempt at the religious life? If Leonie didn’t ask these questions after her first experience of returning to the world, they must surely have preyed on her mind the third time the monastery door swung closed behind her. Nonetheless, she kept putting one foot in front of another, and discovered at last that she had actually, against all appearances, been walking in the right direction all the time.
Here’s a final thought to go with. Whatever unique, passionate, unworldly quality it was that your superior saw to make her want to admit you to the community, it is still part of you. It may not feel like that anymore if your heart is cut up by pain or anger – or maybe you’re just so damned weary in body and soul that any vocation might as well be Mount Everest for all the chance you can see of climbing it. Nonetheless, the Divine Hand that once took hold and propelled you into the religious life, and then guided you out again, has not once let go of you. It never will.
Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, pray for us.
Leonie Martin, pray for us.