Jul 22, 2021 |
By Theodosia Burress
Prior to religious life, I didn’t have much interest in fantasy books besides The Chronicles of Narnia series and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Since returning to lay life, (as a result of recommendations), I’ve read many books in this genre. Much to my surprise, I’ve discovered some meaningful stories with excellent characters.
I just read Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson, the 3rd volume of The Stormlight Archive. One of the things I now realize about fantasy (at least the fantasy that I have enjoyed) is that it explores questions of life in a creative way.* This gives my intellect and heart a new way to look at and process life experiences. I find this aspect of Sanderson’s work particularly appealing.
About 2/3 of the way through this book, one of the characters named Shallan is devastated by the events that have transpired in her life which culminate in a particular tragedy. To add to the pain, another character has told Shallan it would be better if she (Shallan) were dead. As Shallan mourns this event and reviews her life, she fears that this assessment is correct. She recounts all this to a character called Wit, to which he responds,
“You mostly failed. This is life. The longer you live, the more you fail. Failure is the mark of a life well-lived. In turn, the only way to live without failure is to be of no use to anyone.” (Pg 789)
This dialogue hit me like a ton of bricks. Lately I have compared myself to others or to an idealized picture of what “I should be.” I felt like a complete failure and wondered what was wrong with me. Circumstances flashed before me …
But is it really true that I’ve failed in these areas? And if they are failures, is that a negative thing?
Reading the above exchange in the book gave me a different perspective on failure. What does “failure” actually indicate? What conclusions should actually be drawn from “failing?”
What do I do with the “failures” in my life? Hate them? Ignore them? Pretend they don’t exist? Avoid potential future failure?
The conversation goes on, “Then live. And let your failures be a part of you.” (Pg 792)
Yikes! Do I want to do that? Can I? And how?
Shallan realizes that she needs “Forgiveness. For herself.” (Pg 793)
Later, Wit says, “It’s terrible…to have been hurt…but it’s okay to live on.”
You need to, “…accept being you.”
“You are worth protecting… it’s all right to hurt.”
The conversation ends with Wit saying, “Accept the pain, but don’t accept that you deserved it.” (Pg 794)
Saint Mary Magdalene, Feast Day July 22nd.
I needed to read these words and “hear” them about my situation. I needed permission to grieve my failures. I needed to realize that I had slipped into thinking I deserved pain or was being punished. Fortunately, this book provided me with the opportunity to recognize these lies so I could combat them.
A successful businessman had been previously bankrupt. Survivors of tragedies use the experience to recalibrate life and inspire others. The greatest sinners become the greatest saints. “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” We “know” these truths, but they are easy to forget, aren’t they?
It is, as Wit says, terrible to have been hurt, to have experienced failure. But that is not what defines us. It is necessary to live on, and to do so with courage. Because failure isn’t the mark of a wasted life but of one well lived.
*Check out “On Fairy Stories” by Tolkien https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Fairy-Stories
May 23, 2021 |
12 lessons I learnt from my first leaving, that made my second so much easier.
When I was twenty, I was set for life. I was a happy and confident young woman excited to begin my postulancy in an active religious order.
Fast forward to twenty-one, and it was a very different picture. After a very difficult year, I’d been shown the door. I didn’t cope very well with this: I really struggled to process and accept this ‘catastrophe’ and have hope for my future again.
But five years after leaving my first community, God led me into another one. Life was good, and I was flourishing in this new (and much psychologically healthier) environment.
But, as you’ve probably guessed, this community didn’t work out either. I could’ve come out the other side from this community in an even worse state than I was after leaving the first time. But praise be to God, I’m actually handling things much better this time around! Less than a year on, and I’m in a place where I’m genuinely happy, fulfilled, stable, and generally content with life – probably the best I’ve been since before joining the first time. I definitely felt that having learned a bunch of lessons the hard way a few years ago, this leaving has been a lot easier to navigate. So I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learnt, so that maybe this can help a few others who find themselves in similar situations.
- God will provide what you need
Leaving can be scary, especially if it happens suddenly (like it did to me). You’re probably homeless and income-less, you don’t know what you’re stepping out into, you don’t have a plan, and you don’t have a safety net. Except for God.
My experience of my first leaving was that God truly did provide. Door after door kept opening just at the right time. I felt like I just walked into accommodation, employment, and a really great community.
When I left this time, I was homeless in the middle of a pandemic. But that didn’t trouble me. I knew that if we keep on turning to God, He does provide all our needs. And he didn’t let me down this time, either.
2. You need time to grieve and adjust
Leaving a convent is a major life event. It’s sort of like being divorced, losing your family and losing your job all in one hit – while also suffering the culture shock of being catapulted from the middle ages into the 21st century. You probably have mixed feelings about leaving: there can be hope and confidence and relief, but also grief, confusion and a crisis of meaning. Don’t expect the next year or so to be an easy one.
So go easy on yourself during this time! Give yourself the time and space to process all your emotions: to cry and rage and just sit with the sadness. Be careful not to take on too much. Be discerning about which friendships you will keep up or invest in: not every friend from your pre-convent life is going to be the right friend for you now. Make sure you are well supported, and get at least a couple of sessions of counselling.
3. God has a plan for you and He is in control
– even though it might seem like the devil has triumphed this time. He’s God. Just because you can’t see where He’s leading you, it doesn’t mean that you’ve fallen ‘outside’ of His plan or that He’s not going to lead or provide for you.
There’s a beautiful prayer written by Thomas Merton which has often helped me in times of tested faith:
O Lord God, I have no idea where I am going, I do not see the road ahead of me, I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, And that fact that I think I am following Your will Does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe That the desire to please You Does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire In all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything Apart from that desire to please You. And I know that if I do this You will lead me by the right road, Though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always Though I may seem to be lost And in the shadow of death. I will not fear, For You are ever with me, And You will never leave me To make my journey alone.
4. Nothing is ever wasted and God works all things to good
Again, it won’t often feel like this! But it’s not a shallow cliché, it’s a powerful truth. Look at the lives of the Saints: one of the common themes in their stories seems to be experiences of great suffering (in fact, I regularly consoled myself by remembering that God only seems to treat His special favourites like this!).
God’s much more powerful than anything of the devil. He can and does bring good out of the worst of experiences – much more good than there ever was evil in that event. But Rom 8:28 has a condition: God works all things to good for those who love Him. The choice to love and serve God in the midst of all their trials and sufferings was the difference that made the Saints.
I have seen in my own life how God has brought about so many amazingly good things that would have been impossible if I hadn’t left my first community. I don’t know if would’ve been better off staying there. To be honest, I don’t really care any more, because I’ve learnt to embrace a different set of goods for my life. And this new life isn’t just ‘good’, it’s great.
5. You have to forgive
Even though this can be really, really hard, it’s absolutely necessary. Unforgiveness will only hold you back, and make you bitter, twisted and resentful. You’ll be allowing the people who hurt you to keep you stuck in a miserable life.
One thing which held me back from fully forgiving was that it offended my sense of justice. Both times, I’d been very badly treated, and then left to deal with the consequences alone while it seemed like the people who hurt me could just move on as though nothing had happened. It didn’t feel fair.
But eventually I saw that in this attitude, I was trying to take God’s rightful place as their judge, and by Grace I was able to give that role back to Him. He’s God, He doesn’t let sin and injustice get ‘swept under the carpet’. Some day, somehow, they’ll each have to own their part in what happened. Maybe this confrontation has already occurred somehow in a way I’m not aware of. Maybe it will be at the moment of their particular judgement. Either way, the point is that I don’t have to be their judge. And that’s a great freedom.
6. Don’t miss the Grace of this time
This is a very unique time in your life. There are going to be particular Graces here, which won’t be available anywhere else. The experience of leaving can be a great Cross: but the Cross never comes without the Resurrection. In fact, I’ve found in my life that the Resurrection is very ‘Cross-shaped’!
It’s important to intentionally choose make the very most you can of this time and these Graces. When I finally made this decision three years after my first leaving, it was a major turning point. Nothing in my outward situation changed, but Grace started flowing, wounds began to heal, new possibilities were opening up, my happiness was increasing. I was truly experiencing a new springtime after a long winter.
This time around, too, this was a decision I needed to make: to stay close to the Cross, with all its Grace and all its challenges, over escaping all of this and living a numbed-out sort of existence. But no matter how challenging the road of the Cross is, it’s also infinitely more beautiful.
7. Take responsibility for yourself
God often uses dreams to tell me harsh truths about myself, probably because I don’t argue back when I’m asleep! A couple of weeks after my second leaving, I had a dream where I met someone else in my same situation. My advice to them was to ‘stop moping, and start doing the things which will set you up for the best possible life’. It was the kick up the backside I really needed!
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of blaming other people for our problems instead of taking responsibility for the direction of our life. But this is another attitude which will only hold you back. If you’re as wrecked as I was, you’ll only be able to take small steps at a time. That’s ok, just do what you can. Even a small step forward is a step in the right direction!
8. Keep up some form of apostolate
This might not be appropriate for everyone, but keeping up (a reduced level of) ministry was really good for me after both leavings. Loving and serving others takes you outside of yourself, brings joy and meaning, and can help keep you balanced and well connected with reality.
I’ve also found that staying in the same ministry after leaving is good for the people you reach out to as well. Just ‘disappearing’ will probably cause grief, disappointment and confusion. Continuing to have a ministry presence avoids all those things, provides reassurance that you do genuinely care, and gives them a chance to show their love and care for you.
9. You can choose your meta-narrative
Being part of, and then leaving a religious order, can be a very significant life event. But it doesn’t have to be what defines your life. It can be, if that’s what you choose. But I wouldn’t recommend that. Instead, you can choose to live in your true identity as a beloved daughter of God, in a meta-narrative of hope, of salvation, of Resurrection. It is a bit cliché, I know, but it’s true – and a much better way to live.
10. Seek full healing
Maybe you had a great experience in religious life. I really hope you did. But it’s not uncommon to walk away with a significant amount pain and anger – it’s just what comes of living in close relationship with a bunch of other broken and imperfect people.
If you’re one of the ones who are walking away wounded, I really encourage you to seek full healing. Don’t aim for anything less for yourself. You don’t want the effects of the bad experiences to keep on holding you back in life, or to be stuck in unhealthy patterns, or transferring negative emotions and expectations to new people and situations. It can be a long, hard process, but it’s totally worth it.
Although I’ve been through a lot of healing, I still haven’t made this full journey yet. I came into my second community still carrying a lot of baggage from my first. Maybe if I was more healed it could have worked out. Or at least not ended quite so badly. But with the help of God’s Grace, I’ll get there.
11. Your life/happiness isn’t over
Probably the hardest thing about the first leaving was that I felt that I was loosing my happiness, and that my life after this would just be a botched-together plan B, never quite as good as the life that I was really meant to have. After all, you can only be truly happy when you’re living your vocation, right?
I was once moping to my spiritual director about not having a charism to live out anymore made me feel very unanchored in life. His challenge back to me was to focus on developing my sense of my personal charism. Even if I were still in religious life, this was something I would have to do: as members of a community, we are not meant to be ‘carbon copies’ of the founder, but take up the charism in a way which is both unique and personal to us, and faithful to the spirit of our community.
God’s made you with a unique spirituality and mission. For me, I’ve found that my ‘personal charism’ hasn’t really changed over the course of my life as I go in and out of different communities and ministry roles. In fact, I’ve come to see the two communities I was part of as two ways in which I could live out my sense of charism. And now I’m discovering a third in single life. And I don’t feel like my vocation – or my happiness – is being compromised because of this change of state.
12. Your happiness isn’t in your temporal vocation anyway
This is probably the most important lesson! Don’t forget that you’re most important and fundamental calling is your Baptismal vocation: to know, love and serve God, and live forever with Him in Paradise. It’s God Himself Who is your joy, and loving and serving Him which is your fulfilment. Every other vocation is a particular way of living out this most important vocation, the only ‘essential’ vocation you’ll ever have.
So when a door like this closes – even if it was against your wishes and your discernment – it doesn’t mean game over for your life. It only means that God will provide another way to live out your ‘real’ vocation. A temporal vocation is a gift, an immensely great gift, but it’s not the gift-Giver Who we are called to seek above all things and find our true happiness in. Your happiness definitely isn’t over: perhaps, like I found, in being forcibly detached from a temporal vocation I was too attached to, your true happiness is only just beginning.
The dove painting featured in this article is used under Creative Commons Licence.
Attribution: Nheyob, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Nov 9, 2020 |
“You don’t need to fold it.” Mother said.
“Too late.” I replied from the inside the infirmary bathroom as I fiddled with the bandana, trying to cover my shorn hair as best I could. I was glad I already folded the habit, before a sense of obedience would have bidden me leave those holy garments in a deflated heap of brown and white. Street cloths felt so unusual now. Especially a short sleeve shirt. ‘Good enough,’ I thought as I stopped adjusting the bandana. I gently picked up the clothing I wished I was wearing off the counter, opened the door, and placed it on the large windowsill of the cloister corridor. I felt stripped. We walked past the cloister door where I entered the monastery, and came to a stop at the turn door, where I would leave.
“I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.”
– John 10:9
Doors mark a entering, or a leaving. They provide access to shelter and security. They can provide a hiddenness. An open door is an invitation. A closed door can feel like an inpenetrable barrier. Doors can mark a change, a transition, or a new space. Those Holy Doors of Mercy were the floodgates of grace thrown wide and a passage to a new beginning. Entering the door of the monastery seemingly marked the end of one life and the beginning of another. Three knocks, the click of a bolt, and a few steps brought many of us within a world we could only enter through our imagination. Doors carry importance in our hearts and our minds. In fact, research conducted by Gabriel Radvansky at the University of Notre Dame indicates that we do have a memory lapse when we walk through a doorway. Doors do mark a change, a transition into something or someplace new. In identifying Himself as the door, Jesus is itentifying Himself as that new beginning, as that source of shelter and security, as that invitation newness of life.
Jesus also says that if we enter by Him, we will “go in and out and find pasture.” I find this to be a very heartening phrase for those of us who have left religious life. In these words, Jesus promises us nourishment on either side of the sheepfold. When I went in to religious life, found pastures for my soul. When I went out of religious life, I also found pastures for my soul. Speaking on a more practical level, although walking out of the monastary door meant leaving the sisters with whom I had lived and loved like family, no longer living under the same roof as the Eucharist, and no longer having the silence, the stillness, and the simplicity of monastic life, walking out of the monastery also meant re-entering the world. It meant an open door to the friends and family members with whom communication was limited. It meant entering being a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a coworker. And in re-entering these familiar places, and exploring some new ones, I continue to find interior pastures for my soul.
“I am the door of the sheep”
– John 10:7
More than any door made of wood or steel or stone, each of us has entered that door which is Jesus Himself. Jesus is the reason why we entered the monastery in the first place. As Sr. Karla Goncalves, OSCO, describes, “I ask myself Why did you come? It’s Him. Who do you seek? It’s Him. Why do you stay? Can’t live without Him.” (Hidden: A Life all for God) As I reflect on those words, I am drawn to add “Why did you leave? For Him.” As paradoxical as those words can seem, they are true. Leaving the monastery was still wrapped in the prayer “All for you, dear Jesus, through your mother, Mary, as an act of the most pure love.”
In the first reading for today, the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, we hear “The angel brought me back to the entrance of the temple, and I saw water flowing out.” Perhaps each of us needs to go back to the entrance, the real entrance. Not to any doorway made of stone and wood, but to the very heart of Jesus Christ. That is where we entered the monastery. That is where we re-entered the world. That is there where we will find those flowing waters for which we continuously long for.
“He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep”
– John 10:2
In the Gospel of John, Jesus identifies Himself as both door and shepherd. Yet how can this be so? Perhaps this is so because our wounds are united to His. And if this is true, then perhaps, on a deeper level, leaving the monastery is not a closed door at all. Perhaps it is a very open door.
Leaving the monastery has left me with a wound; it has left me with a place where God can enter. Having a wound allows me to unite myself to Jesus in the most intimate way – in His suffering. It is only with our closest friends that we share our wounds. Those friends who we know will have the courage to enter within those wounds with us. Those friends who we know will be compassionate. Those who enter by other doors in our life are not as close to us. Perhaps this is precisely how we can know that it is Jesus who is entering – because He enters by the gate – He enters by our wounds. He accepted the Cross, He received wounds, so He could meet me here. He received wounds so that He could suffer with me. He received wounds so that He could enter within my wounds, and He invites me to enter within His wounds.
Not only does Jesus enter our wounds, but our wounds are the very place where God desires to manifest His glory. In Salvifici Doloris, Pope St. John Paul II writes that “…the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christ’s Cross. In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ.” May our wounds be like the wounds of Jesus. May our wounds be the door for the saving power of God.
“Knock and the door will be opened to you.”
– Matthew 7:7
I approach the door
candle in hand
light of Christ to guide me
The click of a bolt,
the creak of hinges,
by gentle wrinkled hands.
I can still enter
those sacred wounds.
Feb 2, 2020 |
By Esther Caswell, reprinted with permission from her blog.
Jesus, we need to talk. Like the prophets of old or the Psalmist, I need answers to my complaint. My heart is racked in pain. I need you to answer me. Hope in you becomes my instrument of torture in this regard. Please apply the salve of truth.
Who are you to those who heard our cry as Bridegroom and who innocently followed you, who left everything behind and prostrated themselves before you giving you everything, these ones who entered your Church believing it was a Mother, a place of belonging only to be told in your Name that they were excluded, unfit, unwanted and unredeemable? Those who were tortured during lonely nights and told in the day to keep their selves tucked in and their brokenness hidden, that their love would cause harm. Who were told that any love they needed would come from you alone and reminded through correction how they ought to sit and stand and kneel when they pray? Who were told to spare the dramatics of tears in your presence like Eli told Hannah of old? Those who only wanted you and were told by the “voice of God” that they were not enough? Whom do you choose Jesus? What of these rejected? Are they like those who came to the wedding banquet improperly clothed and are now subject to wailing and gnashing of teeth? How is it that thieves, prostitutes, and public sinners are promised your Kingdom but these tossed away? And when they are tossed away because their white knuckles could no longer hold the death grip, who is there to catch them? They are regarded with suspicion and punished by all for falling off a pedestal that somehow the Church needs. Even the divorced woman in the back pew is better understood because we can all allow husbands to be weak.
How many now to prove their worth to you by a strange kind of “forced labor” for your Church, their own private Gulag, through work is their salvation? Some hold themselves to even higher standards as if all the good work and prayer could somehow wipe out the shame of being unwanted by YOU. Others already feeling the condemnation, fall the other way in despair hoping to find something that will numb the pain of this rejection. Like soldiers back from war they are mentally tortured by making sense of what does not make sense, by trying to find the God they only wanted serve.
I do not make this appeal to anyone but you because you know those of which I speak. You know well. Can you please tell me your heart breaks too? Please tell me, Jesus, that this is not you! Jesus, come to all those who have been wounded by your mediators. Come to those who find it hard to breathe in the presence of innocent enthusiasm for you because to them it represents the way the pain began. Come to those who cannot trust themselves or your voice in them because that place has been broken. Because they did and it led to their demise. Come to those who feel like they asked for a fish and were given a snake. Jesus, come to those who even still have made attempts to come to you and were turned away like a disease that can be caught.
Jesus, Abba, Holy Spirit: Tell me this is not who you are! Please I beg you, make it clear. You are God, I will follow no other but if I may claim my intimacy with your cross as my authority and remind you who you are. You are the God for the weak and abandoned who forgave the thief as you died. You defend the orphan and the widow, and Lord please your rejected bride! Jesus, I need you to go find them in their places of darkness and shame. I need you to bath them and clothe them. I need you to restore the integrity of your name. I come like Esther before the King. Jesus please, act on their behalf.
You and I both know there is no other way. You have to go yourself or send your Mother. No one in your Church seems to understand these ones and perhaps it is because they do not want to admit the Bride is broken because they will need more Faith in you.
Dec 18, 2019 |
It was one year since I left the monastery. I knelt on the stone floor of the retreat center chapel, my Bible opened to the Gospel of John, chapter 11. The story of the raising of Lazarus.
It seemed fitting to spend some time with this moment in Jesus life for so many reasons. The friends of Lazarus begged Him to come when her friend was sick – to save Lazarus from death. Like them, I begged Jesus to come and make up for my frailty with His love and His peace – to give me the grace of perseverance in the vocation He called me to. And instead He waited. He waited as Lazarus died. He waited as I left the convent doors and no longer walked the cloisters of the monastery.
How similar to Mary and Martha I was when I told Jesus that “If You would have been there, I would not have had to leave.” How much I didn’t understand His ways, as He was in the midst of revealing to me that He is the resurrection and the life. And that in order for there to be the beauty of resurrection, there must come first the sorrow of death.
Death is hard – in whatever forms it comes in. The death of loved ones. The death of dreams. The death of fervor. The death of opportunities. The death of relationships. The death of meanings… When faced with death, the friends of Lazarus placed him in the tomb. And then, days later, Jesus arrives. And asks where Lazarus is laid.
Then Jesus wept.
And it struck me. Perhaps it was not the death of Lazarus that caused tears to flow from the eyes of our Lord, but rather the reaction of Lazarus’ friends. When faced with sickness they begged Jesus to come. They begged Him to heal their friend who was ill. They had faith. But when sickness turned to death, they gave up. They placed Lazarus in the tomb. They believed the situation was beyond hope. They had Jesus, who is the Resurrection and the Life, in their midst, and they continued their mourning. They thought the story was over. And Jesus wept.
This left me to be determined to believe that, as difficult as things sometimes are during this time outside of the monastery, Jesus can create something beautiful out of it. It challenged me to have the faith that will trust in Him even in the face of death – the death of my identity as a sister. It challenged me to have the vulnerability to place this death before Jesus, and not seal it in a tomb. And it challenged me to believe in the Resurrection – not just two thousand years ago or at the parousia, but also here and now in the moments of my life. I do not know how the Resurrection will manifest itself in my particular story, but placed in the hands of Jesus I know it will be beautiful.
“And all through Lent we had this beautiful statue
to help us meditate on Mary and her faith.
And that faith in the face of failure.
In the face of death.
In the face of shattered dreams.
In the face of enthusiasm that had been spent
and hopes that had been dashed in a worldly messiah
that was going to come and liberate them from the Romans.
But Mary had a quiet faith
and she waited in expectation of the Resurrection.
It didn’t take away the pain of the moment.
But it gave her direction.”
– Fr. Joseph Johnson (November 3, 2018)