By Bernadette Monica.
My life has certainly taken a detour over the past few years. I never would have chosen the road I’ve ended up on, but for better or worse, here I am. There’s certainly been a lot of grace in everything that’s happened, but there sure has been a lot of anguish as well. I was reflecting on that as I was on the train home one evening as I approached the one-year anniversary of being told I needed to leave my community. It had been an usually rough week, and when the battery of my iPod died I started to pray the rosary. It was Friday, so I was praying the Sorrowful Mysteries, and I started to contemplate Christ’s words about taking up our crosses and following Him. A friend of mine had recently said something about how each of our crosses is just the right size for us to carry, because our cross was made specifically for us – that if we all got to put our crosses in a big pile then pick the one we wanted, we would choose our own, because it’s the one we’d best be able to carry. And the one that brings us closest to Christ if we allow it to.
As I sat on the train I was reflecting on that – how, as much as I would never have chosen the path I’m on, somehow good seems to be coming out of it, even in the midst of the moments of trial. That doesn’t mean a happily-ever-after where everything somehow magically works out. Rather, I can see that I’m growing stronger and better able to carry my cross; I’m learning to see and appreciate the beauty of Christian friendship and community, and to appreciate the gift of the other, in spite of people’s faults and failings; I‘m realising that I have choice to love and trust others, even when I’m not feeling loving or trusting – that the risk of hurt or rejection, or even betrayal, is a lesser evil than a life of loneliness through shutting people out. And slowly, a little at a time, I’m learning to accept , work though and let go of some of the more painful experiences in my life. My prayers do seem to be having an effect – not necessarily through convincing God to change His plans or my circumstances, but rather through Him working to bring about change and growth in me.
That first year and a half after leaving my community wasn’t easy. In fact it was the hardest experience of my life, and I’ve faced some difficult challenges in the past. It’s been just over two years now since I was in the middle of the toughest, most shattering, and most heartbreaking experience of my life to date. After desiring for so many years to give my life to the Lord I found myself back at was seemed like square one, struggling to make sense of things and get back on my feet again. Forget detours – it sometimes felt like my life has undergone a head-on collision with a semi-trailer. And yet this is the road I’m on. I’ve long since realised that this isn’t a detour – that there’s no going back to the way things were or changing some of the things that have happened. Like it or not, this is this is the road I’m on and these are my circumstances. No-one else can carry this cross for me, although they can help me bear the weight if I allow them to.
In the words of Vaneetha Rendall, whose article inspired this post:
“I cannot cling to the past. I cannot get back on the old road and put everything back the way it was. Some things will get better over time. Some prayers will be miraculously answered. Some dreams will come true.
But the old road is gone.
…This new road that I am on, bumpy and twisty as it may be, is the path that God has chosen for me. It is the best road. The only one worth taking.” http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/when-the-detour-becomes-your-new-road
This is the road I’m on, and as lonely and difficult as it has seemed at times I have to keep moving forward. I have to trust that God is working through everything, and keep looking for the beauty in my circumstances. And there is beauty. Just as water is never so sweet and refreshing as it is for the parched wanderer who stumbles across a spring in the desert, so too are all the daily blessings, simple joys and small pleasures so much more worthwhile and of such greater value after having endured the trials in our lives.
Every day and in every moment I can choose to accept my path and to keep walking it; to trust that the Lord is leading me, and to beg Him to carry me in those moments when I feel too weak or too overcome with grief or helplessness to push on. And every day, if I open my eyes and look around, there are those small reminders that I do not have to walk this road alone. The more time that passes the more I realise the truth in that, and the more I see how God’s grace is extended to us and is working to bring about fruit in our lives, even in the worst of circumstances. I see the ways He has brought about growth in my own life, and some of the ways He has used my experience of heartbreak to help me to have more compassion for others in their own sufferings. I can also see, at least to some extent, how He offers opportunities for healing in certain moments of struggle, or in circumstances that may bring up unpleasant or even outright painful memories.
1 Peter 1:6-9
There is cause for rejoicing here. You may for a time have to suffer the distress of many trials; but this is so that your faith, which is more precious than the passing splendour or fire-tried gold, may by its genuineness lead to praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ appears. Although you have never seen him, you love him, and without seeing you now believe in him and rejoice in inexpressible joy touched with glory because you are achieving faith’s goal, your salvation.
For each of us who have had the experience of entering and leaving a religious community, our roads have taken unexpected twists that we weren’t expecting, often didn’t feel prepared for, and certainly wouldn’t have chosen in and of themselves. We have each faced, and continue to face, our particular trials, but there is grace in that, and St. Peter reminds us that it is through our sufferings that our faith is strengthened and purified, and that even in the worst of circumstances we can trust that God is working to bring about the good of our eternal salvation and union with Him. I pray that each of us may find strength, comfort and healing in walking with the Lord this Holy Week, and that we may be renewed in hope for the resurrections that follows the cross.
When I left the convent, I almost stopped praying altogether because it hurt too much. Every time I walked into a chapel I burst into tears: that had been the center of convent life, and that’s where everything that was really important happened, and I was so angry with the Lord that He hadn’t helped me stay, and so hurt, and so disappointed – and at the same time, I was completely terrified that I had walked away from Him, that I’d disappointed Him, that I’d left just because it got hard. If it hadn’t been for a priest at my parish who reached out to me (who’s now my spiritual director), I might have just stopped praying and eventually lost my faith. Recently, as we were discussing the phenomenal growth that I’ve experienced in my relationship with the Lord in the year and a half since I left the convent, Father, too, acknowledged how precarious my faith was at the beginning.
The first time I met with him, only about 5 days after coming home, the first question he asked me was “Are you praying?” He was the only person I talked to after leaving who knew to ask me that question, and who knew that the answer might be “no”. He himself had once been in a similar position, having discerned out of seminary (he re-entered later), so I suppose he had the insight that personal experience brings. When I told him that, indeed, I was not praying, he rather sternly told me that I needed to be praying a holy hour every day, especially because I wasn’t doing anything else at the time – I didn’t have a job yet so I was just home by myself all day. It took me a long time to really get into the habit of doing that – every confession for at least a month and a half included “not praying” – but eventually, with his encouragement, it started happening regularly.
At the beginning, I felt like I had to re-learn how to pray – I no longer trusted myself to recognize the Lord’s voice, and I had to ask my spiritual director to explain to me how to pray as though I had never done it before. For weeks, all I did during my prayer time was cry. Cry and yell at the Lord and tell Him how confused and hurt I was and how I didn’t understand any of this and how I hated Him for abandoning me and not helping me stay and how I hated myself for walking away from the convent and from Him. So it was pretty tough … but by some grace of God, I was able to stick with it and it slowly got easier and less painful.
I’ve discovered since then that it’s normal to struggle with praying when you leave the convent. I’m pretty sure every woman I’ve talked to who’s been in that situation has mentioned not being able to pray, or not wanting to, or not knowing how to anymore.
But what to do about it?
Obviously, I’m a big fan of the holy hour every day plan – it has helped me to get to a place where my faith is stronger and more real than it ever has been before.
My director had encouraged me to follow this structure in my holy hour:
10 minutes of just sitting with the Lord, recognizing His presence and looking at Him – and letting Him look at me.
15-20 minutes of Lectio Divina or Ignatian meditation on the Gospel of the day, allowing the Lord to speak to me through Scripture.
15-20 minutes of spiritual reading or another devotion, like praying the Rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet.
Most of the time, I just prayed with the Gospel, or, if I felt that wasn’t fruitful, I picked up a book. I read parts of St. Faustina’s diary, all of Benedict XVI’s “Jesus of Nazareth”, a book called “Edith Stein and her Companions” (highly recommended, by the way – there are a number of people who were martyred with St. Edith Stein who had previously left religious life!) and a number of other books during the ten months I spent at home “recovering”.
Still, doing a daily holy hour isn’t the only way to pray, nor is it necessarily the best way for you right now. It really depends. It could be that you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety, so trying to sit in the chapel for an hour might not work well. Or perhaps you have a full-time job, and just don’t have an hour to spend in the chapel each day. The important thing is giving the Lord space and time to speak to you, whether that’s in the chapel or out on a walk or in a prayer space in your room or at the library or on your lunch break at work or wherever. Being able to hear His voice is vital for figuring out where He’s calling you now – if you aren’t listening to Him or giving Him space to talk to you, how can you know what His will is?
(For the answer, stay tuned for Part 2 this Saturday!)
By Jacqui, re-printed from her blog Talitha Koum with kind permission. Please pray for her as she begins her volunteer work at at orphanage in India!
The past year has been such a journey. As we near New Year’s Eve, I am seeing more and more comments on social media about how terrible this year has been…as a whole. I have been conflicted in my response.
Yes, people died. We, as a society, have mourned the loss of many celebrities this past year. But, how many people have lost a friend or a loved one? How many parents have had to lay a child to rest too early? Personally, I have been to two infant funerals in 2016, and was not able to attend another. Dear friends of mine, who lost their babies all too soon.
I imagine their pain is overwhelming. Yet, I admire their determination and faith, that in the Lord’s time, all pain and sorrow will be healed. They have not dwelled only on their loss…they have found moments of joy and great blessing. They have chosen to look at the graces of 2016 and to look forward, in hope, to a new year. A new beginning. A fresh start in living out their lives of faith and trust in Divine Providence.
As I reflect on my own life, this past year, there are many moments of great pain and sadness. There are moments of death. Moments of utter abandonment. Moments where spiritually, there was only great darkness and a deeply penetrating feeling of despair or hopelessness. How easily I could look back and say, “Thank God, this year is finally over! It was such a terrible year. Hopefully 2017 will be better.” Yet, I choose to see God at work in my life. I choose to not focus only on my hard times, losses, etc.
In my looking back, this is what I see my year was:
I was living my life, as Sr. Emilia. I lived the life that, for as long as I can remember, I have always dreamed of. Then, in discernement, I began to pray about being called to an openness…to the idea…that I was being called to leave religious life to discern marriage. That was a huge time of fear, faith, trust in the darkness, excitement, etc. It was a gift…even in the pain.
I attended a Theology of the Body course retreat, in PA. That retreat literally, “changed my life!” I had no idea how beautifully painful that week was going to be. The Lord showed me throughout that week, His great and abiding love. The phrase I used after that week was, “…it felt like I had been stripped and beaten, then hung up to dry, alone.” It took me months to connect that imagery, to that of Christ, on His own Cross. Then, my pain (because it was on that retreat that I discerned I was called to marriage…which meant leaving my life and sisters at the monastery) became beautiful…because it was united with our Bridegroom’s Cross…the marriage bed of the Lamb.
(Now, a quicker version of the rest of the year…)
I left religious life in May. I lived with my Granny for a time. I lived on Kelley’s Island for three months. I applied and was accepted for a time of volunteering in India. I moved home to prepare for that mission. Now, we are just 6 days from my departure to India! I will live the first 5 months of 2017, on the other side of the world.
There were SO many days of great pain and sadness, as I adjusted to my new life outside of the monastery…without community…without such intense and beautiful prayer. Looking back, I see only growth and the gift of the Father’s love. There are no regrets. Yes, I could focus on the many wounds and struggles, the deaths of family and friends, etc. but I have chosen to look back at 2016, with gratitude. I choose to see the many gifts bestowed upon my life, as well as the times when I failed to live my life in holiness.
I choose to look forward to 2017…not in the hopes that “2017 will be better,” or “to forget 2016!” No, I look foward to this new year of blessings and growths…trials and pains…adventures and the unknown, while remembering the past year and how it helped to bring me to where I am.
I implore you, my friends, to take a look at your own lives and focus on the blessings…even in the face of pain. Seek to find the good. What graces were you given this past year? What moments did you see growth in? Have you taken it to prayer? Have you thanked God for His love and blessings?
Happy New Year! May it be a year of abundant growth and happiness.
For the longest time after I returned home from the convent, I was afraid to move in a fixed direction or put down any roots. I didn’t want to commit to anything unless I was sure. Once burned, twice shy… that’s how it felt. I had given everything I could of myself when I was “living the life” in my community. I had committed entirely on an interior level, so when the call back out to the world came it hit me like a ton of bricks. The sense of purpose that I had prior to discerning out of religious life was a hard act to follow. Unless I could find a similarly purposeful direction to move in, I didn’t want to be tied down.
3 years after returning home, I moved out of my parents’ home and took out a lease on an apartment. I decided to allow myself to ENJOY setting up my new home. I went for uncluttered without being minimalist, with a few soft furnishings and bits and pieces to create a pleasant place to relax or to entertain… even a few prints of paintings by local artists of places to which I have travelled in my past… each one, a memory. It sure won’t be gracing the pages of any interior design mags, but it’s home.
Why is investing time, effort and $ in homemaking, even important, you might ask?
I’d invite you to pick up your Bible and flick to Jeremiah 29. No… not verse 11… that quote about a hope and a future that so many people explore on blogs like this one! Let’s have a look at something different! Go right back to the beginning of the chapter to where God addresses Himself to the exiles in Babylon.
He tells them to build houses, plant gardens, settle down, get married, seek the good of the society within which they are living. He told them that this exile was PART of His plan for them, that it wasn’t a thwarting of His plan. He reassured them that they were exactly where He willed for them to be, and gave them the confidence they needed to get on with living their exile well.
I’m still in the process of trying to work out how to do this well in my own context, and I dare say that this is going to look different for every one who has returned to the world from the convent. I know this much – putting my life into a holding pattern in the hopes that some wonderful life mission or purpose will materialise out of nowhere is not what He is asking me to do. Gabriel didn’t appear to our Blessed Mother in a waiting room. He delivered God’s message to her when she was at work.
So again, I invite you – sit down with this passage – and if possible, do so before the Blessed Sacrament. How is He speaking to you through this passage?
I pray you’ll find reassurance and peace!
Q: What is “From My Inner Cell” all about?
A: From My Inner Cell: Conversations with God for convent-leavers
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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.
Don’t be scandalised… but it took me a while to get excited about the Luminous Mysteries when St John Paul the Great first gifted them to the Church. If even a tiny bit of me had held on to that initial lack of enthusiasm, that is now well and truly gone! The Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary have been a particular comfort to me over the past few months as I’ve faced some more-intense-than-usual challenges in my own post-convent journey.
Anyone who has spent any time at all in religious formation will know how painful it can sometimes be to grow in self-knowledge… and the growing and learning doesn’t stop when we return to the world. When faced with something about myself that is difficult to accept, it is unhelpful to hide from the Lord as did our first parents in a certain primordial garden. Facing difficult truths and difficult situations is far less intimidating when done in the presence of Our Lord, lifted up to Him in the Blessed Mother’s maternal embrace.
It was in this way – taking something that I found distressing about myself to my rosary one Thursday – that I got distracted from my distress as I reflected on what it was to invite our Lord to shine His light into difficult personal discoveries. It was almost like He was telling me to stop obsessing about the problem, and simply fix my contemplative gaze upon HIM. The moment I stopped looking at the figurative soot on my hands and started gazing deep into the dancing flames I felt drawn nearer to the Fire, taking comfort in the warmth it afforded, all the while dazzled by the brilliance of the light. This is where that meditation on the Luminous Mysteries ended up that day:
The Baptism of Our Lord: In Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI explained the significance of Our Lord’s Baptism as the moment where He took on His own shoulders the sins of the whole world throughout time and space. It was a prefigurement of His shouldering the Cross, it was a prefigurement of His harrowing of hell and it was a prefigurement of His Resurrection into new life, all at once. The weakness I’ve just discovered in myself was something Jesus already knew about in His eternal now and purposefully took upon Himself those centuries ago in history when He was baptised in the River Jordan. The Lord of Heaven and Earth, who loves me personally and perfectly, has long anticipated this moment when I would lay this very weakness of mine at His feet.
The Wedding Feast at Cana: Pope Benedict XVI also talks about how St John takes great care to say that the Wedding at Cana happened “on the third day” – clearly related to the Resurrection, of course, but also related to the traditional, Old Testament understanding of the appropriate time for “Theophany”, i.e. the manifestation of Divinity. At the Wedding Feast at Cana, Our Lord shows us that He is God, but also demonstrates that He is both able and willing to provide the good that is lacking in our lives. He can turn the insipid water of my weakness into the rich, abundant new wine of Christian joy!
The Proclamation of the Kingdom: As comforting as it is to know that Our Lord has taken my weakness upon Himself and is longing for me to let Him provide the good that is lacking my life, He also invites me – requires me, whilst never violating my freedom – to change. In filling me up with the new wine and revealing His goodness to me, He asks me to conform to a way of life that will help me to become more myself-as-He-created-me-to-be. We all need this reminder… and sometimes it is more helpful to focus on the virtue to which we aspire than it’s related vice with which we struggle. Meditating upon the beatitudes and His parables… what beautiful treasures He has given us to ponder in our hearts! Such pondering, after the example of Our Lady, will gradually enable Him to fashion our hearts into the new wineskins that will be able to contain that new wine He seeks to give us.
The Transfiguration: When I follow that invitation to change, and ponder His words and continue my interior dialogue with Him, He draws me still further… up a mountain, as it were, to contemplate not just the way He would have me live… but to look upon the radiance of His Face, to allow my desire for Him to be heightened as I behold His resplendence to the extent that He reveals that to me. As I’ve worked through my own recent challenges, I’ve been more drawn than ever to spend time with Him in the Eucharist and I do my best to get to make a holy hour several times a week wherever possible. I’m quite convinced that this increased desire is His doing and to be honest it’s a little exciting to wonder what changes in me He might be working away at whilst I sit and gaze upon Him, none the wiser as to the details, but growing in trust that He IS doing something!
The Institution of the Eucharist: With this increase in desire has come a reminder that the most important thing I will do on any given day is attend Mass and participate in the Eucharist. For me personally, this is gradually conforming my heart to be best able to receive the love He wants to give me, as I attend His sacrifice re-presented on the altar… but it also puts the rest of my day into perspective. The difficult meetings at my workplace and my frustrations with my own personal and daily failures pale into insignificance when considered alongside the beautiful half-hour during my lunch break where I get to witness the meeting of Heaven and Earth and receive Him in the Eucharist. This temporary union with Him, the magnitude of which I can only scratch the surface here on earth, truly is a foretaste of that eternity for which I was created…
As you can see… having followed all of the above line of thought I found myself all of a sudden marveling in His goodness to me and less and less distressed about that personal weakness that I took to prayer in the first place!! I still have my weakness… but now I’ve invited the Lord into that, and followed His invitation to dwell more on Him… my relationship with Him is strengthened in the dialogue, I’m less scandalised by my faults as I realise the truth of who I am and the truth of who He is, and my trust in Him and dependence on Him grows every time I get out of my own way, lay my troubles at His feet and ask the Blessed Mother to pray with me and for me.
Whilst it can be tempting to cast the Rosary aside, now that there’s no longer an Horarium requiring you to pray it, it’s really important to resist that temptation! I really can’t recommend the Rosary enough as one way of spending time in your inner cell, working through the challenges you face in everyday life with Him. Go to Our Lord through His Blessed Mother and let the light in!
Q: What is “From My Inner Cell” all about?
A: From My Inner Cell: Conversations with God for convent-leavers