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
Some years ago, I was talking with a dear friend.Â She and her husband had been struggling to conceive, and she was sharing with me how painful this experience was.Â However, she said, if this was something that she needed to go through, to suffer, so that she could become holy, then so be it.Â She said sheâ€™d rather go to Heaven than have a baby, if that was what it took to get to heaven, if this experience of infertility was purifying her and sanctifying her through her pain.
Her words that day stuck with me.Â Sheâ€™d rather go to heaven than have a baby, if that was what it took.Â I continued to ponder and to be amazed by those words.Â I grew up in a large family, where babies are seen as one of the greatest gifts God can give, and now I feel myself drawn to marriage.Â Â I love babies, and I could see the pain in my friendâ€™s eyes as she spoke.Â And yet, she would rather go to Heaven than have a baby.Â Her desire for God, for sanctity, and for doing Godâ€™s will was greater than her desire to have a child of her own.
St. Ignatius talks about the indifference that is necessary for sanctity.Â He is not talking about a world in which we have absolutely no desires.Â Rather, he is talking about a world where our desires match Godâ€™s desires for us, where we make decisions based on Godâ€™s will, and where we subject our own desires to Godâ€™s desires for us.Â When I first heard of this idea, I struggled to understand what it really means.Â What does this holy indifference really look like in todayâ€™s world?
I think I saw it in my friendâ€™s eyes that day.Â Sheâ€™d rather go to Heaven.Â She was placing her own desires at the feet of God and accepting His will for her as necessary for her own salvation.Â And even as she spoke, there was a joy behind the pain.Â Nobody was twisting her arm making her accept the will of God.Â Rather, mingled with her tears there was a genuine desire for Heaven and an excitement at the thought of seeing God Himself face to face for all eternity.Â Sheâ€™d rather go to Heaven.
I think that, in many ways, the greatest sufferings in our life come from a lack of this holy difference.Â If we are really
able to say â€œblessed be Godâ€ no matter what comes, if we can learn to let go of something because it does not correspond with Godâ€™s will for us at this moment, then I think our lives would be so much easier. Â Easier said than done, I know.
As I continue to ponder my own journey of discernment of religious life, through living active life and nearly joining a cloistered community, these words have stuck with me.Â Â Would I like to still be in my religious community, joking that Iâ€™ll be buried out back?Â Yes.Â But, Iâ€™d rather go to Heaven, and if living in the world as a layperson is my path to sanctity, then so be it.Â Would I rather have had that cloistered vocation that I explored?Â Somedays, yes.Â But, Iâ€™d rather go to Heaven.
And now, as I discern married life and am surrounded by friends and siblings with families of their own, it is easy to be frustrated.Â I never imagined that at this point in my life I would still be soâ€¦unsettled.Â Would I absolutely love to have a family of my own right now, or at least a serious boyfriend, so that I can be closer to the vocation God seems to have in mind for me?Â Oh, yes, by all means!
But, Iâ€™d rather go to Heaven.
I think Joseph is quite a comfort to the average convent/seminary leaver. Iâ€™m not talking St. Joseph the Foster-Father of Jesusâ€¦ heâ€™s awesome, yes. But right now Iâ€™m talking about the owner of a certain Technicolour Dreamcoat.
We all recall that he was sold into slavery by his brothers who were offended that he seemed to think himself better than he really was. He was thrown into prison because he turned out to be better than the Pharoahâ€™s wife thought he was. And if the irony of all of that wasnâ€™t enough, throw in the fact that he was accompanied in his unjust fate by two others who deserved their punishment!
Unlike the Event for which this was a pre-figurement, where one of the thieves asked to be remembered by the Innocent One when He entered His Kingdom, in this case rather it was the innocent one who asked to be remembered:
“Only think of me when all is well with you, and please do me the great favor of mentioning me to Pharoah, to get me out of this place.” (Gen 40:14)
This request was made of the â€œchief cupbearer,â€ who promptly forgot all about Joseph when he left the prison. Joseph remained in prison for another two years.
What on earth went through Josephâ€™s mind and emotions over that two year period? What do you think he prayed about during that time? Did he give up hope that he would be remembered and freed? Was there some point at which he decided there was no way he was ever getting out of there, and was that belief something that sparked off the grief cycle for Joseph? Do you think He got angry at God? Perhaps he felt as though he had been forsaken? I wonder if that first little while after leaving the convent/seminary isnâ€™t just a little bit like Josephâ€™s time in prisonâ€¦
In the story of Joseph, we cannot help but notice that he did not return to Canaan. Yet as the adventure played out, albeit in a place other than that which Joseph had planned, it is worth remembering that God provided him with the means to put things right with his brothers, to be reunited with his father and to live a full and happy life.