I’m a long-time reader of your blog, and we’ve exchanged a few emails. You and Simcha are about the only Catholic bloggers I can stand to read these days. Thank you so much for posting that beautiful and perfect poem, The Exodus. It expresses everything I have been feeling and thinking about our current political life in this country.
I wanted to update you a little on my life. I entered a religious community a few years ago and left recently. The ministry just wasn’t the right fit — ultimately I couldn’t see myself teaching for the rest of my life. It was absolutely an amicable parting — I still love the community and we have a good relationship. I’m now pursuing other opportunities for ministry and work.
The whole experience of entering, living, and then leaving religious life has expanded my heart and mind in ways I couldn’t have imagined five years ago. I came into deep, close contact with other struggling human beings — came into contact with my weakness, my sins and struggles, and the weakness, sins and struggles of others. I learned how to look at another person as another self, with a deep personal/emotional/intellectual life, with family, friends, hopes, desires — in short, with a soul as good, meaningful, precious and valuable as my own. Learning how to love and be loved, to think the best of someone and try to see them as God sees them, was foundational in repairing the way I look at others. The cynicism and flippancy endemic in our culture, the same attitude that Screwtape called “the finest armour-plating” against the Holy Spirit — that attitude was destroyed finally by encountering God in the beautiful mystery of mercy shown by people I thought I hated.
Leaving religious life was so painful, particularly because I had real (though unconscious) contempt for those who left religious life. I assumed they simply did not have the willpower to stay, or were less fervent in the faith. Now I can come closer to understanding the multiplicity of excellent reasons to leave the religious life. Communities are dysfunctional, people begin to understand themselves and their gifts and desires, God helps them to discern their true calling. And yes, maybe some people simply made dumb mistakes. That’s life, and it’s okay, and God still manages to work through them.
One great thing about leaving religious life was that it helped me to break my perfectionism problem. As a habit-wearing religious in America, you get all sorts of strange responses, not least among a certain breed of Catholics who want to worship you. At that point (and it’s almost automatic, especially when encouraged by religious congregations, and especially if you are a Young Sister), your public life turns into something close to performative — you have to be a Perfect Sister who is “joyful” all the time, which usually means paying close attention to your own face and saying “Praise God!” or similar affirmations constantly. Which is exhausting, in addition to not being reality. If you look at early accounts of the monastic life, this kind of performance had nothing to do with it. The truth is, it’s hard to live with other people, hard to live charity, chastity, obedience, poverty all the time.When I see vocations videos, so often they’re just not real. It’s as if marriage prep assumed that everything would be wonderful all the time. Young women in particular get sold a bill of goods that’s basically “so happy, so joyful, so fulfilling, so meaningful” — and religious life can be all of those things, just like marriage — but again, like marriage, that’s not the whole story. Pretending that it is, is dishonest and sets women up for failure. Men’s vocations videos tend to be a little more honest, in that priests and men religious are willing to admit struggles (say, against chastity). I do love religious life, and once I’m finished with school I would love to re-enter religious life. But it’s hard to find a religious community that’s not trying to do the “happy happy joy joy” thing all the time.
The thing is, if you actually look at what the saints wrote about the religious life (particularly the medievals and before) they didn’t mince words — Christian monastic life is simply assumed to be an intense lifelong struggle. The modern, reactionary, post-Vatican II writers on the religious life will admit this in only the most cursory fashion before quickly moving on to the happy/joyful/fulfilling bit.
I’m not saying that religious should be out there telling people that religious life sucks — but talking about the struggle might help. It would be good to be seen as human, rather than as untouchably holy. I think a more realistic attitude might actually encourage more young people to give it a shot. And anyway, we’re Catholics — why should we be afraid of truth?
I’ve gotten way off my original topic Sorry about that. Thanks for your writing — I always appreciate it.
All the best to you and yours.
Thank you for your honesty. I obviously have no experience of religious life, but I can say that one of the countless reasons I was grateful to become Catholic was the fact that the Tradition values Truth so highly and is not afraid of human weakness. So I applaud you choice to be authentic not fake about your struggles. I’m also grateful for the catholicity of the faith and its astonishing capacity to take all kinds. So I likewise applaud your willingness to get outside the comfort zone and get know people you had been socialized to reject, and your guts and wisdom in seeing in your own weaknesses the realization that you were called to see others struggling as you do. I’ve been doing a bit of that myself of late. It’s lost me a lot of readers, but it’s helped me see a bigger Church. God bless you as you continue to seek God’s will find your place in the Vineyard.