Awhile ago I met another person who had been abused by the emotionally abusive religious sister I’ve called Sister Angeline. We were sharing stories. They mentioned something that happened to another religious sister at the convent where Sister Angeline lived after taking her vows.
There was another sister I’ll call Sister Martha. The other sisters were out in the world teaching at schools during the day, but Sister Martha was not a teacher. She had a few learning disabilities and didn’t have much education. Sister Martha’s job in the convent was to cook. The other sisters went off to teach. They came back to the convent in the evening, and Sister Martha would feed them, and then she would clean up the kitchen. Cooking and cleaning up the kitchen were her vocation in life. She liked to cook and clean up the kitchen. It made her feel happy and at peace. And it made the other sisters happy and at peace as well, because they did not have time to cook and clean the kitchen. They had to teach during the day, and grade papers and work on their lesson plans in the evening. Sister Martha’s vocation made it easier for them to fulfill their vocation. That’s how the community worked.
Sister Angeline put a stop to that.
Sister Angeline approached sister Martha and told her that she’d gotten a “word from the Lord.” Sister Angeline was always getting “words from the Lord.” She wreaked havoc with her words from the Lord. This time, Sister Angeline had gotten the word that Sister Martha was healed of her learning disability. Sister Angeline was certain that the learning disability was now gone. And she was also certain that God wanted Sister Martha to show her thankfulness to God by taking a “leadership position” instead of cooking.
Sister Martha didn’t want to take a leadership position, whatever that was. She wanted to cook and take joy in cooking.
Sister Angeline didn’t want Sister Martha to cook. She wanted Sister Martha to take up a leadership position. Or, perhaps, she just wanted Sister Martha to be miserable, or maybe she just wanted to feel important. You never could tell with Sister Angeline. But at any rate, she would not leave Sister Martha to cook in peace. Every time she got a chance, Sister Angeline would remind Sister Martha that her learning disability was gone. She would badger and harass her about taking up a leadership position. She made it sound as if God would be angry and offended if Sister Martha didn’t take a leadership position. And she didn’t let up.
Eventually, Sister Martha had a breakdown and needed anxiety medication.
I think about that story a lot.
I know that Sister Martha has gone to her reward now, and anything God wants to tell her He can tell her Himself. I expect He said “Well done, good and faithful servant” and cooked her a beautiful meal.
I know that Sister Angeline went on to be a full-time “spiritual director” who ruined the lives of several people; she became my mother’s spiritual director and dragged my family into the Charismatic Renewal. She eventually left the religious order with the nuns who taught in schools, and founded her own Charismatic religious order in Steubenville with the supposed charism of spiritual direction. That religious order mercifully went nowhere; the last I heard, she was in a nursing home.
I think about that story often, and compare it with my own.
I think about the influence Sister Angeline had on my upbringing, the things my family internalized as normal, and the toxic beliefs I once thought were intrinsic to Christianity.
Sister Angeline was my mother’s spiritual director, and my mother appointed herself mine. I was told “God will always ask you to do what you like least” and “God always sends you the suffering that hurts most.” I came to believe I couldn’t know what God wanted, but had to listen to someone who had Charismatic Gifts and they would get a word from the Lord to tell me what to do. I thought my likes and dislikes, my personality itself, were obstacles to the spiritual life. I listened hard to my spiritual director and tried to change myself according to her specifications: to be more outgoing, to stop being so sad, to lose weight, to wear makeup, to become popular. To stop liking what I liked and to like more appropriate things. To stop writing what I wanted to write and write something else. To stop dreaming of being a doctor or an artist or an art therapist and to try to be a writer and a teacher. To kill as much of myself as possible, and become somebody else. This hurt and was difficult, which I thought meant it was for my own good.
I had a breakdown of my own at the ripe old age of eleven, and I’ve been breaking in one way or another ever since.
I am still deconstructing that experience, all these decades later.
I have found a different path.
I don’t have all the answers. But I have come to believe that either God is love, or God is not worth my time. And if God is love, and that God created me because He loved me. He could have created somebody else, but he didn’t. He decided to create me. This means that I’m the person He wanted and not somebody else. I, myself, am able to hear God’s voice. I’m not infallible but I am able to hear and to learn how to hear better. And the things I like, my talents and passions, are not obstacles. They are the way God speaks to me. They are the way I’m supposed to help my community. Just as the things you like and are good at are the way you’re supposed to help yours. Just as Sister Martha was supposed to help others with her cooking.
I have been trying to find out who I am ever since I came to that conclusion.
I’ve been trying to be an artist again lately, having fun with my colored pencils.
I remembered just this week how much I always wished I could be some kind of doctor or a therapist, anything so I could help people who are hurt. I found some free first aid lessons for street medics; they start in December. I don’t know what I’ll do after that.
This is also painful and difficult, but in a very different way than the Charismatic Renewal’s death of a thousand cuts. And unlike he Charismatic Renewal, it’s a path that just might lead me to God. After all, I was created in His image.
And we’ll see where we go from here.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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