If there’s anything that people are more interested in knowing about than being in the convent, it’s leaving the convent. People considered me an anomaly while I was in formation, but if it’s even possible, they see me as even more of an anomaly than before. There is nothing more enjoyable than seeing a person’s facial expression shift from surprise to disbelief to unreserved curiosity when you offhandedly mention in conversation that you spent 8 months in the convent. And you’d be surprised how often the subject comes up, and it’s not just at church or at work (aka at church). It’s at the car dealership, as I’m in the midst of purchasing my first car. It’s at the supermarket, as I’m waiting in line to check out. It’s at the gas station, as I wait to fill up. I could be just about anywhere, and somehow the conversation turns to what I’ve been doing with my life, and suddenly we’re talking about the convent. It’s such an innocent question to ask a stranger: “Did you just finish school?,” or “Where were you living before you moved here?,” or “What were you doing before you started working here?” The answers to those questions obviously vary from person to person, but there are certain expectations about how we’re going to respond. And for whatever reason, life in the convent does not quite fit within the parameters of acceptable answers. Apparently, responding to those questions by happily telling people, “Oh no, I graduated from college a few years ago, but I spent some time studying to be a nun. Now I’m hoping to finish my degree,” or “I was actually living right here in New Jersey, except I was in a convent,” or “I was an aspirant with the Salesian Sisters for eight months,” isn’t the norm. Weird.
While I was an aspirant with the Salesians, people would give me funny looks when they saw me. I was an anomaly, unable to be explained by the average American. On occasion, strangers would voice their uncertainties, abandoning all inhibitions and telling me exactly what they were thinking.
High school student. Amish person. Gypsy. Even an orphan once. People’s speculations about my state in life were probably as varied as the people themselves were. There were store owners who often dealt with Mary Help students, girls who did not know the difference between the Amish and consecrated religious, restaurant workers who thought we were a group of gypsies, and teachers who thought we were all orphans. The possibilities were endless, and sadly, few people recognized us for what we were on sight. Often, we had to explain what we were doing, and more often than not, we were met with overly-nice smiles, confused nods, and utter disbelief. “But you’re so pretty,” they told us. “You’re too normal!” “You have your entire life ahead of you- why give it up?” If one thing was certain, the average American knew very little about the religious life. Quite a few didn’t know that consecrated men and women existed anymore, and even those who did know could not comprehend why anyone would willingly choose that life. After eight months in the convent, I had gotten used to the idea that I was an oddity in modern society, and I embraced every opportunity to share with others the beauty of the life that I was living at the time. I actually came to enjoy the looks of shock and disbelief because I saw them as opportunities to evangelize, and eventually those looks would be transformed into expressions of wonder and awe. The reaction was a gratifying one- it was a constant reminder that the life that we were living was supernatural, unique, and incredibly beautiful. It was an joy-filled sacrifice, a cross that was both demanding and eternally rewarding. It was a life that few people understood, but that many came to respect in time.
I remember a time not that long ago when the same could have been said of me. Despite having spent four years at a Salesian school, surrounded by Salesian sisters, even after having spent four years studying Theology, I did not really understand or truly respect the religious life. Despite the joyful sisters that I both loved and respected, I still harbored a certain ill-will towards the entire concept of the consecrated life. It didn’t seem natural, or even possible, really. For years, I assumed that being satisfied and truly happy in the religious life was impossible; that at best, nuns convinced themselves that they were happy when they really were missing something, and at worst, they were faking it. Having always felt an incredible pull towards marriage and family life, the religious life was not only unappealing to me, but I lived for years in constant fear that the Lord would ask me to forsake my lifelong dreams of getting married and having children in order to answer the call to the consecrated life. There was just so much that I didn’t understand back then.
As I matured in my faith, I learned some very important lessons. I learned that I didn’t have to fear a call to the religious life because the Lord was going to lead me on the path that would bring me the truest happiness. I learned that the Lord calls us to a state of life that will help us to love and be loved as fully as possible, and that the characteristics that define us often point us towards the vocation that will best fulfill us. I learned that we will not be completely filled and satisfied until we have attained heaven, but that there is such thing as being more fulfilled or less fulfilled in this life. I learned that the religious life is a beautiful vocation that is incredibly necessary in our Church and in the world, and that some of the happiest men and women that I have ever met are priests and consecrated religious. They do not regret their decision to embrace the consecrated life, and they have been rewarded tremendously for their faith and trust in the Lord’s providence. And finally, I learned that the Lord called me to enter with the Salesian Sisters, to spend eight months living among them, in order to learn all of these things, and then He called me elsewhere. He has led me beyond the walls of the convent, and onto a new path, one that I have not yet walked. This new path will most certainly include many lessons to be learned and many incredibly beautiful things to witness, and I am confident that this path is leading me exactly where the Lord knows that I need to be.
So just a few months ago, I was an anomaly for studying to be a nun and living in a convent. Now I’m an anomaly for having returned to the world. Why? Because now, when people ask me about where I’ve come from and what I’ve been doing with my life, and when I tell them of the paths on which the Lord has led me, I have the opportunity to share what I’ve learned from my unique experiences. When people respond with shock and disbelief that someone who seemed so normal (beats me how they reached THAT conclusion) could have done something so seemingly crazy, I can help transform their shock into understanding. When people react with disbelief that I could have possibly thought that such a life could ever make sense, I can help them to see that the religious life does serve a vital purpose in our world. And when people harbor feelings of revulsion towards the consecrated life, I can tell them what I have learned, what I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears. The religious life is incredible, and the consecrated men and women who have so bravely embraced it are some of the most joy-filled and amazing people I have ever met. It might not be for everyone, but it is for some, and probably more than we think. People consider me an anomaly because I left the convent but speak of my experience there with joy in my heart and a smile on my lips. They think I’m odd because I do not harbor ill feelings, because I did not leave when I found the nuns to be angry, or depressed, or unsatisfactory in some way. I left because my time in formation had come to an end, and the Lord was calling me in a new direction. I left because the Lord had wanted to teach me some very important lessons, and once they had been learned, He placed me on a new path so that I could continue walking. The convent was just one part of my journey, and even though it only lasted for eight months, it was incredibly significant in my life. I really do believe that the Lord is calling me to marriage and family life, but I needed to learn to respect the religious life, to view it as a vocation of joy and love, before I could embrace my own vocation. As I’ve told countless people over the past few months, the Lord brought me to an Institute on Marriage and Family Studies so that He could call me to explore the consecrated life, and then He brought me to the convent so that He could prepare me to be a better wife and mother some day. God is so good, but His ways are certainly mysterious. I’m just thankful that He knows the plan of my life better than I do, and I just ask the Lord to give me the grace to trust Him to lead me on this journey.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!