Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Discouragement and Discernment
In the last week or so, two of my friends have left their respective communities. One was active/contemplative, the other was cloistered. Both were "late" vocations, meaning they didn't enter religious life in their late teens or early 20's.
As a "late" vocation (IF!) myself, I've looked at these friends as a sort of inspiration. I don't mean to say I place undue weight on their decisions, only that their successes give me more hope, and, as I'm learning, their losses are mine, too. I won't say "failures" because leaving a religious community is not a "failure" although the secular world would see it as such.
Secular perspective: case in point:
A woman I know, definitely a late Vocation, was persistent and finally was allowed to enter a cloistered religious community. She was there for a year, was clothed in the novice habit, and then left the community not long afterwards. I didn't know her before she went, but heard about her, and met her after she came back. We first met at the holy water font, over time she learned I was entering discernment, and gave me some of her story. It wasn't scandalous. It wasn't shocking. It didn't scare me away. Rather...it revealed her humanity, the humanity and love of her community, and the workings of God's grace.
Would that others would hear her story. But they apparently haven't asked.
I have some friends, a married couple, who, whenever they hear her name come up, will say the following, like clockwork:
Wife: "That's a sad story."
Husband "I don't even want to know."
They've BOTH labeled it as a "failure" in their minds.
This is shocking to me, as I happen to know that the wife once discerned religious life and was CERTAIN she was called to it...until she met her husband. Failure? Or success?
What's even MORE shocking is that they "don't want to know." Why not?
Their desire to refuse to want to know does not speak of virtue, but speaks of judgment, assuming something awful.
I know the story. There was nothing awful. It was discernment.
My friends leaving...nothing awful there, either. Just discernment. That's why NO ONE takes vows immediately; there are MANY reasons for leaving. They may be called to religious life but not THAT particular community. They may be called to marriage, but perhaps needed the monastic experience and resulting abiliy to think clearly and pray with devotion for God's will.
I can't help, though, but feel a bit discouraged by the disappointment that belongs to my friends. It must be very difficult for them, and clearly, they love their communities and have not left in angst or anger or any such thing. They have not "failed" at religious life. Rather, it is a success, for through their experiences, they have come closer to God, to knowing God's will for them, and in taking a leap, they have learned trust and continue to do so.
Truly, there is nothing but beauty in their experience and the wisdom they've gained.
Oh, yeah, I was speaking of discouragement.
You see, I experience cognitive dissonance; I can objectively look at the situation and say wonderful things, but the reality is that I don't FEEL what I'm saying. I'm still discouraged. It's not the fault of my friends. In fact, I'm primed for and EXPECT discouragement.
That's my particular Cross, actually. It's one of the reasons I can't truly TRUST.
Our secular culture doesn't help. I look at what my friends, and others I've known, have overcome in order to follow God's call. I've gone from career to career, without support, until I LEFT the careers no one wanted me to enter. Professionally, then, I've been failure after failure. One of the reasons I refuse to tell my immediate and extended family of my discernment is due to my record of "failure".
I've discussed these things with my spiritual director, and over time, more will be discussed, but when I hear those words of my friends, the married couple, I am more depressed than ever.
What if someone helps me pay off my debt..and I don't remain in the convent or monastery? What if I get rid of my townhome (at a huge deficit) I find a home for my dog, and give my car to someone...and then return, with nothing?
What if I enter religious life...and..."fail"?
It doesn't matter that I know that leaving one community isn't a failure. It doesn't matter that leaving two communities also isn't a failure. It doesn't matter that I don't look at my friends and see failure, but success, God's ongoing guidance, and the fact that neither of them are bereft of support. I look at my friends and I see a living witness of God's love.
The reality, for me though, is that I look at myself and my past, the comments of my family on my past, and the comments of my friends on others who have "failed", and...I lose courage.
I know what's coming, and it alternately paralyzes me and makes me defiant.
I know that, first of all, if I enter a community and leave it, I have nowhere to go. I can't live with my Mom, and my brother...well, I love him but he and his girlfriend live together.
And with friends who would classify such an experience by saying, "I don't want to know", well...is there a home there?
Relatives...don't get me started. None of them would be surprised if it didn't work out. And if they had helped me pay off debt, they'd immediately start demanding payment and write up notes and payment plans.
So much of that is my fault, actually. Long story. Don't think badly of my relatives, please. I wouldn't have finished my undergrad without their intervention. But I certainly am not likely to enter or leave religious life with OR without them. How ironic.
It makes me wonder if I look to the monastery as a refuge or a future mistake?
It makes me wonder if I'll ever find home, and if I do, will I recognize it or be always waiting for the next disaster?
With my dysfunctional past, will I know if and when to flee, or will I simply accept dysfunction as the "comforts of childhood" and remain, no matter how awful it is, and become more damaged in the process?
One of the reasons I remained in law enforcement for the time I was there was because I felt like I had to "prove" myself, not to other cops, but to my family. I even have to admit a bit of dysfunction, for the abuse I took in that position was just like the abuse within which I'd been formed as a teenager. In becoming a police officer, I had my family's "respect", especially because of having been successful in spite of so much opposition to their will. And when I left.....well, there are cousins who still don't know that I left, and it's been over 10 years.
I'll never forget one cousin, a few years ago, asking me about it. This particular cousin is a war hero, decorated, etc. He thought I was still a cop. As soon as I told him I hadn't been in law enforcement since 1996, he ignored me.
An aunt once said to me, "Well, we don't tell anyone what you're doing anymore because we never know if it's accurate."
Not much hurts worse than that.
I'm not worried about being "rejected" by a community, for, based on what I know and the experiences of my friends, the parting is always mutual. My parting from law enforcement, hard as it was, was ALSO mutual.
What's difficult is the collateral damage. The friends and acquaintences that not only refuse to understand, but won't even ask. Those who assume the worst, and pass that on through gossip, even not intending to do such, not considering it gossip.
I never really realized that gossip was harmful not only to the person it affects, but those who might proleptically hear it before their own experiences.
Enough with discouragement. Now I'm defiant.
Just as I was defiant in high school and college when I decided I was going to be a cop, so now I am defiant in my desire to pursue God's will for me, even if it means my family will hate me and disown me and reject me.
I don't care if my "friends", down the road, think of me and say, "That's a sad story."
On one hand...yeah...it IS a sad story! But then again....so was the Passion of Christ and His Crucifixion a sad story.
On the other hand, the rejection of friends and other loved ones is a painful thought, but why invite judgment that hasn't yet been inflicted?
As some might remember, the Cistercians got my attention some months ago, and I was in contact with them. I've also been in contact with the Passionists, got a response, responded...and then...nuthin'.
I'm moving on. I've also been in contact with another community.
Right now, I'm reading "The Cistercian Way", about life in a Trappist/Cistercian monastery, although it really does apply to all monastic life. I have renewed my contact with the community and explained I couldn't read this book (one of the required steps of discernment with them) until I was finished with my semester, and the Vocation Director there confirmed that this delay was wise.
I don't know what I am going to learn from this book, or if I am going to visit this community. I will go if God so wills it, and it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. But that doesn't mean it will be easy. In fact, every step is going to be torture in one way or another.
And with every step, I'll be expecting disappointment. Where others know joy, mine will always be tinted. I'll always be questioning my own motives, for I don't know how to simply BE in the presence of God without such analysis and suspicion, not just on my part but on the part of others.
I'll go to any given community with the assumption that I don't belong there, and I can't seem to assume any different. The sad things is that I create suffering where non exists.
I create my own discouragement, perhaps because that way I'll be less disappointed.
When I look to my friends, those who have left their communities, I don't see failure, but success, for they did what they had to do, with varying support. I hope that, when it's my turn, people will be there for me, too. And maybe one day, I'll be there for someone else.
And right now I hope I can be there for them.
Discernment is Hell on earth, I'm learning. Not much is worse than this. Every step reveals something else that isn't pretty, doesn't seem helpful, and is outright discouraging. Every step is a shard of glass going deeply into the most tender part of our feet. And yet...we go on. Even when we see how others are shedding their own blood, we go on, because it's the only way to get to God and follow Christ.
If our own footprints aren't bloody, then we're not really in His steps, are we?
Please pray for everyone who is discerning their Vocation, and please be willing to bleed right along with them. They can't continue the road to Calvary if you're not willing to help them bear the Cross.
And if you can't help, I only ask that you don't make the Cross any heavier than it is.