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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. 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", 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 IS a sad story! But then 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.


Julia said...

As a new discerner, that was very hard to read.

I already identify with some of those fears, feelings of discouragement. The weight of the cross, the darkness and loneliness, the harsh, sharp honesty.

We all need to try to live at the foot of the Cross and keep our eyes on Christ. Even the agony has joy there.

The Ironic Catholic said...

I can appreciate this, as someone who teaches at a university with a minor seminary (seeing a good number of young men discerning out). Discerning "out" (from either direction: individual or community), if handled maturely and well, is wise and healthy. After all, you don't enter the priesthood or religious life for your friends and parish community! But too many people can't see that, and it is a shame.

Adoro, two things I think reading this--my understanding is that most communities actually DO NOT WANT you to cut all ties when initially discerning (such as selling the condo, etc.). So it may not be necessary.

The other is trust--you mentioned that a few posts ago. I realize some of these stories are scary, but some women stay and are joyfully happy, and others discern out and realize they needed this experience, it "fit" in the life plan in a way they couldn't see then. God's in control. Even when it feels crazy.

Hang in there, cling to God. peace.

Adoro said...

Julie ~ It was hard to write.

IC ~ Initially discerning, yes. I won't look at a community and immeditately sell my house. But the reality is that I can't be an aspirant or postulant and continue to own my home because I can't do that and pay the mortgage. To pursue God means to get rid of EVERYTHING. My house, my property, my clothing, my computer, my dog....everything.

There ISN'T any other choice. I don't have anywhere for it to go and no one else to pay for it. I am FULLY alone in this.

That's not true for everyone, but my Mom is on disability and welfare.

That's life. That's reality. The ideal does not now and has NEVER applied to me.

MGV said...

I've been discerning for several years. My feet haven't really bled until this year. I back you up, Adoro. It's painful.

Anonymous said...

Adoro, I remain united with you in prayer and discernment. Together, we WILL make it all the way to Calvary and beyond!

Your words here ring true in so many ways...and I always am astounded when I step back and consider how much discernment really does hurt. Objectively, it doesn't *sound* like it would be so hellish, especially when compared to some of the Crosses others must bear. But the agony of discernment is within, and it hurts all the more for its hiddenness.

Lord, have mercy!

Mark said...

You're absolutely right: leaving a religious community is not a "failure".

One Benedictine website in the UK says that some people have a vocation to try their vocation - i.e. they don't ultimately have a vocation to be a monk or a nun, but they do have a vocation to spend some weeks or months living in a monastery and finding out.

Once when I was visiting a monastery, a fellow guest (who had been a novice with both the Benedictines and Dominicans before eventually marrying), told me that he believed that many people have a "temporary vocation" - i.e. a vocation to undergo a lengthy and profound period of discernment which might include living in a monastery as a postulant/novice for a significant period of time.

Those people who leave during the postulancy or noviciate aren't "giving up" and aren't "failures". They're people who have had the courage to enter deep into the discernment process, and who have then had the integrity to be honest with themselves about who they really are and what God really wants of them

Banshee said...

Re: career failure

You did not fail in any of your jobs, Adoro! Sheesh, you got trained, you got employed, you stuck around long enough to more than pay back your training.

I don't see where you promised to love, honor, and obey any of your jobs till death do you part (unless your police or fire jobs had suddenly risen up and felled you, which of course could have happened). So you didn't fail. You just moved on.

Anybody who says otherwise is a twit. So there.

When I look at your resume, I do not see failure. I see someone with an exciting array of skills and knowhow, in an unusual variety of fields. It is possible that you are in fact overqualified for many orders' charisms. I'm surprised that some peace and justice order hasn't kidnapped you out of your apartment building. (Probably afraid of your dog.)

You are probably qualified to be a founder of your own order, except the spiritual part -- and God can provide that.

I'm not saying this to embarrass you or to pump you up as a reflex action. I'm being utterly honest here. (But don't listen to the twits, for sure.)

Banshee said...

I forgot to add that we do not regard someone who joins the military as a failure if he chooses not to go career. Similarly, I know of a few people who have chosen to serve in more than one of the armed forces, and nobody thinks badly of them. Indeed, people may regard them as a bit eccentric, but definitely as people to be reckoned with.

"I was in firefighting and law enforcement, then in claims, and then started taking theology classes and working for the Church as well as maintaining a big-stats blog -- and I can ride and ski too" is scarcely a litany of failure. Indeed, most people would tend to regard that as a litany of amazing adventure and success. You didn't find a fit in some of them because you are still in progress. Maybe you will never understand the utility of all of it, but it's all grist for the soul.

That nasty little voice inside you? The twit part of yourself. Ignore it. Listen to Christ instead.

Adoro said...

Maureen ~ You misunderstand me. I am not saying that it's MY impression that I'm a "failure". That's the SECULAR impression, that's how my family sees me. That's a fact. It's not how I see it, but they disagree.

I know I moved from those careers and for good reason and I don't look back.

I'm only stating a secular viewpoint that is wrong, and it's how they would see someone leaving religious life as well. I was making a commentary on that.

Hidden One said...

"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."

I can pray all discerners. I do pray, and I will pray. Even as I discern myself.

Unknown said...

Often God's way looks like "failure" to the rest of the world. We are called to walk in God's way and show no regard for what the world will think of us. If we are to stay or to go from where ever we are is only for God to know and us to follow God's holy will and leading.

It may feel painful in the doing, but that is when we offer it up and keep moving as the spirit leads.

I am very aware in my own life of being asked time and again by my friends when I will do thus and so or use my gifts the way I had in the past (such as in parish ministry). All I can do is follow what I know to be God's will as I see it even if it makes no sense at all and looks like failure to my well meaning friends.

Anonymous said...

This was one of the things my Spiritual Director asked me when I met with him after I left the Convent. He reiterated that I should not be discouraged ... especially since I learned a lot about myself. The other directive he gave me was to continue a relationship with the Superior and meet with her once a month or every other month.

I actually feel so priviledged to have gotten to know the Sisters in a way that few people ever have. Since my departure, I have received several emails from the Sisters stating how saddened they are that I left. They also feel the pangs of discernment.

Great post!!! LM

Declan Brett said...

I started actively discerning my vocation many years ago. When I enterred a diocesan seminary I had no idea why anyone would enter a religious order. Within a couple years I understood what community meant, so I started looking for that, while thinking why would anybody ever join a contemplative order. After many turns and twists I am looking at Cistercians now. I am looking at a Common Observance monastery in Wisconsin and a Strict Observance Monastery in England.

When I began to consider monastic life, I was speaking with a Benedictine vocation director. He referred to my time at the seminary and my time with another community as "false starts." That term angered me, and it hurt too.

My one word of advice for you is "Persevere." My journey has taken 18 years, and I now see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Trust in God. Hope in Him still, my savior and my God.

Nancy Reyes said...

I'm no where near as far along in the spiritual life as you are, but I know from experience that if you try to obey the Lord, even if you make a mistake, he will teach you something and take care of you.

I've failed at many things but the failure teaches me humility: not the low self esteem or depression, but teaches me to put things into perspective, that God wants obedience and our attempt to obey him not success...

YouKnowWho said...

i'm totally backing everything... and all I can say is PRAYERS.

And I hope anyone who tries to compare a young man entering the seminary to a young woman entering the convent reads this post. Seminarians can continue to own property, to keep their dept (they are considered full time students, postulants aren't), and maintain many pieces of life in summers and such. Postulants/NOvices just can't. THere's NO COMPARISON. Yes, entrance into the convent is committment beyond what many realize. And unfortunately, it makes entrance all the harder for good souls like you. "Trying" religious life is out of the question ... a young woman must be really serious about it. And yet, it IS STILL discernment, and leaving is a very real possibilty. (NOT A FAILURE, I agree).

This whole situation in today's world strikes me as unjust. Why can't there be a group of some sort that will finance a young woman ... whatever it takes, loan payments, morgage, car ... while she enters to discern, at a no-risk level? Knights, Serrans, SOMEONE, step up to the plate!

Adoro said...

LM ~ LOVE your comment, having been there yourself. And so glad your community is staying in contact with you and misses you, too!

YouKnowWho ~ AMEN! But let's also point out that those guys that are called to discern religious communities face the same problems as women.

The diocesan seminary is a privileged life, and I don't knock it, but those that aren't called there face far greater challenges, as you detaild so well.

Anonymous said...

Will be praying for you.

Anonymous said...

Adoro, I entered an active community and left 2 years later but I didn't see it as a failure or mistake although leaving did feel like jumping into a pool realizing there was no water!
And then I found that the Lord was calling me to contemplative life. I think if I hadn't lived those 2 painful years in the active community I wouldn't have been able to really discern a contemplative vocation.

The testing of a vocation doesn't really start until you enter and it's not unusual for someone to leave shortly after receiving the habit.

Don't be discouraged. If a community is in anyway healthy they won't let you leave without making sure you have a place to live, etc.