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On Leaving Religious Formation

Young men and women who enter religious formation today bring vital refreshment to a parched and weary Church. However, there are some who enter religion only to find that God has not equipped them with the necessary faculties to persevere. What about them? They longed to join their lives to that river of grace that flows from religious houses all over the world in order to refresh the Church, their languishing mother, but it seems as if the Lord has no use for them. They feel like soldiers sent home from the front at the height of the battle.

A young person may leave the novitiate for a variety of reasons, such as poor health, a realization that she is called to marriage, or an insurmountable difficulty in settling into religious life and living it in peace. This essay focuses on the last case and refers to the individual discerner with feminine pronouns, although the points apply to both men and women.

In the last case mentioned above, the discerner’s will to persevere in formation never falters, but for an unknown reason, peace does not come to her. She throws herself before the Lord like the Gerasene who “begged Him that he might be with Him” (Mk. 5:18), but the Lord refuses her ardent request. This manifestation of God’s providence perplexes the discerner who cannot see why the All-Powerful One would allow her to fail in such a noble mission.

When faced with this failure, the soul must abandon herself to God more than ever before. Protesting, she will cry, “I abandoned myself when I gave up everything to enter religious life! Look how that turned out. God did not help me. He was not there.” But she is mistaken. God was there, and He took the control she relinquished to Him and directed her exactly as He desired. For some souls, abandonment leads to final profession, but for others, it lays a road that leads out the convent doors and back into the world.

In addition to spiritual questions, those who leave religious life face a plethora of worldly problems that crowd around them like a swarm of nagging insects. Housing, food, transportation, and the ever-heavy question of employment weigh on their minds. They recall those dramatic moments prior to their entry to religious life when they joyfully gave up their careers, education, and many other prospects like the woman who broke her alabaster jar at the feet of Jesus, and they are tempted to think the Master has rejected their gift. It seems to them that they must endeavor to piece the alabaster shards back together. This is daunting and acutely painful.

When a zealous person decides to make a sacrifice for God, nothing exceeds the pain of renouncing that sacrifice. In her novel The Song at the Scaffold, Gertrud von Le Fort captures the essence of this pain with the character Sister Marie de l’Incarnation, a Carmelite nun who is cheated of the martyrdom she desired during the French Revolution. The passage below is a dialogue in which Sister Marie begs her spiritual director to let her witness the execution of her sisters who would sing all the way to the guillotine:

“My Father,” she cried, bursting into tears, “you are robbing me of my last hope.”

“And what is your hope?” he asked almost with severity.

At this question the full beautiful force of her personality broke through. She did not rebel. She was simply overwhelmed. “I wanted to sing too,” she cried. “Oh, if I could only be the last, the very last for whom it is hardest of all!”

He answered, “Sacrifice your voice also, my daughter, yield up your voice to the very last one.”

She wept again. “My father,” she said, “my sacrifices have not been accepted. You know it. I shall be the most abandoned of all.”

“Remember how Christ was abandoned,” he answered gently, “and remember the silence of Mary.” [1]

Sister Marie’s martyrdom was not by the guillotine, but by resignation. Her gift to God was not song and blood at the scaffold, but silence and obscurity. When God allows a soul to fail in some attempted sacrifice, then failure itself becomes the sacrifice and acceptance the victory.

The would-be religious may never understand why the Lord chose to send her from the convent. To her, each day might be yet another cryptic letter printed on an illegible manuscript. She must never cease to respond, “Fiat!” to the Holy Ghost who “with the pen of His power writes a living Gospel, but a Gospel that cannot be read until it has left the press of this life and has been published on the day of eternity” [2]. On the last day, when all things are revealed, the people of God will finally decipher all these muddled manuscripts and realize that they are not muddled at all; they are stories of infinite delicacy and grace, like the finest lace or the most ornate embroidery. It pleases the Divine Author to save them for the Church Triumphant as splendid untold joys.

Although some souls who desire nothing but to sacrifice themselves for God and His Church find themselves compelled to leave religious life for the objectively lower state of the laity, they still walk a royal road because it is the will of God. As they quietly persevere in carrying out an obscure mission they do not understand, amid the wreckage of all the beautiful plans they had made for themselves, graces flow from their lives like subterranean springs and join the thundering rivers of grace that flow from the Church’s religious communities. Despite, or perhaps even because of the drudgery of lay life, these souls can join their voices to the mystical songs of St. Teresa and say:

Let Calvary or Thabor be my fate,
A desert or a fertile land of rest;
Like Job, in sorrow let me mourning weep,
Or lie, like John, in peace upon Thy breast;
Bear fruit and flourish, or, a withered vine
I’ll perish fruitless, so the choice be Thine!
Reveal, O Lord, what Thou dost ask of me!

[1] Gertrud von Le Fort, The Song at the Scaffold, trans. Olga Marx. (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2011) 98-99.

[2] Jean Pierre de Caussade, S.J. Abandonment to Divine Providence, ed. J. Ramiere, S.J., trans. E. J. Strickland (San Francisco, Greenwood Village, Co: Ignatius, Augustine Institute, 2017), 56.

Image: The Walters Art Museum.

1 thought on “On Leaving Religious Formation”

  1. I recall that you visited our church for a talk on faith formation when you were in our diocese. and perhaps three of us arrived. I was terribly sorry for you. also for us. We were (and still are) the last of the Catholics who desire to learn the “hard teachings” that our pastors will not even approach.


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