of compassion learned through discouragement

Leyroy windows w dead vines

About three years after my first vows I hit a low-point in my vocation. I’d made it through seven years of training and early experience as a religious sister. On the one hand, I’d navigated a culture change from American teenager to vowed religious sister sustained by a genuine delight at finding myself in a place that simply felt right on so many levels. The more I learned about, and experienced the life of a Daughter of St. Paul, the more it resonated with something deep within my mind and heart. On the other hand—oy vey!—it was tough. Not so much the surface things such as how I ran up the stairs (no more taking them two steps at a time), but rather the more subtle discoveries. I’d never been so challenged to see beyond what turned out to be my surface self-interests, and to reach instead for genuine agape love.

Then after taking vows, I was stationed along with another junior sister in a small community made up of six sisters who evangelized both through our Pauline Book & Media center and through parish visitations. As the months in this first assignment as a newbie-nun unfolded, I found myself broadsided again and again by an older sister who had an uncanny ability to embarrass me before others. I was still learning how to interact with the general public in the setting of our ministry. She let me flounder, and then berated me for my faux pas in front of whoever happened to be around. In the same community we had two emotionally needy sisters. At the time I just wrote it off as two bad cases of midlife crisis—bad enough to land one of them in the psychiatric unit of a nearby hospital. One of these two religious left the community in those years; the other one soldiers on to this day. In the midst of it all, the term of our local superior finished. She had been a wise and compassionate woman who helped me navigate the vagaries of community life. Her replacement seemed anxious to make sure that the two of us juniors “got it right.” I managed to mostly get it wrong—or so it felt. Between one thing and another, I fell into a funk.

Looking back at that experience in the first half of my twenties, I realize that I was young, very young. It was my first sustained experience of vocational discouragement. The life that I had dreamed of—being a religious sister—was not turning out to be what I’d expected. Oh yes, I knew all along that things weren’t going to be rosy. Of course I expected my share of the cross. But I hadn’t thought it would come in that form. I hadn’t banked on living with the demons of others in community. It opened up a window into the chaos that can sometimes lurk in the heart of the well-intentioned. It frightened me.

In the midst of this Lenten season of my life, the collected poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins fell into my hands. Hopkins’ terrible sonnets voiced exactly how I felt at the time:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

In the end, I believe that Hopkins gave me the words and images to work through my own discouragement, to the point where I learned to have compassion on both self and neighbor.

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“Son though he was he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).

Lent is an uncomfortable season. The suffering and sacrifice of Lent isn’t the point of this season, it’s the learning obedience part of Jesus example. Not obedience as in slavish fulfillment of duties; check of the boxes; jump through the hoops… No, we’re talking about obedience in the sense of active listening to God.

Lent is the time to learn the art of mindful attention to what God is saying to me/us right here, right now. The point of the classic triad of practices: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer is to let the extra things drop away, to the point where one is not carried away by alternating currents of self-satisfaction, anxiety, indulgence, or that pleasure which comes at the expense of others. Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer teach us to deny our first-impulses of self-interest in order to see and hear what we’d otherwise miss.

Pay attention to what God is doing here and now eventually means coming to grips with the passion played out in our midst. It means finding Jesus in his wounds and woundedness. It means living into a life of active compassion for self and neighbor.

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

Two excerpted poems taken from: Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956

Photo by Leyroy