Dearest Sisters, October 12, 2015
I hope this letter finds each of you well, healthy and happy in your mission, wherever you are. Please know that I have sent this to you personally, as you are someone with whom I shared my almost 8 years of religious life and thus you are very important to me.
First and foremost, I wish to make clear that I am grateful for my time in religious life and would not change my decision to enter for anything. I grew in many wonderful ways during my time in the convent and formed many amazing relationships during my years there. To this day, I know that certain habits of humility, community living, organization, and openness to new cultures stem from my time in the Religious Family. Not to mention some amazing trips to Argentina, the Grand Canyon and fun summers in upstate NY and NH. Lastly, a special piece of my heart will forever live in the streets of East Harlem. The barrio beats with a beautiful, raw intensity and that place & those people held me as I grew, suffered, loved and lost during my last four intense years. For all of these pieces of my story & person, I am grateful to our Religious Family.
Secondly, I want to reassure you that I write this from a full, bright, happy life I now lead as a lay woman. I have a wonderfully full and creative life at home, a balanced blend of social life, solitude, hobbies and fulfilling work. Sending this letter is two-fold for me: to voice my thoughts to you, an obligation I feel towards those I consider my ‘religious family,’ and secondly, to simply get this off my chest and share the thoughts that have been on my conscience for so long.
I write because not all of my 8 years was lovely, good and beautiful. Many customs and decisions during my religious life were, I believe, misguided, harmful and unhealthy. This is not any one person’s fault and I am not here to blame any superior, council or person. On the contrary, having been a superior myself for 4 years and vocation director for 2, I know very well that we all (superiors and sisters) were simply doing what we were taught and believed to be good and in line with what God wanted. The problem is that even sometimes the most well-intended choices and practices can be harmful to a human person. It is for this reason that I write. And, just to clarify, this letter is truly a last resort of sorts. Over my years home, I have spoken face to face with superiors, one or two concerns at a time, in a familial way, but I don’t feel that those talks were effective and I did not feel much engagement from the side of the Institute. So, I write this now, with all my concerns explained briefly, because this is how my discernment has led me.
Having the clarity of hindsight, I have come to realize that the Institute as a whole perpetuates various practices (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual) that are either unhealthy or untrue. These practices have affected me in many negative ways, from which I have needed time, space and support to heal from over the years. This is noteworthy considering that I came from (and returned to) a very loving supportive family system, had a healthy self-esteem, stable mind and heart – and even I was broken and taken advantage of inside the system of the Religious Family. Many who enter are not as fortunate as I am, when it comes to family, support and healthy identity (having been vocations directress – heard many a girl’s personal story – and having lived with plenty of fellow religious, I can say this with confidence.) This is why I am concerned to the point of needing to write this. I believe that the lifestyle the Institute carries on, while some of it is truly good and of service to humanity, includes some majorly harmful and manipulative ways of thinking and behaving, which may have negative consequences on its members.
The intention of this letter is to concisely point those out, simply out of concern for you all who are still inside. I do not intend to persuade anyone to leave religious life, but simply to be aware of these things & their consequences, to use your heart and mind to be aware of your lifestyle. Honestly, to give you permission to use your mind and heart as God intended, in union with Him, to discern your life. I write to speak my truth to you all because it has continually been on my heart to do so and to not follow through would feel as some sort of betrayal of Inspiration. It is an urging that has not left me and that is based in genuine concern for each of you, as fellow human persons and specifically as my brothers and sisters in religious life, which as we all know, is a unique bond. It is not an urge to “tell my story,” but rather to share my concern, from my personal experience of being in the Institute. I write also for superiors, who have the power to shift things towards a healthier way of life for all. I hope you take to heart some of these concerns, knowing me to be a grounded person, that this letter only comes from a place of love and honesty, with the hope of goodness and greater truth to be found. I was hurt and broken by many things in religious life; or rather, I allowed myself to be, believing this was the path to holiness, to God’s will for my life. However, I ended up miserable, broken, burnt out and sad. These are things that concern me:
→Free Time/True Rest – Looking back, I find the schedule of the convent to be unhealthy and over burdened, not allowing for sufficient rest and recovery from such a demanding lifestyle and not taking into account the various ways different personality types prefer to rest and recover. “Free time” never felt truly free because I always had something to catch up on – liturgy, catechism, cooking, etc. “Days off” were really only a few hours on Sunday afternoon or two Mondays a month in Apostolic life, neither of which justly balance the hectic and stressful weekly schedule. As religious, we worked, studied, prayed and played hard, not to mention we are merely human beings – so we deserve plenty, sufficient time to rest and recover from the demanding lifestyle, and in the ways we prefer. Looking back, I wish we had more time to sleep or sleep in (without feeling guilty or selfish,) a better balanced schedule of responsibilities, so we were not so overburdened with work-stuff that we had to complete things in the “free time,” real days off when we could freely do whatever we enjoyed. That leads into the next topic.
→What Do You Love to Do? – Upon returning to the world and actually having free time, I realized that I had no idea what I enjoyed doing with my newly found free time. After 8 years of intensely scheduled life, having been too tired to foster anything extra-curricular during “days off,” I came home at age 30, without any idea as to what I enjoyed in life. I only knew liturgy, CCD, to-do-lists, meetings and emails. I find this concerning that after 8 years in the Institute, a grown woman does not know what she enjoys in life, has not had time or energy to foster things that delight her. I was all too thrilled to experiment with painting, dancing, pilates, reading (non-saint books!) among other things, all of which expanded my soul, delighted me and helped me feel relaxed and refreshed to begin a new work week. This only happened because I finally had sufficient time, not only to sleep and rest my body, but even more time that was truly free and unhurried, so I could enjoy new things. I believe having plentiful time to foster hobbies is will produce happier, more well-rounded, healthy religious, ready to take on the next week refreshed!
→The Paradox of a Name – Being the Institute of the Incarnate Word, I find it ironic that we do such a poor job at taking care of our very own Incarnation, namely our own bodies, which are just as magnificent and worthy of care and honor as every other human who we serve and tend to. We honor Jesus, who upon taking Flesh, touched our humanity with divinity, and we teach that we are wonderfully made in great, complex detail and yet it seems that in the Institute we are continually formed to ignore our own bodies, to chastise them, to work them without heeding their requests for rest or nutrition and generally not to think much on them at all. Is not the human person, body and soul, the very Temple of the Holy Spirit? Why, as ssvm, are we not given the space to listen to our bodies, to connect with them, so as to care for the vessel God has given us in a more complete way, so that in turn, we can serve others better? Why is it so taboo to connect with our own Incarnation in a balanced way?
→Vocation – Long story short, I understood the teachings of the Institute to be that if I was called & entered, then clearly God desired me to take Final Vows and stay for life. This understanding of vocation however is simply not true and an honest study of Church teaching can show that time in formation (for men or women) is clearly for continued discernment as to whether religious life is your path or not. The Institute does not present formation years this way and I came to believe that I was intended by God to be a sister forever and this thought eventually made me very miserable & sad. However, I hung on by a thread for a few difficult years only because I desperately believed this understanding of vocation and did not want to betray God by leaving. Only in a moment of light and grace was I able to shred through all the muck and listen to the voice of God in my own heart that said, “I am your good Father and only want your true happiness. I would never want you to be in a life in which you were continually miserable, sad and not yourself.” From that moment on, I have listened to Him in my heart, followed His peace and have felt free.
→Leaving the Convent – As mentioned before, years in formation are for continued discernment and so if someone chooses to leave the convent, that is a perfectly fine and good decision and should be treated as such by the community. Guys leave seminaries and girls leave convents all year long, everywhere! It’s admirable and good to leave if you know it’s not right for you. During my years inside, it always felt as if there was secrecy, scandal and stigma attached to girls who left. No one would ask or tell, they would suddenly just not be at the table, and we would very rarely see or hear from them again. Due to so much exaggerated pressure and expectation put on vocation, perseverance, Final Vows and Ordination, there is shame attached to leaving, as if you failed in fidelity to God and your calling. This is simply not true and I think the Institute does a disservice to its members when they stress vocation and perseverance so much, because most likely, the majority of those who enter are not intended by God to stay, yet they do because of false teachings and a stigma attached to leaving. At least this is how I felt for many years and the atmosphere I recall surrounding those who left. While I would not change my time in the convent, at the same time, leaving religious life was the single best decision of my life thus far and I have not been happier or freer since.
→Girls Who’ve Left – This is mainly for Superiors, but is relevant to anyone discerning leaving religious life. Upon leaving the convent and re-entering the world, a girl rarely has the contact info of other former ssvm girls, nor is she provided with it. Upon leaving, we rarely remember last names of girls we lived with, don’t know how to navigate social media and therefore have no way of getting in touch with other people who have gone through religious life as we have. Thankfully, I had friends already who had left and their companionship has been invaluable to me. It is crucial to have the support of fellow former ssvm when you leave. It perplexes me as to why the superiors do not reach out to some of us who have left in recent years, who have transitioned smoothly and still remain in touch, attempting to build a little support bridge between inside and outside the convent. A girl who leaves needs lay women friends, and who better than those who have gone before her on the journey back into the world? Both in Argentina and here, there are private Facebook groups started by us, just for girls who have left ssvm as a way to connect. It is a need, it is healthy and it is helpful. Why aren’t the superiors of the Institute fostering this when a girl leaves? Why not take advantage of myself and others who have openly offered our companionship to girls who are leaving? Let’s build this bridge, instead of letting the pieces lay there stagnant. We have the materials; we just need to connect them all! ☺ Why not?
→“Generosity” – I believe the concept of generosity is overused in the convent and falsely understood. The idea of generosity is perpetuated as a way of selflessly serving God at all moments, in all ways, interior and exterior. This buzzword is wielded when encouraging discerners to respond to their vocation, urging members to offer for jobs or tasks, praising members for sacrifices like getting up early, missing siesta, using free time to do something for the community, etc. I recall the dogma of generosity being so imbedded in my mind that at one point I decided to just offer for everything, so that I was never saying no to something God asked of me, or feeling guilty for being selfish. While there is obvious goodness in this virtue, there also needs to be a balance, just like in everything. God does not want me to offer for everything to the point of exhaustion, headaches, lack of sleep, irritation. This goes along with the idea of taking care of our Incarnation. If we are honestly tired and our body is asking for a rest, then we should not offer to drive sister to the doctor’s during siesta. Furthermore, not offering for things because we are listening to our bodies in an honest, balanced way should not be looked upon as ‘lacking in generosity.’ I feel the concept of generosity is used in the Institute in an unfair and unbalanced manner, to the point of obsession. It is authentically generous to take care of yourself & to create healthy boundaries, so that you can more happily and efficiently serve others and God.
→The Priests – I must preface this section by saying that I have a deep gratitude for a handful of IVE priests who guided me during my years in the convent. I know that their intentions were and are good, that at heart they are good men, seeking to love God & others. This chapter is not directed at any priest in particular, but speaks of a larger issue.
The Institute places an exaggerated degree of attention on the priesthood, to the point that the sisters are formed to basically do whatever Father wants, however and whenever he wants it, subtly learning to not have a voice before him and to defer always to him. This sounds exaggerated, but we all know it’s not. The tricky part is that this learned, submissive behavior of the sisters is hidden behind their culture that reveres the priesthood, upholding everything they do as if they were Jesus Christ Himself. So serving Father becomes equivalent to serving Jesus. In return for everything the priests ‘heroically’ do for us (sacraments, spiritual direction, classes, etc) we owe them our attentive service in gratitude. However, this service ends up looking and feeling like simply being a servant of the priests, catering to all their personal and apostolic needs. Even as a superior, I still felt this way most of the time. Quick examples would be: driving the priests, cleaning their chapels, cooking for them. The ssvm quite literally are (in addition to their other duties) the chaufers, cleaning ladies and cooks for the priests. I do not believe this is what women religious are called to do. Quite frankly, I don’t think this type of relationship is good for either side. I saw that the skills, intelligence and ideas of the sisters are often ignored in preference for “whatever Father wants.” When I returned home and began working in a parish, it took me a long time to find my voice and feel comfortable speaking with Father as a fellow peer and adult.
I also have issue with the exaggerated way the relationships between the men and women religious are monitored, especially during formation. It feels scandalous for a seminarian and a sister to speak or interact with each other. It is so exaggerated that I believe it has the opposite effect, putting more attention on the chastity issue than if the relations were allowed to be natural.
→Young Superiors – Maybe by now this issue has been addressed or is slowing trending out, but I still believe it necessary to say a word on placing young women (in age and religious life) as superiors. For the record also, the answer “we are a young Institute” holds no water anymore, after now being in existence for 30+ years. So, I have two main concerns in this area:
Firstly – that putting a young woman in such a consuming role can hinder in many ways her human development. I was made superior straight from the Juniorate, at age 26, which is actually older than some others who I remember suffered the same fate. My main concern with appointing young women superiors is that, due to the increased responsibilities, stress and time constraints placed on them in their new role, they result in having zero time to develop their human person, their passions, their identity outside of “Madre.” A regular sister’s life is super packed and busy with very little free time as we know, and a superior’s life is twice times that, so a girl at age 26 has no life or time to herself, no room to in a sense “grow up,” outside of transforming herself into a “Madre,” assuming all responsibilities cheerfully. When I was first asked to be superior, I recall simply feeling that I was “sacrificing” or “dying to self” and that is what God wanted. However, I came home at age 30 and had no idea who I was, what I liked or thought, outside of my persona as ‘Mother Lumen.’ I graduated 6th in my high school class, with a 3.8 summa cum laude from college and passed years full of various sports and recreational activities before the convent and yet, at age 30, felt like I had no idea who I was outside of a habit and veil. My role as superior was so work-driven, that 4 crucial years of young-adulthood passed without me growing into my adult self, knowing myself and learning to trust myself. I find this to be sad. Since the convent, I have had the time of my life getting to know myself and enjoying the freedom of creating my own life. It simply concerns me how this custom can hinder one’s self-development.
Second – I feel the Institute chooses superiors who, like myself, have a personality that is responsible, cheerful and feels uncomfortable rocking the boat. They are the type to believe everything, behave obediently and cheerfully and feel safest keeping everyone in line, in a kind manner. This practice seems to serve to keep the Institute going as is, without stopping to question things that might seriously need questioning! Conversely, sisters who are a bit more outspoken & independent are often ostracized and never given much in the way of responsibility, a fact worth noting. I can name a dozen or more superiors during my time that had personalities similar to my own and were also very young. It feels good at first to be a part of such a wonderful group, but looking back, it seems that we were chosen because we just keep steering the boat straight ahead, with a smile as if everything going on inside is perfectly fine and acceptable. We even believe it is!
→Health: I believe in the Institute, we do not get enough sleep. Seeing as though the daily, regular life of a member is jam packed and stressful, sufficient sleep is a must for the body and brain to recover and rejuvenate. Skipping siesta, staying up late and getting up ‘heroically’ early are terrible, especially within the context of an already stressful life and also if sustained long term. All of this can lead to adrenal fatigue, which means that your body, having remained in a state of high stress without relief, will eventually break down, feeling constantly exhausted, getting sick, not being able to sleep or function well, etc.
Secondly, we are human and have an emotional life that needs care and attention. The Institute fails miserably at allowing its members to attune to and process their emotions regularly and in an acceptable way. Some go to therapy, but only those with dramatic life histories. As anyone can research, when emotions are ignored, avoided or when one feels ashamed at their own feelings, this all has health consequences. If you wonder why certain priests or sisters are always sick, have so many allergies, cannot recover from a cold, always get migraines, have stomach problems, it most definitely could be due to the suppressing or ignoring of emotions, coupled with the Institute’s general sense of ridicule around showing emotion. Everyone deserves space to process their hearts and to know it’s healthy to do so, outside of spiritual or superior direction, which is often the default. There is fostered a general sense of mistrust of self and emotions in deference to superiors and SD’s, which is concerning. It was a new and rebellious moment for me when I listened to my heart and followed God’s voice there, to leave religious life. I hadn’t done that in ages because of religious life and yet it was one of the best, freest choices of my life. This topic (emotional life and health in general) leaves a lot to be discussed, but in the effort to keep this letter succinct, I will leave it at that.
Perhaps by now, some of these concerns have already been addressed, in which case, great. However, if not, I allow my words to be whatever they are meant to be, now that they are out of my heart and mind, and in your hands.