I’ve been asked before if you should date while discerning religious life. I think the answer in general should be no. However, I get that people have a past, or a crush, or an unfulfilled wish to be with someone. I get that discernment, like life, is messy. I get the confusion and the insecurity. I get that heart and head don’t keep pace with each other. I get the pressure and frustration of having to make a decision without knowing the answer. I get that it’s painful to let someone go when you’re not sure if anyone else as good will ever come along.
I’ve never shared publicly before that I had trouble letting go of a relationship almost the entire time I discerned religious life. Rewind to 2013. A handsome, tall guy eyed me from the stage and smiled shyly. He played in a touring band and was a solid Catholic. What more could a girl want? I thought. Though we lived far apart, we managed to visit each other and quickly became official.
He was a person of high ideals, and on paper we seemed like a perfect match. But I couldn’t deny that every time we spent time together, I felt like I was being held up against some imaginary ideal wife and found wanting. His ideals proved to be inflexible. He called into question my taste in music, clothes, friends, food, and career (and not in a charitable way.) I began to feel like I couldn’t breathe or act natural around him.
We definitely weren’t meant to be. I broke it off just three months later, knowing I was being called to discern religious life. Saying goodbye became harder than I expected when he took the breakup with dignity. He was at my family’s house when I ended our relationship, and he treated me and my family members like a perfect gentleman until the end of the visit. There was no animosity or bitter words. As he drove away, tears welled up and I found myself wondering, Did I do the wrong thing? What if I never find anyone better?
I shakily started asking the big question: God, do you want me to be a nun? I was terrified the answer would be “yes.” I visited the Little Sisters of the Poor before packing my bags for six weeks of filming The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns to visit three more convents. During my discernment, thoughts of doubt about my ex-boyfriend kept creeping in. His graceful departure tinged the memory of our relationship a rosy hue that it never was in real time. For weeks, I couldn’t discern if my ache came from a desire to be with him, a desire to run away from religious life, or a desire to be married, but to someone else. What was my heart up to? What was God up to? It felt torturous.
During this time, I went to mass every day and did a holy hour with the Sisters off camera. My relationship with the Lord grew and he began to romance my heart, but still I found myself thinking about the ex. I often wondered, are these thoughts from the devil or from God? If you watch The Sisterhood you’ll see about 30 seconds of a breakdown (there were lots more breakdowns off camera.) I didn’t know that Darnell, a boyfriend waiting in the wings while his girlfriend Eseni discerned, was coming. It was obviously staged but they didn’t tell us girls. As Darnell walked toward Eseni I imagined my ex in his place coming for me. A flurry of more tears and a general cry of what am I doing with my life? ensued. Oh, yes. I was starring in Hot Mess: The Musical!
Kleenex stocks went through the roof around that time, I'm convinced.
At last I couldn’t wonder any more. On a rare day during filming when I got to have my cell phone (the crew kept them most of the time,) I emailed him asking if he wanted to get back together. I waited. A whole week passed by with no word. Finally, nine days later, the reply came: a politely worded no. He had moved on. Strangely, I felt peace. As Jackie Francois Angel sassily stated on her episode of Called and Caffeinated: “Rejection is God’s protection.” Even though the answer wasn’t what I wanted and getting rejected made me feel somewhat of a loser temporarily, now I could at last know what options were realistic.
I’m thoroughly grateful for his no. It allowed me to clear a direct path for the Lord to come to my heart to make me understand he’s the one I really wanted all along. It saved me from the emotional wreck I would have been by choosing to subject myself to someone who didn’t want me to be who I am. God in his mercy diverted my ex’s heart away from me. Moving on still took some time, but I am grateful for the smaller difficulty of moving on rather than the larger difficulty of a conflict-filled marriage. As goes the well-known saying attributed to John Bradford: “There but for the grace of God go I.”
If you’re trying to discern religious life and are in a relationship, trying to get over a relationship, feeling doubtful about a relationship, scared of religious life or the priesthood, or are feeling lonely and wanting a relationship, I am with you. I know how it goes and how hard it is.
On hard days, draw comfort from the fact that you have never looked this way in front of millions of people on worldwide TV.
I say all of what follows in humility, because I was far from perfect: Be comforted knowing that God wants the best for you. Give him first option in your life and you won’t be unhappy in the big picture.
As long as you try to stay close to him, he will not let you miss the vocation that will make you happiest and most fulfilled. Through every turn in the road and rejection and sacrifice, he’s leading you closer to it.
Trust your intuition and go where peace leads you. Trust the invitation God issues to you to discern religious life. If you really care about your significant other, don’t put them through the emotional wringer or waiting around for you. When needed, take action to clarify what’s in your heart, whether that’s visiting a convent or monastery or talking with close friends to sort through the confusion. If you’re being tortured by thoughts of what if? bring those to light instead of letting them bounce around endlessly in your brain. Trust that God will bring you someone better in his time. Take the time to make your relationship with God your firm foundation, and if he has marriage in mind for you, he’s going to make it easy to know who the right one is.
Through discerning religious life and imperfectly, slowly learning to put my desires second to God’s, he eventually brought me a man in HIS time who is not only serious about his faith but is an exponentially better fit for me. I felt accepted and loved from the beginning by John and just five months after we met I gave him my joy-filled yes and have never looked back. I had to be willing to surrender my heart, put aside my timeline, wait when I wanted to jump ship, listen, and hear some things I didn’t want to, but it was all TOTALLY worth it to experience intimacy with Christ and let him show me the man I can build a strong, sustainable marriage with. If you haven't yet, try Lisa Cotter's episode on Called and Caffeinated for guidance in discerning whether or not to break up.
It all comes down to this: God alone is enough. He is the only one who can fill our hearts. He is with you in the mess right this second, and he wants your good so much. And I’m praying for you.