I’d dreamed of being a nun since the age of 12, when I transformed from a caterpillar to a butterfly at the hands of Sister Helen Charles. I was a mess the day I entered her 6th grade—an eleven year old misfit who’d been bullied and beaten for being a tomboy. I walked with my head down, rarely made eye contact, spoke only when I had to. I didn’t fit in anywhere and had no expectations things would change.
Sister Helen Charles, however, saw a spark inside and set out on a mission to kindle the flame. She called my mom and introduced her to a new idea they agreed to try. It was called positive reinforcement. Every time I did something right, they made a big fuss over it. I thought they were weird at first, going on about how athletic I was, how creative, how smart and trust-worthy.
But after a few weeks, an amazing thing happened. Their affirmations took root. I woke up one day and believed in myself. There was a fire inside me and I felt its heat. That day I decided to be a nun when I grew up. I was sure they had some kind of magic wand hidden in those folds of black serge and I wanted one. I wanted to do for other kids what Sister Helen Charles had done for me.
At the age of eighteen I entered the convent. I found my bliss in this spiritual boot camp. They scheduled our time in a way that met all my needs: equal parts of prayer, solitude, community and service. We were in training for the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and there were rules galore. I obeyed the ones I agreed with and followed my own conscience in most situations.
I was introduced to the three teachers who influence my life to this day: Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin . I steeped myself in their work, studied every word they wrote, took on their mantles of monasticism, activism, mysticism. I made contact with my inner divine, explored texts from Eastern traditions, committed myself as an agent of change, and saw the infinite in all things.
In my first Theology class, I struggled to understand the distinction between religion and faith. I wanted to hold on to my certainties, my catechetical beliefs, thinking that’s all I needed, when our Jesuit professor was pushing us to evolve spiritually, to say aloud what we committed to.
“Your religion is a set of beliefs that you inherit,” he said. “Your faith, your spirituality, is what you yourself create based upon your ultimate concerns and commitments.” I suffered deep anxiety as I let go of certainty to enter into the mystery of my own faith-making. It took everything I had to lay my foundation, to discern what I valued most, to develop a language of personal authority, to proclaim that my faith is my commitment to justice, to peace, to community-building.
After two years of this deepening, transformative work and prayer, I was dismissed. At the end of a long day, I was taken to a basement parlor and told by my Novice Director that my parents would be there in a half an hour. “Chapter has decided you’re not to continue your novitiate.” I froze, unable to speak, afraid to cry for fear of what might be set loose. She took my veil, then we sat in silence till we heard my parents being ushered into the room next door.
Ten years went by before I wrote and asked why. The letter was short, but stated that I “didn’t have a religious disposition” because of my “excessive and exclusive relationships.” Memories of feeling like a misfit fired in every neuron. They didn’t use the word gay or homosexual, but it was right there between their lines. You don’t fit in here. You’ll never fit in.
I spent many hours in therapy trying to heal from the rejection, but couldn’t get past the pain. Finally, after twenty years, I asked the sister who was Provincial Director at the time of my dismissal, in charge of our Motherhouse of 400 sisters, to sit with me as I unwound the story in her presence. By now, she had rotated out of leadership and was teaching in a Syracuse Catholic high school.
We sat together in a parlor, knee to knee in hard-backed chairs, and she listened to my whole story, starting with sixth grade. I told her about the formula for bliss and how I organize my life into equal parts of prayer, service, solitude and community since I learned it in the Novitiate. I told her how many years I ran to the mailbox hoping that would be the day I’d get the letter where they asked me to come back, that they’d made a terrible mistake.
I told her about coming out to a priest and being refused absolution unless I denounced my own gayness, and how grateful I was for that Theology class where I learned I could be a woman of faith without religion. I told her what it had been like to have no Plan B, no idea how to create a life I had not prepared for—that I went into social work, thinking that was closest to being a nun, but left it for social activism when I realized I wanted to be more like Gandhi than Mother Teresa.
“I am out here alone, but I am living the charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph. I am lonely for community and so terribly sad that it worked out this way and I can’t seem to get over it,” I said. “I’m trying this last thing to see if a miracle might happen and my heart can find its peace. That’s all.”
When I was done, she took my hand and said, “Sister, will you forgive me for the role I played in this terrible injustice done to you on my watch?”
It cost me nothing to forgive her. I did not blame her for anything. Once I said “Yes, of course,” she asked if I would forgive the entire congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet for this terrible injustice that was done to me by this community. Again, I did not blame them and said immediately, “Yes, I forgive the entire community.”
When these words left my lips, all heaven broke loose. I felt the release of a huge weight. I felt the fire again in my belly. I felt the surprise of an illuminating thought that has remained with me to this day: there is nothing to forgive. What happened, happened for me as much as to me.
I also felt gratitude that I hadn’t felt in twenty years, because there was no room inside me to hold it. All the space that was taken up by rage, angst, humiliation, despair, shame—all that space opened up for gratitude when the story shifted. I turned to Sr. Marian Rispski, in tears again but for a whole new reason, and said “Thank you so much for letting me live a monastic life for two years. Thank you and the whole community for my spiritual underpinnings. Thank you for the foundation I needed to find my voice and offer my gifts.”
Had they let me stay, this would be the beginning of my Jubilee Year, a grand celebration of fifty years as a Sister of St. Joseph. I attended two Jubilee celebrations this summer and felt mixed blessings at both of them. I longed to stand with all the Sisters as they renewed their vows and sang Sancte Joseph, and I was also grateful for my life of freedom.
The physicist Neils Bohr writes, “Opposite a true statement is a false statement. But opposite a profound truth is another profound truth.” That is the case here. When I spin the story to its true end, I feel deep gratitude for the ordeal that was grist for the masterpiece of my life. They let me go because I was an eagle and needed more room to fly. They knew I could not be silenced, obedient, true to any authority other than my own. They knew I was an activist down to my marrow and would not always be on the side of the official church. They really did see me.
And as I look back at my last fifty years, I see, too, that what I’ve become would not have been possible as a Sister of St. Joseph.
I became a gay activist because I experienced such cruel homophobia I could not remain silent in the face of it. I made a year long peace pilgrimage around the world which exposed me to faith traditions I would have never known had I not stayed in the homes of Hindus, Muslims, Palestinians, Israelis, Buddhists, Sikhs, Taoists and Wiccans. I am free to criticize the Catholic Church for its positions that put so many people at risk and in harm’s way. I have preached in hundreds of churches in dozens of countries and speak from the authority of my own experience.
My own spiritual practice is the center point of my life, and while I am not engaged with the Church, everything I do and am is rooted in my faith.. It does not matter if I believe in the God I grew up with. It does not matter if I am Catholic or not. What matters is that I am true to my own vows of authenticity, creativity and peace-making.
So it’s with odd and mixed feelings that I enter into this, my Jubilee Year—grateful that I once heard my Novice Director Sister Elizabeth Thomas say, “Once a CSJ, always a CSJ.” I won’t have any fancy reception, nor will I be preaching from the pulpit in a Catholic Church, but I thank my lucky stars that I have lived a life true to the fire in my own belly. Open the champagne! I celebrate these fifty years of being the Light I want to see in the world.