The divine signs came to me through all channels and mediums. Even the girl in the ill-fitting naughty nun costume on my doorstep Halloween weekend was a message. The fact that she was trick-or-treating with a shot glass necklace did nothing to curb the impact of this divine appeal.
This was just another of the many signs barraging me throughout my senior year of college. A gut-dropping confirmation of my greatest fear and my greatest certainty — God was going to make me be a nun.
The fact that I was currently a college student in a serious relationship, that I was, at best, a cafeteria Catholic, the fact that I had never even been to a convent — far from a hindrance to my vocation — were kindling for the greatest saint comeback story yet to be told. Mental illness is complicated like that.
After graduation, while my college roommates packed their cars indiscriminately for their future graduate schools and internships, I packed modestly: running sneakers, a few photos from my former life to cry over later, the clothes with the greatest fabric-to-body ratio. I hid a couple of CDs and candy bars in the bottom of my suitcase; there would be plenty of time to grow more ascetic later. I didn’t pack deodorant or shampoo.
“What does hygiene matter in a life of interminable celibacy?” I asked my parents on the 10-hour drive from Michigan to the convent.
They veered off the road to a Casey’s General Store, where they convinced me that even nuns needed these items. Tears fell as the teller rang up the deodorant, shampoo and Oke Doke popcorn. The reality of my impetuous move was finally settling in.
Anyone who has grown up with 12 years of Catholic school education may be familiar with the annual “vocation awareness weeks,” where teachers carted around a token sister, priest or seminarian to various classrooms to give you the “I too never thought I would be a [blank] but then look at me now” talk. Their shock was always evident: “I mean, look how sexy I am,” they seemed to say.
The talks had a structure: 20 minutes were spent normalizing themselves to a couple dozen kids who were honestly still fixating on whether [blank] went commando under those “robes.”
“You know I played football, just like you guys,” they would say. “I shopped at the mall.” And then the talks would lead up to “the moment.”
“At that moment, I knew I wanted to be a priest,” they’d explain.
The “moment” is what sent a bomb exploding in my gut. Clearly, it didn’t quite matter whether one wanted to be a nun, it happened to you. Certainly “the moment” would come for me too.
The signs started appearing sometime during my senior year of college. A Mother Teresa biography in a little free library, ”The Sound of Music” playing on TV during Christmas, a billboard for a hospital run by the Sisters of St. Joseph — these were the marks of indisputable evidence that I would share with baffled friends and family.
I knew God’s arrangements couldn’t be escaped, just postponed. So as my inbox filled with messages of “thanks, but no” from the myriad writing jobs and internships I applied for in the spring before graduation, I got the message.
It wasn’t because I was an English and philosophy major seeking work on the heels of the Great Recession as the newspaper industry was floundering — no, I knew deep down in my gut that it was because I was reserved for another calling.
I finally got a response in my job search from a small Catholic newspaper in Kansas City, Missouri. They were intrigued when I offered to work for free and were eager to have the fresh perspective of someone younger than a septuagenarian. My less-than-no-money dilemma would present a problem for lodging, however, so the editor-in-chief suggested I contact the Sisters of Charity there, who were dear friends of his.
That was the final sign, the one that knocked the walls down. My attempts at normalcy, at escaping my path, all led to this moment and I couldn’t stand the mental anguish of trying to run anymore. If God held the cards at the end of the day anyway, then I might as well suck it up and get this over with.
I contacted the Sisters of Charity in Kansas City and told them I wanted to discern religious life with them, meaning determine whether theirs was the order that I would eventually join. I was willing to forgo the internship, but, as a working order, they were thrilled to hear I already had a job lined up.
I was perfectly aware I had mental health issues. As a kid, I had bouts of obsessive thinking that would flare up throughout the years: a period where I was terrified of my brothers getting abducted by kidnappers, a period where I feared the death of my family.
But it was my sophomore year of college when I was raped that these issues were exacerbated. I denied the trauma for months before finally sharing with my parents. This begat weekly therapy, which begat a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, which begat antidepressants and an anti-anxiety drug.
But after a couple years of this, I deluded myself into thinking I had moved on from the experience, that I was post-post-traumatic stress disorder and that these “signs” I experienced were completely unrelated.
When my therapist tried to connect those dots for me, or when friends or family would gently tell me they didn’t think religious life was a good fit for me, I dismissed them to myself as the same detractors Jesus faced in his ministry.
I routinely dropped my meds without telling my therapist or parents, as I feared they were a secular world’s attempt to drone out holy noise. I forced myself to go on a five-day silent retreat and spent hours hiding in my room with panic attacks. Very few minutes passed without my mind consumed with impending doom.
The only way to escape the signs was to surrender. So I parted with my friends and their envious futures and moved in with the Sisters of Charity in Kansas City, armed with little more knowledge about religious life than what I could gather from “Sister Act.”
My parents and I pulled up to the humble residence across the street from an ornate church in a low-income neighborhood in Kansas City. Several years before, the convent had been sold and the sisters split up into several homes throughout the city due to decreased membership and an aging population. This home had six religious sisters, two postulants, one other discerning woman, and a former Amish woman who had been excommunicated from her community.
Upon arrival, I was greeted by an affable 40-something sister wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt; she had been in the middle of doing yard work. She matter-of-factly gave me the tour of the house — showed me the chapel, my bedroom, the bathroom, gardens, the kitchen and pantry.
I felt slightly ashamed deep down that I had expected something different — a celebratory parade, trumpets blowing upon my arrival, and sycophantic gratitude that I would sacrifice all my beauty and brains to live a lowly religious life. She was all business, explaining their expectations so she could get back to gardening.
The days began with morning prayer and then breakfast. Then off to work. The Sisters of Charity have a twofold mission of sanctity and service. Most of the sisters were teachers or worked in women’s or homeless shelters.
After work, there was dinner, which we each took turns cooking. There were housekeeping tasks to maintain to a rigorous standard: gardening (we ate what we grew), lawn-mowing, weeding, cleaning, painting rooms, and participating in community and volunteer events.
As a desperately extroverted person, I was eager to forge friendships with the sisters. And as someone still reeling from trauma, I was more deeply eager for someone to give me some kind of guidance or meaning.
But there was none to be had. The sisters I lived with were serious about their work, and very insular. Their eyes were “fixed on Jesus,” as a biblical passage says, and that left little room for sideways glances at their roommates.
Feeling the sting of their perceived indifference, I became more silent, reserved. I stopped sharing my opinions or telling jokes. And something happened: In the silence of monastic life, in the isolation of avoiding the people you’re living with, the things you’re escaping come to the forefront.
These sisters weren’t cruel or unholy. I had gone to them seeking something that wasn’t theirs to give me — a therapist in a habit, an apology for my wounds from God’s representatives, a tear-filled hug. In the silent void of what I sought, the wounds that I had left untended rose to the surface. Even in the convent, they found me. It was time to go.
After four months with the sisters, I went home to visit my family for what was supposed to be just a two-week trip. Before I left, the sisters and I had discussed plans for me to move into a more permanent bedroom within the home (mine had been for rotating visitors).
But at home, I found myself dreading my return. Each day, I broke down crying at unexpected moments. I couldn’t make myself get on that Kansas City flight. I still believed I was supposed to be a nun, but maybe not there, not that order. I sent the sisters an email. They were incredibly loving and understanding and, I’m sure, not in the least surprised.
My mom and I picked up my things and made the drive back home. I had nothing to go home to — no job, living with my parents, but every hour outside of Kansas City we drove I breathed more and more easily.
A year later, I went on a backpacking retreat in the Rocky Mountains. The French monk who guided the backpackers, Fr. Antoinne, was an odd yet magnanimous leader, like a contemplative Mr. Bean. He leaped recklessly atop peaks, cassocks and all, with the ease and energy of a billy goat yet reclined in silent prayer for hours throughout the day.
For me, the silence of the retreat was punctuated by reminders of my failed stint with the sisters in Kansas, and the question of which order I would force myself to try next.
On one of the sunrise hikes, I thought about what I would be leaving behind: the children I had always wanted to have, the career, the romance... Lost in thought, I didn’t realize I had slowly veered away from the other backpackers, until only Fr. Antoinne was behind me. Here it was, another “moment.” He asked me what I hoped for in my life like a sixth-sensed warlock.
“I don’t know,” I said with a heavy sigh. “I think God’s probably just going to make me be a nun, so I’ll probably do that.”
He looked at me, startled for a second, then burst out laughing and grabbed my cheeks. With his thick French accent he said, “No, no, no, no, no Casey, no, no no. You’re not going to be a nun. You’ll be a wife, you’ll be a mother and I’ll pray for you every day.”
Shaking his head, he walked up to the peak, meeting up with the rest of our group. I followed as we scaled the side of a wall as the sun rose. I wasn’t sure I could believe him. It didn’t seem possible. Too good to be true. But the permission in a stranger’s startling laughter was something I savored at the top of that peak.
There was something that took years of therapy and medication to realize. I’d been taking my neurotic fears at face value, but they were tools for masking a far deeper fear — a fear of letting anyone get close to me ever again.
I had to face that fear five years later when I moved to San Diego and met a guy who, like me, was from the Midwest. He was tall, handsome, humble, reserved. And when, in the course of our conversation, I mentioned a mountain backpacking retreat I went on with an obscure French monk, he stopped me.
“Wait,” he said. “Are you talking about Fr. Antoinne?”
I had learned, through years of therapy, not to listen when something that seemed like a divine “sign” appeared before me. But here was that damn heartbeat of mine quickening, those familiar goosebumps flowering up my arms. Here I looked up at this 6-foot-3, blue-eyed gentle stranger and couldn’t shake the thought that he was someone I would know forever.
Andrew was a confusing wrench to throw into a nest of ticks and neurotic thought spirals. But a wrench slowly undone by a marriage, children, years with the man who upset what I thought was my divine destiny.
My post-assault self had told me I couldn’t trust myself or my desires. But the truth that I celebrate today every time a curly-headed baby falls asleep on my chest, or I laugh with my husband until I pee a little, is that my desires were a dazzling foretaste of the life I have now. And it is a very good life.