Yesterday, May 1st, marked the 10th anniversary of my leaving the convent. I was in for 9 1/2 years, and now I've been out for 10. As I seem to experience major, life altering changes every decade ending in "4", I have to admit I'm a little curious about what might happen to me before the end of this year...
If I had to distinguish between the two decades, I would say that my decade in the convent went much slower partly because I was younger, but also because I was so bored so often. And because it had so much more suffering.
I can divide the two decades by the things I learned in each.
In the convent, I had an almost inconceivable -- to anyone in lay life -- amount of face time with Jesus. In just about ten years, I didn't start a single day without Mass and a half hour of meditation. I made an hour of adoration every day for the first four years, and then a daily hour and a half for the last six. It's really quite amazing. Most of the time, I was reading the Scriptures in an effort to keep from falling asleep. This basically meant I read the Scriptures over and over and over and over and over. In between all of that struggling to stay awake, I learned a lot about prayer - "Praying for your personality type" ; "Praying with St. John of the Cross" ;"Praying with the Liturgy"; "Praying Alone"; "Praying in Groups"....
The convent years were also about every kind of theological study - Church history, ecclesiology, Christology, Patrology, Catechetics, religious sociology, sacramental and moral theology - plus the special studies concerned with religious life. I read a tremendous number of books in thsoe years. Probably two or three a month.
Finally, religious life taught me things about human psychology. We were very concerned with getting very good at friendship, dialogue and collaboration. And I lived with some people who had severe emotional and psychological baggage in those years. I had two years of vocational/discernment counseling and then eight more years of spiritual direction..."Why did you do/say that?" "How did you feel?" "How do you feel about it now?" "Why?"
My decade out of the convent has been about feeling a lot of compassion - for the world (because it doesn't have to be so hard...just don't sin, okay?), for the People of God (because they have been so let down by their shepherds), for young people (it's not that they don't care -- they have just learned to mask their pain), for artists (they are so generous and vulnerable, and they've gotten such a bad rap).
Besides all the practical information about art and writing and movies, my decade in the world has meant ten times as much personal maturity as that required of me in religious life. It is frighteningly possible to live as a perpetual adolescent in the convent. It seems like the minute I left the convent, I started ending up teaching, explaining, mentoring - drawing on all the lessons that the corporate Church had lavished on me in the decade before. I've learned a lot about what you can teach people (mostly in sharing stories) and what they have to learn themselves (...suffering...no other way to courage, insight, compassion, patience...).
All in all, I'm grateful for both decades. Many, many good friends and lots of love in both worlds. "May God who has begun this good work in you, bring it to completion in Jesus Christ the Lord."