When a Daughter Enters the Convent


My daughter Felicity was going to be a musician and then a writer. She considered studying  horticulture, and then decided she didn’t want to do anything more taxing than be a check-out operator in a supermarket. I could see she was having a great interior battle, trying to decide what God wanted her to do with her life.

Then one day Felicity announced, “I think God might be calling me to the religious life. Perhaps I should visit some convents.”

So she spent a few days with a teaching order of nuns. We knew these women. I could imagine Felicity joining them and using her talents of music and English to help other people. Yes, I could accept she might become a teaching nun. It made sense.

But then Felicity arranged to visit an enclosed order: “Just to compare orders, Mum!” She might have looked lightly upon this visit, but I was concerned: “She’s going to come back and tell us she wants to be a contemplative nun,” I said to my husband Andy.

As soon as Felicity arrived home she did indeed announce this intention and a sharp pain instantly struck my heart. I am not exaggerating, being overly dramatic. It hurt to a depth even I hadn’t anticipated. The tears started flowing even though I tried holding them back. I wanted to smile and say, “I’m proud of you for wanting to give up your life for God.” But it was hard. So hard.

“When are you leaving?” I asked.

“Mother Prioress says I should return to the convent as soon as possible, maybe in two weeks’ time.”

There was so much to do. First I had to let everyone know about Felicity’s decision. Maybe friends and family would like to visit and say goodbye. So I picked up the phone and began a round of “I’m just phoning to let you know Felicity has decided to enter an enclosed order of nuns.”

The reactions were diverse. Some friends congratulated us. Wasn’t it every Catholic parent’s dream to have a daughter who was willing to embrace the religious life?

Some people were happy but thought Felicity was being too hasty. Shouldn’t she get her university degree first? If it was meant to be, waiting a bit longer wouldn’t hurt. Why did she have to hurry back to the convent so soon?

And then there were those who just didn’t understand. Why would a beautiful, talented, young girl want to give up her life and shut herself away from the world in a convent? Some people were very upset with Felicity’s decision and I bore the brunt of it, trying to explain, trying to support my daughter. It wasn’t as if I was exactly happy about the decision either, not because I didn’t understand, but because my heart was breaking.

I imagined the future, which was hurtling towards us, without Felicity. She’d never be part of our family life again. We wouldn’t be able to do simple things with her, like chat over a cup of coffee. I watched her sorting out her clothes and possessions, deciding who to give them to. I would never see her dressed in those colourful skirts and dresses again. She wouldn’t wear her huge hoop earrings. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy listening to her funny stories as the kids washed the dishes together each evening. No more sharing a pew at Mass. Felicity would never again enter our home once she passed out the front door, on her way to the convent.

The tears flowed on and off for that last two weeks. I felt like I was grieving. I guess I was. I wanted say, “Couldn’t you wait until you’re a little older?” but Felicity said, “You’re not going to try and stop me going as well, are you Mum?” No, I’d always told my children we have to be prepared to do God’s will whatever that involves. I had to support my daughter’s decision.

“If Felicity is running away from an unhappy home life, she can live with us.” These words cut deep. Unhappy home life? Felicity wasn’t running away. Or was she? These are some recent words of Felicity’s:


I remember a particularly bad time of depression when I was 17. I was very focused on music at the time, and I pushed myself extremely hard to do an advanced and difficult clarinet exam. The plan was for me to continue with my clarinet studies after
that and gain entrance into a conservatorium of music. I wanted to be in an orchestra. But after completing (and doing very well in) my exam, I lost all motivation. I couldn’t settle down to practice. I couldn’t seem to do anything. I gave up on music. I tried to decide on another course of action – horticulture, part-time work, anything, but nothing seemed to stick.
Well, at the age of 18 I ran away to a convent.
 

As I began my teens, I wanted to be perfect. Throughout my teen years, I think I would have settled for normality or stability. As I ended my teens, I thought I would achieve peace through sacrificing my life in the convent. 
 

I don’t think Felicity was running away from her family and home life, but maybe she was running away from the confusion and pain of her
mental condition. Perhaps she thought she’d find peace in the religious life.

The day arrived for Felicity to leave. Andy was going to drive her to the convent, and several of our children were going along for the
ride. I couldn’t go with them. Charlotte wasn’t well. Gemma-Rose had been sick too. I was so glad of an excuse to avoid a public goodbye at the convent. The one at home was hard enough.

We had morning tea together around the kitchen table. As I watched my eldest daughter sipping coffee, I kept thinking, “This is the last
time…” We tried to keep the conversation light as if the day were just like any other day. But then Andy said, “Shall we get going?” and our time together ran
out.

The tears flowed down my cheeks as I hugged Felicity close. She said, “Oh Mum!” but didn’t cry herself. And then she was gone.

Of course life goes on. We adjusted. But the pain remained quietly in the background.

We were allowed to visit Felicity every month or so. Mother Prioress was kind, recognising it was difficult to break the family ties so quickly. None of the other nuns had young siblings. An exception was made and we were allowed more visits than usual. I knew it wouldn’t always be that way but it helped at the beginning.

We always visited on a Saturday afternoon between 1 pm and 3 pm, not a minute longer. Two precious hours. We met in the guests’ library.
One of the nuns always brought us a jug of cordial and plates of biscuits. There was tea and also coffee. But only for us. Felicity wasn’t allowed to eat or drink with her
family.

“How are you doing?” I’d ask.

Felicity would smile and say, “Everything’s fine.” She told us funny stories of her new life like the one about the magpie. It flew into the chapel and had to be chased out. She showed us some drawings she’d been allowed to work on. She described the Bible and other lessons she was involved with. “Mother says you gave me a wonderful education. She is impressed by my Latin.” And we told Felicity all the latest news from home. It was all very polite and all very meaningless: light, happy conversation about nothing important.

After 6 months Felicity was accepted as a novice. She received a religious name. But I never used it. My daughter was always ‘Felicity’ or ‘Tissie’ to me. There were other things I had a hard time accepting. Maybe they were silly things. Why did my daughter’s hair have to be hacked off? Couldn’t she be given special cleansers for her skin as the rough soap was causing irritation and inflammation? Did the nuns set aside time for exercise? I had a lot of concerns but I had no right to voice them.

I wrote to Mother Prioress. “Could you please tell me what obligations if any, Felicity has towards her family. I am no longer certain what role I play in her life. Do we need to let go of Felicity completely and not expect anything of her?”

She wrote back that Felicity was expected to pray for her family but that was the extent of her obligations. Mother Prioress was now her mother. She assured me she would look after her in my place.

I was no longer Felicity’s mother. My role had been handed over to another woman. I tried to talk about this with friends and they said such things as:

“You should feel grateful she is somewhere safe.”

“You should be happy she has a religious vocation.”

“It would be the same if she got married.”
 

“We all have to give up our children one day.”

But having a married daughter is nothing like having a daughter in the convent. I have experienced both. And children do grow up but that doesn’t mean we don’t still care. And I know we have to do God’s will, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It sometimes involves great sacrifice.

So I stopped talking about my feelings because I thought people would think I was complaining. But there was one person who was an enormous help.  A priest, who knew the nuns well, would phone occasionally and ask how I was going. He acknowledged it wasn’t easy for a mother to give up a daughter.

The months passed. Then in the autumn of Felicity’s second year at the convent, we arrived to discover our afternoon tea was going to be served outside. “It’s such a glorious day,” Mother Prioress smiled. “I thought you would enjoy having your visit in the garden.”

We spread a rug on the grass and the children ran along the paths enjoying the sunshine. Mother Prioress looked at them and said, “The girls are all so beautiful. I want every single one of them.” I tried not to imagine losing five daughters to the convent. Instead I concentrated on taking lots of photos as Felicity gave piggybacks to Gemma-Rose and Sophie. Then I took out my camcorder and recorded a few minutes of video as usual. I have photographic and video records of every single one of our visits to the convent. (And like the video of Thomas’ funeral, I have never watched a single minute of any of them.)

It was an enjoyable afternoon. Felicity looked well and happy. “Look, Mum! I’ve lost weight. I had to ask Sister to put a new hole in my belt.” Yes, things were going well, and I was adjusting. Maybe it would be okay. Could that joy from accepting God’s will actually be on its way?

But then we had a phone call.

And because this post is already so very long, I will continue the story another day.


I welcome your comments. (Actually, I more than welcome them. I thank you for them, and appreciate your support as I tell these stories.) I apologise if I don’t answer as quickly as normal. I want to reply properly and not in a hurry, and time seems to be rather short at the moment.


Image: One of the last photos of Felicity before she left for the convent. She is nursing Gemma-Rose who was very unwell.


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Comments

  1. Reply

    You have written so poignantly of this time. Which is my rather stilted way of saying what I cannot say: which is that my heart is deeply moved – especially at the pain you must have felt when you were told by well-meaning others what you "should" feel. People try so hard to help others "get over" grief and pain, and as we know, they cannot do so. Thank you, dear Sue, for sharing so openly of this rough time in your life (lives). I am just sure that others are being helped as you do so.

    1. Reply

      Nancy,

      We can never really know what others are feeling unless we have experienced something very similar. So it amazes me how many people dismiss other people's feelings so quickly. I am sure you know what I mean. Maybe it makes people feel better to encourage us to get over the pain as fast as we can. No one likes to see another suffer. They wish it was easy because they hope it is so, I suppose. But feelings can't be wished away. They have to be accepted. It is a real gift to be accepted just as we are, and to be allowed to grieve. Again, I don't know why I am trying to put this in words because I know you already understand.

      Thank you so much, Nancy.

    • amy
    • January 10, 2014
    Reply

    Ahhh, I am loving this story and now you are being all suspenseful! No fair! Write the rest soon please 🙂 Xx

    1. Reply

      Amy,

      Thank you for following this story. I know it is long and heavy going, and somehow I find more to share so the posts are long. I was wondering if it was all too much for readers so thank you for your encouragement. I will finish the second half of this story as soon as I can.

  2. Reply

    This is all so interesting. I wonder if you are finding it hard to write out memories that may be painful, or do you find it helpful to put things into words?

    1. Reply

      Kelly,

      I have put some of this into words before. There are a couple of posts on my other blog in which I tell part of the story. This is the first time I have tried to write so many posts one after the other, and be as honest as I can. I must admit I feel bowed down a bit by the sad memories. I keep thinking of what will come next. Maybe it will be a relief to get to the end so I can think of something else. But the last chapter is full of hope so that will be good to write!

  3. Reply

    This is unknown land to me. As mother to five sons and only one daughter, who is now a mother herself, I am never goint to experience this special mother's pain. If one or more of the boys become priests we at least will always be able to visit, talk etc.
    I'm so grateful that you're sharing this tales from a life so similar, and yet so different from mine. And like Amy I wait eagery for the story to go on.
    And I feel strongly that life in a convent can be a way of running away from a difficult life with decisions to make, housekeeping, people to meet, and expectatoins to live up to. I too have felt that temptation. How deligthful to have all day for God and prayers, nobody pulling your sleeve … no laundry, no washing of dishes, no responsibility for the mechanics of every day life.

    1. Reply

      Uglemor,

      Yes, I imagine the convent life does sound like bliss sometimes, a life where there are no responsibilities. Maybe some girls do enter the religious life for that reason. I don't know if Felicity felt this way. I know, later on, she said she felt the need to prove she could earn her own living and look after herself, as she'd never done that before.

      It does seem to me though that convent life wouldn't be as delightful as we anticipate. It would be so difficult not to have any choice, to always have to obey even when one didn't feel like it. Giving up our own will isn't something most of us could do. If I am tired, I can choose to sleep in. I can choose what to eat when I like. I can ignore my duties if I want to, leave the dishes in the sink. I know mothers of young children have less choice but life changes as children grow older. But a nun's life is one of constant routine, day in and day out, obeying someone else's orders whether she wants to or not. There are dishes to wash and gardens to tend, habits to launder, toilets to clean, as well as the long hours of prayer at regular times of the day and the night. The bell rings and the nun drops whatever she is doing and obeys. I don't know if I could ever adapt myself to that kind of life.

      Felicity once wrote about how she missed the embrace of others. No physical contact with another human being is very difficult, especially for someone who has grown up in a demonstrative loving family. I think I'd much prefer someone pulling on my sleeve!

      Thank you so much for commenting here on this blog!

    • Hwee
    • January 10, 2014
    Reply

    I apologise this if I sound a little confused — is Felicity still in the convent? I know that this story is written retrospectively but I'm not sure whether she is still there. This is just for my own understanding of what the situation is at present, with respect to your post.

    I remember harbouring very similar intentions as she did when I was in my teens up to my early 20s. Funnily enough, I was on a very similar path musically as Felicity was (my instrument was the piano) so I can identify with her sense of loss of suddenly not knowing what to do after the major music exam.

    Now that I am a mother, I can understand the pain of loss you felt in those years when Felicity decided to enter the convent. However, having had the same thoughts of wanting a contemplative life myself until my early 20s, I can also understand from an anguished teenager's point of view that, at that moment, there is nothing else more important than trying to save one's own sanity. The desire to remove oneself from the familiar surroundings of family and friends can be so strong that nothing less than a complete cut-off will be enough to figure one's life direction out. In the East and especially in the Buddhist tradition, taking such time off (mostly for young men) from the mundane world is quite acceptable and even encouraged. 🙂

    1. Reply

      Your comment about the Buddhist tradition made me think, wouldn't it be a nice thing for teenagers to have such a time off in Catholic Monastaries too? Maybe this could be an attracive for adolesence young people and help them in the orientation of their life.

    2. Reply

      Hwee,

      Felicity is no longer in the convent. She has been married for the last two years. I won't tell any more details here because I shall explain as I write the next couple of posts.

      "there is nothing else more important than trying to save one's own sanity" I think these are very relevant words. When we are in a crisis, wrapped up in our own problems, we have to put ourselves first. Maybe Felicity didn't even see how it was affecting us.

      Perhaps we all need times of quiet and reflection, but yes, young people especially need them. As you will see later in the story, Felicity's experience was complicated by her mental condition, so the time of contemplation wasn't enough to give her any answers to what she should be doing with her life.

      Thank you for your comment!

  4. Reply

    I cannot wait for the next part. Amazing story. I can completely relate to your emotions and I so appreciate you sharing this.

    1. Reply

      Emmie,

      Thank you for reading. I was writing the next post this afternoon. Maybe it will be ready to post tomorrow.

      God bless!

  5. Reply

    Awww.. This is sooo exciting! It's almost like reading the book already. And then you stop in the most exciting moment. Just like at the soap operas. You surely are talented :))
    Don't worry about answering every comment. I don't think there is a must to that. Even though, I'm sure others appreciate it as I do too. But if I think I am taking away precious time from you, than I'd rather have you not answering!

    1. Reply

      Bernice,

      I love answering comments and continuing the conversation. But at the moment I seem to have got so behind with replying to emails and other correspondence. I guess I am spending lots of time thinking about and writing this series. But I will get there. I will catch up eventually!

      Thank you so much for understanding.

  6. Reply

    I can't imagine being in your shoes, but I can imagine the kinds of comments you got. I'ved lived through those kinds of comments on another issue. I am sorry you have lived through this; it would be so hard.

    1. Reply

      Becca,

      Yes, people don't think very carefully before they comment on other people's experiences. I don't suppose they mean to hurt us with their words. They just don't understand. Actually I have been guilty of dismissing others' feelings too. I suppose I will have to reveal this in a later post!

      I am also sorry you have had to deal with the thoughtless remarks of people around you. Thank you so much for stopping by.

  7. Reply

    I am sitting here biting at the bit for part two!!!

    I know a lovely lady who has nine children. Her two eldest daughters are sisters… one of them is with Mother Angelica and her nuns. She loves them, is proud of them, LOVES sharing about them and talking about them and has a huge book about each daughter where she saves everything… but I see the pain in her eyes and hear it in her voice. As she tells me about her precious girls, I am moved to tears… I cannot imagine. She has described it as a 'death in the family', as that is exactly how it felt to her. She does call her daughter by their new names, but she has also used their old names… I can tell she is still trying to bravely adjust, God bless her. They can only visit like once or twice a year, for two measly hours. They can only hug their own daughter through the grate. To me, that sounds devastating and heartbreaking.. I can't imagine someone telling me I can't hug Amy or Robyn close to me and kiss them anymore.. and she has to share that two hours with her husband and all her other children. I have such mixed feelings about it.. I hope for it, then I hope they will never be called to it. Gosh I could go on and on about this… does it make sense that on one hand I love this subject but on the other hand it causes me fear and dread and gets me into a "thinking too much" type mood for a few days? How can I love and be drawn to something that it so fearful!? Arrgghh!!

    I am greatly looking forward to reading the next part!! ♥ ♥ ♥

    1. Reply

      Susan,

      What a sacrifice your friend has made giving up two daughters, and with such a loving and generous spirit! Oh yes, how she must miss her girls. A nun once told me that if it is God's will our daughters enter the convent, then we will be given the consolation of joy when we accept the situation. But I do know we can feel joy and sorrow at the same time.

      A death in the family… The experience is like grief. Maybe it is grief. I felt like I'd given two of my children to God: Thomas and Felicity.

      I know what you mean about fear and dread. What if it happened again? If I think about that too much I feel teary. But don't I want my children to do what God calls them to do? Such mixed feelings. I wrote a post about this some time ago. I don't know if you saw it. I Am So Very Weak..

      http://www.sueelviswrites.com/2012/12/weak.html

      I'm a bit slow answering comments. The next part has been published. Thank you for sharing our story!

  8. Reply

    My mother cries every time I return back to NZ. It always makes me feel so guilty and sad that I cause her so much anguish. I didn't plan to live here it just happened. At least we can talk on the phone whenever we want. I really think, actually know, that I would have ripped her heart out had I gone into a closed convent and she could not maintain contact whenever she needed. My Dad would have taken it especially hard too, which makes me wonder how Andy took it. Talk about a brave time in all your lives. I do so look forward to hearing the next installment! I also wonder what it was all like from Felicity's point of view.

    1. Reply

      Lisa,

      There's nothing like a mother's love, is there? I caused a lot of pain for my mother-in-law, I'm sure. I married Andy in England where she lived. Two weeks later I returned to Australia, of course with Andy. I never even thought about how much she would miss him. So thoughtless, unlike you. You are aware of your mother's feelings. Andy's mum saw him only three times in the next 16 years. She came to visit when Felicity, Charlotte and Thomas were born. She never complained. Just put up with the situation quietly.

      Andy keeps things to himself. I think a lot of men do. No good all of us getting emotional! And Felicity? I will have to read her own blog posts again. She's written a couple of posts about her time in the convent. Perhaps she'll write more or I can post some links.

  9. Reply

    Oh how my heart hurts reading this now as if it had happened to me. You have a beautiful way with words. Friends and relatives have no idea how very hurtful their words can be when they quickly respond to us opening our hearts wounds. Its certainly a lesson we should all remember when someone shares their heart with us, to think before we speak. Looking forward to the rest of the story. 😊

    1. Reply

      Debbie,

      Oh you are so right! It is an honour to listen to someone who chooses to share their heart with us. We should be very careful how we respond. I think in most cases, all that is needed is empathy, but we can't resist trying to solve each other's problems or dismissing them completely. When someone accepts how we feel… that is a true friend!

      Thank you so much for your kind words, and for sharing this story!

  10. Reply

    Thanks for writing about this, too. I left home at 14 to live with the Salesians (a non enclosed order), and I know that, in many ways, it was very hard on my family. I actually returned home to visit them on weekends and over the summer, so it was not the same situation, but I look now at my eldest daughter and think, "She would have been gone for 6 months by now." I can't imagine it! At 18, I left the sisters but was still thinking of being a sister when I met my husband…

    My sister, when she was discerning her vocation, first thought she would be an enclosed nun, and I well remember the pain and grief I felt. It really is grief, because it really is a kind of death, not just of the person, but of your hopes and dreams of a future with them. My sister and I always used to talk about starting a business together, living near each other, maybe living together again as little old ladies with lots of cats. It's silly, in a way, but I was deeply grieved that none of that would ever happen. (She ended up in an active order, but lives two time zones away.)

    I think all grief is made harder when the relationship is complicated. If you had a difficult time in Felicity's teen years, that must have made the separation much harder because there isn't the same hope for healing, like the discussion you are having now.

    God bless you! I am praying that Mary walk these paths of memories with you to bring healing and peace.

    1. Reply

      Wendy,

      You left home at such a young age! Your mother must have felt the separation very much. Such a different situation with your own children, homeschooling them and being with them practically all day every day. Maybe it is harder for homeschoolers when their children leave because we're used to our children being with us. They don't spend large chunks of time out of the house at school.

      Yes, grief does involve letting go of dreams and hopes. It's hard. I wonder how often you are able to see your sister. Seeing people though is only half the story. I couldn't share Felicity's time in the convent and I suppose you can't share your sister's life really either. I haven't seen my sister Vicky for a couple of years but we talk and share all kinds of things, so that separation isn't so difficult.

      Thank you so much for sharing our story and for your prayers. May God bless you too!

  11. Reply

    Basbusa's Mama,

    What a beautiful and consoling comment! I hadn't really thought of it like that. I did write somewhere how I admired Felicity for wanting to give her life to God despite her mental struggles, but you have expanded this thought so well.

    Faith is our children's best refuge… All I can think is Felicity learnt from my own grief experience when my son Thomas died. I would never have survived if God hadn't rescued and consoled me. Perhaps she absorbed the fact that we have to turn to God in our struggles because alone we are so very small and helpless. I guess it was God and not me really who was teaching her. Though maybe we have to be willing to share our own struggles with our children. They do learn so much from watching us.

    Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful words!

  12. Reply

    I just wanted to say that for me, one of the most inspiring aspects of this difficult story is the fact that your daughter, when she was at the end of her resources, ran away to the safety of a convent! Not off to live with a 26-year-old boyfriend, not off to share an apartment with a bunch of directionless friends, not into the embrace of other substances that could make the world seem better. Even when she was most upset, she looked to God and the church for help. My goodness, you must have done a good job raising her, to instill in her such trust in her religion! I can see how painful the situation must have been for all of you, but I sincerely hope I'm half as good at teaching my children that faith can be their best refuge.

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