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
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
“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.