Can the "habit of guilt," an attitude of making decisions based on obedience to church rules and the self judgment inflicted of not meeting others expectations, ingrained for years ever be shaken off to find one's own happiness? It has taken some 40 years for me, a "guilt sponge," to make a shift in faith. This transformation is captured in my book, "A Change of Habit: A Spiritual Journey from Sister Mary Kateri to Sister Mary Vodka." I also share my "7 Secrets to Guilt-Free Living" as I write about my seven years as a Catholic nun and finally finding self-fulfillment.
These "7 Secrets" gave me the insight, courage and permission to follow my heart, instead of merely following the rules of the institution. I learned each one through different phases of my life. I share them to support people who find themselves bound by ties of others' expectations and religious rules to help them not to worry about making the "right" decision.
Being raised in a strict Catholic home in the Midwest in the 1960s, I was motivated constantly to make decisions to please others, and I ended up trying to please everyone but myself. I looked to those in authority to guide me rather than listen to my VIBES (Voices of Intentional Beckoning Emotions: gut feeling). I was caught up in a spiritual eddy hurling me into the convent trying to please my Heavenly Father and my earthly father.
But convent life proved different that I had expected. I did not find happiness in the strict rules, rites and rituals that were supposed to lead me closer to God.
Deciding whether to leave the convent where I served God or leave to pursue my own "selfish" happiness brought me to a standstill. With fear of making the wrong decision I froze in analysis paralysis. I couldn't say no to God, but I did not find joy in the convent. When I was stuck in this position of indecision, a priest acting as a counselor gave me some advice that I live by to this day. I share this as Secret #4: Don't worry about making a good decision; just make a decision good.
It took me seven years to break the bonds that kept me tied to the life as a nun in the convent. This is not the story of "girl leaves convent and lives happily ever after." This is a saga showing just how deeply duty is ingrained. The habits learned in the convent dogged me from religious life into secular living.
After departing the protected walls of convent life, I rejoined my family and tried desperately to catch up with my peers. Feeling that I had been out of touch with reality, the "wasted" years in the convent prompted me to marry quickly, try to have children and be normal like everyone else. I may have looked normal on the outside, but inside I lacked independence and self-confidence. Trying the make a marriage work for 12 years took its toll. Although I appeared to have a good life, behaviors learned in the convent prevented me from happiness.
Looking into the reality mirror at two failed marriages -- one to God and one to a man -- I finally saw my own destructive behaviors. I travailed to break out of the debilitating patterns of guilt, subservience and fear controlling my behaviors to build a new life as I embrace Secret #5: Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment. I now see how decisions once seen as missteps are actually learning opportunities.
Finally, I learned Secret #7: Happiness is not a gift, but a skill. I chose to marry again, but this time with full knowledge, mature commitment and religious freedom.
"A Change of Habit," with my departure from the convent and the testing of conventional Catholicism, is in no way meant to take swipes at the Catholic Church, the convents or the nuns that taught me in school. Every Catholic school, every convent and every Catholic family embraced values of commitment, obedience and discipline with high expectations.
While I did leave the convent, I never left God. I just failed to find Him in the confines and the rules of the Catholic Church. But then I asked, "Is He okay, and am I okay with my spiritual search following a path other that the one led by the Church hierarchy?" My answer came in happiness. Secret #1: Don't let religion get in the way of your relationship with God.