August 18, 2009

Can I Keep My iPod?

In my arrogant opinion it seems that mainstream North American religious life is pretty assimilated to the values and lifestyle of the American middle class. Those of us who get angry about this often blame it on the renewal of religious life after the Council. My own experience has led me to doubt this suggestion; from what I have heard over the years I think this process was well underway soon after World War II.

It's curious to notice the ambiguities in one' s own relationship to this. (Of course this is my own very particular experience, but I'll bet it's not unique.) When you first begin to explore religious life and the idea of a vocation, there is this great moment of giddy relief as you discover that the real thing is not as severe and controlled as you were led to believe by the movies and from reading the lives of the saints. You discover that you will get your own room, and even sometimes your own bathroom. You will still be able to visit family, and keep in touch with friends. You can still listen to music, go to the movies, or watch TV. The presence of all of these things to which you were accustomed in the secular world softens the doubt and shock about making this allegedly radical choice to enter religious life. When you are discerning a limiting and largely misunderstood option in life and are dealing with a lot of doubt and fear, these little learnings that soften the blow make it seem easier at first.

Over the years, though, you start to resent it all, and start to wish that religious life was in fact more like what first attracted you in reading the lives of the saints.


ben in denver said...

There are communities that do embrace a more radical lifestyle. I think the church is well served by the varieties of approaches to religious life. It makes sense to me that there would be a full spectrum of religious life between diocesan clergy on one side and an order like the carthusians on the other.

I beleive that you hit the nail on the head in one respect though. In many ways the lay faithful person who answers the call to marriage and family seeks a greater economic insecurity and poverty than most professed relgious. I know a few religious (not franciscan) who to this day are living lives that are more materially comfortable than their parents.

Just this past wednesday a frined of mine who had left the seminary and married a wonderful girl who had left the convent and who is expecting a baby in November, asked me about finances. I told him that thee were only 2 things I could really tell him. First, that God wants you to be poor, and second, that he wants you to be happy.

We don't have many social systems in place to assist young people who are getting started with marriage and family. The general social expectation is that couples with spend several years childless working and saving and getting to know each other before attempting to have children. This hardly seems consistent with the idea that marriage is a total gift of self to the other person. It sounds more like an installment plan. "I'll give you this part of me now, and the other part later"

I'm just thankful that my friends are starting their family without the burden of student debt, which is terribly crippling. In fact, I'd say that student loans are almost a near occaision of sin for the young married who are tempted to use contraception to do the "responsible" thing and not have kids until they have more money.

Qualis Rex said...

Brother Charles, as a lay man, I can only sympathise. My aunt, a "nun" (I say that because she is still in the very liberal order, but doesn't consider herself either a nun or even Catholic at this point) became a postulate before Vatican II. Back then her community was cloistered, wore habits (of course) and did not listen to outside music other than what they sang. They got monthly visits from the family first Sunday of the month at the convent. And as you know what's coming, let's just say the changes they made very quickly after Vatican II (with a vengeance) signalled what is in effect the death knell for that order in the US. I truly believe my aunt is still in the order simply because she's at an age where she can't do much else and doesn't know how to take care of herself on her own without the support network (i.e. medical/dental, car allowance, rent paid etc).

Anyway, just sharing the good and bad with you, but it sounds like from your post you've already figured it out.

Brother Charles said...

Thanks Ben, as always, for bringing in the analogues for the married vocation!

Jen said...

Brother Charles,

I (married, mother of 3) was just talking about this yesterday with my spiritual director (a priest). If I call myself a Christian, and am a practicing, devout Catholic, shouldn't my life LOOK different? Shouldn't my life somehow proclaim that I am a follower of Christ?

And I mean that, of course, in my words and deeds, and not just the little cross hanging around my neck.

I brought it up in SD because this thought has been nagging at me, coming at me here and there, for about 2 months. Father's suggestion was more prayer and meditation... and continuing to being open to the Spirit.

And, this morning, I read your post... time to log off and pray, I think.

pennyante said...

Should religious go back to their former "way of life"? I'm not so sure. I have an elderly friend who was a religious Brother for 7 years. He left after the VII changes.

However, he has told me of some of the indignities the Brothers were forced to endure. As an example he showed me one of the whips he and the rest of the Brothers had to use once a week to flog themselves over the shoulders. As a kind of mortification or penance, I guess.

These kinds of mortifications I believe are an extreme and I doubt that one could go back to that kind of experience or would want to. I also doubt that this is what you were talking about when you wondered whether the old days were better.

I also want to comment about all the fancy gadgets we have nowadays... the Ipod, for instance... and whether their use by religious (or ANYONE actually)is detrimental to their spiritual growth. I see a problem if one allows these gadgets to run one's life. Are they keeping you from personal interaction with your fellow human beings? Does their use become an occasion of sin?

One can't discount the good that some of these gadgets make possible. It seems that one has to evaluate all the time, so as not to have your life dominated by them. Didn't you give up Plurk some time ago for that very reason...

Again thank you for addressing these issues.

Brother Charles said...

We used to use these three thong chains for "taking the discipline." There aren't many left, but I made a blueprint for one if anyone wants to make one. You'll need some rosary making pliers and some stout gauge wire.

pennyante said...

Chuckle :)

Unfortunately, there would probably be a market for them... There are some sick people out there...

Qualis Rex said...

Pennyante, there is nothing wrong with mortification of the flesh if it is done in the spirit of penance. If it is done for pleasure, then that is of course wrong. There is a great line from the movie "A nun's story" about the small rope whip the sisters are given where the mother superior warns, that using it to heavily can be just as sinful as using it too lightly.

Let's just say, some people need it, and others don't. But there is a reason for it and it's not just for kicks.

Julia said...

Pennyante, I respectfully disagree. Mortifications are not indignities. They are not foolish. In fact, they recognize the dignity of the person as a disciple of Christ, as more than his imperfect desires for worldly pleasures. The question is not "Is this an occasion of sin?" or "Does this keep me from healthy human interaction?" The right question for someone seeking Christian perfection, it seems to me, is "Does this, directly or indirectly, bring me closer to God?" As for penances, well, they are offered for all of our sins, so I am eternally grateful for the penances performed and endured by faithful religious throughout history.

Father, keep in mind that many communities, and practically all cloistered communities, do not allow visits home, TV, movies, etc.

Like many other young women who are beginning to discern cloistered life, I often find the reality of the life quite intimidating!

Anonymous said...

Some of the former rituals of self mortification seem extreme to us today, and I would not lobby for their return, but these rituals had a historical context in the life of the religious community. Nothing can excuse the deliberate debasement of another person. But I also think that many religious communities have truly lost their way in abandoning decades, sometimes centuries, of their religious character to embrace the late 20th century lifestyle.

pennyante said...

Julia, I think you misinterpreted what I meant. The occasions of sin and the human interaction was referring to the new tech gadgets like Fr. Charles' Ipod and our cell phones and computers...

Sorry, I shouldn't have mixed subjects in my comments...

Matthew Ignatius said...

I was thinking about this last night. Although I'm not "in" just yet, what I've seen of the friaries where I've stayed would make me agree with you. They are all very comfortable and clean and although some of them are not in the best of neighborhoods, you'd never know that from the inside.

To some extent, that is a good thing in that I think it helps to "encourage the quiet demanded for prayer and study" (Constitutions 88,8), which is such an important part of Capuchin life (at least as I see it). On the other hand, you often have to ask if you can justify living in such nice conditions when the people who you minister to do not.

I think that underscores a common question, particularly for Franciscans, that extends beyond just North America. I think Franciscans are constantly in this process of trying to understand what exactly constitutes living in solidarity with the poor and marginalized. We have Francis' original Rule and Testament, which are a good guide, but Francis made not specific statements about friary design (although he did specify where a friar could or could not stay). Francis also lived in a time where I think it might have been easier to disconnect oneself from the modern, aristocratic world because there were places left beyond the touch of opulence like San Damiano in the hills of Italy.

The complicated structure of modern American society make it almost impossible to keep the friars from being somewhat corrupted by modern influences. The Constitutions as I have read them urge a lot of personal and communal discretion. I think it asks for individual friars in community to constantly be reflecting on how they live and whether it is consistent with the values of Francis, both individually and as a community of brothers. Because of this, there are some friars who are more simple and some friars who are more extravagant.

It's a good thing to be thinking about and it's certainly been on my mind in the work-up to moving into postulancy, particularly since I have to decide what comes and what stays. There are certainly many things I would like to bring with me, things that I've always had at my disposal like my iPod or my DVDs or any number of electronic things, but I recognize I don't need them and in fact it may impede me in my life as a Capuchin because they are nothing but useless distractions from what I should really be doing, which is living as a brother in an apostolic and contemplative capacity. I can't give myself to the poor if I still switch my wallet from my back to my front pocket because I think they'll steal the money doesn't belong to me in the first place, nor can I surrender myself to God in prayer if all I can think about is how I can beat the next level in my computer game.

It's hard, though, because sometimes poverty just sucks. It forces you to make decisions about what you do and don't do, it forces you to stop doing things that you enjoy doing, etc. For example, I'm a victim of the bookstore - whenever I go into one I could drop $50 or more on books, but I always buy more books before I've even finished reading the ones I already have. But a friend of mine who is a priest here in the Archdiocese of Boston said that a good gauge about how we should spend our money is this: if there were a poor person standing next to you who needed the money, would you still buy what you want or would you give the money away?

Julia said...

Interesting post, Matt.

I think I understood, Pennyante (though my post wasn't very clear).

My point wasn't really about the gadgets. I think gadgets are fine in many circumstances.

My point was that it is easy for us to tell ourselves that if we're not sinning and not hurting anybody then we're doing fine.

This line of thinking leads to mediocrity and lukewarmness.

The question should always be directed toward improving our relationship with God. Instead of simply avoiding things that displease Him, we must actively pursue that which pleases and glorifies Him.

pennyante said...

Julia wrote: "My point was that it is easy for us to tell ourselves that if we're not sinning and not hurting anybody then we're doing fine.

This line of thinking leads to mediocrity and lukewarmness.

The question should always be directed toward improving our relationship with God. Instead of simply avoiding things that displease Him, we must actively pursue that which pleases and glorifies Him."

I agree with you completely, Julia... we always need to strive to do God's Will every day... every moment... this is what pleases and glorifies Him.

Paul A. Zalonski said...

Having lived the vowed lived for years and now responding to the Lord's call in a diocese, the romanticism of the vows wears pretty thin some days. That is, there is the ideal and then there's the lived reality. One does not throw out the ideal because it can't be lived; one uses the ideal (the Rule, the constitutions, other legislation of the Order to which one belongs) as a path to ongoing conversion of self first, the corporate life second. So many are willing to impose their interpretation of the vows on the group while not living up to it themselves. Of course, there are those who live like zombies and make everyone else pay for living with them in their mediocrity

Past experience showed me that often a group in this particular order wanted to live more poorly in a smaller community than the other vowed religious living in a larger community and found out that it cost them more money to live poorly than living with the group. But then there were those who forced the larger group to divest of the "extravagant" things and then left religious life altogether. The impetus was good: lived according to the mind of the founder (in the 16th century).

Ultimately we need to keep in mind that what the Church asks is that we are faithful to the life we are vowed to. What has the Lord called me to and what areas of my life need conversion? Am I more zealous than the reasonable religious in whatever congregation I am seeking to live? (this presumes there is a reasonable religious man/woman in the order in which I live who lives according to the mind of the Church.) iPods, cell phones and DVDs are red herrings, or they can be. While it may be well to ask the entire group to follow XYZ of the rule on poverty, there are many things we are willing to ask others to live yet when it comes to us, we are unwilling (incapable?) of living that item. The place of one's capacity is whole other matter.

As Ben says: God wants us to be happy. He does not ask us to do the impossible. Whatever is asked of us by God is supported by the grace to do it whether it is being a parent of modest income and faithful to the Magisterium or a Capuchin, Jesuit or Dominican and being poor, obedient and chaste.

By the way, why not look at the vow of obedience as not merely acceding to the demands of another and/or the rule but as deep following and friendship. That is, I am called to be a Capuchin because of the witness of the brothers and sisters who went before me and who are living the life now, AND in friendship with the Lord who is such a significant Presence in front me has called me to come closer to Him through the following a path in a LIVED companionship. Our happiness is what God wants, not our formalism and rigidity.

Don said...

I like my iPod and consider it useful. You could limit yourself to a non-descript MP3 player. Is it necessary to give up these items anymore than giving up chocolate for Lent. Could a person give up all these external devices and still remain unchanged or un-repentant. Has your interior life changed for the better or have you experienced a conversion by virtue of disdaining the world? As a Franciscan I think we are called to be in the world or the marketplace if you will. Maybe your visits to the theatre or the observation of you using an iPod or a cell phone is what the laity need to see. I think it when these appetites rule our lives that they become dangerous and that is not limited to those in the professional religious life.