November 17, 2009

Sanctity Against Bitterness

"It is not that someone else is preventing you from living happily; you yourself do not know what you want. Rather than admit this, you pretend that someone else is keeping you from exercising your liberty. Who is this? It is you yourself." (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 110.)

One of the persistent temptations in the religious life is to give in to the unwillingness to take responsibility for our own mediocrity. You get into this life with a lot of pious imaginings and spiritual dreams all mixed up with a genuine desire for prayer and sacrifice. But eventually the disappointment comes. Sometimes it's just a mild malaise. In other cases it takes the form of a violent heartbreak. To be honest, I think the former is more dangerous on the spiritual level.

We are nagged by this feeling that our religious life isn't so different from secular life. Why don't I feel any holier or more religious? Sometimes we feel like the couple who let their engagement go on for too many years and then fall apart right after the wedding. We just felt more religious and devout before we lived under the same roof as the Blessed Sacrament. Many of us are better off now in terms of material comforts and securities than we were in the world, so how can we say that are poor?

The most dangerous temptation in all this is to blame somebody else. My lack of fervor is the fault of the brother who continually scandalizes me by walking into chapel and asking, "What week are we in?," announcing to all that he doesn't even bother to pray his breviary apart from the meager moments when we do it in common. I'm scattered and unrecollected because of the "culture" of the house or province, which I perceive as unprayerful and lax. It's brother grocery shopper's fault that I eat the wrong things, and the house's fault that I waste time watching TV or clicking around the internet. Back when I was in the world I didn't have to have TV or candy or beer in the house if I didn't want it, and I didn't have to deal with such distractions! Now it's the fault of these decadent brothers that I live in a state of dissipation and spiritual sadness!

This sort of thinking is a serious and dangerous temptation, because the decadent, lax, and unprayerful brother is you yourself. The devil is perfectly happy for us to be worked up about our sins and our faults, and even to be contrite and to experience something like compunction on a certain level, so long as we can do it in such a way as to absolve ourselves of any responsibility. Through this temptation the devil can turn perfectly laudable spiritual ambition into perfectly destructive interior acts of violence.

Are we annoyed that our daily world--even in religious life--is not set up to facilitate a life of prayer and virtue? Even worse, do we perceive that others are actively (though often not maliciously) working against spiritual values? Then we should surrender and join the club. It's called "the saints."


Qualis Rex said...

Father Charles, GREAT "rant" : ) It is indeed a tightrope, isn't it? On the one hand, you want to deny yourself earthly pleasures and habits which a) you find distracting from your vocation and b) show your commitment to sacrifice in the name of God. But when others around you constantly reassure you "it's alright. No need to be extreme." it's a bit hard to not go with the flow. And this is not because you are a weak character. To the contrary. It's that most likely you don't want to come off as somehow spiritually stronger or "holier than thou" to your fellow friars and risk their resentment.

You did touch on a "sore point": I know for a fact that many religious (men and women) have it much better inside the convent/monastery/residence than they had on the outside. Like the military, they enjoy the structure, support network and communalism (often providing cars, health insurance, housing allowance etc) and I know many who simply would not be able to survive on the "outside" at this point of their lives, since they have essentially been taken care of for so long. The sad part is, this is precisely the reason they are still in; it has nothing to do with their spiritual calling, assuming they ever really had one.

I'm not trying to sound like a downer, but I am saying you stand out SO MUCH from what I have just described. You sincerely give me hope for the next generation of religious.

Rachel said...

That was a great post that I shall try to remember if I ever become a nun. :)