September 27, 2010

Irreligious Life

Many of us who have come to religious life, myself included, have struggled with the impression that the life we have found doesn't seem very religious. We are bothered that our communities do not seem to be prayerful places, that we ourselves to do not feel as devout as we used to, and that our conversations about the pressures and problems upon us do not often turn to God.

Over almost twelve years of religious life (!) I have spent a good deal of thought and discernment on this question as a matter of the survival of my own Christianity. Guessing that there are others who may have similar experience, I offer any wisdom that God may have put into my own reflections on the question.

First, we must trust ourselves and our instincts. I failed to do this in my own early experiences of religious life and did myself a lot of harm. I arrived young and much more innocent than I thought I was, and much of what I found in my first try at religious life was confusing and scandalizing. When I expressed my concerns to my directors and superiors I was told to 'get over myself' or was given unfortunate labels: 'neo-con,' 'traddy,' someone who wants to 'go back' to the bad old days.

Such a response to me was unfair. Even if it were true, such treatment is a failure in charity and pastoral care. It's taken me a long time to admit this, to realize that it wasn't about my being right or wrong, but about not being given the pastoral care called for by my confusion and my innocence.

So, do not listen to those who tell you 'get over yourself' or dismiss you with labels. Trust your instincts. Religious life in our time--and here I can only speak to my own geographic and cultural context--is afflicted with various forms of decadence, moral confusion, and theological error. I thank God that he has led me, by the circuitous paths of grace, to a pretty solid community, but that doesn't mean we are exempt from the problems and errors of our time. We who are younger religious must trust our instincts and always be a little suspicious. When someone tells you the Church or your community or Vatican II teaches something and it doesn't sound right, look it up yourself. Be empowered.

In other words, when something doesn't seem right and they tell you the problem isn't the something amiss in the community but your own attitude or ignorance, don't be so quick to believe it.

On the other hand, there are caveats that need to be made and mitigating reflections that need to go into our prayer and discernment of such things. First, though on one hand we must trust ourselves to know what is right and wrong, what the Church teaches and what it doesn't, on the other hand we must always examine the interior motives of any righteous indignation we feel. We are all too good at tricking ourselves into displacing the blame for our own unhappiness. Often those things that we disdain in others are the same things we hate in ourselves. Many times we are tempted to blame our own failures in prayer and devotion on the community. 'I can't pray in this environment of irreverence,' 'I don't feel supported in my commitment to prayer,' etc. Such complaints may be true to one degree or another, but as spiritual approaches they are useless and dangerous. Some of the greatest pray-ers in the tradition of religious life lived their religious lives totally rejected by their confreres. John of the Cross was imprisoned by his brothers. The martyrs prayed through their imprisonments and tortures. So we must always regard as a temptation the inspiration to blame the deficiences of our religious lives on each other or on some alleged culture of our community. Our spiritual condition is our own responsibility. Because it is a life contra mundum, there is no place in this world in which the spiritual life is not a challenge. Any good that comes in our spiritual life is the grace of God we have been able to accept by our meager and half-hearted consent, and any failure in our spiritual life is our own distraction and sin and nobody else's. If we find ourselves in a community that seems irreligious, unrecollected, or even sacrilegious, the proper reflection for me is to blame myself for my own contribution to these things, and not to blame anyone else.

Second, in the spiritual life we must always be a little suspicious of feelings. It's true, I no longer feel as devout or religious as I did in those days when I was a solitary and anonymous catechumen seeking the newly discovered but oddly familiar Mystery of God in the dark churches I still love so much. I don't feel like I have the fervor or zeal that I used to have for observance or the things I decided, in my vanity, would be penances. If we want to judge how our spiritual life is progressing, we must look at our freedom and our behavior rather than how devout or even how recollected we think we feel. Am I more free from distraction and the overwhelmingness of temptations? Am I more free for prayer, charity, and generosity? If I can answer yes to these questions, God is drawing me in. If I don't feel religious or devout about it, it's probably because I have been given the grace of having been invited to move beyond having to be motivated by little consolations and spiritual warm and fuzzies. We must not pine for these things, wanting to give up the starkness of pure faith for the more comfy world of sensible consolation. We are grownups, and we no longer want to each jelly beans for supper. If religious life robs us of certain of the consolations we thought were spiritual, and which served to reinforce us as beginners in the spiritual life, religious life has done us a favor.

Forgive me that this has turned into a ramble, but it's a post I've been incubating for a while. To sum up: if anyone reading this is like me in the sense that the religious life you have found doesn't seem very religious, and is even downright scandalizing and confusing, trust your intelligence and your reasoned judgment, but be suspicious of your feelings and your temptations to blame.


Ad Abolendam said...

Father, much of what you say strikes me as being applicable to the life of the academic theologian and theology student. I remember feeling the same bewilderment when I realized that many of my professors and colleagues weren't filled with the same zeal for Church teaching that I was. I suspect you have experienced the same, and will experience the same.

Anonymous said...

Very well-timed post, Father. Just yesterday I myself was in the "why do I bother?" funk. For someone who was born, bred and raised Catholic, I find myself more disappointed in the parish life than inspired by it. From the time when I was a kid when Catholic school turned a blind eye to parental neglect, to the time I was counseled by a parish priest toward abortion, to the time I discovered that one of our parish priests was involved in pedophile relationship with a minor, to another parish priest who was an alcoholic and had to be sobered up before he was fit to preside over a wedding. Yesterday's news greeted me with another former parish priest whom I just discovered was defrocked. I continually have to remind myself to follow the faith and not the sinners. I have to remind myself that Jesus came to call upon sinners, of which I am one. I find that what's keeps me coming back to Church every Sunday is what I refer to as the "community of sinners." For all that is wrong with the Church, I can think of no other place I can to turn to that will satify the most basic of human needs ... genuine, unadulterated acceptance and love. To love as Christ has loved and to forgive as Christ forgives.

Lee Gilbert said...

In my view this kind of caution is badly needed for those entering religious life, and its absence probably accounts for the failure of many vocations.

After reading the lives of the saints, St. Aelred, St. Bernard and Cistercian saints in particular I entered the Cistercians in 1965. In my brief but exciting time as a novice, I remember being shocked, shocked, shocked at seeing a book of Charlie Brown cartoons under the cot of a solemn professed...who persevered to the end by the way after fifty years of fidelity. Also I summoned the courage to take the abbot to task for not following the Rule of St. Benedict. He also died in the order after many years of prayer and penance, whereas I left after three months. In my "zeal" I fasted my way out of the place and looked like a refugee from a concentration camp when I arrived home. It was ridiculous, but also tragic in many respects.

A similar sort of caution, which I mentioned to my daughter when she left for the convent: Consider the psychodynamics of the situation. You have given up everything to follow the Lord, and are very aware of it. Everything- parents, home, husband, children all the comforts of family life. The day comes when you ask some favor of your superior, for example to study in Rome, to have an extra visit from your parents since they are in the area, whatever, and back comes a refusal. Immediately, you think and are tempted in outrage to say, "Wait a minute, I gave up EVERYTHING and you can't even permit this little favor!!!"

When I used this example on a forum devoted to Carthusian spirituality, a number of religious wrote back that actually it is the refusal of smaller requests that is apt to provoke the righteous indignation, requests such as an extra fifteen minutes of sleep, or that your favorite cereal or decaffeinated coffee be made available.

Interestingly, one young man wrote in to say he was leaving shortly for the monastery and how much he appreciated knowing what the issues are.

Fr. Charles, there is a book here!... a badly needed book.

Brother Charles said...

AdA: Thank you for that.

Anonymous: Perhaps you will permit me to pray with you. Lately it's been coming up in my prayer that I should ask for the inspiration of doing some penance or act of reparation for the sins and crimes of my brother priests. I'm not sure what to do with the thought, but I'll keep on it.

Lee: Thank you for your perspective; it helps me expand my sense of the question.

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Rachel Gray said...

Great post and comments too- thank you! I'm leaving in a month for the convent myself and I'm glad I'm reading about these issues before I discover them firsthand. :)

Anyone who's really interested in this idea of trusting your own instincts when superiors are scandalizing or unfair might be interested in this blog: A girl who's about to enter her second community writes (charitably) in some of the early posts about her problems with the first.

Anonymous said...

Your post is an honest assessment,and your observations and advise are relevant to both those in religious life and equally relevant those who try to live their life in the light of their religion. It deserves to be read several times over.

Brother Charles said...

P.s. to AdA: I got my first homework back from Professor Foucault. It was evaluated for both form and material. I can tell I'm dealing with medievalists!

Ad Abolendam said...

Yes, Father, Foucault is amazingly thorough. He's a reader on my committee, and his criticisms always take me weeks to work through and respond to.

Greg said...

Excellent post. The bottom line seems to be a great need for discernment in the spiritual life. So many fine lines to discern, for example, the difference between blame and correction.

It appears the Holy Spirit guides us along a razor thin line, with pitfalls to both sides.