December 14, 2010

John of the Cross on Religious Life

Sometimes I think we religious make an error in the pastoral care of vocations by trying to sell our life as one of mutual care and support. Not that life in religious community isn't supposed to be these things; the common life is, of course, meant to be one of mutual charity and care. But sometimes I think we try to sell it in such a way that candidates get the idea that community life will satisfy all of their emotional needs and longing for intimacy. For us male religious sometimes this theme gets set up in a false distinction between religious life and the diocesan priesthood, e.g. why go the seminary and be lonely when you can enter religious life and have brothers?

Imagining, perhaps not entirely consciously, that religious life would fulfill his emotional needs, and then finding the experience frustrating in this regard, troubles and boundary problems for a brother in ministry are the next pitfall that comes along.

Such distortions and false dichotomies are therefore very dangerous, and I have always been grateful to St. John of the Cross for giving us a salutary corrective. Consider, for example, some bits from his Counsels to a Religious:

To practice the second counsel, which concerns mortification, and profit by it, you should engrave this truth on your heart. And it is that you have not come to the monastery for any other reason than to be worked and tried in virtue; you are like the stone that must be chiseled and fashioned before being set in the building.

Thus you should understand that those who are in the monastery are craftsmen placed there by God to mortify you by working and chiseling at you. Some will chisel with words, telling you what you would rather not hear; others by deed, doing against you what you would rather not endure; others by temperament, being in their person and in their actions a bother and annoyance; and others by their thoughts, neither esteeming nor feeling love for you.

Trials will never be lacking in religious life, nor does God want them to be.

The translation is from the ICS edition of John's collected works. He is very much worth reading in his own Spanish if you are able. Some can be found online, and his Obras Completas is published by the Editorial de Espiritualidad in Madrid. I found a copy at Schoenhof's up in Cambridge.


Julia said...

I've seen that quote before and like it. People who are married can seek emotional satisfaction and human comfort in their spouse and family members. They can expect to receive an exclusive, particular kind of love. For religious, comfort and fulfillment should be sought in God alone, not in members of the community.

When a religious finds no particular human comfort or affection and also receives no sensible divine consolation, this can be quite a trial to endure. But it seems to me the path to perfection for religious is meant to include time spent suffering patiently and alone in Gethsemane.

(Wow, I didn't mean my comment to sound like such a downer!)

Greg said...

And the trials they put him through dwarf anything we can imagine today.

Amazing that he rose above all the abuse to become one of our most beloved mystics.

RJ said...

I love the way he counteracts the romanticism. A true follower of Elijah: the Lord made his mouth into a sharp sword, but a healing one.