August 25, 2011

Why I Stay

It's a commonplace in religious life to say that why you came isn't exactly the same as why you stay.

This is largely because religious life wasn't quite what you thought it would be. But perhaps more importantly, you also find out that you weren't exactly who you thought you were. Some of this is can be a painful purification. When the honeymoons are over and first fervor is gone, afflictive emotions that arise in community life reveal to us that our attraction to religious life wasn't entirely pious and pure. We realize our mixed motivations, that our hearts are mysterious and messy fields of weeds and wheat. We can let this teach us patience with each other and humility for ourselves, or we can refuse growth and just flail around in a doomed project of trying to get our disorderly emotional needs met. But no matter which we choose, we find ourselves a different person than we were when we started.

And so, because religious life doesn't turn out to be what we had imagined, and because we become different people within it, why we came usually isn't why we stay.

I was just thinking about this stuff because someone challenged me the other day with the question, "Why do you stay?" It's a good challenge, and the response ought to be dynamic and growing, parallel to the work of grace in a vocation. So here's where I am right now:

I'm a religious because it gives me peace to know that I have disposed of my life on earth. One of my confreres in the Order likes to say that my primary desire in life is to feel 'all set.' By my perpetual profession and my vow 'to give myself to this fraternity' I feel all set. I may be living it less than adequately, but I have dealt with and disposed of my earthly life. How much time have I wasted in life already, and how poor a steward of my life have I been! Who knows how much time is left? The time to begin preparing for my death is now.

I'm a Franciscan because I am convinced that the Franciscan way is my antidote to the world. I have always been looking for an alternative to the bleak and pointless tastes and attitudes that are the given in this world. When I was eleven I thought the answer was to escape into fantasy. When I was fourteen I thought it was the alternative taste and uniform of Heavy Metal. When I was seventeen I thought it was in the uncompromising cultural critique of Punk. When I was nineteen I began to become convinced that the only coherent answer was Christianity. Soon after that I met St. Francis in a history class, and ever since then it has seemed to me that the Franciscan way has been the best way for me to be a Christian.

I'm a priest because in living my priesthood I have become convinced that the vocation to priesthood has been God's way of redeeming my particular humanity, and making me useful for his work in the world.


Lee Gilbert said...

"When the honeymoons are over and first fervor is gone..."

Honeymoons are very brief, of course, but seven years of hearts and flowers are very common, it seems. And then? "The seven year itch" is a distinct possibility. Someone else comes along...more hearts and flowers...and so one abandons the wife of his youth.

Is that analogous to the loss first fervor? I wonder. I have heard religious talk about the loss of first fervor almost as a natural stage in the life of a religious, a predictable event, like one of the stages in Elizabeth Kubler Ross's book On Death and Dying. What does one do after this loss? Take up Spanish or model trains?

In fact, I have heard of professed laughing at the first fervor of novices, yet admitting that without that, there is reason to be concerned.

And yet- as an outsider to religious life- one reads the life of St. Francis or St. Dominic and many others and there seems to have been no such loss. OR, was there such a loss and they transcended it? Do these great founders anywhere address this issue, effectively answering the question: Loss of first fervor and what to do next? Undoubtedly they would have used different terminology, but do they address the phenomenon? Seriously, do they?

So I am left wondering if this phenomenon now taken for granted is in fact part of the normal unfolding of religious life. Of course it may be perfectly normal in the way things ordinarily unfold, but is this the way it is supposed to be? Is it actually built into the human psyche as it pursues religious life?

The reason I ask is that I can think of a 104 yr old monk who gives every appearance of never having lost his first fervor 28, 2011

His advice? "Stay in love."

greg said...

Very thoughtful and helpful.

My curiosity drives me to wonder if the Third Order Secular could be revived to be a resource for young people seeking to make a difference in the world.

Am not sure if its current form, with a primarily older membership, is turned sufficiently toward the future. Don't know. Just speculating.

RJ said...

Why do you stay? Because you gave you word?

Brother Charles said...

Of course, there is that. :)

RJ said...

You gave your word in your human weakness. God gives his word with unfailing grace and fidelity.

Brother Charles said...


Myzomela said...

"[T]he Franciscan way is my antidote to the world." - That's it! I'm about to be professed in the Secular Franciscan Order, and if anyone asks me why, that would sum up my attitude perfectly.

Greg - If I might speculate with you, I wonder if people only come to joining the SFO after going through some process of disillusionment with "the world" - and that can take a while in the comfortable and endlessly distracting developed world. So generally older people will join up. (For example, at 48, I'm the baby in my fraternity.) But you're dead right, it would be good to see the Franciscan way made more available to younger people.