February 18, 2012

Frustrated Expectations in Religious Life

One of the most complex discernment and ascetical challenges in religious life is working through frustrated expectations. Everyone who comes to religious life arrives with expectations. Some are conscious, others not.

The hard work, when faced with the disorienting experience of many things one expected failing to appear, is discerning which expectations were legitimate and which not.

Many times the experience of frustrated expectations is a graced invitation to let go of our unreasonable demands and selfish 'needs.' We hope, secretly or openly, that the structure of religious life will provide the disinclination to sin we find lacking in ourselves. We want community and ministry to supply everything we have ever lacked in terms of love, care, and emotional support, without our having to do anything about it ourselves. Sorry. If we want to be loved just for who we are, we either have to be God or get a dog.

On the other hand, sometimes our expectations are legitimate. As one young brother once said to me, "I thought religious life would be more...well...religious." In my very first days of religious life I was scandalized and confused that the brothers didn't genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament. When I asked about it I was rebuffed and told that I was scrupulous and rigid. But that was wrong. The brothers, and everyone else, ought to genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament. It's what we do in the Roman rite. But even that's not the real point; it's the least we can do before the great Mystery of the Presence.

In those early years of my religious life, I think I came to be gaslighted somewhat, taught to second-guess myself all the time and thus fail to own all of my expectations of religious life, both the good ones and the bad. As I have grown up as a religious, a significant part of my inner work and liberation has been to recover my legitimate expectations of religious life and find ways to insist upon them for myself.

That's my own story. My error was to be beaten down into second-guessing all of my instincts and expectations. But it would be just as bad an error to fail to let go of selfish and spiritually unhelpful expectations just because religious life as we find it sometimes also fails our legitimate ones.


greg said...

Well-written analysis of a key variable in conflict.

As I note in Taming the Wolf, unmet expectations can be a fertile source of conflict. Especially critical are expectations we do not voice. We simply assume that is the way the world should be and we become upset and combative when our unvoiced expectations go unfulfilled.

I'm working on a project that looks at conflict within the clergy. We kick off with a panel presentation at the Western Region Canon Law Society Convention in March. (Wish you could be there.)

Will share your post with my panel.

Brother Charles said...

Indeed. It's so true about conflict and unvoiced expectations.

Tom said...

Oh, how good that you freely express these frustrations with vowed life.
If you've been following the saga of the Legionaries of Christ, where for years its members could never express frustrations anywhere--not to each other, not to a superior, not to parents, certainly not on the world wide web!--you would see what a huge blast of fresh air this is... and breath a huge sigh of thanksgiving for being in such a healthy, normal order.

Judy Kallmeyer said...

Perhaps you were born too late! Had you been born in the '40s, say, and entered in the early '60s, your experience would undoubtedly have been much different, perhaps a pendulum swing in the totally opposite direction.