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The Trials of Religious Life (6122)

Contrary to what many people may believe, men and women in religious community struggle with personal sanctity just as much as laypeople.

06/29/2011 Comments (6)

A Trappist monk prays in his cell.

In the Gospel according St. Matthew, Jesus explains that in the resurrection of the dead, people will no longer marry nor be given in marriage, “but they are like angels” (22:30).

This is a foundational text for religious life, but it isn’t easy to understand. For, while many Catholics believe men and women in religious life are like angels or plaster of Paris statues with no problems or weaknesses, Jesus means something different. He speaks of a new relationship between the body and the soul in heaven. In fact, the body will come to exist after the manner of the soul. There will be a new spousal relationship of the body, which will be the vehicle of giving the gift of self entirely to God.

Men and women committed to their religious vows are not angels, but, rather, seek to bring their earthly lives into conformity with this heavenly reality. Their witness serves as a beacon for all the faithful, helping us to prepare for our eternal life with God.

There is a second foundation text for religious life: Matthew 19:1-12. Here, Jesus explains that there was no divorce “in the beginning” (19:4), and so divorce is not only contrary to the sacrament of the New Testament, but is also against the nature of marriage. The apostles react very strongly to this teaching and proclaim marriage inexpedient. If you cannot get out of it, why do it?

Jesus does not accept their teaching, but instead places the whole question of marriage in the context of the state of the human race before sin entered the world. Before the fall, spousal union perfectly expressed the communion of hearts and minds ratified through the “one flesh” union of the man and woman. The body in this state was a means to give the gift of soul.

Then, Jesus teaches that some people are called to give up this spousal love — after the manner of this earthly world — in light of the spousal love that will be experienced in the next. “There are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12). One should note that this renunciation of marriage is not because there is anything evil about the body or marriage. One can only freely renounce this good to live as though in heaven. Not everyone is called to do this, “but only those to whom it is given” (Matthew 19:11).

This is the origin of the religious life. The religious life is not the same as the priesthood nor is one inserted in the other. Both priests and laypeople become religious, as can be seen with religious brothers and sisters. The one is about consecrating the Eucharist; the other about living the counsels revealed by Christ — like the one concerning marriage.

Together, with one’s own will in obedience and the ability to own and use material goods in poverty, religious men and women strive to desire the perfect love of God. Since Christ sends the Holy Spirit into each baptized person’s heart with sanctifying grace, one must now live the law of God with the pure intention of divine love.

Lust wars against this. According to 1 John 2:16, three types of lust war in man against the perfection of this love: “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.” Christ gave three counsels of perfection that religious embrace by vow to diminish these lusts and allow us to love Christ as he loves us. Poverty roots out the lust of the eyes; chastity, the lust of the flesh; and obedience, the pride of life.

In the three vows, religious freely embrace a way of life which, if observed well, leads to being head over heels in love with Jesus. One does not give up money, marriage and freedom because these are evil. One does so for love’s sake and because we are weak regarding these things, even when healed by grace.

The real problem is not these goods, but the fact that they are the tinder of our desire to dominate and rule others. Instead of surrendering to God, people in our state between Adam’s justice and the blessedness of the saints often manipulate others in pride and possessiveness. These counsels are recommended to free us from this desire to dominate. The real issue in lust is not feelings, but power.

Some enter a religious order and are scandalized or puzzled by the fact that everyone in it is not perfect. Religious have neither more nor less problems and special personality issues than the rest of the population from which they come. Though they desire perfect love, they have yet to reach that state. Instead, they dedicate themselves to a fixed way of life that the Church in her wisdom has approved in community to aid in this struggle to experience heaven while on earth.

A very disciplined life is necessary precisely because religious are weak like others. After leaving religious life, Monica Baldwin, in Crux of My Downfall, reassessed her previous belief that she had wasted her life in the convent: “ was too busy finding fault with the structure to have concerned myself with the Dweller within.” With the benefit of hindsight, she noted, “Consecrated persons cannot afford to live ‘permissively.’” This life is a supernaturally founded life and great freedom, maturity and help are needed, both from God and the community to persevere in it.

Second, the fixed way of life in community offers great encouragement. The members should know they are all in the same leaky boat, all encouraged to walk on water. Jesus is there, but he acts through others.

Friendship and the companionship of others are indispensable. As Aquinas observes in the Summa Theologiae: “The happy man in this life needs friends. … He does good to them, he delights in seeing them do good, and in turn they help him and do good to him.”

Lastly, community is necessary to correct our faults. Real friends can do this.

Someone once compared community life to a heap of stones put in a can. They are rough and ready. As they turn over and over in an enclosed can, the friction rubs off the rough edges and polishes them as jewels. Listening to God in prayer and to others in the community are the best ways to work through the frustration, anger and loneliness that many of us feel in each of our vocations.

Religious life is meant to be a sign and witness to the happiness of the life of grace here on earth and in a heaven already begun. When religious are happy, mature and well adjusted in their sacrifice, then they can begin to really show the kind of joyful love Jesus has to the whole human race. What better argument that heaven is somewhere we should desire. “Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given” (Matthew 19: 11).

Dominican Father Brian Mullady is a mission preacher and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut. He entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained a priest in 1972.

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