A state of perfection?

With the religious reforms of Martin Luther in the sixteenth century came the supression of religious life, which, during that time, had the form of monastic life. It seems that his own experience as a monk moved him into strongly attacking religous life and vows, especially that of celibacy.

I experienced religious life during some years in my life. I would like, in this post, to share some thoughts on how it began, why someone would want to embrace it, and what future, if any, it might have.

I would like to emphasize that what I am going to say here is not a criticism of the religious order I belonged to, nor to its members, present and past. I intend to talk about «religious life» as a whole, not referring to any particular form of it — except when explicitly stated.

I

According to what I learned during my initial «training» in religious life, it has its origins circa the third century. It appeared, it seems, because some felt that Christian communities had become corrupt. They fled the «world» to reject its corruption. They wanted to live as Christians to the full, without compromising. Thus, they went to the desert to live in a different fashion. This is something we must not forget: they wanted to escape corruption, mediocrity. They wanted to be «better». It did not take a long period of time for them to feel that they were superior to the rest of the Christian faithful, despising «the world» in which the latter lived. Only in recent times have this belief of superiority begun to fade.

This has a very important consequence: by joining a style of life which is alleged to be of superior quality, to have left «the world» with its sins and corruption, to pursue a life like that of angels, it is easy to fall into conflicts and contradictions. After all, in spite of our personal differences, all of us are made of flesh and bones.

In my opinion, the fundamental error is «wishful thinking»: to join a style of life thanks to which you try to become a better person, a better Christian, is one thing. But to believe that, by the mere fact of joining such an «organisation», you automatically become a better person and a better Christian, is to utterly miss the point. And here, as I see it, lies the error.

This is why it angers me so much to read the rules of some religious orders and see that they are written in the «present tense of the indicative», instead of the imperative, the conditional or the subjunctive. Instead of saying, for example, that during conversations we emphasize what is positive and avoid all that might annoy or cause controversy, we should say something like «during conversations all that is positive should be emphasized and what could annoy others should be avoided». Because by saying it in the first way, we induce other people to believe that it is something that it is actually happening, that is, current practice, instead of being — as it really is — a goal, an objective, something we strive to achieve.

One could say that this is only a nuance, as small issue, nothing really important. I agree that, by itself, that linguistic issue is close to a nonsense, because it is easy to guess what those who write the rules really mean. But this is a symptom of something much more serious, something I hinted some lines above. I must insist that, today, almost nobody believes that religious life is an «angelic life», but for some centuries this has been taken for granted.

It has lead to something we could call a «double life». I keep a nice-looking facade for outside people, pretending to be a good-behaving monk of friar (for example), a model of virtues, one hundred percent pure, almost flawless — as much as I can. But I am perfectly aware that I am quite far from this idealised image of myself, and if other people knew what is really inside, with all my virtues and defects, all my mistakes and achievements, they would think «this man is like every one of us, what is the point of being a monk, a friar, then?». Thus I try hard to pretend to be what I really am not, because there are occasions when I must pretend, fake, and what is worse: I do this completely sure that it is my duty, what is expected of me.

II

Religious life is extremely difficult. It is a real challenge. And I am not talking only about the vows of poverty, obedience and celibacy. In few words, religious life is about achieving perfection as much as possible. But now I am making the same mistake as the first monks. Because, at least in theory, every Christian being should attempt perfection, for it is said in the Gospels, «be perfect as my Father is perfect». And this is not only addressed to monks and friars, but to every one of the Christian faithful.

And now the question is unavoidable: if perfection is the goal of every Christian man and woman, whether they are married or not, whether they are monks, or nuns, or friars or not, whether they are priests or not, then, what is the point of religious life? Were the first monks, who went to the desert to be «better», misled?

At first sight, one could be tempted to answer yes. But no, I really believe the answer is no. They were not misled — when they left. I would say that they became misled with time, so to speak. They were right to leave, if they felt that this was their way to live as Christians to the full. If they felt this was their «calling», that is, if they felt called by God to live in that fashion.

Now I have reached the core, they key of the question. The «reason» to join religious life is not the assurance (as it was, for a very long period of time, claimed) that this way makes it easier to go Heaven and the reward is greater, but because one feels called on by God to join such a lifestyle. I know that this idea might seem quite… naïve. Ok, I admit it: I never got a call from God to my mobile phone. Nor an SMS — at that time Whatsapp did not exist. Not even a letter delivered by an owl, like in Hogwarts — though I admit it would have been awesome.

Jokes apart, how does one realize, and when, that he or she has been called by God? I remember, when I was a novice, something we were told by a senior member of the order, a short time before taking our first vows. He told us that he found, in us, little believe (or, better said, awareness) of having been called by God. It is easy to give «reasonable» reasons to explain why we want to join a religious order. You may say that you want to help people, that you like its lifestyle, that you want to devote your whole life to do the good, etc. Almost everybody can understand this. But to say that you are answering a (better said: the) God’s call? No way!

But again, it is the only true «reasonable» reason. You can help people, do good things, without being a monk, or a friar, or a nun, or a… No need to take up such a «different» a lifestyle. Even us, novices, at that time regarded that idea (of God’s call) a bit… I do not know what word to write. Nevertheless, that fellow brother had it right.

III

Let’s talk a bit more about this lifestyle in which sex is strictly forbidden, you cannot do what you will and you must not spend money in the way you would if you had plenty of it. For this is a short but not wrong summary of the vows one takes when joining a religious order. Yes, I admit this looks quite shocking. We cannot maintain that sex is a sin — after all, God made us the way we are, and he told us to be fruitful and multiply. We cannot still believe that freedom is something bad by itself. And poverty is not precisely something that somebody would desire to embrace. Why, then, does religious life mean (require) renouncing sex, freedom and goods? How can God call a man or a woman to lead such a life? And how on earth can one of us to answer to that call with a «yes»?

It is obvious that is really difficult to answer that sort of questions. And it must be admitted that, for centuries, the theology behind the religious vows has been worse than poor — dreadful, I would say. Sex was the gateway of the Devil. Obedience to the superior was obedience to God (must not God be obeyed?), and freedom a pernicious idea. Let’s not forget that Jesus, in the Gospels, is always praising the poor. And, above all, the «fuga mundi», that is, the idea that, by joining the religious life, one was fleeing the world, which meant the corrupt place where the vast amount of the Christian faithful lived. The «fuga mundi» itself justified what the vows make you renounce.

But since the idea of the religious life as an angelical life is no longer sustainable, one must rethink the justification of the vows. A new theology has to be made. And I am not sure that, in such attempt, we have been successful yet. I would bet on the contrary, sadly to say. Most of the rules of religious orders talk of the vows in Canon Law terms, not in theological terms. Such a pity.

John Paul II wrote an apostolic exhortation called «Vita Consecrata», in which he states that the religous life is the one that imitates of Jesus’ lifestyle. He uses the metaphor of the Transfiguration to talk about the religious life. With all my respect to the Pope and to the Church, I find this approach quite disappointing.

What do we actually know about Jesus’ lifestyle? We have the Gospels, but they are not biographies in the modern sense. They are more like «tanatographies», that is, they talk about the story of a death, not that of a life. Of course they tell us things about his life, but they do so in order to explain his death. Trying to grasp the historical life of Jesus from the Gospels and other biblical sources is… a challenge, to say the least.

Despite all the criticism, I still believe that the vows of chastity, obedience and poverty define the religious life, even if their names are not precisely the best ones. The main problem they have is that they are negative in nature — that is, they tell us what do you renounce, but not why you do so, and in order to achieve what — «a better, surer or easier way to go to Heaven» is no longer a valid reason. Nor is the «fuga mundi» alone.

Behind the vows there is the core idea of religious life: that you are offering all your being, both body and soul, to God. I admit that, at first sight, this idea seems too spiritual, too idealistic, some sort of intellectual artifact to justify something that, otherwise, would be appalling. And perhaps even worse: am I suggesting that those Christian faithful who do not join religious life are not offering themselves to God, too?

I believe it is easier than that. When you join a religious order, you join it in the fullness of your person. There is nothing of it that does not join it, so to speak. All your time, all your abilities, all your virtues, and even all your flaws are available to the religious order. This does not make you a slave, or a property, far from it. Gone are the days when obedience was «perinde ac cadaver», as if you were a corpse.

As every Christian person should do, you strive to follow Jesus’ teachings to the utmost of your ability. And by joining a religious order, you place yourself «at God’s command», so to speak. That is, you might have plans for your future: to marry, to have a professional career — a successful one, we may add, etc. This is all good and well, there is nothing bad in it, nor missing. It is perfectly ok. Members of religious life renounce all this because they feel called to something else.

It cannot be overemphasized that all this does not mean that marrying, having as many things as you can afford, and pursuing a successful professional career are illegitimate things, or something that would offend God. It means that there are some people, however few in numbers, that feel called on to lead another sort of life.

The vows of chastity, poverty and obedience are some kind of explanation of what means, for those who join a religious order, their offering themselves to God. Vows, even if they take the form of renounces (like sex and «free will»), in reality explain what you opt for. Virtually all religious orders have some form of life in common, with other people, either in a monastery, in a convent, etc., which by itself excludes marriage — sex included. You choose to do what you are asked for, thus making yourself available to satisfy other people’s needs and doing things that you would not but are more profitable to the community. And you restrain yourself from becoming a slave of things, that is, placing your happiness in having lots of money, lots of things, a wonderful house and car, etc. You agree to have, at every moment, just what it is reasonably necessary, regarding things just as means to some end, not an end by themselves.

It is such a pity that, for so much time, vows have been explained only in negative terms, that is, in what they bar you from doing, instead of explaining the attitude to life they mean. I personally find it difficult to explain them in this new light. I admit that even explained in this way, it is still difficult to understand why, and how can it be possible, that someone would renounce to sex. And I am aware that, for most people, this is reason enough to rule out even considering joining a religious order.

IV

Religious life has more than 1,500 years of existence. But what about its future? Will it survive another 1,500 years? Nodoby knows. Since the 1970s, a large amount of its members have abandoned it, and less and less people join in. The latter fact is, in my opinion, not difficult to understand, and the sooner I think it is due to the somewhat mislead reasons that moved some people to join it. It is said, probably with reason, that today «we are so few», but perhaps it could also be said that «in past times we were too many».

I have already pointed out one reason that moves people into not even considering the possibility of joining a religious order — sex. With the freedom we enjoy today, this is very easy to understand. Even for those who are perfectly happy in a religious order, rennouncing to sex is not precisely easy. It is a wound that bleeds for a long period of time. But I do not believe that, without celibacy, many more people would join religious life.

It is not only that, in the «western world», religious life is in crisis. Christianity itself is in crisis. How many people attend church regularly, for example? How many people believe in God? In Jesus Christ? Then, it is not difficult to understand why virtually every religious order has fewer and fewer members. Despite that in some parts of the world religion is still important and there are people willing to join religious orders, globally considered the situation is not precisely «good», in terms of quantity.

But I think that worrying too much about how many members religious orders have is focusing in something that, by itself, has very little importance. Well, of course it has practical consequences — for example, having to close monasteries, religious houses, etc. But it is not something of essential importance. God calls whomever he pleases, and everybody is completely free to say «yes» or «no». The only thing members of religious orders should worry, as I see it, is whether their example is good enough — that is, whether people can see them as examples of trying to live their life in the most possible coherent way.

I remember some friends telling me that religious life should be reformed, modernised, etc, in order to be attractive to people nowadays. I do not believe so. The point is not to make it more attractive, or easier. If religious life needs reform, it is to make it more in line with the Gospels, not more fashionable according to current trends.

V

My experience in a religious order has been one of the deepest educating experiences in my life. I do not regret at all having spent several years living in that way, and I still do not know whether I was wrong to join it or to leave it — the answer, I fear, I will never know.

Sharing my reflections on that experience has not been easy, since it is, in some way or another, reflecting of a past period of my life. In retrospect, I would have done some things quite differently, as I am quite sure that, ten years into future, I will say that I would have done things differently than I am doing them today.

Even after several years (five, if I remember it correctly) since I left that religious order, I am still interested in it, in what happens to it and to its members, and the future of religious life in general. And I still believe that, for its own sake and that of the Catholic Church, it is necessary to reflect deeper and in a more theological sense about its origins and identity. I hope that what I have written will be interesting in that regard.