Nicolas Stebbing CR on the call to the religious life
Why do so few people enter the religious life these days? That is a question that has occupied many of us over the past few decades as religious communities have grown smaller, and seem largely to consist now of elderly monks and nuns. The occasional young brother or sister is an exception, and much rejoiced over – but why are there so few of them?
There are, of course, many answers: the world has changed; most young people do not come to church; the Catholic constituency in the Anglican Church has contracted; women particularly now have many other ways in which they can fulfil themselves; and young people used to life in an affluent and materialistic world find it much harder to step away.
I wonder, however, whether there is another answer that is much closer to home. Are people in our parishes really learning to pray? Or, to put it more accurately, are they learning to pray in a way that will bring them to realise that God may ask difficult things from them; and if He does ask difficult things will they see it as a joy and a privilege, not a burden?
The religious life should never be a soft option. Historically it has often become a soft option, and then it has died. Every single renewal of the religious life has taken on a more demanding, more costly form, and that is what brings in the new recruits. Those of us who live the religious life need not to ask if we are too tough for a modern generation, but whether our lives become too soft, and too compromised to be attractive to generous souls who really want to serve God. Not many of us will come out of that process of questioning unchanged.
However, the responsibility does not stay with us. How are the parishes teaching people to pray? What kind of prayer are young people being taught in schools, confirmation classes, or on pilgrimage? Is it a prayer which is centred on God, which opens the person to the possibility that God may say to them ‘Follow me’ in that totally uncompromising way that brooks no argument and allows no concessions? Or is the prayer focused on the self? Much prayer given to children, I fear, is about teaching them to ask God for what they want, and encouraging them to expect only good, nice things in return. This is nonsense; but is it often the message they get. Sadly, it seems also to be the message many older people receive as well.
Anyone involved in spiritual direction will have heard remarks like ‘I used to say the office, but I didn’t get anything out of it, so I gave it up’; or ‘I used to pray, but I got bored and stopped’; or ‘I used to go to daily mass, but…’. There are endless variations. The sad fact is that most of us (myself included) have at times been convinced by our modern world that everything we experience from God must be good, nice, affirming, cuddly, and warm; or that everything we do for God or in church must immediately result in feeling good, otherwise it is a failure. Christian life becomes a search for those ‘good’ experiences, whether through the hype of choruses, music groups, tongues and excitement; or through glorious vestments, clouds of smoke, and exotic music. None of those things is bad in itself; but each can be a substitute for God, and the search for spiritual satisfaction can lead into hysteria and despair.
Against this self-centredness stands the story of Jesus Christ, who ‘left us an example…that we should follow in His steps’ (1 Peter 2:21). Christ was not concerned for himself. He wanted simply to do His Father’s will. He wanted to make sure His disciples were cared for and did not give up in despair. He suffered for the whole world and He suffered more than any of us could suffer since He had infinite capacity to suffer. Can we actually follow in His steps without some acceptance of suffering? Should we perhaps even welcome suffering as a chance to follow the Christ whom we love?
Suffering in this context need not be physically painful. We don’t have to suffer chronic illness, or martyrdom. We do need to suffer the daily checks and trials that move us away from selfishness and make us care for others. We need to give up that cherished (and spurious) freedom our society makes us think is our basic human right. We do need to pray in a costly way that will be for other people and for the praise of God, not for our own comfort.
Of course, it doesn’t need to be all pain. We Catholics are good at enjoying ourselves. It is fun to do good liturgy, to have nice vestments, and to make good music. It is great to go on pilgrimage, and to enjoy days at Walsingham. But underneath is there the discipline of daily prayer, a prayer that will often be dry and costly? Is there the practice of frequent confession, admitting to the sins and failures that we wish we didn’t have to speak about? And in relationships do we accept the Christian way, which makes quite difficult demands on us? Modern society’s sexual freedom is not for us, however much we may wish it were.
This may sound rather grim. It isn’t, actually. Jesus did promise that if we took up his yoke and burden we would find it easy and light – but we have to take it up to find that out. Religious life is a very joyful place to be, so long as one makes as few compromises as possible. We will all compromise a little! Doing the will of the Father may take us into areas with large horizons and quite scary scenery; but it won’t be dull. The modern world offers people endless exciting experiences, and fails to deliver more than passing enjoyment, which never fully satisfies. Jesus Christ offers us a way that gets better and better, if we don’t get frightened and opt out. He offers us a road walked with him that can only be exciting, stimulating, and unsafe. God offers some of us a life in which prayer takes a great part: offering him praise on behalf of a world that does not pray, and begging him to him to send his healing spirit on a broken and suffering society. The world needs this prayer, and so does the Church; and it starts with daily prayer where each of us, and now.
The Revd Fr Nicolas Stebbing is a member of the Community of the Resurrection.