Peter Yates CSWG reflects on myths about the religious life
‘Why on earth would anyone do that?’ (i.e. consider religious life)… How strangely and oddly does religious life come across to us, and not least in its visible appearance, in its manner of dress. Really odd, actually, when you look at 19th Century photo-shoot archives, with nuns sporting ostentatious wimples! – ‘coal scuttles’, as they were rather rudely described!
Yet the oddity of religious dress in fact serves a positive purpose, even a radically counter-cultural one. Call it ‘a sign of contradiction’ if you will. It’s a visible testimony to the ‘folly of the Cross’ (1 Corinthians 1.18), which is ‘madness’ to this world’s way of thinking: ‘What!….leave your family, home, marriage and the possibility of children and your own family, a good well-paid job, reasonable security for life, in order to live with few creature comforts, fairly restricted pleasures, and nothing you can call your own, alongside other similar-minded men/women, has to be “insane” ”lunatic” ”demented”… deranged’ to the mind-set of our contemporaries. ‘Renounce all?… and for what?’ they will say.
‘For the sake of… Christ?’ To become his witness, a living bearer of his truth, a visible tangible sign of the invisible, untouchable God, to grow into him who is the Way, Life and Truth, to manifest the salvation of all human beings? Sheer madness, or perhaps less politely, ‘a load of religious cobblers’?
‘Sheer madness’ and yet true, as it was true of the One who laid down his life for the entire human race, that we might live for ever, purchasing for us by his Blood fullness of Life, so we might live in a way fully human and personal. That life he gives to the Church and to the world, to lift our hope, though the world does not recognise it. This life is a light, which the world has forgotten it ever knew.
Is that not a message for our age to hear, especially in tempestous times such as ours? St Catherine of Siena lived in similar unsettling circumstances. With the world in chaos and the Church equally if not more so, yet everything she did and said in her brief life of 33 years, had such a powerful impact on her times, supported, encouraged – whilst not failing to chide and reproach even – popes, fellow-religious, as well as those living in the world, exhorting them above all to hold fast ‘to Christ crucified and to his way’.
Now if the cross effected the salvation of the whole world, those who live by its truth share in its fruits but for those outside of that faith in Christ crucified, it remains ‘folly’.
From this strange folly of Christian faith, and of religious life in particular, it is not surprising to learn that myths and spurious notions float around concerning religious life, often expressed in people’s comments and questions. A group of us recently jotted down a list of some common fallacies. A few are commented on here.
They never laugh. I am wondering which community those making that comment had visited? I have never been with a group of religious, where laughter was not only, not absent, but was the norm. Indeed, a sense of humour might be regarded by most religious as indispensable for the life. If we are unable to laugh at ourselves and human foibles, how long will we survive in a life that has at its heart, dying to self, and surrender, of self-giving that includes all? Laughter is a necessary ‘coping mechanism’ for fallen human beings, vital within the strictures of such an ordered life.
Not allowed to speak. This reproach would seem directed especially at enclosed religious rather than active, apostolic religious. However, no Rule of ‘absolute silence’ exists in Anglican enclosed orders, nor even in Roman Catholic communities since Vatican II – Cistercian monks used to observe such a rule, employing sign language to communicate, but that is no longer. Communicating in written notes will be the nearest Anglicans get to that! My own Community Rule positively encourages all to participate at recreation, and at Chapter meetings, specifically enjoins us to speak out on matters of conscience.
They are all saints. A religious vocation is an individual’s response to a direct call or an invitation, from the Lord. However, it effects the opening of mind, heart and the whole being to whatever God may be doing in us. There is a default to ‘being changed’, or as John Henry Newman put it, ‘changed often’. We are conscious that change needs to be happening in us, and we are called to become a ‘new creature’ in Christ. That creates an openness and vulnerability towards the needs of our fellow human beings, and especially those poor and deprived.
As is the case with any Christian life, lay or ordained, what is good and virtuous, constitutes the work of Christ in them, and ‘the rest’ is us! So not ‘saints’ but, as with all Christians, the possibility of becoming such.
Interestingly, the Lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the inspiration for later monastic life, record salutary warnings about religious making too great assumptions about their vocation. A number of stories tell of monks, even of the calibre of Antony, pondering whether there were any in the world equally advanced in prayer and holiness as they. They were shown fairly promptly by God, a couple living very ordinary lives in the world, who in his sight were more virtuous and holy than they. Holiness remains a hidden work between God and the soul, known only to him.
One Desert saying can set the matter in a correct perspective. True holiness is hidden, even from the saint themselves, who in their humility know only of the need to repent:
When St Sisoës lay upon his deathbed, the disciples surrounding the Elder saw that his face shone like the sun. They asked the dying man what he saw. Abba Sisoës replied that he saw St Anthony, the Prophets, and the Apostles. His face increased in brightness, and he spoke with someone. The monks asked, ‘With whom are you speaking, Father?’ He said that angels had come for his soul, and he was entreating them to give him a little more time for repentance. The monks said, ‘You have no need for repentance, Father’. St Sisoës said with great humility, ‘I do not think that I have even begun to repent’.
After these words the face of the holy abba shone so brightly that the brethren were not able to look upon him. St Sisoës told them that he saw the Lord Himself. Then there was a flash like lightning, and a fragrant odor, and Abba Sisoës departed to the Heavenly Kingdom.
Sheltered from the harsh realities of life. This presumably does not refer to religious who work as prison chaplains, visitors, nurses, teachers, and other such demanding ministries: with drug/alcohol or other addictions. Does it then apply to enclosed religious? ‘They just have God, and read and pray all day.’ Are they really so ‘sheltered’?
Everywhere in the world around us, we come across all manner of cases of people seeking to escape from reality, whether alcohol, drugs, pornography, or maybe even computer games? Yet is the reality of facing God, daily 24-7, truly a ‘soft option’? For me, it has been an arduous and demanding struggle, to do it consistently. The reality of facing the “self” within, with its deeper and deeper layers of self, ever peeling back like an onion, in my experience calls for courage, patience and perseverance, and not a little humility. Does not the path trodden by the saints speak of similar struggles, to surrender the self in order to be transformed by God’s holiness? It does not feel much like ‘escape’ from the inside!
They all think the same way about everything. The person who supposed that has clearly never been present at any monastery or conventual Chapter meeting! Period.
They are rolling in money. The money is nevertheless tied up in providing care and support for the elderly and sick, often governed by the conditions of donors which do not allow the money to be used for any purpose other than for the religious life, or its support and wellbeing.
There is no point in applying. Why ever not? The thief who died beside Christ, penitent for his life and behaviour, ‘applied’ just an hour or two before departing this world, and was granted not less than Paradise (Luke 23.42f). So what fallen human condition is unable to be sanctified by Christ? The ‘one thing necessary’ is a willingness to be changed by God, and that includes living with others whom you would not normally choose to live with, who are also weak and fallible as you are.
Most communities do have an upper age-bracket, as experience shows most people over 40/50 are unable at that stage of life to adapt to the changes living in community necessitates.
You will never see your family again. This is somewhat over-dramatised. Most religious visit their families, especially when they are sick, bereaved or elderly. Parents, brothers and sisters are all encouraged to visit, as are nieces, nephews and their families. The above response may be understandable, but the conclusion is somewhat forlorn.
A diet of bread and water, and teetotal? Not in any monastery or convent I know of. Rather the contrary.
So if you are in your 20s or 30s and have wondered about religious life, and would like to ask more questions, we are re-commencing our Taster Days at S Peter’s Horbury, Wakefield on the Saturday October 1st. So please join us for the day if you can, where there will be monks, nuns and friars, all ready and willing to answer any queries you may have.