“I thought about religious life, but I was afraid of not getting there”
Fear of making a mistake holds more people back in life than we realize. If they try to ride a bike, they could hurt themselves. If they walk into a crowd, they may not know what to say. If they move to another house, another job, another city, another university, they might not like it there. And so they declare all these things forbidden and never try.
Stephen Hawking, the physicist, lived to age 76 with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS – a neurodegenerative disease – which eventually prevents the patient from speaking, walking, swallowing or breathing. The question is clear: was his work on an entity that he could never experience himself a mistake? He put the answer this way: “One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply does not exist. Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.”
“Perfection,” you see, is the enemy of growth. The randomness of creation in a world of many shapes and shades of the same species produces so many things that are almost, but not quite, what they seem to have become. Obviously, it is the power to create growth that is the impetus of creation.
On the other hand, psychologically, the search for perfection is even worse. It reduces life to static electricity. It prevents us from trying. It makes it impossible to become the rest of ourselves, the best of ourselves.
In fact, too often it is fear, hesitation, the desire to be perfect that keeps us from becoming all that we could become. In the end, it is precisely the need for perfection that makes the beauty of the spiritual life such an “impossible dream.”
Above all, the fear of failure is particularly toxic when it comes to the spiritual life. The number of people who go through life remembering that they “thought about entering religious life for a while but ended up telling themselves they could never make it” – and therefore never tried – are legion. .
Thus, to speak of the place of religious life in the modern world is, at the very least, to come up against two of the most demanding questions of the time.
The first is “How do I know if religious life is for me? The second is, “Why would anyone go to a monastery in the first place?” The surprise is that the answers aren’t really as complex as they seem.
In fact, the answer to the first question is another question: how do musicians know that they should be musicians? Or how do auto mechanics know they would like to work with cars? Or how do doctors know they want to become surgeons? The answer is as obvious as it is disturbing. Either way, there is a deep, quivering fascination with the subject matter. Or to put it another way, our vocations are already within us. The call of creation already calls us to aim for the good and to use the gifts with which we were born.
Then, second, there is the felt awareness of the fit between my personality and my continued interest in the possibility of a religious vocation.
That’s when I’m supposed to answer the call. Too often, I never really give up the possibility, but neither do I ever make a genuine attempt to seriously explore the matter. And therein lies the error. We ignore the doors within us that we were afraid to open and thus miss the other part of ourselves – our souls and our spiritual development. We are all on the way back to the God who created us. Finding that path is the purpose of life. This is why the question of how to lead a meaningful spiritual life is eternal.
Some of us were made to make music, some to start a business, all of us to seek truth and justice. And some of us were created to make spiritual life real in every generation.
These people go to monasteries and convents, to seminaries and distant missions to test their call to bring the presence of Jesus, the love of God and the fruits of the Spirit to a secularized world. But we all find ourselves just as immersed in the kind of money and power and control that this culture promises and dangles before our souls, keeping us numb to the spiritual life. So we just carry on. But how far? And to what? To the fullness of life or to regret?
But one thing is clear: the question of religious life is perennial.
Even then, I was a little taken aback by the question the woman started the conversation with. “I really admire people who commit to religious life,” she said. “But how do you know it’s not already extinct?”
I was sitting with one of those women who had given a lot of thought to religious life but finally let the idea fade away — but not completely — and was still talking about it. This time to me. It was an important transition to which she was referring.
Religious life itself changes with each great period of cultural change. Otherwise, how could we address the pain, needs and fears of each new generation if we don’t bother to know them? The important thing to remember is the insight of the Roman philosopher Boethius. “Every age that dies,” he taught, “is just another age that comes to life.” And we are.
Yes, religious life is in transition now. We are moving from rural and institutional organizations of small groups in small localities to institutionalized ministries and building multicultural communities. And that’s also what the world itself is changing.
Religious life is not a series of parochial institutions that people go to. Religious life is about going where people are so they can find spiritual depth and help when and where they need it.
Above all, sustainability in religious life is not a numbers game. If not, we have to ask the same question of marriage: is marriage dying out because, at least at this time, marriage is more fragile and less stable than we expected before divorce became an option ? More than 40% of marriages end in divorce now. But marriage has also become richer relationships. The truth is that the catalog of human possibilities has expanded – and so expands the arc of civilization with it. Institutions change as society changes. But this kind of change does not necessarily destroy the commitment and stability of our own hearts.
And so it is with religious commitment, as it transforms to do more and better of what it once did differently in the past. Change was everywhere after the Second Vatican Council: the clothes we wore changed, the jobs we did changed, the way we went through life as adult women rather than as dependents of the Victorian era also changed. And all for the good.
Life was changing, yes. But not the vows, not the communal lifestyle, not our commitment to something greater than ourselves. But these things are the true essence of holiness and do not change.
From my perspective, religion and religious life are not immune to change. On the contrary, if someone must be able to gather faith in the God of tomorrow, to seek the fullness of spiritual life, to trust in the passage from one generation to another, it is religious life. After all, he’s done all of this for the past 2,000 years.
Can religious life change? Yes. Has he disappeared? No. Not in a world where spiritual life is God’s continuing call in every heart – and to those who are wholly, eternally and fully determined to match their gift of spiritual life with total faith in God’s calling.