We seem to be in a place today where there is a great deal of renewed interest in religious life in the Church. These periods seem to wax and wane as the years go by, but the interest seems to peak when time are troubled and folks are looking for spiritual communities that offer a renewed sense of purpose and spiritual fulfillment.
Having just returned from the Brotherhood’s Chapter and Convocation, where we admitted three new postulants, clothed a novice, and had two first and two life professions, I was struck by the sentiment – look at what we offer the church! In this case, here were a group of men seeking spiritual companionship, and willing to undertake the promise of a community in which to nurture that journey – in some cases for the balance of their natural lives.
The church hungers for community – real, authentic, sustaining community. Too often, the church holds up the parish as the logical place where that is supposed to happen. And too often, it doesn’t – leaving people hungry. In the case of clergy, seminaries try to foster community by providing a semi-monastic experience of prayer and worship. But these communities are, by their very nature, temporary. As such, they do not work except to create a hunger for this type of spiritual nurture only to create disappointment when the newly graduated enter the world of parish life to find that there is no comparable sense of community available to them there.
Parish clergy spend too much time trying to recreate that experience in the parish only to be disappointed when the expected sense of community and commitment doesn’t materialize. We often hear from ordained folks coming to discern a religious vocation that they are hoping to find what they thought they were getting when becoming ordained.
Community in religious life is informed and shaped by the Rule and vows. Being bound to follow a Rule of Life naturally fosters a sense of common purpose among members of the community that informs every aspect of our lives. Parish communities cannot, by there very nature, do this. We come to the table with individual agendas, worship in common, and then return to those same agendas when we leave. Aside from the assertion of our Baptismal Covenant as a common Rule of Life, there is nothing to necessarily foster a sense of putting aside those parts of our lives that may be at odds with it. In religious life, however, this is the purpose of vows. The great evangelical counsels of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience are intended to accomplish this.
Poverty is the great equalizer of power. Whether it asks us to relinquish personal possessions, or to live in simplicity, or to dedicate the fruit of our labor to the Church, it is less about possession than it is about power. The common pursuit of Poverty as an informing proposition in our lives is intended to reset the power dynamics of a community to equality rather than hierarchy.
Chastity is about relinquishing our desire to possess or control those with whom we are in relationship. It is about gracious restraint, individual value and integrity, and accountability for one anothers personal and spiritual growth and discernment of gifts for use in service. Chastity is an invitation to love rather than a barrier to it.
Obedience is about the relinquishment of personal agendas – not by letting them go completely, but by relegating them to lesser importance than the needs of the community as a whole. Without Obedience, a true spiritual community will fail. Obedience is about listening for needs, and being willing to meet them for the sake of others.
Is it any wonder that without a Rule and vows, true community can seem transient? The model of the parish is wonderful for so much goodness. But it cannot bear under the weight of expectations that it can provide true and lasting community for those who seek it. Parishes are about convenient community. As long as it is close by, the hours of worship are convenient to our busy lives, and the expectations on our time, talent, and treasure do not often exceed our own comfort levels – then it is fine.
Religious orders such as my own take great pleasure in offering a vision of community to the world. We offer a place where the true nature of community, with all of its joys and all of its messiness, can prove sustainable, nourishing and holy. It is the school where we, as individual members, learn what community truly looks like and then take and model it for others.
Our founder is fond of saying that “everyone who comes to us – changes us.” Isn’t that a vision!? Too many “communities” in the world are formed by a process of selection – where members are chosen based on their reinforcement of who we are, what we like (or don’t like), and where our comfort zones are. We choose people, speaking rather obviously in generalizations, who are like we are or who at the very least don’t necessarily challenge who we are. Religious life is not like this. When a new person comes to us, the dynamics of the community shift to accommodate this new presence. We do not mold them to be like us, but rather let ourselves flow around them, inviting them to bring their authentic personhood in all of its integrity. We provide them with a framework – by Rule and vows – to discern their gifts and to use them in the world with quietness, patience, humility, charity, courage and prayer. And it is only in authentic community where those gifts are learned.
This, for me, is what religious life offers the Church.
Br. Karekin, BSG
Minister Provincial VIII