In the responses to the poll about obstacles to considering priestly or religious life, the obstacles that came up repeatedly were the vows. Although we looked at them briefly in the post about religious life, I thought that perhaps sharing some personal experience of living these vows could show the beauty and value of consecrated life.
Religious life is meant to be a life directed towards a closer following of Christ—carrying the cross with Jesus here on earth, trusting in God’s loving providence to draw us closer to himself, both here and in eternity. Every vocation has its call to sacrifice and heroism, but the constancy of the sacrifices in religious life have led some to call it “a slow martyrdom.” That has less to do with the conspicuous sacrifices of the vows, and more to do with laying down lives in service to others. It’s the vows that give religious the freedom to love with an undivided heart.
“Celibacy is too hard.”
Celibacy is hard. I don’t deny it. Every human being is created for the intimacy of spousal love, and celibacy is giving up the physical expression of spousal love. Renouncing the physical intimacy of sex for the sake of Christ and his kingdom is a real sacrifice. Celibacy means not having the unconditional support of one’s spouse, nor having someone in your life who is always there for you. Celibacy (or consecrated chastity as it is often called) means times of loneliness.
However, celibacy doesn’t mean giving up all emotions and relationships. It mean that our exclusive relationship is with God. So the wise celibate is attentive to nurturing meaningful relationships with other people in his or her life—with family, community, and friends—so that they remain emotionally healthy and can rely on a certain level of human companionship. For me personally, sharing life with my sisters in community is one of my greatest joys and supports in living religious life and the vows.
What does it mean to have an exclusive relationship with God? It means that the “Someone” whom we go to first, the One is always there for us, the One to whom we give ourselves completely, is God. As we grow in our exclusive relationship with God, we find ourselves falling more and more deeply in love with him: we rely always more on him, becoming more aware of his presence in the tiny details of our day; our desire to do God’s will and to serve God’s people always more deepens; and our love continually grows. A special intimacy develops between us and God.
For priests and men religious, the “spouse” is the Church. For women religious, our spouse is Christ himself. For both men and women religious, spousal love is expressed primarily in loving all of God’s children, and especially Christ in his members, the Church.
One key aspect of spousal love is fruitfulness. Just as married love is to be open to the creation of new life, so the love of religious and priestly life is to be fruitful, as spiritual fathers and mothers of God’s People. This spiritual parenthood is expressed in countless ways.
I was recently at a faith sharing with a number of other Catholic women who were talking about the joys and challenges of being married. I’m sure they just thought I was listening, but I added my comment in the end—a comment that I borrowed from Sr. Helena Burns. “My Spouse is perfect. The only problem is that, when we disagree about something, he’s always right.”
Our Founder, Blessed James Alberione, called chastity the greatest love. I think part of what he meant by that is that our spouse is the perfect Lover; but perhaps he also meant that chastity is a very self-sacrificing love, with fewer tangible rewards here on earth. For me, chastity is a treasure that keeps my gaze and my attention focused exactly where it should be: on God and his People.