Primer on Religious Life - Part Four: On Struggles and Strengths

Keeping It Real

Having had the good fortune to be a pastoral leader in the Province of the Brotherhood that I live in, I have had many opportunities to watch as new brothers move through the stages of life in the community. From Postulancy when they receive the cross, to Novitiate when they receive the habit, on to first vows when they receive the scapular and knotted cincture — each is a chance to watch them grow and struggle with the public and increasingly identifiable nature of their vocation.

Each stage on the journey for them is filled with excitement. I relive my own experience each time I watch a new member of the community make this journey. First Professions always make me cry. Life Professions fill me with awe and terror — the same terror I experienced when I made that commitment in 2001.

Here is a truth for new religious, and for those of you who are not religious but chance to meet us in the parish or on the street…it is a beautiful and difficult thing!

Men and women who come to religious life don’t do so because they think they’re special or better or more holy than anyone else. But we do come because we wish to be holy and trust religious life as a path towards that end. And by “holy” I mean set apart — for God and for God’s service.

And we all have to start somewhere.

When we begin the journey we do so with the knowledge that we are about to embark on a journey that requires strength and also entails struggle. No one learns to be a brother or a sister by reading a book or taking a course of study. Books and study will provide us with a framework of teachings and ethics and provide us tools to discern the road we walk upon. But it is only in the living of the journey that we will be, by God’s grace, transformed into who God wants us to be.

From an interior perspective, it requires us to be challenged about our own views of the world, learn our own interior geography, be willing to become vulnerable, lovable, loving, and diligent.

From an exterior perspective, it requires us to learn about what the world needs. And it requires us to come to terms with all of the “stuff” the world will now expect of us!

Let those who are not in religious life listen and hear!

We will be eager to love and serve you, to bear witness to God, to the teachings of Jesus about mercy and forgiveness and justice. We will be eager to pray with you and to work beside you. But we will also struggle with your expectations of us based on what you think we’re supposed to be and what you think we’re supposed to know.

Religious don’t start off with any special insight about God. We do have special insight about our particular way of striving to serve God, and a willingness to do so. But we will often be confronted by expectations, some quite reasonable and some not so reasonable, about what we know and what God is like and what God wants for our lives and the lives of others.

Religious come to know God through experience not through intellect. And while some religious can be quite intellectual and use that gift to further their ministry of witness and presence, all religious brothers and sisters will learn to witness to God by the fruits born of long and wonderful and even frustrating attempts to be in relationship with God through prayer and daily encounter.

Just because a new brother or sister has taken up their habit or their cross doesn’t mean they will yet be able to teach or witness to more than their experience allows for. And sometimes they will struggle.

So, to my fellow religious who are new to the road — the cross and the habit will be exciting. You will look forward to putting it on. And then you will be afraid. That’s OK!

You will struggle with public perceptions and expectations. That’s good, too. You will have to learn phrases like “I don’t know,” and “No,” and you will learn how to speak from your experiences rather than your own expectations and the expectations of others about what holiness means and what religious are supposed to know.

Over time, with your prayer and experience and the wisdom of a community of men and women who have lived religious life longer and will share it with you and support you, you will grow and be conformed into a suitable servant of God.


What Not To Do

From the first time you put on the cross, a question will constantly arise. “Do I wear my cross today?” Or, “I’m going to do _ today. Should I wear my cross?” This is not a dialog with the outside world and it’s rules and norms. It is, rather, an interior dialog. Let me be clear…most religious today do not wear a habit all of the time. And there are times when the prominent cross may also not be appropriate to circumstances. But the question is not about fashion, it’s about behavior. “Does what I’m planning to do today conform with what it means to be a witness?” “Will people scrutinize me?” “Am I willing to be a witness in the place that I am going?”

The answer to these questions is telling, because it will unveil for you whether or not you are setting yourself up to live an integrated life. This is especially a challenge for brothers and sisters who live in contemporary communities like I have discussed in prior parts of this primer. Do not, my brothers and sisters, set yourself up to lead a bifurcated life. But let the cross and the habit be tools to conform you to the life you have chosen. And don’t bring merely parts of your life to God, but bring God into all parts of your life.

Questions like these will force you to confront what you believe about God, how far you are willing to go to serve the world, and what kinds of fears you harbor about living a godly life. And as you struggle with these questions, you will slowly be conformed to God’s service. Because, after all, the whole journey is about leaning how to do that!

Be at ease, my brothers and sisters. God will transform your heart and mind. You will struggle to let go of old patterns and to learn new ones. You will take up a small cross to wear and larger ones within your heart, so that you might follow the one whose cross was far greater a burden to bear. And in doing so, you will learn to emulate his life of love and mercy and justice.

And you will learn that the goal of religious witness is to get yourself far enough out of the way so that God will be the glory to which your life points. Not you, and not the signs and symbols of religious life. Not what you know, but how you love and serve is what will show Christ’s compassion in the world.

This is the life you’ve chosen. Because you believe you are called to it. God will be your strength. The Rule will be your guide. The community will be a comfort. And as time goes on, your time in prayer and discernment, in learning and loving, and your experience of God’s present love and mercy in your life will transform you into who God wants you to be.

As Francis de Sales said, “God never asked us to be successful. Only faithful.”