Consecrated Life – Difficulties
Since joining the Dominicans, a little under three years ago, one of the comments I have most often heard, from people outside the Order, is, “It’s great that you have had some experience of the real world” – this is, I presume, with reference to the seven years that I spent working as a solicitor for a City law firm and probably not the two gap years, either side of University!
Whilst on one level it is fantastic if people think that I can add something in the way that I relate pastorally to them because of my experience of working in a pressurised environment and having a mortgage and other bills to worry about; on another level, the phrasing of the question irks just a little, in its implication that the life I live now is, somehow, other than real.
Firstly, in this context, talking about the ‘real’ world shows that a certain secular mindset has been bought into: for as Christians what can possibly be more real than a life that is supposed to be focussed on God, conforming ourselves to Christ, serving others, preaching the Good News and the salvation of souls?
Secondly, whilst the religious life is liberating in so many respects, it’s how very, very real it really is, that is, I think, its most challenging aspect.
So many of the things on which I previously based my identity, albeit unwittingly, have had to be stripped away. I can’t take pride in a flat with great views, a sharp tailored suit, I can’t be financially generous to others, and I can’t derive any status from my job. What you’re left with is you, and a life that, whilst apostolic, is also profoundly contemplative.
The result? A greater self-knowledge than I have ever had before, an increased awareness of how I have hurt others with selfishness, a profound sorrow for it, and a frustration that I continue to do so. For the religious life makes you know yourself, the character props that you had acquired are relinquished and you are faced with the really real when you look in the mirror and what looks back at you does not always make pleasant viewing . . . and this isn’t just a retreat, you don’t go back to the busyness and all the normal distractions at the end of the week; it’s every day.
The real you hurts even more when you know that people want you to be good; they rightly want good and holy priests and religious, but becoming one doesn’t flick some magic switch. The religious life forces painful reflection on how, as we fail to respond to God’s love as we ought, we let others down in the process.
Henri Nouwen tells, in his beautiful and touching book, Adam – God’s Beloved, of a wealthy and powerful woman who came to visit the L’Arche community where he lived sharing his life with the disabled. She has all the trappings of a successful life and yet still experiences a sense of depression:
“Cathy, do you believe you are good person simply because you are Cathy?”
Tears came to her eyes. She said, “I don’t know. I don’t even know who I am without all the stuff that surrounds me. I don’t know what it would mean if people loved me simply as Cathy. Would they? I often wonder!”
Suddenly her depression made sense to me. Cathy was asking the same question we are all asking: If people knew us as we really are, without all the worldly decorations we have gathered, would they still love us? Or would they forget us as soon as were no longer of use to them? This is the central question of identity: are we good because of what we do or have, or because of who we are? Am I somebody because the world makes me into somebody or am I somebody because I belonged to God long before I belonged to the world? So much had happened in Cathy’s long life that she had lost contact with the original, uncomplicated, loveable person that she was.
The beautiful paradox, though, is that this most difficult part of the religious life is at the root of its joy. For, my sense of unworthiness, is experienced in an environment of a profound awareness of the love of God for sinners. In the Mass, in the Psalms and Canticles we sing each day, and in the love of the brethren. I know that I am loved as I am, and when I am loved even when I feel unworthy of that love, I can experience that joy of the Prodigal Son, and know that the love of God is a love that transforms, if only I will let it. It is in the moment of sorrow, when I acknowledge my weakness and my need for God’s grace . . . that is when I can start to change, when I can start to become just a little more worthy of this most beautiful calling I have received. For in spite of, or maybe because of, the pain of knowing the real me, the near-three years for which I have been a Dominican has been a time of profound joy and I give thanks everyday for it.