Tuesday, January 21, 2014

TOB rescues religious life from being repulsive!

Sr Theresa Noble, our novice, posted a thought-provoking article Is Religious Life Repulsive? It was prompted by an article by a Br. Justin, SacrificingReligious Life on the Altar of Egalitarianism. I discussed this briefly with Theresa last night before the novices went off on the March for Life. It’s an intriguing topic.
Here is my own response to Br Justin’s article. While he makes some valid points, I think he basically misses the boat. He’s looking at religious life from a very reductionistic point of view, as if the vows are wholly a matter of renunciation. He says:

All forms of religious life have this repulsive effect.  All forms of religious life, at their very core, consist of three vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience—and each of these vows is repulsive.  The vow of poverty means giving up money and property; the vow of chastity means giving up a spouse and children; and the vow of obedience means giving up one’s own will.  No one has an innate desire to sever himself from property, family, and his own will.  No one has an innate desire to uproot three of life’s greatest goods.  Such a desire would be mere perversion. Everyone, however, has an innate desire to get married.  Religious life is a renunciation, but marriage is a positive good. 

That last line is very telling and shows that his basic outlook on religious life is essentially negative. He tries to rescue it by then proposing that because it is so, well, repulsive, the only way to save it is by proposing it as a higher calling and a surer road to holiness than, say, marriage.  That’s a big topic and raises a number of theological problems. It also sets up a basic opposition between consecrated life and marriage. In reality, both vocations are like two sides of the same coin. I’m going to sidestep that whole issue, though, and look at it from a completely different angle. (Also, just to note, marriage has its own set of sacrifices and renunciations.)

TOB – A New Angle on Religious Life

The theology of the body is like a refreshing breeze that can put this whole discussion on another level. In his TOB talks, John Paul focuses primarily on the sacrament of marriage. But he has a short, dense, and intriguing section on continence “for the sake of the kingdom.” It’s not an easy read. But I think it holds the key.

JP suggests that both marriage and religious life are rooted in the fundamental human vocation to love. For example, the call to continence “for the sake of the kingdom” is a call to an exclusive self-gift to God. The three elements are important: 1) exclusive 2) self-gift 3) to God. Married people also make an exclusive self-gift, but they make it to their spouse. God is involved in the sacrament of marriage, of course, but in a different way.

In the TOB talks, JP keeps speaking about the value contained in a life given over to God in continence “for the kingdom.” Ultimately it has to do with the fact that it puts the person in a unique, special relationship with Jesus Christ through the vow of chastity. What I’m trying to understand better myself is exactly what that relationship is and how to articulate it in such a way as to do it justice, without suggesting that people who haven’t made that vow are somehow in an inferior relationship to Jesus. That’s certainly not the case.  I’m now reading over those talks and pondering this. JP is very clear that consecrated chastity has a very special and important value, one essential to the life of the Church.

John Paul proposes that the spousal meaning of the body is at the basis of every person’s vocation. He says that each person has to live the spousal meaning of the body, and that the spousal meaning is at the basis of both vocations, marriage and consecrated life. Ultimately the spousal meaning of the body is not so much about sex as it is about love and self-gift. And in each vocation, the person is called to make that self-gift. Spouses make that self-gift to each other, and religious make it to God, and Jesus in particular. (Of course, that love spills over to others in mission. But right now I'm not focusing on that aspect.) And that self-gift to Jesus sets up a very particular relationship, one that is different from a person who does not make that exclusive self-gift to Jesus in that way. This is not to imply that a person who hasn’t made such a vow is less holy; not at all. It’s more like they’re taking two different paths to the same goal—holiness—and each path is unique and involves God’s call. Love and self-gift are the fundamentals in both vocations.
What bothers me about Br Justin’s article is that he seems to think that the essence of religious life is renunciation. But that is so wrong. It does indeed involve some renunciation, but the essence is love. The greatest virtue is love, not fortitude.

St. Thomas, in explaining why fortitude is not the greatest of the virtues, says, “Virtue essentially regards the good rather than the difficult. Hence the greatness of a virtue is measured according to its goodness rather than its difficulty.” (II-II, q. 123, a. 12, ad 2)

To see religious life and the vows solely in terms of renunciation misses that important truth. It would put fortitude over love. Br. Justin tries to overcome the negativity of seeing religious life wholly in terms of renunciation by proposing that if it’s presented as a higher state, people will put up with the renunciation because they’re getting something better. But notice—the emphasis is then on getting, not on giving, as in love, self-gift. That’s the TOB emphasis. And that’s why TOB is so important for the Church.


Ruth Ann Pilney said...

I'm a married woman, but I NEVER considered religious life repulsive. There was a time, during pre-Vatican II era, when I considered religious life a higher calling, but the Church changed by saying all the baptized are called to holiness, even the laity. Can there be a higher calling than that? I just want to be holy. Holiness is about love, because God is about love. So why choose religious life over marriage or vice-versa? I think it's because God calls some of the baptized to consecrated life and others to marriage. And let's not forget the single people. They're called to holiness, too.

Sr. Marianne Lorraine Trouve said...

Thanks, Ruth! I think you have hit the nail on the head, that God calls some of the baptized to consecrated life and others to marriage. And these callings are complementary, not in opposition.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Sr Marianne, for bringing this discussion back into focus! And thank you, Ruth, for reminding us that a vocation is God's choice, not ours. We respond to His invitation by accepting or rejecting it. Marriage and religious life are both marriages. One is earthly and ends on death. The other is heavenly and continues into eternity. If Br Justin is correct that we all want to be married, then the question for us is : Is God calling us to the first or second type of marriage? For me, the evangelical counsels were not my focus. I only wanted to do God's will whatever it is. Poverty, chastity and obedience were mere details and part of the package. There is so many wonderful things to say about this topic. I might have to start my own blog! :-).
Agnes Goh

Sr. Marianne Lorraine Trouve said...

Agnes, what a great way of putting it: Is God calling me to the first or second type of marriage? That phrasing speaks of it in a real TOB-like way, in language young people can understand.
Also, I'd like to look into what the saints said about this. They lived before John Paul started talking about this, but they lived the reality of what he was saying.