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What the Religious Life Is - and Is Not

Sr. Heléna Marie, CHS

Coming to a religious life may seem like the ultimate escape: a serene, untroubled life of continuous prayer and withdrawal from the stresses and distractions of the fast-paced worldly life. On some level, conscious or not, it may also seem like a place where one can hide out, not only from the world and its difficult people, but also from one's self and one's problems. It may seem like an ideal retirement community, or like a kind of sorority of sisters (or fraternity of brothers) who all get along and have a good time together. One may think it will be a place of solitude where the nitty-gritty of daily relationships will have been left behind, or a place of last resort: "Nothing else in my life has really worked out; maybe this will." Even in our more enlightened times, one may have the classic notion that it is the place to which you go after a failed romance: "I guess I'll just have to take myself to a monastery."

The religious life is none of these.

It is not an escape. It is a terribly realistic life in which you find yourself unable to escape from others, from the problems of the world, and from yourself. The outlets normal to life in the world are largely unavailable here, so you are up against the difficulties which surface without the ability to distract yourself in extraneous pursuits that may previously have helped you avoid them.

It is not a place to hide from others nor from yourself. Whatever you have found difficult in others in the past, you will find difficult here. Every character flaw that drove you crazy in others before you entered will drive you crazy here, too, except that here you are living twenty-four hours a day with those who have them! Nor will you be able to hide from whatever in yourself you would rather not face. The formation process in community will naturally bring out those aspects of yourself which might prefer to remain hidden. Your shadow will become apparent to you (as it has probably always been apparent to others), and you will have to face it, accept it, and eventually own it as a creative part of yourself. As Brother Clark Berge, SSF, says: "The religious life is no way to hide from problems. If you try to hide, they will find you out."

It is not a serene, untroubled lifestyle. A monastery schedule is demanding, and the day-to-day life is characterized by many of the same troubles and obligations one finds in the world: leaky plumbing, daily meals to be cooked, difficult people, short nights, the demands of ministry and daily work, and so on. It is not a place to retire. Religious basically do not retire. If comfortable retirement is what you seek, you would be better off not to enter the religious life. Members of religious communities contribute in whatever ways they can as long as they live.

It is also not a place to come for physical care as the body begins to wear out. Of course we care for our older members, and for those who have physical ailments, but most orders are careful not to admit members who either seek this kind of care from the outset or show signs of needing physical care soon.

It is not a college club. We do try to get along, but it would be a mistake to join a religious community for the purpose of finding acceptance within a community of men and/or women.

It may not be a life with long, uninterrupted periods of prayer. In fact, you may be surprised to find that you seen to have less time for individual prayer and meditation than before you entered. The demands of community and ministry make a constant schedule of long periods of prayer in solitude impossible. We do have much prayer in our lives (several periods of corporate prayer a day, an hour or two for individual meditation, and silent prayer undergird our actions throughout the day). However, if you are looking for hours on end of private time for prayer, you will not find it in most religious communities.

It is not a place of last resort. It is a common notion that women (in particular) join a religious order because there are no other options available; that they cannot find a life partner, cannot succeed in a career, do not have the intelligence and competence to do anything other than come to the monastery. On the contrary, the religious life is full of women and men who are highly competent and intelligent, and who bring extraordinary gifts to community and to the service of God. Similarly, it is not a good idea to join a religious community because you feel that nothing else in your life has worked and that the religious life is your last viable option. One joins to give all that one is and has, from fullness rather than from lack of other choices.

It is not a place to come on the rebound from a failed romance or marriage. It is necessary to work through the emotions generated from a failed relationship before entering the community. The religious life is not a salve for a broken heart (nor a punishment for having failed). The religious life is the ultimate form of surrender. One brings all that one is and all that one has to God in a gesture of complete giving. It is a way of "coming to the desert". Like the desert mothers and fathers of the early Christian era, joining a religious community is a countercultural move away from mainstream culture and mores, to a radical lifestyle that flies in the face of societal values.

It is a way of saying that your life is now devoted to the One Thing (however you would define this; Jesus called it "the pearl of great price"). It is a life centered in prayer; this basic orientation is one of the ways in which we are countercultural.

It is community with all that means: difficult people, the "sandpaper effect" of challenging relationships, having to change when the impulse is not to change, and the joys of relationships and corporate life. It is a way of life designed to help one transcend the ego, which does not willingly go. This path involved intense struggle. The religious life is itself a vehicle of radical transformation.

It is a form of service to God and the world. Through worship and our different forms of ministry, we seek to serve. It is a combination of the ancient and the modern. It is an evolving organism. Most communities are in a state of constant evolution; one is best served knowing this before entering.

It is a place wherein one grows in the ability to love—the heart of the religious life. Brothers and sisters are a prophetic voice within the church, calling the church out of complacency and adherence to conventional wisdom and practice, and into a more challenging and radical living out of the gospel message of Jesus Christ.

Heléna Marie, CHS, has been a member of The Community of the Holy Spirit for twenty-seven years. She has served as choir mistress and novice guardian, and currently serves as a member of the community's council. She traveled the world for several years working in the office of Women in Mission and Ministry at the National Church Center in New York, and has created and maintains a large garden at Bluestone Farm at the Melrose Convent in Brewster, New York.

 

 
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" ...a prophetic voice within the church, calling the church out of complacency and adherence to conventional wisdom and practice, and into a more challenging and radical living out of the gospel message of Jesus Christ "

 
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