BROTHER Christian and I have renewed our vows.
We have now been professed for three years; and have renewed our vows for a further twelve months and, if we wish to continue and the Order wishes to accept us, we will thereafter make solemn profession – until death.
And though the profession formula and the vows remain the same each time – poverty, chastity and obedience – the meaning each of them has for each of us seems to change over the years.
Whenever I attend a Catholic youth conference or a vocational awareness day of some kind I am invariably asked about chastity and celibacy.
“How do you do that?”
And my answers used to be rather trite.
“God would not call someone to a particular vocation or state of life without also giving them the grace to live it properly.”
Which is true, but sounds like it was taken from a textbook.
The reality of life is often more complicated, I have found.
I remember being the one asking the question about celibacy some years ago – the answer that the friar under interrogation gave me was perhaps even more disappointing.
“I had a few good female friends at university,” he said, “and I remember looking at them one day and thinking I could quite happily marry any one of them – I could see myself sitting beside one of them on a couch with a glass of red wine in twenty years, and it looked good. But this is the life to which I felt called, more so than that.”
I smiled, but was horrified; on the basis of what he had said, I could not escape the dreadful realisation that arose in my mind – “This guy has never been in love.”
He had never experienced that exquisitely painful sense of his heart truly being rent-asunder.
Life might contain a few surprises for him as a result.
On the other hand, there are those of us who, when we initially joined a life of religion, considered ourselves equipped with enough experience of the pain and joys of being in love to know what we were doing.
But God has a way of surprising – often in a shattering way – our self-confidence in this and in every other regard.
I am occasionally asked, “Do you miss your previous life, before you entered the Order?”
I always used to say “No”.
I still say “No”.
But while my answer is the same, the reason behind it is different.
Because it is no longer the past that occupies my mind – it is the present.
You see, even if we had been in and out of love before we entered religious life – keeping in mind that true love is a state of being and not some passing emotion – it transpires that those experiences do not inoculate us against later incidences of the same phenomenon.
Plenty of people over the years have left the priesthood or religious life – that is no secret.
So what happens when you fall in love with someone when you have already sworn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience?
What happens when you love a person and they love you and your mind is daily filled with the future life you could lead if you just “walked out that door?”
That is when celibacy becomes interesting.
The friar who taught us classes on the evangelical counsels – poverty, chastity and obedience – during our novitiate in Hong Kong often repeated what turns out to have been a very wise line.
“Brothers, you may think poverty is going to be your biggest problem in religious life; you may think it will be obedience, or chastity or common life with the brethren,” he said.
He shakes his head, slowly, with closed eyes.
“It will be faith,” he said.
And he was right.
When you are confronted with the dazzling possibility, not of material fortune, or fame or glory but of tangible, affective love – that is when religious life becomes interesting.
That is when you begin to really ask yourself: “Do I believe all this?”
It is at that point that you might find yourself reciting the creed of a Sunday and wondering, “Do I really, truly believe in the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting?”
Because if not, then this is the saddest life on earth. (1 Corinthians 15:19)
Of course, as with many choices in life, it is at this point in your introspective reflection that you might begin to ponder a variation on that line from Tolstoy: “If I stopped now, after coming all this way – well, they’d call me an idiot!”
But contemplating the question yet further you then ask, “Does it matter what they will call me? Does it really matter what other people will say about me?”
For a vocation cannot be dependent on third-party praise or censure.
A person ought not stay in religious life or leave for fear of what others will say – that is not a relevant calculation.
Because our ultimate hope lies in something that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor mind conceived.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)
And the faith that sustains that hope is a mysterious thing.
In response to an earlier letter discussing the question of belief the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote to his friend Robert Bridges, “You do not mean by ‘mystery’ what a Catholic does. You mean an incomprehensible uncertainty … but a Catholic by “mystery” means an incomprehensible certainty.”
I can at least vouch for the “incomprehensible” part.
Over time, I have come to realise that St Paul was profoundly inspired when he wrote that we are only able to love because “the love of God has been poured into our hearts.” (Romans 5:5)
And what we choose to do with that love is entirely up to us.
In fact, that choice is the only act that is completely distinctive for each human person.
Every other external act, every other achievement could be accomplished by someone else – and accomplished in a pre-eminent way by God.
But the way you choose to dispose of your heart is the only thing that is absolutely unique to you.
Your love cannot be given by someone else – it can only be given by you.
The choice of where and upon whom we direct our love is the only truly particular gift that belongs to each human person.
And in coming to that realisation we further realise that what St Augustine wrote more than fifteen hundred years ago is also true: “quia amasti me, fecisti me amabilem” (‘In loving me, you made me loveable’).
Of ourselves, we are not particularly loveable nor readily capable of true love; it is the grace of God that enables both of these things.
And religious life – all life – is a work of grace.
As Father Romano Guardini would put it, “It is only by means of grace that man becomes what according to the divine will he ought to be.”
Our efforts, our struggles, our perseverance are not simply or even primarily our achievements; they are the work of God though us.
“You, O Lord, have wrought for us all our works.” (Isaiah 26:12)
And that working of grace includes our capacity to live a life of self-sacrificing love; for we cannot pretend that religious life – or any life in the Christian schema – does not involve sacrifice of some sort.
The question that undergirds a life of faith is not so much ‘Do I believe it?’
The question is rather that which Jesus asked Peter on the shore of the lake. (Jn 21:15ff)
The real question is: “Do you love me?”
How you choose to respond, how you choose to dispose of your heart, is up to you.
I am happy to renew my vows.