IN OUR FAST-PACED, media-driven culture, public opinion can become skewed if popular film, television, and periodicals promote an outdated stereotype of religious life. With few exceptions, the familiar media-inspired model of a person in religious life is either a bitter woman in a full habit rattling knuckles with a ruler, or an obtuse old man in a robe walking hunched over and mumbling something in a language that is long dead.
As young men excited about being in religious life, we find these portraits, along with many others, not only inaccurate but also potentially damaging to the future of religious life. Many young people do not consider such a life because of mistaken notions they pick up from various sources, including Catholics. We would like to debunk eight common myths of religious life and illustrate the beauty, contentment, and psychological health one could potentially find in this unique lifestyle.
Hearing this myth, we can’t help but reminisce about the scene from The Empire Strikes Back when the ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi comments to the sage Yoda that young Luke Skywalker is their only hope, the last of a once powerful and illustrious group. Although the number of people in religious life is down from when it peaked in the mid-twentieth century, most orders are doing better than the Jedi Knights! There are hundreds of men’s and women’s religious orders. Each of these has its own distinctive charism—or spirituality—and many still welcome new members annually. Although some religious congregations are dying, others are thriving. Religious life has been around for centuries, through periods of both growth and decline, and it will continue to survive as it faithfully adapt to the needs of the church and world.
Granted, poverty, chastity, and obedience would probably not make the cut for a David Letterman Top Ten list on ways to have a good time. But there is a richness to these vows that is usually lost in common misunderstandings. Religious vows, like vows of marriage, are taken as a means to a greater end. The three most common vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience allow us to minister to a wide variety of people. The vows provide a freedom that allows us to engage the world in a special way, less restrained by material pursuits, by family commitments, and even by our own individual interests. In addition, the vows serve as a countercultural witness, especially in a world that overemphasizes money, sex, and power. The vows serve as a reminder that the idols we sometimes pursue are weak substitutes for the love of God, who continually calls all people to live their vocations authentically.
If this were the case, neither of us would have joined! Realistically, whatever vocation a person pursues is going to bring some suffering; this is the reality of being human. The important question to reflect upon is, does the suffering or sacrificing I do serve a greater purpose and make me happy? A life vocation, whether married life, single life, or religious life, should be chosen because one feels called to live a certain way. To expect a life without suffering is unrealistic, but one can expect a life with a foundation in love and happiness. Just as parents sacrifice many things for their children, men and women in religious life sacrifice for the people of God. Sometimes this sacrificing can involve suffering, but it is done in love for others and not for its own sake. Men and women in religious life, like most healthy people, do not hope to suffer, but if their lives are lived authentically in love, suffering is going to be present at times. Thankfully God is often most present to us when we suffer.
We’re human, and that means there’s a spectrum of religious temperaments in religious communities, from those who experience Christ in a mystical, immediate way to those who discover him through service, from those who prefer the rosary and eucharistic adoration to those who prefer more experimental forms of prayer. The unifying factor is what’s important: all are disciples of Jesus, uniquely called to share the spirituality of their communities with each other, the larger church, and the world. The people mix keeps religious life fun and interesting, while it also creates challenges. But that’s true of life in general, isn’t it?
Religious take vows of obedience, not of submissiveness and abuse. Most religious sisters, brothers, and priests we know have more in common with the Lone Ranger than with Tonto. Orders hope for mature, well-balanced, interdependent, highly motivated, creative candidates, not for weak, submissive, dependent drones.
Rather than blind submissiveness, obedience means to listen. Like all people, religious women and men are called to listen to God and to the needs of their order and the church. Obedience requires mature listening and dialogue between a religious and her or his superiors. Religious are invited to share their prayer, desires, talents, fears, and joys so that superiors may make knowledgeable decisions that are best for that person, a particular community, the order, and the church. Celibate chastity and simple living are requisites for living religious life, but the vow of obedience is most directly linked to carrying out the actual purpose of a religious community.
Upon entering religious life, relationships with family and friends change, but they never end. Just as people’s relationships change after they marry, a shift takes place for religious, too. The quality of the change is different depending on the type of community people enter. Strict cloistered congregations will mean fewer visits with outside friends and family. But the majority of U.S. religious communities are apostolic—that is, focused on service, and members are encouraged to have healthy, lasting relationships with their loved ones. These relationships are never replaced by the community, even though we sometimes might wish they could be, at least for a little while.
Question: What do you call a person who is asexual? Answer: Not a person. Asexual people do not exist. Sexuality is a gift from God and thus a fundamental part of our human identity. Those who repress their sexuality are not living as God created them to be: fully alive and well. As such, they’re most likely unhappy.
All people are called by God to live chastely, meaning being respectful of the gift of their sexuality. Religious men and women vow celibate chastity, which means they live out their sexuality without engaging in sexual behavior. A vow of chastity does not mean one represses his manhood or her womanhood. Sexuality and the act of sex are two very different things. While people in religious life abstain from the act of sex, they do not become asexual beings, but rather need to be in touch with what it means to be a man or a woman. A vow of chastity also does not mean one will not have close, loving relationships with women and men. In fact, such relationships are a sign of living the vow in a healthy way. Living a religious vow of chastity is not always easy, but it can be a very beautiful expression of love for God and others.
Religious women and men aren’t oddities; they mirror the rest of the church they serve: there are introverts and extroverts, tall and short, old and young, straight and gay, obese and skinny, crass and pious, humorous and serious, and everything in between. They attempt to live the same primary vocation as all other Christians do: proclaiming and living the gospel. However, religious do this as members of an order that serve the church and world in a particular way. Like marriage and the single life, religious life can be wonderful, fulfilling, exciting, and, yes, normal. Yet, it also can be countercultural and positively challenging. It’s that for us and many others.
If you thought religious life was outdated, dysfunctional, or dead, we hope you can now look beyond the stereotypes and see the gift it is to the church and world.
David Nantais, S.J. is the university minister for the College of Engineering and Science at the University of Detroit Mercy.
Scott Opperman, S.J. is a Jesuit of the Detroit Province studying at Loyola University Chicago.