I have met many LAY Christians who put professional religious to shame by their dedication, their service and their heartfelt love of God. I have encountered many lifestyles that seem much more based on Gospel values than formalized vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Sometimes religious life feels like a spiritualized welfare state. We know that as the Book of Genesis states, “It is not good for man to be alone,” or woman for that matter. Yet there is a recurring desire for and rediscovery of this form of life. Why?
My perspective comes from my study of the rather universal phenomena of what has been called initiation (Adam’s Return, Crossroad, 2005). In centuries past, on almost all continents, there have been patterns of spiritual instruction and temporary intentional communities that we now refer to as initiation rites. Basically, these rites were “religion” before any of the great religions emerged. Initiation seems to have provided a necessary structure for the survival of society and a crucial element for the spiritual growth and awareness of the individual. Anything that emerged that universally, and that consistently, must have proceeded from the Holy Spirit, the collective unconscious, as well as from a practical need. I think the same is true for the continual recurrence of new forms of religious life.
My own conviction is that religious life is largely a form of initiation. Perhaps simply saying this will help those wiser than I to clarify its truer purpose and to focus the renewal of religious life. We all know that renewal is needed. Religious life is indeed serving as a creative lifestyle for many individuals, but I do not believe it is serving that function socially or corporately. It is no longer a leaven or a critical mass for the larger society, as it once was. That is the root of many of its problems today, even of the problem it has holding its members long-term. For a lifetime celibate commitment, we need to know that what we are doing is somehow socially significant in a way that cannot be had elsewhere.
I would encourage you to reread the passages in the Gospels that are usually called “the instructions for the Twelve” (Matt 10, Luke 9:1-6, Mark 6:7-13) or, in Luke 10:1-17, for the “seventy-two.” Once I began studying the consistent and universal patterns of initiation, it became clear what is happening in these “sendings.” These were intense training courses, or “urban plunges,” as we called them back in the 1970’s, and were clearly not intended for a whole lifetime—as the entire history of church interpretation has made clear. Only Francis of Assisi and a few others even tried to take these instructions seriously as an ongoing lifestyle. But who of us in religious life has no spare tunic, no luggage or no shoes today? We stay at hotels and not “at whatever house we enter,” and we have credit cards in lieu of “no coppers in our purses.”
It is interesting that in each case the disciples were sent as groups of 12 or 72, or at least in pairs, not as individuals. Initiation was a classroom experience, which becomes even clearer when the disciples come back and report to Jesus, who then teaches them further (e.g., Luke 9:51-62). Jesus knows that we are socially contagious, and learn best in community and in “active learning” situations. Initiation in religious communities was always done in groups that became a spiritual brotherhood and sisterhood that were usually more significant than those formed by blood ties. It is no surprise that it took on a permanent or even institutional structure, summed up in what we called the novitiate experience, and eventually a vowed life.
Even more significant are the many and constant parallels between the founding documents of religious orders and these instructions. There is invariably some kind of training in: 1) simplicity, flexibility and mobility, which became known as the “vow of poverty”; 2) vulnerability and reliance upon others, which became community itself and perhaps the vow of obedience; 3) forgiveness and letting go of hurts, which was necessary for any continuity, health or stability for the group; 4) a sense of mission and service, which kept the group from becoming inbred and narcissistic; and 5) what we now call “walking meditation,” carrying prayer and peace on the road.
What a different form of evangelization we would have offered the world if Christian history had done Jesus’ initiation training! Instead we took much imperialistic and cultural “baggage” to our new worlds, and we are still paying the price for it.
Gospel People or Church People
Read the writings of almost any of the women and brother founders, which were not complicated by clerical concerns, and you will find these five points enunciated in one form or another. Those who are trying to gather, reform priests or train priests always have a different agenda from the founders, which makes it much harder to be a Gospel-based group than a church-based group. No wonder Benedict, Francis and John Baptist de La Salle formed brothers, monks or laymen instead of priests. It is a tension that we in clericalized orders have never really resolved.
It was probably inevitable that these communities of learners would assume ongoing structures. Religious life is a very creative spiritual lifestyle for many of us. It created a hothouse for spiritual life, deeper reflection and constant church reform for those who availed themselves. We in religious communities are often the “global positioning satellites” circling around a brittle and bound church and culture. I seriously wonder if the Catholic Church would have survived without the creativity, mission and service of religious life.
Still, I believe that religious life’s primary (but not exclusive) function is temporary for the individual, and should serve as a leavening critical mass for the culture. The Gospel is for all people, not just for specialized groups. We did neither history nor the church any favor by creating an elite subset, except insofar as it became contagious, as it sometimes did. We do need “yeast to be stirred in till the whole dough is leavened” (Luke 13:21). Jesus and Paul had good reason to prefer the metaphor of yeast and leaven.
Temporary Commitment, Lasting Fruit
But the insight that religious life serves primarily as an initiation structure is revealed by several constant factors. 1) A very, very small percentage of those who begin remain for their whole life. 2) Many, if not most, are quite grateful for their time in a formation program. 3) People seem to internalize many lifelong values during even a short period in a religious community, and they will tell you so. 4) Perhaps most controversially, I am convinced that a high percentage of monks, nuns, brothers and friars flourish for an early period and then are deadened, softened and compromised by what some have called “the noonday devil.” Religious life works for most as an excellent spirituality in the first half of life; in the second half it works for far fewer, but no less intensely.
I have met and know a great many religious who began in earnest, gave it their best for a while, but in the second half of life grew bored, lazy and largely self-absorbed. There was neither eros nor agape. Religious life served as a wonderful initiation but eventually became a holding tank and even led to regression. As one director of a treatment program said to me, “You take both self-reliance and sexuality away from them [men], and many end up very unhealthy and unhappy people.” Just as the welfare state produces passive and resentful people, if you take an ascribed spiritual status and then add to that an all-encompassing system of social security, you will often produce what even my father, St. Francis, called “Brother Drone”—people accustomed to being served rather than serving, who live with comfortable perks that make ongoing growth and challenge unlikely. Sometimes they become people who live at low levels of love and even of basic humanity.
Religious life for many of us was best as a period of intense internalization of values, self knowledge, practices, study and prayer. Once these were internalized, it lost much of its necessity, “color” and absolute importance. At the age of 63, it is now my home, a true gift, an access point for service, a protection from an amorphous and egocentric life, a rich history of memory, a tangent and a “lever and a place to stand,” as Archimedes said.
But understand this correctly, I could have left years ago. If I had left the Franciscan Order, I would still be a man, a Christian and a happy human being—forever grateful for St. Francis and his joyful brotherhood. The container served its purpose, but it was not the only bearer of the contents. The Franciscans initiated me quite well, despite some of their best attempts to the contrary, into almost everything that really matters. They held my feet to the fire long enough for the Gospel to become fire—and for my feet to become feet.