Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Vow of Chastity in Contemplative Life - Part Two

“Love Changes Everything”
The Vow of Chastity: A Promise of Radical Availability

Part Two
Part One was published 7/11/09 and appears below
Photo: Sister Beatrice and Sister Maria Celeste

From the Constitutions and Statutes of the order of the Most Holy Redeemer:

“The mystery of love in consecrated virginity is not limited to the vow of chastity. It surpasses the love of self in order to love all in God.” #24 C

“Community life is essentially a life in relationship. It must contribute to the development of the human person, foster relationships and establish a true unity of heart and spirit.” #61 C

“..We ask constantly and humbly for the grace to deepen our understanding of religious chastity. We unite confidence in God’s help and the assistance of the Virgin Mary with the prudence of Christian asceticism and a healthy emotional balance. We take advantage of those natural means which favor physical and mental health. Everyone, especially the Prioress, should remember above all that chastity has stronger safeguards in a community where true fraternal love thrives.” #02 S

These excerpts from our Rule clearly emphasize the necessity of healthy mutually supportive loving relationships within the contemplative monastic community. These excerpts and other sections of the Rule along with my reading of wonderful new material concerning our form of religious life brought me to this notion of “Radical Availability” as the second vital component to the vow of chastity. This commitment we have made is not like that of a hermit or a Carthusian. We are Redemptoristines committed to a life with God lived in community with others. Not merely with cold indifference or toleration but in relationship. And we are committed to an on-going radical conversion. Living in “mutual charity and union of hearts” is the instrument of our conversion. After all “love will never let you be the same.”

Sr. Barbara Fiand, SNDdeN, has written a book entitled “Refocusing the Vision: Religious Life into the Future.” She suggests that for too long we have thought almost exclusively of our communities as work communities. She argues that these times, the culture of individualism that surrounds us, the prevailing inability to commit to faithful relationship, constant conflict between peoples and nations - these times demand that we no longer think in terms of work communities but in terms of relationship communities. Now it would be easy for us to say that active apostolic religious out there have been caught up in their work but not us. I don’t think we can shirk off the idea that easily. The way of monastic life is very work oriented with its rotation of tasks, work charges, timed daily horarium. We are to be interchangeable parts to keep the monastic machine in working order. Yes, the monastic household must be kept running as any household but is that all we are to do and to be? And isn’t it true that as we age, as we become fewer in number, and as the able-bodied take on more responsibility we need, all the more, to take Sr. Barbara’s admonition to heart? She asks us to take seriously the call of our Rule to healthy, mutually supportive, loving relationships.

And it is hard. And this is conversion. And this is how living in community becomes the instrument of our conversion. We can ignore it and just work.. We can claim the contemplative need for solitude. We can say, “I don’t go for that stuff.” But we do so at the risk of ignoring a call to the asceticism of relationship. It is hard to relate to others beyond the superficial. But, most of all, it is hard to relate to others beyond our own personal preferences, outside of our own basic personality type, outside our comfort zone, AND, this is the hardest of all, to relate to others in spite of the dark places of ancient wounds that scar our psyches. And we all have them. They are the dark places described for us in another presentation. These are the personal demons which I pray to exorcise.

Sr. Barbara Fiand calls this the asceticism of vulnerability. This is a counter-cultural stance to which Jesus, the vows and our Rule call us to bear witness. We witness from our liminal position on the fringe that offers a great view of the whole. This is the stuff that can, for some, make the issue of marriage and bearing children pale in comparison because it has to be lived every moment of every day among people who are not family and not necessarily bosom friends. It is a great challenge in a small contemplative community that lives a life of intense and exclusive togetherness in prayer, work, and recreation.

This is what invites the introverted to move out of their default position, their natural preference for solitude, working alone, and mulling things over in their own time and at their own pace. This person is asked to stretch, to be less of a ‘moving away from’ type of person and to exercise muscles for moving toward and relating. This is what invites the extrovert to stretch and respect the boundaries of those who are not naturally ‘moving toward types’; to give others a chance to think; to be patient with the natural solitaries. It has been said that if you do not know what an extrovert is thinking, you have not been listening. And if you do not know what an introvert is thinking, you have not asked! This demands the stretch to listen more and to ask more. The extrovert who seems to talk non-stop may continue that way because it is evident no one is listening and the introvert will continue to naturally remove herself from the fray into silence and solitude unless she is asked to enter into conversation.

It is only in the personal stretching to the opposite of the natural pole of our type that a bunch of unrelated individuals can become a community; the organized side by side with the unorganized; the highly motivated Enneagram One along side the fearful Six; the cautious crowd pleasing Two cheek to jowl with the flamboyant Four. In Enneagram typology, the healthy person is one who has stretched their personality envelope by moving toward their opposite.

In order to enter into intimate relationship with each other sometimes we have to find a way to jump over our differences, differences that are sometimes convenient barriers when we don’t want to relate. We have to jump over the separation created by the phrases, “in my family”, “in my day”, “in my country”, “in my novitiate, we did it this way.” To the degree that we succeed in avoiding this tendency, we create a growing open space, a safe place for self-disclosure without fear.

Community life should be characterized by an inclusiveness that fosters relationship and intimacy. It cannot be a matter of relationship on demand. We need to remember those attributes that assisted the development of friendships when we were not in the monastery. I would guess that some of those things would be availability, supportive presence in a pinch, attentiveness, thoughtfulness, listening, loyalty, and a myriad of little things. All of this applies in the monastic community.

One could go on with all kinds of examples, all illustrating the asceticism of vulnerability, of radical availability. But there is one other I would mention. The asceticism of accepting that there just might be another way of doing things, a way different than the way you have always done them or prefer to do them. If ones identity is ones work, than the thought of changing how you do something or what you will be doing is a direct challenge to ones sense of self. This can be the locus of an explosion in a community - something that shouts out the need for conversation, discussion, sharing of feelings and attitudes.

(Excerpt from Strangers to the City by Michael Casey, pg.67-68 and 125, 127, 128)

Where can we find the roots of this witnessing to relatedness in radical availability? What are our models for this mode of being? We have learned of the communio existing in the Godhead; of the perichorises, the dance of constant relationship and mutuality among the persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In Jesus himself danced two natures, one into the other and back again co-existing in each moment, each freely allowing the other to be, cooperating with the other in will and movement.

In an issue of Bulletin of the Internaional Union of Superiors General, (No. 137, 2008) Sr. Camilla Burns, Superior General of SNDdeN, wrote of the principles of the inner workings of the cosmos which are characteristics of living systems.

1. It is characteristic of all living systems to regenerate themselves.

2. Living systems are characterized by differences – diversity, complexity, variation, disparity and multiple forms. Diarmuid O’Murchu who has written a great deal about religious life using a new vocabulary, says that continuous innovation rather that consistent preservation is seen throughout the story of evolution.

3. And because all of nature, all of creation has a common origin, all created reality is relational.

We can conclude that if communities are to continue as living, surviving, witnessing organisms they too must be generative, highly tolerant of diversity, complexity and variation and surrender to their inherent nature to be in constant mobile and innovative relationship. How is that for a challenge?

O’Murchu writes “Commitment to this vow is a call to witness to authentic relationships at every level of life, and to challenge those systems and forces which undermine life-giving relationships…At all times, creativity must be mediated through structures capable of honoring the freedom, love and generativity which are central to our capacity for relating rightly.”

The invitation inherent in the vow of chastity is the call to a radical availability for relationship, relationship with God, with others and with all of creation. It calls us to a liminal place out on the fringe where we can see and hear clearly; a place where we can also be seen; where we give effective witnesses. We are called to witness to the necessity of a more intense relationship at all levels rather than an attitude of separateness and non-involvement. Tich Naht Han said, “We are here to outgrown the illusion of our separateness.” We must celebrate our diversity while fully appreciating our shared humanity.

How do we muster the courage and strength to respond to the demands of radical availability in community? It is only possible, if we see the call to contemplative life as the call to radical conversion, as the call to radical relationship with Jesus Christ.

In keeping with the theme that says, “Love Changes Everything” I would like to close with these often quoted words of Pedro Arupe now deceased former Superior General of the Jesuits.

“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is,
than falling in love in a quiteabsolute, final way.
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know,
what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

Questions for discussion in small groups:

1. What are the values and the difficulties of living together? Does physical proximity guarantee “presence”? Does life together in community empower you for the mission – for the life of prayer in silence and solitude within community? If not, what would have to happen for you to feel empowered?

2. “Our unwillingness to see our own faults and the projection of them onto others is the source of most quarrels, and the strongest guarantee that injustice, animosity, and persecution will not easily die out.” What so you think of this observation?
3. What has been your experience of “learning” intimacy? How do you see the connection between celibacy and freedom?

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