crossWe are familiar with hundreds or monks and nuns of other religious traditions with whom we share many common values of consecrated life. Both Buddhism and Hinduism is replete with a large number of men and women who have “left everything” in their search for God experience and service to fellow humans. I could not come across reliable statistics of the monks in Budhism and Hinduism. A more organized Hindu missionary society, Ramakrishna mission, reported 1106 monks and 426 nuns in 2005[1]. The Eastern religions possibly equal the church in the wealth of consecrated persons in their fold. The following is the statistics of religious in the Church[2]:



Religious priests



Religious brothers



Religious sisters

801, 185


Diocesan Priests



Even though the faith tradition of Islam has not been sympathetic to monastic life especially to a life of Celibacy, Islamic mystics of Sufi tradition have at ties chosen a life of renunciation and celibacy as a way of living their God experience. How do we explain the phenomenon of humans following a route contrary to the natural inclinations that seek security, pleasure and power in order to have a happy life? In actual life, how do they realize themselves as consecrated men and women? How do Catholic religious differ from their fellow religious of other faith traditions?

The rich tradition of religious life along history in its various forms in the different faith traditions has its foundations in the very nature of the human person who is open to self-transcendence. In this paper we look at the formative aspect of charismatic dimension of consecrated life from two perspectives.

  1. Charismatic formation, a progressive conversion of heart, mind and will
  2. A practical approach to living evangelical counsels
  1. Formation – facilitating the three conversions

Lonergan speaks of horizons while speaking of conversions. A horizon is the limit of one’s field of vision. You cannot see what lies beyond the limit of your horizon. As you move your stand point, you can see what could not be seen otherwise. We can speak of vertical and horizontal horizons. Conversion is a vertical movement, a kind of about-face movement which moves from self-absorption or self enclosure to self-transcendence, from self as center towards what is the very source of all-God as the mid point of everything. It is a movement from a lower level to a higher levels of consciousness. Horizontal horizons expand the range of vision at the same level of consciousness. For example, a person acquires more wealth or knowledge which offers more possibilities , though there is no shift in the level of consciousness.

Drawing from the insights of Bernard Lonergan about the three conversions, we shall approach the formation of religious life as transformation of the total person into Christ. The three conversions presented by Lonergan[3] are very helpful to understand the dynamics in a transformative formation. Conversion takes place in three forms: Religious, moral and intellectual. It is interesting to note that the order of conversion usually follows this sequence. A formative itinerary needs to attend to all the three forms of conversion in a person.

1.1.Religious conversion.

Religious conversion is “being grasped by ultimate concern” or the “other worldly falling in love”, a fundamental attitude of “self surrender without conditions, qualifications and reservations” . Our faith experience is such a falling in love and it happens when the Holy spirit floods the human heart with love. Blaise Pascal explains it well when he says, “the heart has reasons which reason does not know”. Religious conversion is a movement from self enclosure or radical lovelessness to the process of being loved unconditionally and responding to that radical gift in the process whereby one’s own loving becomes unconditional”. Religious authenticity is the self-transcendence of unqualified loving made possible by the gift of God’s unconditional love.

For most people the conscious dynamic state of being in love with God is awakened because of a word that comes from God. A Christian conversion is to the Word made flesh in the event of Jesus Christ. Faith is not just knowledge of doctrines of the Church, but rather a state of being in love in which one knows that God is the supreme good in relation to which everything else is a shadow. Faith enables one to live that higher authenticity which overcomes evil with good. When a person progressively surrenders to the action of the Holy Spirit within him, he grows into that higher authenticity. Religious conversion leads to moral conversion.

1.2.Moral conversion

It is the transformation of the criteria of one’s decisions from satisfaction to values. Self-enclosure and radical lovelessness ties one to the satisfaction of one’s own cravings and needs as the criteria of decision. In moral conversion a person is able to decide for what is truly good rather than what is apparently good or attractive.

The “from” of moral conversion is oneself as the criteria of what is right and good, a move from self-centered decisions to objective criteria even when it may incur inconvenience to oneself. The transcendental leap begins when I am moved by “the good in itself” rather than what is “good for me”. With the flooding of love in one’s heart a person apprehends what is really good and make it the criteria of decision. He is now willing to do what otherwise he was unwilling. Forgiving a person of a past offence instead of revenging him is a clear example of a new criteria of action. Moral conversion leads him to be faithful to the deepest truth of oneself and others and serve the greater good of others.

1.3.Intellectual conversion

Here there is a shift in the criterion of truth. Often we think that what is real is already out there and it is known by taking a good look at it. It is from this sort of inclination that one transcends to the position that knowing is a matter of raising questions for intelligence (what is it?) and for reflection (is that so?) and the real is known only by true judgments of the question (Is that really so?). Objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity. Intellectual conversion leads one from self-serving perceptions of reality to more objective understanding by purifying the very process of knowing.

The three conversions effect the transformation of the whole person progressively as he moves from ego-centric consciousness to Christo-centric consciousness. Each religious tradition presents its goal according to its own theology. It may be “Nirvana” in one tradition or surrender to almighty God in another. Christian experience of transformation takes place as one grows in intimacy with Christ. In Christ a person moves inward surrendering the inner world for Christ and outward to spreading the message of love in the world. Thus charism and mission flow from the same fountain of the Spirit of Christ in the heart of the disciple.

2.Evangelical vows – a gift and a task

The recent scandals of clergy and religious have discredited the Church in the public so much so that some consider celibate priesthood a source of perversion. The traditional approach of talking about vows in spiritual and idealistic terms often leaves its practical aspects to one’s private world under the cloud of moralistic denials and spiritual rationalizations. While maintaining the ideal of the evangelical vows, it is equally important to address the processes that lead to the practice of evangelical counsels and the possible pitfalls on the way towards its attainment. An important contribution particularly in the area in celibacy is offered by Richard Sipe who has done extensive research into the practice of celibacy among the clergy[4]. I have found his realistic approach more helpful in the practice of vows than spiritual rhetoric about the beauty of vows. Celibacy includes not only Love, service and sacrifice, but also sex, sensuality and lust. Poverty is not just sacrifice, sharing, simplicity, but also wishes, wants and cravings. Obedience is not only about surrender, submission and availability, but also about power, control and aggression. The practice of the vows have to do with how a religious openly faces his lust, cravings and aggressiveness and consciously integrate them into the chosen form of life. It involves a process and it needs personal work on oneself.

2.1.Accepting the gift and assuming the process

The three evangelical vows are chosen freely within the context of one’s vocation. When they are less than a freely accepted gift , they may turn out consciously or unconsciously into something oppressive. Sipe defines celibacy as “a freely chosen dynamic state usually vowed that involves an honest and sustained attempt to live without direct sexual satisfaction in order to serve others productively for a spiritual motive” (2004, p.12). Of course, celibacy touches on some of the very intimate sentiments of a person unlike poverty and obedience, but the process of practice seems to follow a similar course for all vows. We shall focus more on the vow of celibacy to under stand the dynamics of its practice

2.2.What is celibacy for you? (also poverty and obedience)

To start with, it is important to look into your own understanding of what celibacy is and what it entails to live it meaningfully in your life. The interaction between vocational ideals and the situations of life mediated by sound prayer life and spiritual direction will help you to mature your perception of what the vows are. Without this necessary dialogue of life, you run the risk of living a dichotomy between what is professed and what is practiced. Hypocrisy in living celibacy masquerades the rift between ideal and practice by holding compromising views about celibacy.
As you grow in your understanding of celibacy, you recognize that religiously motivated celibacy is not just about sex, but rather about love, relationship, service to others. A commitment to celibacy is one way of coming to terms with oneself as a sexual being.

Look into the mirror of your motivations

If you want to be honest with yourself in the practice of religious vows, you need to look into the mirror of your intentions. It is the “why” of your choices that determine the “how” of your actions. Is celibacy deeply desired and opted? What lies behind the option?

People discover their vocation to celibate form of life in a variety of life situations. Some people, like Cardinal Newman, came to experience the call at an younger age. Others may discover their vocation in a sudden life changing events such as the death of a friend, war or frustrating episodes of life. There are People who embrace celibacy for non religious motives such as for scientific or artistic pursuits, teaching, charitable works, care of old parents etc (Leonardo Davinci, Issac Newton, Florence Nightingale..). Unexamined motives leave consecrated celibacy on a weak foundation. It is not surprising that priests and nuns who have identified themselves as “celibate” to themselves and to the world for a long period to time come to realize that their sexual adjustment is neither religious nor celibate. When they look closely into the mirror of their intentions, they saw clearly that they never really “intended” to be celibate. They kept their intentions vague and undefined. Some religious recognize even before they take vows that they are on a shaky ground.

Even our best intentions are never single-minded, unclouded and un-complicated. We may experience that we may want and do not want the same thing at the same time. Or we want something for sometime in certain situations and change our mind in another context. We human beings will change, clarify, and refine our intents as we experiment with an idea or an ideal.

Besides, there are often a number of fears that lie beneath our intentions and exert influence on behavior. It needs courage to admit the fear of intimate relationships, of sex, family responsibilities, of competition and many others which, when left in the dark, may play the devil in one’s life.

The practice of celibacy can be real only when we bring all the jagged, multicolored, contradictory pieces of our intentions into focus. Celibacy is a means of coming to grips with sexuality, just as marriage in its own way. Each way of life provide a distinct source of satisfaction and sense of selfhood and mastery. Each state is a “vocation” which requires a distinct mode of incorporating sexuality into our lives at the service of the “purpose” of one’s life. It is here the religious meaning and motivation of ones celibate choice comes into play. Celibacy becomes then the right choice “for me” to be true to myself and my vocation.

Celibacy does nor remain a static reality once you have opted it. Hence continuous option of it is required if you want to persevere in its practice. Old sages say that a celibate intention must be faced and renewed everyday.

2.3. From intention to practice-the role of self- knowledge

The movement from intention to practice requires that you make your whole person participate in the practice. Intentionality is the first step. But you have in you conscious and unconscious forces that drag you into different directions. It calls for a deeper level of self-knowledge to bring them to light and channelize their energy towards love and service. It is important to be aware of some important dynamics that are at work in you

  • Patterns of your affective life: who have you loved? What have you loved? How have you loved? How have you handled rejection?
  • Other’s relationship with you. How others relate with you? What kind of people come close to you? What aspect of you is affirmed in these relationships? What do they look for in you?
  • Your way of handling stress and frustration. Adaptive and life congruent coping mechanisms in life need to replace less adaptive and restrictive ways of stress response.
  • Your typical mode of handling impulses. Observe yourself how impulsive are you, when you want something? How thoughtful are you? Do you look before you leap? Learn your “default” ways of self management, self soothing and self-direction. What are your healthy ways of finding comfort in your disappointments, losses and obstacles. You need them when you propose to renounce one of life’s major mode of comfort-sexual pleasure.
  • Your sexual history. Your capacity to review your sexual history, sexual growth process and experiences without undue discomfort is important for your self knowledge. What sexual choices have you made in “tempting” situations? How, when, why and where? What feelings and imaginations are attached to excitation? What are the predominant sexual memories alive in you?
  • Examine your sexual curiosity. How have you handled and how do you go about it? How do you deal with the media presentation or sex in your culture? (including porn and web-sex). What you have seen sexually and your reaction to visual stimulation and education needs to be incorporated into your self awareness.
  • Your experience of loneliness, aloneness and solitude. When do you experience loneliness? how do you handle it?
  • Your sexual orientation. Your sexual attractions to same-sex or complementary sexed companions. Objects of your sexual attraction.
  • Drives toward food, drinks, relaxation, work and associations. Do you use, over use or abuse substances, persons, places or things to keep you away from your tensions.

Self knowledge is a life long pursuit. But it is worth growing in your self-awareness to pool your energy and direct them towards fulfilling your life’s mission.

2.4. Practicing Celibacy

Consecrated celibacy is a valid way of life and it bears fruit in the Church in manifold ways. It is important for those who opt for a celibate form of life to know the process of celibate living. It is worth asking how thousands of the consecrated men and women have reached celibate achievement. The ideal celibate life is often portrayed as one of sexual abstinence and angelic unawareness from the cradle to the grave. For some it has been from a conversion from a permissive life of excess to absolute abstinence. This does not seem to be factual experience of most people. Sexual development is not act oriented, but rather nature oriented, nature opening up to grace. It is a developmental process involving physical, psychological and spiritual capacities of what it means to be human.

A negative approach-avoiding thoughts and actions related to sex- often push one to an inevitable vicious circle. People with this pattern of practice resist temptations and deprive themselves of sex for periods of time. But when the pressure mounts too much they “sin”, they quickly repent, confess, receive absolution, feel relieved with being forgiven and the cycle repeats. It is not the slips, but rather the senseless repetitions and unexamined desires and tendencies that leads to addiction and double life.

The way forward for a celibate is not conformism, but transformation of the inner world in the context of a profound relationship with the person of Christ and service to fellow humans. Our sexual nature must be respected, and developed in order for us to submit ourselves rationally, responsibly and truthfully to live the vow of celibacy. Intention and practice grounded on both self knowledge and a deep experience of God’s call lead to progress in celibate achievement.

There are two processes towards an integral celibate living.

  1. Consolidation of one’s sexual identity – to put sex in its place.
  2. Regulation of one’s sexual behavior in accordance with one’s choice of life.

Both are distinct realities and they involve different processes.

Richard Sipe offers a tripartite interactive model to explain celibate process based on nature informed by grace.

  1. The celibate process begins with developmental relationships and personality patterns, many of which precede any celibate intention, but will vitally influence one’s sexual and celibate adjustment.
  2. There is a process of internalization of the celibate ideal from intention to achievement.
  3. There is a sequential process that involves a series of crises necessary for the refinement of celibate forces from awareness to integration.

2.5. Ten point-Support system for the practice celibacy[5]

  1. Work. Work is mastery, the productive use of one’s energy and time and celibacy is inextricably bound up with it. An idle missionary belongs to the category of priests whom Mc Allister calls “the most pampered and indulged group of adults”.
  2. Prayer. A well defined program of prayer integrated into their daily life.
  3. Community : sense of themselves as part of a community. Awareness of the family of humanity and oneness with creation as one progresses in life.
  4. Service. The above three points-work, prayer and community- are united in the awareness of service as meaningful existence. “For the sake of the Kingdom” and sense of mission. Apostolic commitment is a source of joy for a missionary. His/her love and service for the good of others is already its reward.
  5. Proper attention to physical needs. Capacity to appreciate simple legitimate pleasures without indulgence.
  6. Balance. Inner equilibrium in life that keeps off exaggerations in work, prayer, relationships etc.
  7. Security: Certain amount of physical and internal security. Sense of insecurity lets one be overpowered by loneliness, depression, fear and eventually to defensive escapes routes.
  8. Order. Sense of order and regulation in daily and seasonal life is needed to counter unpredictable and unruly sexual drive.
  9. Learning. Love for learning and intellectual curiosity expand the horizons of a celibate.
  10. Beauty. Appreciation for beauty is just part of celibacy. Beauty in all its forms-music, art, Literature etc- support celibacy.

    3. Evangelical counsels and Mission

A disciple is called to be with Jesus and to be sent out in mission (Mk 3.13). Charism and mission are two sides of the same coin. The evangelical counsels are the gifts of the spirit that form the inner space of the missionary in order to be sent in mission to proclaim the Good News. Without this orientation to the mission, the vows lose their luster and turn out to be a refined form of narcissism. No wonder they easily regenerate in to deception and hypocracry. A charism is a gift given by the Spirit to build the community of God’s people. The “Proclamation of the Kingdom”, the core element of the mission of Jesus, will be transparent in any kind of work assigned to a missionary. It does not matter if the work assigned is social work, education, administration or simple household chores. It does not cease in the absence of work as in retirement, old age or illness. Just as Jesus’ life and mission both in public life and on the cross form a unity, the charism and mission of a religious unfolds in unity as he/she learns to live the evangelical counsels both as passion for Christ and passion for humanity.

– Mathew Vattamattam cmf

For your Reading

Imoda Franco, Human Development and the development of Orthopathy, Chapter V, in Human Development, Psychology and Mystery, Peeters, 1998.

Lonergan, Bernard, Method In Theology, London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1972.

Healy Tim, The Challenge of Self-Transcendence, in A Journey to Freedom (ed), Peeters, 2000, pp. 70-115.

Sipe Richard, Living the Celibate life, A search for models and meaning, Ligouri, Missouri, 2004.

[1] The Story of Sri Ramakrishna Mission published by Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata. November 2006

[3]Cf. Lonergan, Bernard, Method In Theology, London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1972.

[4] Cf. Sipe Richard, Living the Celibate life, A search for models and meaning, Ligouri, Missouri, 2004.

[5] Sipe Richard, Celibacy in Crisis, A secret World revisited (2003), Brunner-Routledge, New York, pp.299-308.