How free are the consecrated not to respond to the call?
We have seen that consecrated life, a closer following of the life of Christ, is a life in the Spirit just as the master lived his earthly life in the Spirit. When other spirits are allowed to hijack the heart of the consecrated person, his/her consecration ceases to make any sense and abandonment of religious life is the natural end.
You may question your own vocation when you come across a close friend in religious life leaving consecrated life after years of living it generously. At times the statistics are alarming. Holy See has given 13123 dispensations during the five year period between 2008-2015 with an annual rate of 2624 religious abandoning consecrated life. What happens to the beautiful art work of the Holy Spirit and the consecrated person in course of time? Is it like an artist (either of the partners in the work) abandoning the work when its progress is unsatisfying? Let us take the following examples:
- After several years of holding responsibilities of formation and directorship of institutions of his religious institute, a religious joined a diocese in a first world country (where he was sent previously for studies). He discerned that his vocation was not for consecrated life after 25 years of consecrated life in his congregation.
- A 40 year old sister found her whole life coming alive when she became affectionate towards a male co-worker in her mission. She decided to leave consecrated life to become the second wife of the gentle man who had abandoned his first wife. She reported that she had never felt such an overwhelming flooding of love in her life.
- A 36 year old religious continuously complained of neglect by his superiors and lack of appreciation from his confreres for the many initiatives he had taken to broaden the vision and mission of his community. He decided to leave and eventually opted for family life with a consecrated woman who had been his friend for many years.
- A consecrated woman in her 30’s was a model of prayer life and fraternal relationship in her institute. Superiors used to point her out as a model for the younger ones. She was one of the “golden girls” of the major superior who allowed many privileges which other less spiritual sisters could not avail. She was sent abroad where she served a few years with the same fervor. But to the shock and anger of her sisters, she decided to leave the community and work as a lay person to support her poor family which has become eventually rich through her job abroad.
The list of the case studies are many. You may have known many cases to add from your own close acquaintance. How do you make sense of these realities in consecrated life? Is the Holy Spirit failing or is the Spirit too lax with his partners, leaving them to their own changing choices? Is it that the human partner makes a mess of his/her life by misusing freedom? Is divine love in the human heart so fragile so as to be easily swayed by hormonal floods of human love or swept away by frustrations in common life? Often it is not one’s love of God nor fascination with the life of Christ that they have abandoned, but rather the hope of its realization in the institute or the confidence in their own ability to live the demands of consecrated life.
Infidelities in holy matrimony in higher proportions also invite us to situate many of the problems of consecrated life on the common ground of our wounded humanity and seek constantly the balm of mercy, healing and forgiveness. In the failing marriages it is not the yearning for love which is abandoned, but the hope to realize it with the partner whose limitations have become intolerable. Marriages withstand the storms of life when human love is seasoned in God’s love to endure till the end.
There may be religious who have abandoned consecrated life and ‘happily live thereafter’ with or without a loving partner. This would be true of persons who knew in their heart that this form of life was not for them. There are many who became frustrated in life and regretted to have abandoned religious life. They were ill-prepared to face the real challenges of the world outside. What was seen as promising soon turned out to be illusive. Perhaps a more serious challenge to those who unhappily remain within consecrated life or to those who regret their decision of abandonment is the question of the purpose and meaning of life which they need to discover with the help of the Holy Spirit. The question of purpose and meaning comes to the center stage when we doubt the very form of life which we thought we were gifted to live.
God takes human freedom seriously
If God’s call awaits free human response to accomplish the art of conforming to the person to Christ, human freedom comes into play all along the process of vocational growth. Human collaboration is a free response to God’s call. The exercise of authentic freedom and the limitations to this human freedom affect meaningful living of consecrated life. Just as we can freely say “yes”, we can also choose to say “no” any time to the call.
If you choose to abandon consecrated life today, there will not be fire coming down from above to burn you out instantly, but rather God’s love and mercy will continue to accompany you in your newly chosen path without infringing your freedom. You are not constrained to be a consecrated person, but only invited to respond freely to the call of God. You are not prevented from making decisions which are inconsistent with your inner truth. Hence your ‘respons-ability’ (ability to respond) matters. If you are not awake (biblical word is ‘alert’), you cannot exercise your freedom well.
Authentic freedom is not just the freedom of choice (autopraxia– ability to do what one wants) or freedom from social, economic and political compulsion. Rather it is exercised when you integrate and orient the various forces in you towards enduring values in life and the purpose of your life itself. It is the “freedom of being” which refuses to turn God into one of the options of choice, but the only authentic goal of life. Hence true freedom is the “capacity for the eternal” (Rahner). It is the freedom of the heart, the capacity for love. Often it is the lack of authentic freedom that leads consecrated persons to swing in life between the pulls and pushes of their passing passions and drives. Enduring commitment flows from true freedom in the person who is capable of suffering because he/she knows true love. Freedom, love and suffering go hand in hand in the act of transcending the temptations of here and now in order to remain faithful and persevering even unto death as Jesus did on the cross. He refused to be anyone other than He himself, the obedient Son of the Father and faithful brother to every human person. Without the experience of being unconditionally loved, you cannot gift yourself without conditions. You begin to be free when you encounter God’s love and in Him find yourself free to love without conditions. Closer following of Christ of the Gospels is living life as loving without conditions.
Fidelity and perseverance in consecrated life and joyful commitment in mission are possible only when a person is capable of exercising true freedom. Perseverance in a form of life is not possible when it is founded on the quicksand of feelings and ideas. The firm ground to hold a stable form of life is God’s steadfast love in which one’s true self is anchored.
Discernment, the key to open yourself to the working of the Holy Spirit
The Church equips her children from the treasury of her spiritual resources to help them work with the Spirit towards the fulfillment of their vocation and mission . Discernment is the spiritual process to keep oneself tuned to the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of a consecrated person. Sadly many decisions of abandonment or of permanence are often taken without engaging oneself in a dialogue with the Holy Spirit. When stressful external circumstances or inner emotional turbulences take over the decision making process in a critical moment, the human partner tends to ignore the voice of the Spirit deep within, A commitment to honestly discern what God asks of us in each situation is crucial for vocational fidelity.
How do you go about when you need to make decisions in your everyday life and especially those decisions that affect your life entirely? Where do you ground your decisions? On your ideas, feelings, intuitions or on the advice of others? Awareness of these inner forces naturally place you in a better position to decide better. But what place do the Holy Spirit occupy in the dynamic of decision making? Discernment is the process of listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit and seeking His counsel in order to take a life-enhancing decision. Ignatian tradition in the Church offer some valuable guidelines for discernment which prepare one for free decisions in life.
- Learn to take decisions in the context of prayer. This is possible only when you have nurtured a healthy prayer life.
- Observe the various motions that move you from within or from outside to take a new decision (feelings, thoughts, desires, external pressures etc.).
- Opt for a neutrality (holy indifference) to follow whatever God asks of you in the situation. There is no discernment if you have already consciously or unconsciously made the decision. If you are stressful and emotionally turbulent, wait for it to subside before you proceed to decide. You may need to work on your emotions and relax sufficiently.
- Ask where the movement comes from and where it takes you to. From and to God, to greater love?
- Listen to the heart and check what remains there after emotions evaporate. Do you feel consolation or desolation at the prospect of taking a different route?
- Confide your heart’s voice to a spiritual and wise person for counsel and confirmation.
Nature of human partnership with the Holy Spirit
What kind of partnership do we undertake when we respond to God’s call? Certainly human action is not a Promethean feat (Prometheus is a Greek epic hero who stole fire from the gods to help humans) nor like the struggle of Sisyphus (Greek mythological stealthy king who was condemned to roll up a heavy boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back again and repeat this action forever). When evangelical counsels are lived like these heroes, they end up in a tragedy.The human person relates with God on a different plane. There is that right measure of mutuality in the “spousal love” of God in which God’s creative fidelity is experienced in good and bad, health and illness, prosperity and poverty, growth and blockage, supplying even for the possible infidelity of the human partner. The worst times in life turn out to be the best moments of growth and awakening, if you can wait in hope. Often I hear seasoned religious confessing that they have not got what they desired (for example, kinds of ministry, places or people of their preferences for mission), but what they got surpassed all their expectations. It is like those surprising gifts with which a bridegroom adorns his beloved. The logic of love seems to govern the partnership with God which leaves in the person an overflowing sense of gratitude and love.
Discernment questions when you need to make decisions: Is it what God asks of me at this moment? Is it real good or just apparent good? What does it serve?
For discernment of spirits: Make it a habit asking these questions to purify motives. Where is the impulse to action coming from? From God (Love) or evil spirits? Where is it leading me? To God (greater Love) or away from God?
Look at your founder and learn how he/she went about seeking God’s will during their difficult moments and remained faithful to the end.
Enjoy your own awakening to the Spirit of God dwelling in you.
– Mathew Vattamattam cmf