Radicalism and totality in the profession of evangelical counsels
Another constitutive element stressed in the documents of the Church on consecrated life is the radicalism of the consecration which engages the whole person and invite him/her to be totally dedicated to God. Though all the baptized are called to radical following of Christ, the consecrated person’s following of Christ has its own proper radical nature. The religious are called to “devote themselves to God alone” with an “undivided heart” (LG 42c, 44). They seek God solely and above everything else (PC 5,6). A consecrated person pledges oneself to live as Christ lived in areas which cover the whole life: possessions, affections and autonomy (EE 15).
The nuptial character of consecrated life demands total and radical consecration in two ways. On one hand, from the part of God the call “embraces the whole person, soul and body, whether man or woman, in that person’s unique and unrepeatable personal “I” (PI 9; see also VC18, 65). In short, God wants nothing short of the whole person to be consecrated . The consecrated person, on his/her part, totally gives oneself to God and the Church, “by conforming one’s whole existence to Christ in an all-encompassing commitment which foreshadows eschatological perfection” (VC 16b). The reciprocal love of the one called is expressed in his/her joyful dedication of the whole life to God’s service (EE 14, PI 7), total surrender of oneself. (ET 6) , a total consecration (RD 7,8; VC 17a) , total gift of self (VC 35). The total dedication, surrender of self and gift of self is directed to the Lord who is loved above all and to his bride, the Church.
It follows then that consecrated life does not have any place for part time dedication or dedication of some aspect of life. It is satisfied only with “whole” and “total” of the person which constitutes one aspect of the radical nature of consecrated life. The radical nature of consecrated life is also expressed in the content of consecrated life: the following of Christ of the Gospels.
Jesus makes no compromises on “total” commitment
Jesus’ own commitment to the “affairs” of the Father (Lk 2:49) was not a part time job for him nor did he have any other concern in life. His food was to do the will of the one who sent him (Jn 4:34). His was a total commitment to the Kingdom of Heaven. His disciples too left everything and followed him. The undivided devotion to the Kingdom of God marked the life style of Jesus and the community of disciples. His life was so anchored in the love of the Father that he did not find it a need to find the security of a family, possessions or power. His form of life provided the freedom to pursue his purpose of life.
Jesus did not compromise nor dilute the demands of discipleship to accommodate people who, in spite of being enthusiastic, were not ready for radical following. The rich man who sought perfection (Mt 19:16-22) was not ready for giving up his attachments. Some followers could not bear the invitation of self-emptying when Jesus spoke of his being bread from heaven (Jn 6:66). With Jesus it is whole or nothing. Jesus insisted that you cannot serve both God and mammon at the same time (Lk 16:13) nor put new wine in old wineskins (Mk 2:22). His disciple (Judas Iscariot) who attempted to follow him with a divided heart ended up betraying the master and hurried to his own self destruction. Total giving of oneself is a condition for authentic discipleship and permanence in discipleship is a consequence of a genuine encounter with the master.
The challenge of Total gift of self
The aspect of totality perhaps poses the greatest challenge for consecrated life for many persons. A market mentality would see an exciting option to make consecrated life easy and accessible to people by proposing it for a certain period of time (like volunteers of a charitable trust) or allow occasional discounts for the practice of vows (holiday for vows!). Engaging the whole person for the whole life time to live the demands of consecrated life appears suffocating and unreasonable especially in the modern times which values variety of experiences and exposures in life. Some see it harmful for a person to live life long deprivation of sexual satisfaction, infantile to be submissive to authorities, and cynical to opt for poverty. What a tragedy to live and die without having “known” the best of life offered by sex, power and wealth! They would point to scandals in the Church to prove their point.
There seems to be a clash of values and their incompatible horizons underlying these confrontations. Consumer values that treat human mystery as a commodity can never glimpse the horizon of transcendent values where the best of sexuality is found in truly loving, the best of power in freely serving and the true wealth is in joyfully sharing. The radicalism of Celibate chastity is found in the love that penetrates those depths of the human spirit where bodily urges cannot enter, obedience ushering a person to the heights of free adhesion to God’s will which alone liberates the human person, and poverty dropping one into the width and breadth of God’s providence. You will not be able to see this reality if you peep through the glasses of the world. In fact, every form of Christian life is invited to this transcendence of life through a life of chastity, obedience and poverty in ways that are proper to each one’s vocation.
Why totality is more meaningful?
It is fragmented lives that yield to piecemeal donations of self in accordance with passing passions in life. Most of the scandals among the clergy and religious in the Church point to the consequences of their unintegrated affections. What is not integrated becomes disintegrating!
I consider that the radical nature of religious consecration comes from the deepest nature of the human person. At the level of the deeper self, the person is a single whole and not a collection of needs, emotions and thoughts. Fragmented self sees the fragments of truth, love and goodness present in human realities and turn them into gods to whom they offer homage. Everything in human life find its place when integrated to the person and his/her purpose of life. Consecration of a person is then an act of total offering which is not possible at superficial levels of self-experience. Lifelong commitments such as matrimony and consecrated life can withstand the storms of life when they are commitments of the persons as an act of self-giving love rather than as a choice dictated by temporary feelings or thoughts.
Consecrated life is different from a career which requires expertise in a particular field and a specific skill of the person. For example, a computer engineer needs to be skilled in working with computers irrespective of how he lives his moral or emotional life. Consecrated life engages the whole human person who makes a gift of himself over to God in order to be transformed by the Holy Spirit into a “transfigured existence” (VC 35, 112). Gratuity of God’s love experienced by the person renders him/her grateful and from gratitude springs the gratuitous gift of self.
Integration of fragmented parts
In any human life there will be limitations and hurts which have a place in one’s journey of life. But unintegrated fragilities and fragmentation in the life of a consecrated person pose obstacles to the holistic transformation of his/her life in Christ. In a spiritual itinerary the very wounds in life become channels of grace and growth, provided they are brought into the integrating process by the healing and empowering action of the Spirit. Psychology can offer its services to prepare the person for healing and integration, though the action of the Spirit conforming the person to Christ belongs to another order (PI 19).
The total consecration of the person is a progressive configuration to Christ which involves stages and processes. Hence one has to go through these gradual progression to higher stages and ongoing integration of all aspects of the life in Christ. The earlier the integration process is embarked upon, the sooner a religious become free to consecrate oneself totally to God and become a transforming presence in his/community and surroundings.
Following of Christ, a radical option
Consecrated Life is a radical form of life as it does not conform to the wisdom of the world, but rather to the folly of the cross. No amount of reasoning will convince a person about the worth of living the evangelical counsels. Power is more attractive than powerlessness. Pleasure of the body is more tempting than the joy of the Spirit. Possessing things appear more securing than giving away of wealth. No wonder, Jesus’ form of life is more admired and less envied. Richard Rohr states it well:
“Who wants to be like Jesus on the cross, the very icon of powerlessness? We worship this naked, bleeding loser, crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem, but we always want to be winners, powerful, and on top ourselves . . . at least until we learn to love the little things and the so-called little people, and then we often see they are not little at all, but better images of the soul”.
Is it not radical to choose to follow the man on the cross with all its implications on one’s value system and style of life?
Reflect on this story (by Tagore in Gitanjali)
“I had gone a-begging from door to door in the village path, when your golden chariot appeared in the distance like a gorgeous dream and I wondered who was this King of all kings!
My hopes rose high and I thought my evil days were at an end, and I stood waiting for alms to be given unasked and for wealth scattered on all sides in the dust.
The chariot stopped where I stood. Thy glance fell on me and you came down with a smile. I felt that the luck of my life had come at last. Then of a sudden you did hold out your right hand and say `What have you to give to me?’
Ah, what a kingly jest was it to open your palm to a beggar to beg! I was confused and stood undecided, and then from my wallet I slowly took out the least little grain of corn and gave it to you.
But how great my surprise when at the day’s end I emptied my bag on the floor to find a least little gram of gold among the poor heap. I bitterly wept and wished that I had had the heart to give you my all”.
Ponder on the following two Maxims and ask yourself
- What is surrendered becomes golden. What is held back remains your burden.
- What is not integrated is disintegrating
Which fragments of your life (past hurts, painful childhood, sexuality, wounded relationships etc) do you still withhold from being integrated into your salvific story so that you can remember them graciously and speak about them appropriately without undue discomfort?
– Mathew Vattamattam cmf
PC – Perfectae Caritatis; LG – Lumen Gentium; VC- Vita Consecrata; PI- Potassimum Institutionis; RD- Redemtionis Donum; EE- Essential Elements on Religious Life.