Recently, I was asked to preach at a liturgy within which a young woman made her final vows as a religious sister. A rare event. But she is a rare person. Rarer and rarer is becoming the case where a young person whose life is full of every opportunity for marriage, sexual intimacy, career, and worldly wealth and success pledges to live a lifetime of poverty, chastity and obedience. This is not an easy time to make religious vows. Many are predicting the death of religious life as we have known it. On the surface, at least, there seems some foundation to the prophecy.
More are leaving religious life than are entering it. In the past 20 years, perhaps one-quarter to one-third of all religious in the western world have left religious life. Relatively few have entered. Poverty, chastity, and obedience are out of tune in our culture, vocation recruiters are frustrated. Religious life appears to be in deep trouble. That’s one view. There is another: Far from dying, religious life today is undergoing an immense purification, a pruning, a clarification which will serve to make it again a thing of challenge, prophecy, importance, witness and indeed a thing of beauty. What we are witnessing today is not the death of religious life but a metamorphosis, a paschal passage, a painful but fruitful wandering through the desert that has brought us to the edges of the promised land. A religious life is being born within which there will be few numbers, but greater witness. It is all very paradoxical. Formerly, there were too many religious. Religious life was not presented as the unique and rare call that it is. I say this without in any way casting negative reflections in the direction of those who have left it. Almost all those who did leave were, and remain, very generous and sincere persons, persons whose sojourn in religious life was willed by God. They should feel free and feel good about the years they spent within a religious community.
Indeed, religious life is, in my view, intended to be a rare vocation, something for just a few. All Christians are intended to be prophets, but religious are intended to be prophets in a special sense. Of these latter kind of prophets, God doesn’t need thousands. He only needs a few… though these need to be clearly seen and heard. As I witnessed this young woman’s vows, I envied her because, despite the decline in numbers and the predictions of gloom and doom, this is, I believe, the best time in centuries to be making vows as a religious. Precisely because the call is rare it becomes, if it is responded to, a glorious opportunity to speak with a clarity, a beauty and a power that is less accessible to others. But God needs more married prophets than he needs vowed celibate ones. Marriage is for the many, religious life for the few. Why?
Because religious life is a call to be uniquely lonely, uniquely paradoxical and to enflesh a unique compassion. To be called to religious life is to become an anomaly. It is to sleep alone even while believing that “it is not good for the man to be alone.” It is a call to watch at night, alone, lonely, crying over Jerusalem, envying the foxes who have homes of their own. It’s having the whole world for a family while having nobody to really call your own. That is a unique vocation. To be called to religious life is to become a paradox. The vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, pronounced within a culture that reflects them, and pronounced out of a mind and heart which more than anything else wants intimate love, husband, wife, children, ownership and freedom, makes the truth they express repellent and so drives all who witness them inward, forcing them to assimilate the truth in a new way. The vows, precisely because they are repellent, of themselves, force one to live in such a way that his/her life would not make sense if God did not exist. For this reason, the vows enable the one who takes them to live in a special compassion with those who, because of circumstances beyond themselves, cannot get married, cannot have children, cannot own things, and cannot actualize themselves and do with their lives what they would like.
It promises sleepless nights, and meaningful days; it delivers cold seasons of loneliness, but spawns new kinds of intimacy; it strips some of everything and then gives back the whole world in return; it makes one curse its unfairness and then brings one to one’s knees in gratitude for its privilege. It is a rare, strange, dreadful and wonderful vocation.
As I witnessed that young woman’s vows, I realized that religious life is far from dead. It is not dying. It is being wonderfully reborn.