Some years ago, counseling a young nun who was trying to make sense of her struggle with religious life, I learned something about religious ambivalence. Her life embodied it.
On the one hand, she had genuine faith. She believed in God and, moreover, believed that God had called her to be a nun. Seeing her life through the eyes of faith, she felt that the signs were clear and that she was where God wanted her to be, in a convent, and even though she struggled mightily with all three vows – poverty, chastity, and obedience – she could still see how these made sense, even for her.
But that was half the story: Inside of herself she also felt a gnawing restlessness and an erotic pulse for life that made life inside a convent pretty hard to take. She told me once: “Most of the time, I think I’m in the wrong place. I’m too full of life and sex to be very religious, especially to be a nun. I want so much more out of life. Maybe I need to leave not just the convent, but the church as well. Perhaps that would be the honest thing to do. I love life too much; I’m too physical, too full of earth, eros, and sex to ever be very spiritual.”
When she first began talking to me, the physical and sexual within her were clearly beginning to gain the upper hand, emotionally. But something else was also going on, even as her more earthy pulls, as she described them, were making it clear that their demands would not be subdued. God’s grip on her was tightening at some deep place. She no longer knew what she really wanted and what real freedom for her would mean. Too many, seemingly contradictory, things were vying for her soul, her body, and her future.
So she was caught in a storm: There were voices in her emotions and voices in her soul; they weren’t saying the same thing. There were desires in her body and desires in her spirit; they wanted quite different things. There was the omnipresent ache for sexual consummation, even as other parts of her wanted to fly away from the earth and the physical altogether.
At one stage, for meditation, I gave her a reflection from Nikos Kazantzakis. Reflecting on the double pull of Christ and the world, he once wrote:
“Every person partakes of the divine nature in both spirit and flesh. That is why the mystery of Christ is not simply a mystery for a particular creed: it is universal. The struggle between God and human nature breaks out in everyone, together with the longing for reconciliation. Most often this struggle is unconscious and short-lived. A weak soul does not have the endurance to resist the flesh for long. It grows heavy, becomes flesh itself, and the contest ends. But among responsible men and women, persons who have their eyes riveted day and night upon the Supreme Duty, the conflict between flesh and spirit breaks out mercilessly and may last until death. The stronger the soul and the flesh, the more fruitful the struggle and the richer the final harmony. … The Spirit wants to have to wrestle with flesh that is strong and full of resistance. It is a carnivorous bird which is incessantly hungry; it eats flesh and, by assimilating it, makes it disappear. Struggle between flesh and spirit, rebellion and resistance, reconciliation and submission, and finally the supreme purpose of the struggle/union with God: this was the ascent taken by Christ, the ascent which he invites us to take as well, following in his bloody tracks.”
The tension, as Kazantzakis, writes it up here, reflects the language and concepts of his Greek background. Hence, there is more than a little classical dualism (body versus soul) in his expression. But the struggle he describes, despite the limits of his Greek dualism, stills capture the heart of the issue. All sensitive persons should expect a life and death struggle within their souls and the harmony that needs to be established there between world and God, flesh and soul, earth and transcendence, will be long, painful, full of competing voices, and will often times, seemingly, pit life against life.
What is said too is that, just because it is natural to feel that the world and God (flesh and soul, full life and church) are opposed to each other and seemingly demand that we choose one over the other, does not mean that they are, in fact, irreconcilable. The point is not to choose between them, but to hold them both in a way that fully respects their respective values. That will not be easy, nor quick, but God wants to wrestle with resistance – and the more bitter the struggle, the richer the final harmony.