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Why Would Any Woman Choose Religious Life?

WEB Sister Close Up Jeffrey Bruno

Jeffrey Bruno

Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 09/23/14

A TIME editorial writer didn't know, but I can suggest a few reasons.

Sometimes I act against my better judgment. For example, I was browsing online last week when an unsought link caught my eye. I know that there are some places on the Internet where I just should not go. But I was curious. And I wondered why other people may be attracted to such things. I told myself that if I clicked on the link and took just a quick peek, going there wouldn’t hurt me. I was wrong.

I found myself reading from the online version of TIME magazine an essay about why nuns are an “endangered species.” Allow me to paraphrase the essay ruthlessly, so as to spare you the distress and aggravation I myself suffered when I read the whole piece. In brief, the article says that:

1) No one is becoming a nun anymore .
2) No one is becoming a nun anymore because the Vatican is mean to nuns.
3) The proof that the Vatican is mean to nuns is that the Vatican won’t let nuns become priests.
4) No one is becoming a nun anymore because all the cool reasons for which young women used to become nuns can now be realized by young women without suffering the indignity of enduring the Vatican’s lack of appreciation.

Point 4 is worth considering in some detail. The author wrote:

“Why would a generation of young women raised to believe that they can be anything join an institution that tells them there is something they absolutely cannot be, that there is a certain level they will never reach? Many of the women who are nuns today joined the vocation because it was a way to become highly educated, travel the world and dedicate themselves to a higher good without being beholden to a husband or children. Young women today can do that with a passport and a Kickstarter account.”

Get it? Young women used to become nuns so as to live as upper-middle class First World professionals, but now they can do all that while working for an NGO or the federal government, so why put up with all that Vatican hassle?

Notice what the author did not mention. She did not mention women entering religious life because the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are a path to holiness.

She did not mention women entering religious life because they wanted to live as a consecrated bride of Christ.  

She did not mention women entering religious life to find the consolation of communal life.  

She did not mention women entering religious life to live the charism of their order’s founder (e.g., loving God in simplicity in the manner of Saint Francis, loving God in truth in the manner of Saint Dominic, etc.). One has to wonder—why not?

With that question, I turned to Saint Paul. He writes:

“…no one knows what pertains to God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God. And we speak about them not with words taught by human wisdom, but with words taught by the Spirit, describing spiritual realities in spiritual terms. Now the natural person does not accept what pertains to the Spirit of God, for to him it is foolishness, and he cannot understand it, because it is judged spiritually” (1 Corinthians 2:11b-14).

The author of the TIME magazine article did not mention the properly spiritual motivations for women entering religious life because she either could not see them, or she saw them but could not see them as valuable.

Happily, many young women today, with the aid of the Spirit of God, do see and value those motivations and do join religious communities. Go to the website of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious to see many shining examples of such Spirit-motivated young women.

Ok, so, what’s the moral of the story? What would I like for you to see as the “takeaway” from what I’ve written here? Well, let me begin by making clear what I do not wish. I do not wish for you to read what I’ve written and then to offer an updated version of the self-righteous prayer of the Pharisee (see Luke 18:9-4): “Lord, I give you thanks that I am not like other men—such as this guest editorialist from TIME magazine …” Not at all!

Rather, I would have us respond as the disciples did when Jesus predicted His betrayal by one of them: “They began to be distressed and to say to Him, one by one, ‘Surely it is not I?’” (Mark 14:19). In other words, rather than marvel at the apparent blind spots of others, we should wonder about where our own blind spots are. Rather than say of others, “How could he not see that?” we must wonder. “Who says of me: ‘How can he not see that?’”

When a friend told me he stopped going to confession because he couldn’t think of anything to say, I suggested, “Ask your wife what to say in your next confession.” He froze. His wife did cartwheels. Then I told her, “And you can ask your husband to do the same for you.” It was her turn to freeze, and his turn to do cartwheels.

We all have blind spots. Sometimes willfully, sometimes not, there are spiritual truths that we do not see. Yes, we can ask a friend or a spouse or a member of our religious community for some help. But eventually we have to exercise some courage and humility—and a lot of hope—and ask God for the grace to see truly what needs to be seen, what ought to be seen, and then act accordingly.

When I next write, I will offer some wisdom from Saint Ignatius Loyola about how to keep our spiritual eyes open. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Father Robert McTeigue, a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.  A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.

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