Eight myths about religious life
IN OUR FAST-PACED, media-driven culture, public opinion can become skewed if popular film, television, and periodicals promote an outdated stereotype of religious life. With few exceptions, the familiar media-inspired model of a person in religious life is either a bitter woman in a full habit rattling knuckles with a ruler, or an obtuse old man in a robe walking hunched over and mumbling something in a language that is long dead.
As young men excited about being in religious life, we find these portraits, along with many others, not only inaccurate but also potentially damaging to the future of religious life. Many young people do not consider such a life because of mistaken notions they pick up from various sources, including Catholics. We would like to debunk eight common myths of religious life and illustrate the beauty, contentment, and psychological health one could potentially find in this unique lifestyle.
Hearing this myth, we can't help but reminisce about the scene from The Empire Strikes Back when the ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi comments to the sage Yoda that young Luke Skywalker is their only hope, the last of a once powerful and illustrious group. Although the number of people in religious life is down from when it peaked in the mid-twentieth century, most orders are doing better than the Jedi Knights! There are hundreds of men's and women's religious orders. Each of these has its own distinctive charism—or spirituality—and many still welcome new members annually. Although some religious congregations are dying, others are thriving. Religious life has been around for centuries, through periods of both growth and decline, and it will continue to survive as it faithfully adapt to the needs of the church and world.
Rather than blind submissiveness, obedience means to listen. Like all people, religious women and men are called to listen to God and to the needs of their order and the church. Obedience requires mature listening and dialogue between a religious and her or his superiors. Religious are invited to share their prayer, desires, talents, fears, and joys so that superiors may make knowledgeable decisions that are best for that person, a particular community, the order, and the church. Celibate chastity and simple living are requisites for living religious life, but the vow of obedience is most directly linked to carrying out the actual purpose of a religious community.
All people are called by God to live chastely, meaning being respectful of the gift of their sexuality. Religious men and women vow celibate chastity, which means they live out their sexuality without engaging in sexual behavior. A vow of chastity does not mean one represses his manhood or her womanhood. Sexuality and the act of sex are two very different things. While people in religious life abstain from the act of sex, they do not become asexual beings, but rather need to be in touch with what it means to be a man or a woman. A vow of chastity also does not mean one will not have close, loving relationships with women and men. In fact, such relationships are a sign of living the vow in a healthy way. Living a religious vow of chastity is not always easy, but it can be a very beautiful expression of love for God and others.
Religious women and men aren't oddities; they mirror the rest of the church they serve: there are introverts and extroverts, tall and short, old and young, straight and gay, obese and skinny, crass and pious, humorous and serious, and everything in between. They attempt to live the same primary vocation as all other Christians do: proclaiming and living the gospel. However, religious do this as members of an order that serve the church and world in a particular way. Like marriage and the single life, religious life can be wonderful, fulfilling, exciting, and, yes, normal. Yet, it also can be countercultural and positively challenging. It's that for us and many others.
If you thought religious life was outdated, dysfunctional, or dead, we hope you can now look beyond the stereotypes and see the gift it is to the church and world.
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