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Love God.

Love thy neighbour as thyself.

Two noble motives underlie the choice of an individual contemplating Religious life. The primary one - dedicating oneself to Consecrated life of Priests and Nuns - is a response to the Sacred Call and the first commandment “Love God” facilitated through detachment from all worldly aspirations - an attachment that is more profound than the profoundest of relationships known to ordinary man.

Secondly, for many, what attracts them to Religious Orders and Congregations is their notion of dedicating their lives to serve humanity – a very noble cause – with a desire to fulfill the second commandment: Love thy neighbour AS THYSELF – to its Word and Spirit.

If the reasons of joining religious life are noble, the intriguing question is: Irrespective of age, why are the number of Religious requiring psychiatric help increasing and many requesting leave of absence from active religious life?

Love God would mean you have got to know Him. You cannot love the unknown. The first stage in religious formation should be the increased awareness of the omniscient God whom you chose to closely commune with. Is this basic knowledge, the solid foundation of religious life, missing or fading from the lives of many Religious today?

The Religious, from their formation days, are stirred in the direction of philosophical and theological theorizing. Is there an undermining of the spiritual experiential aspect of God? The common man is more open to discussions on such experiences than the Religious. Is religious formation focusing too much on knowledge based in the brain-power of the human-self?

Experiencing the Almighty, like that which Moses encountered, is based not on human knowledge alone but entails the collaboration of human submission to the transcendental power of God Himself.  To know Him is to experience Him. You cannot but love and commune with Him once you touch and experience Him. The inhibition in sharing and the tendency to devalue the personal unempirical mystical aspect in itself exhibits a gap in the dialogue between God and Man.

Tempest are multitude in the world today. If the first foundation is not firm, then on what ground structure will the second commandment – love your neighbour - stand firm? Do the formational courses of religious life provide for concrete stability that can hold firm the house of Faith to withstand any tempest of the world? Is foundation of Faith in the Almighty built on strong “rock” or on shifting “sand”?

In the struggle to keep the flock together and survive as a community, many a Religious Orders and Congregations are themselves losing sight of, or putting it more mildly, diluting their primary Sacred Call to “Know and Love God”. If one were to refer to some of their Vision and Mission statements, the emphasis on the  Sacred Call has got blurred by the Vision they envisage for their congregational set-ups in their attempt to continue being of relevance in the fast changing world. Their Vision statements are mainly directed towards reaching out to the community, the underprivileged, the youth, etc., in accord with the second greatest commandment - Love your Neighbour.

The test of the two commandments lies in the last two words “Love your neighbour AS THYSELF”. This leads us to the question: Are the formative courses in alignment with what to expect in the world outside of the formation houses (Seminaries and Novitiates)? To “Love” another as “thyself” in the real sense of the word in the real world is a tough “call”!

Advancements in scientific modalities of communication and its effective use by the Religious to enhance the span of outreach worldwide, to persons in close proximity as well as oceans apart, is happening at great pace and is commendable. Connectivity with the “neighbours” with the focus to uplift them spiritually, psychologically, and materially, is the target of most Congregations and is being well met.

However, simultaneously there is another troubling phenomenon taking place in just the contrary direction – lack of inward-soul-searching by the Religious to check on their level of inner tranquility and happiness, at both the individual and communitarian levels. 

Transcendence in “giving” to others comes from the self that is satisfied in itself.

Outside of the formation houses, the reality of dealing with unanticipated adjustments in actual community life and field work hits hard on the young Religious, who in fact is yet to be “formed”. Here then is another pertinent question that must seriously be looked into: How harmoniously communitarian are the Religious communities today? The youngster’s actual formation begins here and depends on the sensitivities of the other members of the community in which he/she is placed.

In the early years of formation, the feeling of comradeship is predominant in Religious houses amongst “companions”, a term used to refer to batch-mates. But with moving into adulthood, separation from companions, with companions being assigned to different mission stations, being shifted from place to place (with or without ample notice), overemphasis on detachment, and non-exclusive emotional connections leads to self-distancing from core-human feelings. One trains oneself to justify to the self that the suppression of emotions is all for putting into practice the “Love of the neighbour”.

We can argue that this was the situation ever since the foundation of Consecrated life from historic times. But the days of prayerful serenity and quiet, sheltered in the four walls of communitarian life, have been replaced by high speed connections to any one or any idea generated anywhere on the globe. Free and frequent accessibility to material attractions of the world and social networking are having a draining effect on the focused dedication required for consecrated prayer life and the renouncing of one’s good for the benefit of others. Craving for cloistered solitude for prayer life falls in the purview of only a few now.

Another phenomenon, the sense of competition, has seeped into the minds of the Religious who have to prove their ‘individual’ worth vis-à-vis each other on assignments undertaken, developmental programs successfully completed, number and quality of retreats conducted/attended, seminars organized and chaired, etc. Let’s for a moment move into the heart of the Principal of a school being compared to success stories of his/her companion with a similar assignment. So a shift occurs from being “one with the collective” to being “one amongst the collective”. The pressure to prove one’s ‘own’ worth begins to increase.

As it is, the world today is moving into a place of persons with blurred emotions. Lack of prayer life and the suppression of normal human emotions is a deadly mix leading to ‘dulled human interiority’. Loneliness is the powerful emotion underlying many a negative emotions and it is creeping into the hearts and minds of more and more people. This trend is seen in humanity as a whole and the Religious are not insulated from it. In fact, they are more affected by it as they are living “individualistically” within the “collective”!

Emotional distancing is taking place at two levels – one from those within the congregational community and second from the people they work for. With so much emphasis on detachment, the Religious move into their work stations mentally prepared in advance to move out in a couple of years. Basic human defenses will come into play to protect oneself from the very onset – restrict to only so much of emotional bonding and commitment and no more! Where then is expression or indulgence with true love? They are compelled to live in “phases of attachment” and “phases of detachment”.

How healthy is this psychologically? Does this not lead to superficiality in commitment to the mission assigned? And superficiality in relationships with their institute and the associated persons? Frequently moving from one cycle of attachment-detachment to another can have a two pronged effect – craving for stable relationships outside of the norms stipulated, or a dent in the ability to form long term trust.

Even within the community, attachments are discouraged. Dialogue and sharing is mostly related to activities undertaken, responsibilities accomplished, or discussions about persons other than themselves. Rarely does one share deep personal insecurities as these will expose their personal vulnerabilities. This is accompanied by an underlying anxiety of being criticized or downgraded.

Criticisms from within the congregational community are very difficult to handle for many. The support system within the Orders and Congregations are falling apart. Subordinates are falling prey to the demands made by seniors. Most Congregations are in a state of denial of these practices. How effectively is the practice of “contemplative dialogue” used? The question is whose “contemplative thought” is given priority?

Many in positions of power also become victims of dejection resulting from falling out of favor of their community members/institution employees – a consequence of taking irrevocable unilateral decisions based on their own notion of what is right, without taking into account the views of others.

When a member falls victim inadvertently to his/her own mistakes or is dragged into situations of compromise, the guilt that comes into the repentant soul is bad enough to handle. Even worse is the instance when it is talked about by multiple persons or referred to in multiple contexts, even if done without the intent to hurt. Thus, guilt resolution is often unintentionally hindered or prolonged. 

The “Neighbour” they are working for and with, is no fool any more. Awareness and critical approach to all services provided and accepted is the order of the day, particularly amongst the literate and the urban. They see through - that “love” is preached but not practiced in its true sense; often, that “love” practiced may have an ulterior motive. This does not wound the “neighbour” as much as it would wound the Religious who expects in the least a minimum reciprocation of appreciation and respect.

Most join consecrated life at a very young age, many in late adolescence and early adulthood. For a large part of their youth life, they exist in a world cloistered from the real struggles of life – like fending for themselves (food, shelter, medical), of personal achievements and targets to be met, of competing with those with worldly experiences, of relationships with persons with extreme diverse attitudes, cocooned from day-to-day interactions with the opposite gender, and the list can go on - thus lacking many a life skills. If the responsibility of running institutions are placed on their shoulders, many find themselves falling short of effective managerial skills.

In today’s technologically fast-tracking globalized world, adolescence/early adulthood is an age too early for discernment for life-long decisions. They lack the experience of the world at large. From a very early impressionable phase of life itself, the young who aspire to be members of Religious life are drawn into the call and vision of the Founder – which more often than not, is an idealistic prospect to life emphasizing selfless service. With maturity they begin to see the varied paths that could have been walked and missed opportunities they have left behind.

The best option to continue maintaining the age old high standards of Religious Orders and Congregations could be to increase the age bar of those entering into Religious life with a background of a certain number of years of work experience in the Secular jobs. This would, to a large extent, ensure a well thought out decision to renounce the worldly gains as well as having had the lived experience of the struggles of real life that is undertaken by people they are committing to serve.

To conclude, the three blocks to inner joy - loneliness, diminished trust, hindered guilt resolution – need to be minimized to put into practice the two great commandments. Only when the two are strongly bound together – control over their own spirit of discipline and commune with God – can the Religious not fall prey to personal disillusionment.  Those who withstand the tempest around will be the ones to be held in high esteem by themselves and by others, and they will stand out as beacons for those sliding downhill.

(Dr. Joan Antony is an Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi)

(Published on 23rd December 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 52)