Ever seen Kung Fu Panda?
I watched the movie with my postulant class and felt at the time like it pretty much described our early religious experience. Rigorous training and self-discovery were on the menu, served up with bok choy and steaming, hot rice. It got me thinking about what it is to prepare oneself for a life of service to Him. The Ignatian idea of soldiers for Christ comes to mind here. The similarities between military and religious life are manifold, after all:
– Early mornings.
– Obedience to Superiors.
– Intense discipline.
– Frequent exhaustion.
– Detailed schedule.
– Ordered sleeping quarters.
– Standard issue clothing.
– B-grade coffee **grin**
Even the standing, sitting, following in the breviary and bowing in unison of praying the Office together is somewhat analogous to the experience of ceremonial drill with synchronised marching and weapon handling.
By way of further illustration, allow me to share my own personal occasion of deja vu.
People had been murmuring all afternoon, you see. It was rumoured that there would be a midnight training exercise. We had been moved out of the Officer’s quarters for that evening, which was unusual. We were shifted to the enlisted flats. Unusual just doesn’t happen in the military. Routine happens. Predictability happens. People are squared away.
Instinct told me to go to bed partially dressed, and it is just as well that I did. At approximately 3.30am the following morning, the peal of an aluminium whistle simultaneously sounded with the thud of a shoe being whacked against the door of my quarters. We were ordered to report downstairs on the grass outside the flats, in full DPCUs (disruptive pattern camouflage uniforms) but with our running shoes instead of our boots, formed up in rank and file. Initially I congratulated myself. I was almost completely dressed – I only had to pull on and button up my camouflage shirt and pull my shoes on… wait… what shoes? I had my boots, but not my running shoes. My running shoes were in the trunk of my car, parked downstairs outside the flats.
I grabbed my car key and ran like a mad thing in bare feet out onto the dew-kissed grass to grab my shoes. I ran to my place in the line, secured my car key in a cargo pocket and managed to get one shoe on before time was up. It was mostly dark, and I put the other shoe on the ground partially on top of my unshod foot as we stood to attention and listened to the Warrant Officer brief us on the exercise that was about to take place. I played it cool and counted on poor visibility and the hope that an inspection would not take place to survive the next 5 minutes… and was grateful when we were given a minute between the briefing and the commencement of our first task, which was enough time to get the shoe on. My failure to be properly prepared had miraculously flown under the radar that morning. What followed was a “character building” road run of many miles, where we were required to drop to the side of the road every few miles to do pushups, where our hands held the curb, but our bodies had to go down a further 6 inches lower than the level of our hands in order to allow our noses to brush the asphalt. Such was the cruel creativity of our task masters. We were then required to travel a certain distance in walking lunges before teaming up with a fellow Officer Cadet and retrieving, in pairs, heavy ammunition boxes with the objective of getting them from one side of a deep water obstacle to another. All in all, these torments continued for approximately 90 minutes, at which point we were given leave to shower and get ourselves to the Officer’s Mess for a well-earned breakfast and some liquid gold.
Fast forward some 4 years.
I had been wearing a uniform of a very different kind for approximately 2 weeks. I was now a baby postulant.
At approximately 1.15am, the morning bell rang. I woke and groggily looked at my clock. Seeing the time, I was quite sure it was just a dream and I turned back over in my bed and went back to sleep. Meanwhile, more savvy and obedient sisters than I were dressing in the neighbouring cells, despite the hour. Rushing between cells and bathrooms transpired over the few minutes that followed before the message made it around the dorms that we were to go back to bed. Suffice it to say that rising at 5am after the drama a few hours earlier was… “sanctifying.”
After breakfast the following morning all novitiate sisters were asked to meet in the Community Room where the Novice Mistress addressed us to debrief the incident of the night before. It so happened that a sister who often struggled to wake to an alarm or a bell was responsible for ringing the bells that week to regulate the horarium. Her anxiety had been building over the course of the week, so determined was she to do her duties well for love of her sisters. She woke in the middle of the night, panicked and thought she had missed the time that she was supposed to ring the bell to wake the house, pulled on her slippers and her robe and ran out to ring the bell, not realising that we were still entitled to a further 4 hours and 45 minutes of sleep. Seasoned by my prior military experience, and skeptical about the explanation we had just been offered, I raised my hand and when the Novice Mistress called upon me, asked her directly in front of the rest of the novitiate: “Sister – are we being hazed?”
You can imagine the laughter that ensued.
Anecdotes aside, where is the point of distinction between “character building” and “sanctifying” ?? What makes two types of life with so many shared experiences remain so radically different in character??
I think the answer resides in a fascinating tension between love and duty, between glorification of God and glorification of self.
In my experience there is a sort of perfectionistic quality about the typical military officer, more pronounced in some than in others, coexisting with a desire to serve. The typical officer takes great pride in a polished appearance, in elite physical conditioning and in finely honed discipline. The typical officer seeks to be better, faster, stronger, smarter, more courageous… because the life of self and of others may depend upon that one day. This need not lack virtue if ordered correctly under God, but often this is not the case. Ordering one’s betterment within the framework of God’s plan and created order is certainly not the focal point of the training, that is for sure! Duty is the fulcrum and assiduous training the lever as the officer aspires to be propelled toward a successful military career. Duty. Training. Discipline. Courage. Loyalty. These are all good things, but at the service of oneself they are sold short!
There is, however, a good that is objectively higher: love.
There are still temptations in religious formation to want to glorify self, temptations to a disordered perfectionism that quite simply kills the love between sisters and bears no fruit. Yet opportunities abound to grow in love, and the community construct is uniquely fitted to the task of helping to motivate sisters to authentically love and to serve rather than to simply to better one’s capability. The eternal life of self and others may depend on that predisposition to love and serve in response to His grace, one day!
As one grows in obedience and self-knowledge, (perhaps without the bok choy and rice,) one learns to live by the dictum I first heard from my Postulant Mistress:
“Do the best that you can with the time you have for the love of God.”
My former superior used to speak of religious life as a school of love… but isn’t ALL of life that, really? Novitiate was like LOVE101. Back out here, in the world, amidst family, friends and coworkers? I feel like it’s just an extension of that other school of love – definitely the intermediate class!
So what has this former Air Force Officer learned so far?
I’m just a little one.
I don’t have to be better, faster, stronger, smarter or more courageous, as good as all of those qualities are.
All I need to do is learn to love in response to Love.