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.
1) Latin adjective (masculine singular), from unus (one) + quisque (each). Eg: Each one looks to You to give food in due season.
2) Tongue-twister from the Dominican prayer book, bane of my life in the early weeks of postulancy (see also: gloriosissimae; necessitatibus; famulorum famularumque).
I don’t know whether, in your former community, you tangled with this monster during the formal grace in Latin as I did (it’s pronounced oo-noos-QUISS-quay, by the way, and getting it right for the first time is a real buzz) but if you were in Dominican formation I bet that you’ve encountered these other eight-hundred-year-old traps for the unwary:
- Courtesy of the angels who started handing out bread at the junior end of the refectory table, you get to go first in everything! Want to wait invisibly at the back and watch the senior Sisters to find out what they do? Actually, you’re leading the procession. Good luck!
- You (finally) make a perfect profound bow. Everybody else makes a head inclination. Hopefully they’re all keeping custody of the eyes and missed it.
- For anyone who’s not naturally a soprano:
no further explanation is required. I used to do my choir practice down the local cemetery, figuring that my paint-peeling rendition of this beloved chant would take years off Purgatory for any Holy Souls who happened to be listening.
- Processions in general. Did anyone else crash into furniture on the way around the chapel? Execute an impeccable turn, and then realise that a partner had been left stranded because you were supposed to bow to her first? Meander off too far to the side and get patiently towed back in by one elbow? (Or maybe it’s just me. Who am I to judge?)
Also, unless your written work rivalled the perfection of the Summa, you will have found yourself on the receiving end of that other profoundly Dominican gesture: the uncapping of a red pen. Veritas. The deepest instinct of these Hounds of the Lord is to find out what’s wrong, and, for the glory of God, fix it. While still in the convent, I read the results of a survey about religious beliefs sent out to different communities of nuns in the 1960s: lots of sisters dutifully filled out and posted back their responses, but, surprising nobody except the authors, the Dominicans corrected the questions before they answered them. (It certainly didn’t surprise me. I’d just failed an essay for the first time since my early years in high school.)
And you know something? I miss it all fiercely. As Dom Hubert Van Zeller points out, a yearning for the externals of the religious life doesn’t mean that my vocation was to stay in that community – of course I miss the processions of white habits, the candle-lit vigils before Jesus in the monstrance, the solemn Salve. It’s also obvious that when my health began to shatter under the demands of monastic life, all of those beautiful things weren’t enough to keep me there. So why, then, did I spend the better part of two years afterward fighting an irrational desire to turn up on the community’s doorstep one morning and ask them to let me have another try?
When I left, the most important thing that became forfeit was not my hope of wearing the veil that would set me apart for Our Lord, and the scapular for Our Lady, and nor was it the chance to spend my days with a lively, intelligent group of devoutly Catholic women of whom I had become fond. It wasn’t even the privilege of living in the cloister and chanting the Divine Office with them at the heart of the Church. What I surrendered was twofold: to be a bride of Christ, and a daughter of Saint Dominic. In my heart, I’m both. Officially, I’m neither. Worse is the thought that, if I died today, in heaven I’d be neither.
Of course, if it turns out after further discernment that I don’t have a religious vocation at all, I could become a tertiary, but I suspect for me that would feel a bit like winning the silver medal. Here’s why. The desire to be a sister first hit me in my teens when I was barely practicing the Catholic faith, and before the year was out I’d fallen head over heels in love with Jesus. Listening recently to the TEDx Talk on discernment that Jenni gave, I realized for the first time that, somewhere in those early days, I skipped a crucial step in the process: I wasn’t afraid of the path ahead. On the contrary, I was awed at having been noticed by God, and wildly excited about getting started in the religious life. Forget your people and your father’s house, for the King has desired your beauty!
Thanks to prosaic things like tertiary studies and the resultant debt, the better part of a decade passed before I got my wish. Enough time to get over the honeymoon, commit myself to some serious study, collect a few battle scars and get a realistic idea of what I’d be facing when I entered. It always surprised me, though, when people said, “Wow, that’s a big step to take! Aren’t you scared?” No, I’m not, was the honest reply – it’s just the next obvious step. Giddy romanticism dispensed with, I was still eagerly looking forward to entering: I’d discovered the Dominicans at World Youth Day, and found what I was looking for in a religious Order. Then, a few months after I entered, I finally met Saint Dominic.
I’d been struggling through an assignment about the founding of the Order (having, as previously mentioned, failed the first one) and, one morning, simply pushed all my other essays aside and buried myself for several hours in the life of this gentle, luminously holy man. The shy scholar who sold his books to feed the starving; the preacher with bleeding feet, on his own among thousands of heretics; the beacon of chastity whose sheepish deathbed confession was that he had sometimes enjoyed preaching to young women more than old; and the devoted spiritual father who promised after his departure to help the brethren by his prayers. By the time I put my books away and hurried off (as quietly as one can hurry down a cloister while dodging the squeakiest floorboards, that is) to help prepare lunch that day, I’d become a Dominican. An ordinary desire to follow Christ had crystallized into the desire to follow Christ just as Saint Dominic had, in contemplation and preaching of the Truth.
So, I’m starting discernment again from scratch, trying to find the place where my home on earth might be. And this time, I am scared. I know what can go wrong, and how badly – but also how beautiful it can be. That’s in the future, though. For now, I remember and continue to pray the exquisite Dominican prayers I learned in the convent – not in some useless pretence of monastic life, but because their meaning has become intertwined with my personality like silk threads woven into a piece of cloth, and I wouldn’t know how to pull them out if I wanted to. I’m still a Dominican inside. Please God, one day I’ll sing His praises in heaven as one, too.
Praedicator gratiae, nos junge beatis.
By Anela, reproduced with kind permission from her blog http://anelafindshervoice.wordpress.com
Sometimes it’s funny, being known around the office as “the ex-nun.” My coworkers and I will be having a conversation, specifically about work or about life in general, and one of them will let fly something a little off-color. They’ll stumble to a halt in mid-sentence, or a sentence (or an hour) or two later, when they realize just what they’ve said in the presence of “the ex-nun.” Then they’ll apologize: sheepishly, sincerely or even offhandedly. I take no offense at their slips, although I have felt a bit uncomfortable on several occasions. When that happens, I usually end up offering up a silent prayer of apology to Our Lord on their behalf.
It’s a strange thing, but I’m grateful for the awkwardness these moments bring, because the culture we live in today has become so desensitized to issues of modesty and morality. We live in a culture whose mantra is “Sex, power and no responsibility.” We’re bombarded with images and messages that harm us physically, emotionally and spiritually every single day… and the majority of people buy into the message simply because society tells them they should.
Maybe when the people around me pause in that moment of awkwardness, they’ll take a moment to reevaluate the lies that society has told them are true. Maybe they’ll come to realize that they’re truly worth so much more than society leads them to think they are.
And maybe, just maybe, this “ex-nun” will be reminded that, just because I no longer wear the habit, live in community or keep the daily horarium (Latin for “the hours” – a schedule of work and prayer), doesn’t mean that I’m not still a beloved spouse of Christ or that I don’t need to remember that I am called to “live in the world” but not be “of the world.”
We all are.
But I still miss wearing the habit. Imagine the self-censoring that would go on in the office if I suddenly showed up in one?