“She’s super religious.” “He’s not really that religious.” Sometimes I hear people talk in this way, and I don’t even know what they mean. As an entertainment celebrity, Stephen Colbert is unusually open about his Catholic faith. He takes it seriously enough to have volunteered as a CCD teacher but also jokes freely about religious matters, at least up to a point. While I don’t often see him in action, I have heard him quip on a couple occasions that the fact he is a practicing Catholic doesn’t mean he is a good one—he needs to keep practicing. So, what’s the verdict? Is Colbert “very religious”? Am I? I suppose it depends on whether the one defining terms allows for religious people to also have secular interests, enjoy themselves, and even make poor choices at times.
In the face of widespread admiration, Nelson Mandela made very clear that he did not consider himself a saint, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” Nobody is perfect, trite as it may sound when we say so. The Bible reminds us in 1 John 4: 19, that even the most ardent lover of God can only do so because he or she was first loved by God. So if I say that I cannot be holy without help, I am by no means alone. At the very least, we all need God’s help to truly live our best lives.
So, I take things a step further. Speaking for myself, to the extent that I approach holiness at all, I require the support of my fellow well-intentioned sinners to do so. Holy hermits have existed throughout history and on into the present day, but I am not one of them. At least not for any significant length of time. In psychology, there is a well-documented effect known as social facilitation: our general tendency is to perform at higher levels when we are in a group pursuing the same goal than when on our own. As the much quoted proverb goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.”
While I’ve never personally participated in a 12-step recovery program, I have learned from readings and conversations one of the founding inspirations of Alcoholics Anonymous, that it takes a drunk to help a drunk. I think this insight extends to many of the challenges we face. Even if I could find a perfect person in this world, would knowing him or her actually do me any good? I am inclined to think that those who have shown me the greatest compassion and also challenged me when I needed it were those who had their own experiences of weakness to inform them. In turn, learning to better embrace others in their shortcomings has helped me to slowly become a better person. For those of us who live in community, it is not a school for holiness because we absorb the radiant energies of some great guru… rather, community life is a “holy sandpapering” in which we pray that any inevitable friction arising between members ultimately works to smooth away our respective rough spots.
I write on this topic today as I reflect on the National Vocations Awareness Week which ends today (Saturday, Nov. 10). If I were not part of a religious community, I could probably still devote myself to a life of service. I could still attend Mass regularly and try my best to keep God in mind. However, I know even from my brief experience living outside of community this year how difficult it is for me to maintain a regular prayer pattern when there is not a communal structure supporting me. I also know that in community I have benefited greatly from the opportunity to live with older mentors and to care for newer members younger than me as well. Community life has given me the riches of laughter, fraternal love, and frank reality checks.
People outside of religious life sometimes seem to focus on the sacrifices we make as religious: for example, having our own families and exercising greater self-determination over our own plans and property. For a long time, I was tempted to downplay these sacrifices by emphasizing the difficulties that come with every life—I have simply chosen a different set of difficulties. A couple of years ago however, I realized this was disingenuous and unhelpful. Yes, as religious we do make sacrifices distinct from those that most people make. Sometimes those sacrifices feel less significant and sometimes they feel moreso… I would be surprised if you saw many of us moping around though, because in my experience, vowed religious tend to be a fairly joyful bunch. The secret is not that this life makes these sacrifices trivial. Rather, for those who are called to it, this life makes these sacrifices worth it.
Jesus tells us “that the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13: 45-46). I hope that as many in the Church have spent special effort to shine a light on religious vocations this week, we have helped some to find their own pearl of great price that will be worth the sacrifice.
The “ear candy” and “brain food” for this week both relate to the gift of community in some way. The classic “People Get Ready” imagines all the faithful moving together on a train toward a common destination. Meanwhile, the short article from Bishop Robert Morneau reflects on some of the great contributions of Catholic religious communities to the Church and world.
Ear Candy: “People Get Ready” by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions
Brain Food: “Five Reasons We Need Religious Communities” by Bishop Robert Morneau