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Q & A with Father Anthony



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Can I enter religious life without an experience of relationships with the other sex?

Brigid asks:

Dear Fr Anthony,

For some time now I've been considering religious life. The more I think about it the more I feel that this is my vocation. Reading about saints such as St. Therese for example, only increases that desire to love God, to serve His people and to attain union with Him. However, I have never been in a serious relationship with a member of the opposite sex. Is it possible for me to deepen my love of God, to reach such a level in terms of my spirituality without experiencing that particular type of love on a human level? Can I enter religious life without such an experience?

Dear Brigid,

Your question brings up a topic that causes much confusion, because on the surface it seems so reasonable.

Many will tell you that you must first experience human love for a member of the opposite sex before being able to give yourself to God. Often it is implied that unless you experience such a love you will never really mature, never know what you are giving up, and you will be therefore more vulnerable in the future - so, better get the experience behind you and then move on.

Remember, we are talking here not about normal friendships, admiration and enjoyment of another person's presence, simply liking a particular individual of the opposite sex, but something more - going further and cultivating a deeper, more personal and usually exclusive relationship through personal dating.

Three things disturb me about this approach:

First, I think it is both masochistic and callous. What you are being asked to do is to play around with your own heart, and someone else's. You are being told that even though you are pretty sure you might have a vocation, you should seek the love of a person of the opposite sex, do what it takes to make it grow, simply in order to have the experience of love for another on a human level.

But just think a little. If you are normal the outcome of such an attachment is for your heart to yearn for the union and human fulfillment that love for a person of the opposite sex naturally makes you desire, and every fiber in you is going to want. In a healthy context everything in a serious relationship will point toward marriage, and if marriage is not possible we end the special relationship, we stop dating.

In our Catholic context the only place for a 'serious relationship' is when there is openness toward marriage and the possibility of marriage (people who are already married don't date others), yet the possibility of marriage is precisely what you have ruled out from the outset, because you believe God is asking something else of you.

That is masochism - useless, self-inflicted, heart-breaking punishment. I fail to see how the frustration this sets you up for can be healthy for your soul or for your psychology.

On top of this you are asked to do the same to another person: deliberately lead him on and create in him a thirst that you have no intention of ever satisfying. Such callous disregard for another person's life and emotions, playing with them, can hardly be called love, and is hardly the best advertisement or preparation for religious life, since your intention from the outset is to ditch him no matter how he feels for you.

Some people may discover their vocation after they have been in love, perhaps even deeply, with another person. True. But that is not what we are talking about here, as you can understand. They were open to marriage, but God led them elsewhere. God can lead us by many different paths. But let him do the leading.

The second thing that disturbs me is the underlying, implicit concept here of the type of person that gets a vocation.

It seems to hint that God does not call normal people to a vocation. It seems to imply that if God calls you, you will no longer be subject to the dynamics of your human nature. But you are.

That is why, when someone thinks they are being called by God to the priesthood or consecrated life they realize right away that their dealings with persons of the opposite sex are going to have to change. They will no longer do things, go places or spend their time in ways that will favor the emotional 'click' with that 'someone special' they know is out there somewhere. They will be very circumspect in their dealings with others, much like the engaged woman will change the pattern of her dealings with men who are not her fiancé. If they don't, they both know that these relationships have the possibility of destroying the love they have, and want to build their lives and futures around.

If you have a vocation you have to realize that your nature is still the same (yes, of course, you do have the help of grace) so your instinct should be to protect your vocation like she does her future marriage.

The third disturbing thing is that the point of view we are considering does not seem to grasp the essence of a vocation, which is a recklessly generous response in exclusive love to Christ who calls. You could almost say that it is essential to a vocation that you could easily do something else very good (Christian marriage) with your life, but he asks this of you, he asks you to love in a whole new way. You are giving up not something bad but something good to which you have a perfect right. Instead of giving yourself to the pursuit of human love (or rather, finding and pleasing God through human love and responsibility), you give yourself directly to him.

This is a very different type of love, and I have found that sometimes the experience of human love can even make it more difficult to love in this spiritual way. The reason is that human love includes a huge proportion of emotional and concrete feedback, that is why it grips us so; the senses have their fill - you can speak with, listen to, watch the person you love. Even as the love between spouses grows more spiritual with time, physical presence is an essential component, so much so that marriage vows are taken only 'until death do us part'. Just compare all this to kneeling in front of the Eucharist, which is where we most experience Christ's presence and love, and you will see just how different the two are.

However, this much is true: we do need to experience love in order to follow a vocation.

We cannot follow a vocation without learning to love more deeply, but not necessarily in a 'serious relationship with a member of the opposite sex'. Most of us have experienced love in our families, have seen the goodness and the realities of human love in our parents and other couples close to us. We have seen the joy and the sacrifice, the sublime and the humdrum, and we have reaped the fruits of their fidelity. On a spiritual level we have experienced God's love and pardon. We have benefited from those who gave their lives to serve Christ before us: our pastors, the sisters we knew, etc...

There is another point too, and here I will end because this is getting too long: you mentioned the saints you like to read, especially Saint Therese. The fact of the matter is, many of them gave themselves directly to Christ (Therese was so young she had to get a special dispensation in order to enter the cloister) without going through 'serious relationships' first. If it was good enough for her, why not for you?

God bless.

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