Friday, October 3, 2008

Five Reasons NOT to Become a Consecrated Virgin

First of all, I apologize for the slow posting. (Graduate school is challenging and I always have a lot of homework!)

I was working on a list of some of the aspects of consecrated life unique to my vocation, which was to be titled “reasons to become a consecrated virgin.” But while I was writing, this other list suggested itself to me. These five “non-reasons” all reflect common misconceptions which I would like to clarify. And although you don’t see many instances of “apophatic” vocational discernment, sometimes reflecting on what a particular vocation is not can help us when we consider it in a positive manner.

1. You don’t want to make all the sacrifices which are demanded in religious life – Love and sacrifice are inseparable. To put it in ultimate terms, you cannot make a complete gift of self without first “losing” yourself in a very real sense. Yet over and above the first magnanimous choice of a state in life, the interconnectedness between love and sacrifice is also manifest in countless and ever-present more ordinary ways.

Without a willingness to make sacrifices, it is impossible to live any vocation well. This is certainly the case with marriage. But it is especially true in reference to the consecrated life, the heart of which is a closer following of the Christ who told us, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross...”*

I think I would be justified in saying that a love for the cross is even more necessary for consecrated virgins than it is for women in religious life. Finding joy in renunciation is as central to the consecrated state as it is incomprehensible to our natural ways of thinking. Religious have the support and structures of their community to help them in this area, but (to borrow from St. John of the Cross) in her day-to-day life a consecrated virgin has no other light to guide her other than the one that burns in her heart.

2. You want to be consecrated, but you don’t want anyone telling you what to do with your life – It is true that a consecrated virgin does not make a formal vow of obedience, and this does mean that she has a great deal of freedom in determining concrete circumstances under which she will live her consecrated life. But beyond the obedience which all baptized Catholics are bound to show their bishops, consecrated virgins are also explicitly called to be “dedicated to the service of God and the Church.”**

As I see it, if you take this seriously there is no way that it could NOT determine the course of your whole life. Every significant choice you make would have to be in reference to this element of your vocation. Ordering your life around this sort of commitment is—or at least should be—a far cry from “doing whatever you want.”

3. You would have wanted to be a religious, but have not been able to join a religious community – First, some qualifications: I do believe that a woman could have a genuine vocation to consecrated virginity even if there are some impediments (such as certain health problems) which would have ordinarily kept her from entering a convent. I also think it is theoretically possible that God’s providential ordering of circumstances could lead a woman who was not successful in religious life to find, as a consequence of this disappointment, her true vocation to consecrated virginity in the world.

However, a call to consecrated virginity has to be much more than an ecclesial process of elimination. I am firmly of the opinion that there needs to be a positive attraction to this form of consecrated life as it stands by itself. If a woman is to live this vocation joyfully and well, she has to have a real appreciation of the charism specific to consecrated virgins.

Additionally, many situations which would preclude a woman from entering religious life could also make living as a consecrated virgin either difficult or impossible. For example, an inability to relate well with people would be disruptive for life in a religious community, but it could also undermine the evangelical witness of a consecrated virgin in the world. Overwhelming illness or family obligations may present an obstacle for the intense prayer life proper to a consecrated virgin. And because all forms of consecrated life presuppose a major shift in perspective and identity, an older woman who has been living a conventional, worldly (but not necessarily sinful) life may struggle in interiorizing the asceticism and detachment implicit in this vocation.

Basically, we should remember that consecrated virginity is just as much of a real, total vocation as is a call to religious life—so it should not be seen as a last resort for when all else fails!

4. You just don’t want to be married – Marriage is the primordial human vocation; it even says this in the Rite of Consecration itself. Therefore, people discerning vocations need a definite, surpassing reason for embracing a life of voluntary celibacy if they are to live this sort of calling in its fullness. There is a lot of truth to the old maxim that grace builds on nature, and this instance is no exception.

Practically speaking, an aversion to marriage could indicate a serious emotional or developmental problem—obviously not solid grounds on which to build a major life commitment. But on a deeper level, the Rite of Consecration mentions several times that consecrated virgins “renounce marriage.” This would seem to highlight renunciation as a central aspect of this vocation.

“Renouncing marriage” does not necessarily mean that a woman has to turn away scores of adoring suitors, or that she runs away the night before her wedding. Probably for a lot of woman (myself included) who have spent a length of time considering a vocation to the consecrated life, there simply will not happen to be any prospective mortal spouse in the picture.

However, even if marriage is not an imminent option, it must be a viable one. Consecrated virginity is about taking your capacity to give yourself in love completely to another person (i.e., your capacity for marriage) and offering it wholly to God. A person clearly cannot do this if that capacity is not there in the first place.

5. You love the idea of wearing a wedding dress and being a “bride of Christ” sounds so romantic – Granted, I do think that wearing a wedding dress to your consecration is a nice custom, and if I did not whole-heartedly believe in the spousal dimension of this vocation I would not have titled this blog “Sponsa Christi.”

But while it is essential that an aspiring consecrated virgin be fundamentally attracted to, and capable of, human marriage, it is important to realize that the two vocations are still very, very different. And for a lot of reasons, I think it is extremely dangerous to confuse them.

In a good marriage there is a great deal of self-sacrifice. But as the original human vocation, on an immediate level marriage is oriented to tangible satisfaction for our built-in longings for love and companionship. Conversely, consecrated virginity provides NO fulfillment of emotional or sexual desires. Rather, it is a call to move beyond them by the grace of God.

This is not to say that say that consecrated virginity is an altogether unfulfilling, joyless vocation. On the contrary, it is very joyful, but it must be understood that this joy comes from God alone.

The trick is not to confuse sublime earthly joys (like pleasures of romantic human love) with spiritual fulfillment. Oftentimes, God’s greatest gifts can look like punishments to our natural ways of viewing things. We can see this in the beatitudes, where Christ refers to the blessed as “poor in spirit,” “meek,” “those who mourn,” “hungry,” and “persecuted.”

A woman who looks to consecration to provide consolations similar to that of human marriage will be severally disappointed. It is only by embracing this tremendous “lack” that a consecrated virgin can accept her vocation to be a living anticipation of the love of Heaven.

* cf. Matthew 16:24-28
** See n. 923 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church; and canon 604 in the Code of Canon Law.


Another Seminarian said...

I must certainly agree that graduate school makes posting very difficult.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that your blog exists. Please write as much as you can! :-)

Emily said...

VIs-a-vis "Overwhelming illness": I'm not sure what you mean by that. I don't see this as an impediment to the life of a consecrated virgin, since they are not bound by pain of sin in re: their duties--Mass, the office, prayer, etc. I have had a double lung transplant, which is the reason most religious communities won't accept me, and why I am discerning a vocation to consecrated virginity--and while THEY see this as "overwhelming", I am still able to say the office, attend Daily Mass (when my work schedule/dr. schedule permits, which is quite often), practice lectio, etc. So I'm not sure why overwhelming illness would disqualify someone from this vocation.

Sponsa Christi said...


If you’ll forgive me for responding to your comment two years late…I was NOT actually trying to say that overwhelming illness should always disqualify a woman from discerning a vocation to consecrated virginity.

I was just observing that in many cases, chronic illness, disability, or advanced age COULD make it difficult to live the life of a consecrated virgin as fully as possible. But of course, “could” is not the same thing as “always does in every case.” Obviously, a candidate’s personal strengths and limitations are something she needs to take into account prayerfully as part of her own individual discernment.

However, this was only one part of my bigger point—namely, that consecrated virginity shouldn’t be a “second choice” or a “last resort” vocation. An inability to enter religious life does not automatically mean that a woman should consider discerning a vocation to consecrated virginity, because consecrated virginity is its own vocation with its own distinct spirituality and charism. A disabled woman who is called to become a consecrated virgin should do so IN SPITE OF her disability, and not BECAUSE of it.

In other words, consecrated virginity is not “a vocation for disabled women.” It’s a vocation for women who are called to be brides of Christ, some of whom might just happen to have a disability or chronic illness.

roots said...

As long as the woman has a strong prayer life illness or disability need not be a barrier. I can't always attend church because of my illness. However I was accepted for consecration because I had developed a strong prayer life over many years. In my suffering I draw closer to Christ so the cross that I carry has helped me to develop a strong spirituality.

Sponsa Christi said...

As a postscript—while re-iterating that I certainly don’t think physical illness or disability should automatically be considered an impediment for receiving the consecration of virgins, I still do think that in SOME cases, SOME kinds of disabilities could indeed make it difficult or impossible to live out a vocation to consecrated virginity most fully.

Since consecrated virginity is a public state of consecration within the Church, we have to be careful not to look at this vocation as being just simply about a woman’s personal relationship with Jesus (even though of course this is still a very central part of this vocation).

Because consecrated virgins are publicly established as sacred persons though their consecration, I believe that, under ordinary circumstances, we are called to live a distinctive way of life. And I think this distinctive way of life would involve: the responsibility to pray, especially to participate in the Church’s liturgical prayer; a call to dedicate our lives to service of the Church; and the obligation to bear a public witness. Although it is true that right now consecrated virgins have very few concrete responsibilities which are legally, technically binding “under pain of sin,” this doesn’t mean that these things aren’t important or even integral to the vocation.

Obviously, these responsibilities, unlike the horarium or constitutions of a religious community, are very general and flexible. There many ways in which one can truly give one’s life over to the service of the Church, and the intense prayer life and public witness proper to consecrated virgins would not seem to require any special level of physical or even intellectual ability.

But, if a woman for whatever reason—be it because of advanced age, disability, chronic illness, life circumstances, etc.—is truly unable to do these things in any way, shape, or form, then I think it might be wise for her to consider whether she is actually called to be a consecrated virgin, or perhaps whether some other path (such as making a private vow) might be a better “fit” for her.

In my mind, it would not be fair to the Church to encourage women who were really and truly unable to live a consecrated life to become consecrated virgins, because the Church has a right to expect certain things of those whom she publically consecrates. But even more importantly, I think it would also be unfair to those candidates themselves to encourage them to pursue a vocation which they would not be objectively capable of living out in a full and radical way (just as it would be unfair to encourage a young person to enter into a demanding course of study for which he or she totally lacked the necessary natural gifts, or to encourage two people to marry when their life circumstances would not make it possible for them to set up a household together).

However, the bottom line is that discernment is always a very personal process. I think many women with even severe disabilities can lead joyful and exemplary consecrated lives. But, there may also be some women who have very extreme disabilities which would prevent them from living out a vocation to consecrated virginity in its fullest expression, and it’s important to be honest about this. All of us without exception need to take into account our own personal strengths and limitations whenever we seek to discern God’s will for us, and discerning a vocation to consecrated virginity is no exception.