Here is a question from fellow consecrated virgin Alice Claire, on my post Open Discussion on “Dedication to the Service of the Church”:
At this time I have no comments, only a question. I get the impression from your blog that you feel very strongly that the life of a consecrated virgin should be very much regimented. While such regimentation is appropriate for a religious order or society of some sort, it is not necessary, appropriate or desirable for a consecrated virgin, who is not a member of an order or a society. Our consecration as virgins presupposes that we have the maturity and integrity to live out our vocation in the world in a manner pleasing to the Lord and in keeping with the teachings of the Catholic Church. I respectfully ask why you feel so strongly about regimenting the life of a consecrated virgin.
Dear Alice Claire,
Thank you for taking the time to comment. Although I was mainly hoping to hear other consecrated virgins’ thoughts on the subject of service (since sometimes I feel as though, unfortunately, I’m the only one who has written in depth on this particular topic), this is still the kind of thoughtful discussion I had wanted to foster.
Before I write any further, I need to point out that this following post is not so much a matter of me trying to articulate an academic theological point, as much as it is a kind of cry of my heart. I don’t usually blog very much about my personal feelings, but that’s exactly what I’m doing now.
So consequently, nothing I write here should be taken as a criticism of any individual consecrated virgin. I’ve never doubted that my sisters in Christ have ever had anything but the sincerest intentions in their living out their vocations, even if I don’t always agree with certain practical interpretations of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. The aim of this post is simply to describe the thoughts that go through my own mind.
First of all, I guess I don’t think of my ideas on consecrated virginity as calling for a truly “regimented” lifestyle. To me, “regimented” seems like it would be best used to describe the lifestyle of cloistered nuns or other religious who follow a strict horarium, a detailed Rule of Life, or an extensive set of customs.
I do believe that consecrated virgins should live what I suppose you could call a more distinctive, demonstrably “consecrated” lifestyle. In other words, I do think that our life should be different from that of an average devout Catholic laywoman.
I do not feel that it’s enough for us merely to follow the basic teachings of the Church. Rather, it would seem that our virginal consecration calls us to be specially conformed to Christ in a way that goes above and beyond the call that all the faithful receive by virtue of their baptism.
It likewise seems to me that out identity as “sacred persons” would call us to be oriented towards God and the things of God to with a more intense focus and in a more exclusive way than would be proper or possible for the vast majority of the laity.*
In light of this, I personally believe that in order to live an appropriately “consecrated” lifestyle (and one which is also in accord with our own particular charism), we consecrated virgins should live out our vocation in the following concrete ways:
- By engaging in activities which directly and explicitly advance the Church’s mission on something akin to a full-time basis (which could—but does not always necessarily have to—be accomplished by working in a Church-sponsored institution);
- By praying the full Liturgy of the Hours, spending substantial time in private prayer, incorporating some kind of penance and mortification into one’s spiritual life, and attending daily Mass wherever this is possible;
- By having some kind of serious and meaningful bond with the diocese for which one was consecrated;
- By living in a spirit of evangelical poverty through an attitude of radical detachment from earthly pleasures and through consciously choosing to maintain a very simple standard of living;
- By living in a spirit of evangelical obedience via having at least some kind of accountability to one’s bishop, and through the manifestation of one’s willingness to place the needs of the Church above one’s own personal preferences; and
- By demonstrating an openness to being known as a consecrated virgin at all times and in all places.
This could perhaps be considered a rather demanding lifestyle, and it’s one which certainly would require a great deal of discipline and personal maturity. (I would even argue that it takes more maturity for a consecrated virgin to observe these practices faithfully than it would for a consecrated virgin to live a less-structured lifestyle.)
But, I don’t think you could consider the way of life which I propose here to be an especially regimented one. Even if consecrated virgins everywhere were to model their lives on the above-mentioned points, this would still allow for a great deal of freedom and legitimate diversity—much more freedom and diversity than would be possible within a single religious congregation.
For example, I am emphatically NOT saying things like: all consecrated virgins have to be Catholic school teachers, say Vespers at exactly 5:00 pm, or fast on bread and water every Friday. It has never been my intention to make up a universal set of very detailed instructions to cover a consecrated virgin’s every waking hour; to propose that consecrated virgins all take on one common apostolate; or to argue that this vocation should be lived in exactly the same way, right down to the last detail, around the world without taking into account the different local circumstances and the unique spiritual gifts of each individual consecrated virgin.
Nor am I saying that a consecrated virgin would need to ask her bishop’s permission for every minor choice she needs to make during the day, or that a consecrated virgin would need to be specifically “commissioned” every time she wants to do a good deed for someone or help out at her parish. I’m not even suggesting that consecrated virgins should write out their own personal “rules of life” to be submitted for their bishops’ approval.
What I am suggesting is that, since consecrated virginity is a public state of consecrated life, it should involve some level of real self-sacrifice and accountability. It should not in any sense be understood as a wholly private reality.
I’m also trying to say that consecrated virginity is a vocation which significant enough to determine absolutely every aspect of our lives, and that it should never be viewed as anything along the lines of a part-time commitment. Our call to consecrated virginity should be the center around which we order our entire existence; it should not be something we try to “fit into” an already-full life.**
Unlike membership in a parish organization or a Third Order, consecrated virginity (like marriage, religious life, or priesthood) is a “first” or primary vocation.
You would never say to an earthly bride-to-be, “It would be great if you could live with your husband, or use the title ‘Mrs.,’ or aspire to raise a family—but don’t worry about trying to do these things if they don’t fit with your present work or career situation, or if you don’t feel personally ‘called’ to do them.”
This kind of advice sounds ridiculous to us, because the Catholic view of matrimony recognizes that marriage as a vocation fundamentally entails a specific way of life.
We also acknowledge that marriage, by definition, involves a total self-gift to one’s spouse. And logically, it would seem to us that this self-gift is not occurring if the spouses aren’t willing to give each other the first priority in planning the concrete details of their respective daily lives. We would never say that it’s sufficient for a married couple simply to start adopting a “married spirituality” while living in exactly the same way they did when they were single.
You could draw similar parallels with vocations to the priesthood. Could anyone imagine a bishop ordaining a man who didn’t want to engage in any kind of pastoral ministry, didn’t want to make a commitment to a diocese, and didn’t want to obey anyone, but still sought Holy Orders just because he wanted the grace of the Sacrament to enrich his personal prayer life?
But, to be brutally honest (and, once again, I’d like to remind everyone that I’m speaking only for myself and of my own personal impressions), to me it seems that people often mistakenly see consecrated virginity as being a less serious commitment than marriage, religious life, or priesthood. Either that, or consecrated virginity is viewed as being a kind of vocation designed so that you can have your cake and eat it, too.
Consecrated virgins are described as women who marry Jesus—but who can still enjoy the freedoms and conveniences of a single lifestyle.
…They should enjoy their bishops’ special attention and concern—but they shouldn’t be obligated to render any practical service to the local Church or be expected to make any binding commitments to their diocese.
…They are publicly established as icons of the Church through a beautiful liturgical ceremony—but they can’t be asked to modify the concrete details of their daily life after the ritual’s conclusion.
…Consecrated virgins are given the privilege and duty of being prayerful intercessors for the needs of the Church—but prayer is to be relegated to their free time and shouldn’t take precedence over their family or professional obligations; and what, when, and how often they pray is to be determined totally by their own inclinations and preferences.
…They sacrifice marriage and family life—but just to be on the safe side, they are ordinarily encouraged to do this only after their child-bearing years have come to a close.
Obviously, this is a very unflattering portrait of consecrated virginity. And to be sure, in my own life I have never met a consecrated virgin who discerned her vocation with this object consciously in mind.
However, I think that as ugly (and let’s hope generally inaccurate) as this description is, I think it needed to be written because, in my own experience at least, this seems to be the popular conception of consecrated virginity as a vocation.
While we shouldn’t let misunderstandings or plain ignorance cause us to lose our interior peace, I still do think that the widespread nature of this misunderstanding should give us pause. Maybe it should even be the occasion of an individual and collective examination of conscience among consecrated virgins. We need to be brave enough to ask—and honest, prudent, and discerning enough to answer—the question of whether or not this popular misconception might actually contain a grain of truth.
I remember one time a very holy priest (for whom I have enormous respect) once said to me, after I had the chance to share my vocation story with him: “But you can’t honestly compare yourself to a Missionary of Charity or a Carmelite. They sacrifice everything!…No one will ever think you’re as good as a nun.”
If you can imagine it, the priest didn’t say this in a way that was at all unkind (the conversation basically concluded with a effort to provide some pastoral encouragement by suggesting that God could still call me one day to be a Carthusian or a Poor Clare...). And for the most part I was able to brush off the unintended offensiveness of this comment by considering the context, and by remembering that one priest’s perceptions don’t dictate the objective reality of a situation.
However, the comment was still a bit disturbing to me, because it posed that same unspoken but haunting question: Could it be that serious Catholics would see me as someone who gave her life to God in half-measures…because I did in fact only give my life to God in a partial and incomplete way? Even if, by the grace of God, I was able to give myself wholly over to God in the quiet recesses of my soul, could it be that consecrated virginity, on an objective level, was not even intended as a vocation that allows a woman to make a complete gift of herself to Christ?
I am writing this as a sinner who consistently fails to meet even her own minimal expectations. I know I am not a saint. Despite the effort I put into discerning and outlining what I think a consecrated virgin’s life should look like, I would be the first to admit that my efforts to reach the perfection of charity within this way of life are always flawed at best, and that my sinfulness keeps me miles away from reaching my goal.
However, this doesn’t change the fact that complete, radical, sacrificial self-giving is still the goal to which I long to be called!
Even if I can’t ever fulfill it perfectly, I still want my vocation to be that of a total, spousal, giving of myself to Christ in every single area of my life. I desire with every fiber of my being to be called to be concretely, literally, visibly—and entirely, without reserve or exception—given over to God and the Church.
But, I have never wanted to strive for this end simply because it happens to be what I feel like doing at the moment; I want to strive for it because I have been explicitly called to do so by God, speaking through His Church.
And I wanted the chance to say “yes” to this call in a public, binding, permanent, and “official” way. Yet my thought is that if the Church were in fact to see consecrated virginity as being a “less total” vocation than marriage, priesthood, or religious life, then it wouldn’t actually be my vocation to give everything to Christ in a radical way.
I could still try to do this on my own, of course—but in that case it would just be an aspect of my own private spirituality. My formal place in the Church wouldn’t be that of one who gives her life wholly over to God, and in that specific sense I truly wouldn’t be “as good as a nun.”
I know this is a very subtle distinction (and one which probably isn’t always the most pastorally prudent thing to discuss openly). But as a young woman who’s signed up for consecrated virginity for the rest of her life, it’s one which nevertheless seems terribly important to me.
So in a nutshell:
I believe what I do about the most appropriate way of life for consecrated virgins because, first and foremost, on an objective theological level this seems to be most consistent with the Church’s teachings on the nature of the liturgy and of consecrated life in general.
The reason I feel so strongly about what I believe is because I want to give everything to Christ in an absolute and radical way; and I think that, in most cases, one of the surest signs that you are truly given over to Christ is that your commitment concretely affects the ways in which you order your exterior life.
And, I want to be wholly given over to Jesus in a way that transcends the limits of my own personal spirituality—I want it to be in response to an unambiguous call from Christ, mediated through His body, the Church.
* This is not to undermine the Church’s teaching on the universal call to holiness or to obscure the many contributions that laypeople make to the life of the Church; it’s only an acknowledgement that consecrated life is a distinct vocation with its own particular nature and purpose.
** I do understand that many consecrated virgins today were consecrated when they were middle-aged or elderly, and I’m sympathetic to the fact that many older consecrated virgins are truly unable to make major changes in their lifestyle. However, I think we should consider these situations to be the exception, and not the rule. (I also think that this is one of the strongest arguments for encouraging—or at the very least, to cease actively discouraging—vocations to consecrated virginity among younger women.)