Monday, May 25, 2020

Letter to a Newly Consecrated Virgin

Dear sister in Christ,

Maybe we know each other in real life, or maybe we’ve only “met” over the internet, or maybe you’ve just stumbled upon this blog. We may have corresponded over many years, or we may have just exchanged one or two emails, or perhaps you don’t know me at all. Whatever the case may be, if you are a newly-consecrated virgin, I first of all send my warm and heartfelt congratulations. I hope your consecrated life brings you many years of joy and happiness, crowned with an eternal reward!

I know it’s usually presumptuous to offer unasked-for advice, but I remember when I was in your shoes—that is, newly consecrated and happy about it, but still trying to “find my feet” in a new vocation—and I think it would have helped me to have had some more honest insights about the lived reality of life as a consecrated virgin. My own thoughts at this point may or may not resonate with you, but after living more than a decade of consecrated life myself, hopefully I’ll still have something helpful to share.

And so here are some of the things I wish an “older sister” would have said to me all those years ago:

1. This is just the beginning of a new life.

Your consecration may have in some ways felt like a culmination, or like a conclusion of some sort, but it wasn’t; it was only the very beginning of a new life. This might be a bit more readily obvious to those of us who were consecrated in our twenties or thirties (though even for us younger ones, there still might have been a sense of “finally, I’m done discerning my vocation!”). But I think this is true for newly-consecrated virgins of all ages.

Consecrated virginity is unique among forms of consecrated life in that presumes that we have already been living an exceptionally chaste life for a number of years. Or really, it presumes that our entire lives have been virtuous in this way. Yet our consecration isn’t meant as a reward-like recognition or acknowledgment of this. Rather, as the Rite of Consecration tells us, it’s a call to continue living this life of virtue “with a new grace and [consecrated] to God by a new title.” In our consecration, the natural virtue of chastity, which even the classical pagans valued, takes on a new supernatural dimension as an eschatological sign of Christ’s love for the Church. And in addition to the universal call to holiness we received at baptism, in our consecration we are embracing a new, special, and privileged call to be a bride of Christ in a radical and more literal way.

Of course your consecration day itself will always be important in your memory. But I think you’ll find that if you live your vocation well, over the years the emotional and spiritual weight of the day will start to feel very secondary to the many years of fidelity you will have offered the Lord. In fact, I think there may be even greater joy in perseverance. Each passing year of your consecrated life becomes a self-gift you offer to your divine Spouse, a gift which is just as precious as that first self-offering you made on your consecration day.

2. Your life is different now.

Even if prior to consecration you were sincerely striving to “live the life of a consecrated virgin,” and even if your exterior life looks the same, the fact of the matter is that your life is different now. And so are you!

This isn’t talked about as much as it probably should be, and my impression is that many newly-consecrated virgins often feel a bit unsettled post-consecration without really knowing why. But I think this is due to the “growing pains” involve in adjusting to a new identity. It takes time to adjust to a new identity, but I believe that in most cases this struggle is normal and healthy. I actually think I would be more worried about a new consecrated virgin who didn’t struggle at all with this, because it would make me wonder if she was fully processing what had happened to her spiritually or if she was fully grasping the weight of what she had committed to.

On an interior level, among other things, you may find yourself being drawn to a greater spirit of simplicity or evangelical poverty—that is, a more profound detachment from worldly things. This is really a great grace!

Don’t resist this grace, even if it might conflict with your idea of what life as a consecrated virgin is supposed to be like. Maybe let go of some ideas, such as the thought that you’ll be something like “a normal woman living in the world like anybody else.”  Naturally, you probably will blend in a little better than a nun or fully habited Sister would, and the hope is that people will see you as approachable. But the consecration will make you different from laywomen, as well making you a bit weird from a worldly perspective. But let your “weirdness” unfold naturally according to the inspirations and providential circumstances the Lord sends you, so that this weirdness can serve His purposes.

There will also be some practical adjustments involved in assuming your new vocation, which may seem subtle from an outside point of view, but which will still require some careful discernment on your part. You are a public representative of the Church now, and we can rightly say you are now an icon of the Church, or an “image of the Church as Bride” (i.e., an “Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago”). To a significant extent, everything you now do should be an expression of what the Church would do. E.g., when you are kind and fair, even in the small interactions of daily life, this is a reflection of the Church as loving and just. Our sins are of course our own and nobody else’s, but the other side of this coin is that our lack of kindness, patience, courage, or any other virtue has the potential to reflect badly on the Church in the eyes of others. And in general, when you have entered a public state of consecrated life, the faithful will expect more of you…as they are indeed fully entitled to do.

Because of this, it may be necessary to re-evaluate certain aspects of your life. For example, you may find you need to be more reserved in some ways, or more selective about whom you let into your circle of close personal friends. There might be some social invitations that, while not sinful, you will need to gracefully turn down. Or on the other hand, you might also find you need to be more friendly or even “pastoral” to people you otherwise wouldn’t have talked to! You may even discern it’s necessary to start dressing or introducing yourself differently.

It can be a bit daunting at first, but be patient with yourself as you do this hard work of discernment. (And obviously keep in conversation with your bishop, spiritual director, and trusted mentors as you do this!)

3. Know that you’re still being formed.

At this point in history, it can more or less be taken for granted that a newly-consecrated virgin today (at least in the United States) will not have had a perfect formation experience. This makes sense when you consider how relatively recently the Ordo virginum was revived as its own distinct state in life.  Even in a best-case scenario, with an attentive bishop motivated to provide a decent structured formation program, as a contemporary Church we simply don’t have enough collective lived experience to provide formation that is perfectly comprehensive for all aspiring consecrated virgins everywhere. That is, it’s likely going to take us a while longer to figure out exactly what the specific formation needs of consecrated virgins are, along with the best practical ways to address these needs. (Though as a point of reference, consider that it wasn’t until the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century that the Church adopted the first versions of our modern seminary system for the formation of priests!)

Although this does put us at an obvious disadvantage, I think much of the disadvantage of having had a less-than-perfect formation experience can be mitigated by simply being aware of and accepting the reality of the situation. Being aware of our areas for potential or needed growth can help us take care to make up for what is lacking, and “knowing what you don’t know” is crucial for avoiding mistakes that our possible blind spots may cause.

Also keep in mind that the Holy Spirit is the best of all formators, and He will help us in the ways we need, but only if we are truly docile and open to Him.

And alluding to my earlier point, receiving the concretion itself is a highly formative event. No amount of prior study can compare to the experience of actually being consecrated. So even if you were blessed enough to have had an excellent formation program, know that post-consecration you are still being formed by both your lived experience of consecrated life and by the graces you received in your consecration. God willing, each passing year as a consecrated virgin will make you an ever more fitting spouse of Christ.

4. You’ll have share in the cross in a new way.

The Church describes even natural human marriage as “a partnership of the whole of life.” (CIC canon 1055 §1) Spouses are called to share everything, including all their joys and sorrows. This is true also for those of us who have Christ as our spouse. In a mysterious way that words can’t quite describe, your consecration will give you a new and more intimate window into Christ’s suffering and passion.

This is not just pious sentiment. In my own experience and having talked with numerous consecrated virgins over the years, it seems to be quite common that new consecrated virgins will encounter some sort of new and extraordinary—and at times even uncanny—suffering shortly following their consecration. This might be the result of exterior life circumstances, a purely interior spiritual trial, or some combination of these.

Of course, suffering by definition is never pleasant, and I certainly wouldn’t wish it on anyone, much less my sisters in the Ordo virginum. But if there is a consolation in this, to me when a newly consecrated virgin does encounter some sort of unexpected trial, paradoxically I’m inclined to see this as a positive sign in her vocation. That is, it can be a sign that her consecration really “worked,” and that Jesus took her at her word when she said “yes” to His call to a life of greater union with Him.

The old saying that God can never be outdone in generosity is certainly true. And for the sake of a healthy spirituality in consecrated life it’s important to remember that while God at times permits suffering for a greater good, He does not actively desire us to be in pain—and in fact, it’s God’s will to bring us to a place where “He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain.” (Revelation 21:4)

But for those of us who have committed to remaining with Jesus “wherever He goes,” (cf. Revelation 14:4) we can look on it as a privilege when He invites us to remain with Him so personally in His darkest but most triumphant hour.

5. Your happiness, even in this life, will depend on your generosity.

Finally, perhaps the most important thing to understand about living out a vocation to consecrated virginity is that there really are no half-measures. A consecrated virgin either gives the Lord absolutely everything, thereby receiving everything (and more!) from Him in return; or else her life becomes empty, silly, and fruitless.

I think this point is worth spelling out, because a common misconception among women first discerning this vocation is that consecrated virginity is sort of a way to have one’s cake and eat it, too—as in, a way to nominally “give everything to God” while still maintaining all of one’s worldly interests and activities as usual, or as a way to receive the graces and honors of consecrated life in the Church without having to make the often painful sacrifices inherent in joining a religious community.

This fundamental misunderstanding of our vocation is insidious because it contains a small grain of truth. For example, consecrated virgins generally don’t have a moment equivalent to crossing the threshold of an enclosure like a postulant in a cloistered monastery does, nor do consecrated virgins typically make a point to limit contact with family and friends or restrict their communication with “the world.”

Yet readily apparent or not, consecrated virginity still demands a radical shift in perspective and attitude from “worldly” orientation to one deeply informed by the Evangelical counsels. This is not just something the Church specifically asks of us—although she does (see ESI 27)—but it’s something built into the very nature of our commitment.

Marriage natural parenthood are so deeply inscribed in the human heart that the act of altogether renouncing these things leaves a void. The idea in consecrated virginity, or even consecrated celibacy in general, is that we allow Christ to superabundantly fill this void. But the catch is that He can only do this is He is the only one we allow to fulfill us in this way.

If we try to fill the void with other human things, even other intrinsically good human things, inevitably such things will come to be seen and understood as trivial in the at least the big picture. Devoting ourselves to things other than Jesus Christ and His body, the Church is what will leave us a the sad and gloomy old maids that Pope Francis warns against (cf. his May 8, 2013 address to Superiors General) instead of the radiant brides of Christ and spiritual mothers that we are called to be.

Obviously, as a newly-consecrated virgin you are far past the question of discerning your state in life, and thus beyond the concerns and misperceptions of those who are first inquiring. But sometimes, in the midst of the fatigue that can come about in the day-to-day life of a consecrated person, it can be easy to forget about the joy of a total self-gift. When God seems silent or the Church seems unsupportive, it can be tempting to grasp at consolation wherever we can find it, even in the passing things of this world. But we need to remember, as the Prophet Isaiah wrote: “Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2)

In all circumstances of life, including the challenging ones, the surest way to happiness is to turn your heart ever more intently towards your Divine Spouse.

Our holy sister St. Agnes was said to have gone to her martyrdom more joyfully than most people go to their weddings. If we imitate the single-hearted intensity with which St. Agnes gave herself to the Lord, I am certain that we will also share in her deep and astonishing joy.

With love, in Christ,