Sunday, 4 October 2015

Chastity and passion- the connection

Some notes taken during a talk by Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP with some additional thoughts added. The conference talk was part of a weekend on the study of religious life in this the celebratory year of consecrated life. It speaks about the place of passion in religious community but the reflections can be applied to all relationships.

Intimacy and celibacy are areas of life experience that have been shrouded in silence and rarely see the light of day. That is unfortunate because as Thomas Merton reminds us, it is important to let God live in us and that we be fully alive. Flourishing people need intimacy, it is a sign of the kingdom of God that men and women who follow the Gospel are fully alive and in love with life. A vowed person who has no love in them has made a corpse of the vow of chastity perhaps burying themselves in a coffin of fear, choosing death rather than life. That makes chastity a sad escape from the body and from the reality of our human condition.

In the past we have tried to explain chastity as emphasizing the universal love of God for all and the vow does liberate us to some extent to express such love in a wide and generous way. But it might also lead us to love all people in general but no one in particular which is a rather poor expression of the love of God. In fact God’s love is both universal and particular and so our vow of chastity must embrace the universal and particular otherwise we risk becoming what one person termed “consecrated refrigerators” clean and pure on the outside but inside as cold as ice. The authentic experience of God’s love is to experience one who cannot take his eyes off you. It is a wide and passionate love that yearns for the flourishing of others. It is a love that is for my comforting and it is boundless. For that reason there is no stranger for Christians because we are all conceived in the love of God. All vocations point to that mystery of love in differing ways and that mystery stretches our hearts towards universality. (A phrase of Thomas Aquinas)

Chastity is rooted in the love of God but it must not try to escape the particular or the challenge to become expansive and stretch one's heart out to others in love, in mercy and in compassion. Religious need to  be faithful to the complementarity of love and not simply be dispensers of  a smug charity. They need to welcome those who come to them through their mission and learn to be friends and sometimes to be passionate. One of St Dominic’s successors, writing to a friend used the following phrase; “am I not yours? Why are you anguished? You are deeply engraved on my heart and I am incapable of forgetting you” (13th century).  Such phrasing is not expressing the language of a cool calculating love but rather a passionate, vulnerable friendship that is not without some risk of misinterpretation. But such love is both authentic and also a truer reflection of the passionate love of God for people as it is expressed in the Gospel.
Similarly Catherine of Sienna is obviously at ease with expressing her affection for her friends and to name her relationships as loving. Without this ability to express genuine warmth, appreciation and at times passion for others our religious houses cannot be places where others feel wholly at home and welcome. Without such passion our houses cannot be homes for our community members because they will seek their sense of belonging elsewhere and religious houses will become hotels. Passion has to be the driving force of our journey to God and that is ultimately al that we have to share on our mission to others. Such passion requires formation if it is to integrate into a community and shared mission to others. There is a danger that such passion is seen as a problem to be removed from religious life rather than as the energy that drives religious life. It needs integration and not elimination. It needs to be brought out from secrecy to flourish in the light of day in community. Rules in this area are still rather thin since the general understanding has been that “special relationships” are dangerous and diminishing of vowed commitment. The general rule seems to have been “thou shalt not”. In that atmosphere the guidelines and boundaries that need to be explored never emerge because these relationships somehow live only in the shadow of community life and are spoken of rarely even when they are recognised. There is work to be done in building the trust and understanding in communities so that the energy and depth that such relationships bring can open up the community in their ability to make a home that welcome all the life experienced by community members.

Communities exist on a spectrum between being a working institution and being a close-knit family. The community can live at neither of these extremes. A community can never be a biological family with all the history and nurture that entails. Neither can a community be just an institution and live functional roles because without affection and sometimes passion it cannot witness to the Gospel. Too many communities in the past have grown into a functional model as numbers have grown and in the process they have developed superficial relationships and abandoned the warmth and the passion that attracts new members.

Pedro Arupe asked people to fall in love and stay in love. That is the language of risk, a language that is not popular in our health and safety culture. Sometimes it is difficult to know what religious are passionate about, are they prepared to take any risks at all? The Woolworth’s stores that closed almost overnight some years ago foundered because they had become risk-averse. They stopped growing and changing. They were overcome by a control culture that became closed to life and therefore closed to God. Gerrard Vann put it succinctly, choose safety or choose life. One of the effects of prayer is to help us to surrender to the spirit and to let go of control. It leads to a recognition that I am not the centre of my life. The art of living chastely is to lose control elegantly and fruitfully and in a way that does not wreak havoc with others’ lives or with our core commitment.

I am called to love as the person that I am and not some perfect angelic being. Fulfilling desire is ultimately about wanting to be who I am in relation to God and to others. Therefore I can only love a person who loves me as I am, with all my commitments and vows. In that sense love reveals reality to desire it shapes it and focuses it towards a plan of love that leads to God. Infatuation on the other hand divinises desire and turns it into lust.  Such desire treats others as objects for gratification and values others only for their usefulness. Contemplative presence, forged in prayer, helps us to love and be present to others and be with them in their world. Such incarnational presence to one another takes us close to the heart of God who is ever present.

The aim of all life journeys is maturity- the glory of God is man and woman fully alive. It is the life project of all Christians to attain affective maturity. That means allowing people to see me as I am and take away the fig leaves of superficial identity which, like Adam and Eve, I hide behind. The journey is into boundless love but the journey does have boundaries. Those boundaries arise out of who I am as child of God. Being faithful to that truth creates appropriate boundaries in the mature religious because the face of God can be seen in the face of others. I cannot use them as objects but as brothers and sisters who in their spiritual dna are spiral bound into the life of God. Recognising the goodness and beauty of others is a vital part of the gift of life that helps us all to claim our identity as children loved by God. But there will be sparks! Passions can overflow and boundaries can be crossed. But the answer is not to say “thou shalt not” but to learn in one’s own heart and in one's body body where those boundaries lie. That learning can only happen through open and honest communication between those involved and an appropriate openness with someone in the community. Secrecy will limit the learning and split a religious into two people with one face for the community and another for friends. That woundedness will do little good for anyone.