27 September 2011

An Open Letter to Consecrated Virgins on Sacred Secularity

The posts I put up on the significance of the secularity of Consecrated virginity for women in the world (C 604) have evoked some interesting correspondence. In one exchange a Consecrated Virgin from India (I will be happy to include her name if she gives permission) made two points in the main: 1) secularity is not part of the Charism of the CV under Canon 604 because the reference to "in the world" in the Rite was merely an "add-on"; the original vocation was not secular in any sense, and 2) in her own country the emphasis on the secularity of this vocation has resulted in the destruction of the vocation's actual charism. Consecrated virgins in India find themselves regarded as having second rate vocations at best and essentially unrecognized or slighted while Religious were given preference for positions like EEM, etc. In celebrations of the day devoted to Consecrated Life, CV's were not included. Thus, this CV posited that the solution to the problem was ignoring the secularity of the vocation and emphasizing its nature as consecrated.

Since I think her her problem is not completely unique, and since I find her solution really exacerbates the problem, I want to post an open letter to all CV's (edited here and originally sent to this individual), but especially to those Consecrated Virgins who feel sympathetic to the solution she suggests. In this letter I address the second point above. I will post my response to the first point separately.

Poignantly, she writes: [[ I come from a real life context where the focus on secularity has caused a rupture from the original charism. A context where consecrated virginity is treated as the vocation to be a pious single lay woman subordinate to clergy and religious and called to be hidden leaven in the world. A temporarily professed religious is given preference over a consecrated virgin when there is need of a Eucharistic minister. Consecrated virgins are not called for Church celebrations of the Day of Consecrated life on February 2.The focus on secularity is killing the charism. Ignoring the secularity which comes by default seems more helpful in living the original charism of this recently rediscovered vocation in the church.]]

Identifying the Problem, Finding the Real Solution

Dear [Consecrated Virgin],
I sympathize with your situation but I think you have misdiagnosed the problem and have the solution backwards. The only way to get people to honestly regard your (plural) vocation is to cease pretending to be something you (consecrated virgins generally) are not, namely quasi-religious whose relationship to the world is less than integral, and to live out a call to sacred secularity as radically as you (plural) can. Of course, and very unfortunately, a church which does not adequately regard secularity will treat Religious with greater regard. This is a long established bit of ecclesiastical dysfunction rooted in a distorted theology of secularity which must be combatted. Further, you come from a country where priests in some Rites are associated with a particular caste, and where people are still dismissed or esteemed on the basis of castes. I think this makes dealing appropriately with the class-ism of the church much more difficult. Neither your local ecclesiastical nor your cultural situation (both of which involve a denigration of groups of people, which, in one case, is Seculars or non-Religious) is resolved by denying the dignity and importance of secularity.

For you are a consecrated virgin sent as an apostle proclaiming the gospel which says there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. It is not acceptable in light of this to treat any form of consecrated life as better or lesser than any other. For that matter it is not acceptable to treat any divine vocation as greater or lesser than another. While I think you both know and agree with these assertions, what I think you have missed seeing is that if you ignore or treat secularity as secondary or merely an "add-on" indicating simply that you do not live in a monastery, you will actually be supporting the very problem you decry. Yes, you must fight to be understood as consecrated women, but you cannot and must not do this by denigrating (even subtly or implicitly) lay or secular vocations in the process. To emphasize one's consecrated state at the expense of secularity or the laity (which is what I hear your statements doing -- though inadvertently, I am sure) is as illegitimate theologically and pastorally as what is being done to consecrated virgins in your country. In the end you are actually denying the truth and effectiveness of your own consecration. It is somewhat analogous to denying one's femininity while asserting (or trying to assert) one's humanity because men are esteemed where women are not. In doing this one ends up actually denigrating what is the essence of one's own humanity, one's womanliness, and becomes a parody of what one is made and called to be. In essence, in fighting for the regard which is rightfully yours as consecrated women in the Church, you have joined the "enemy" (i.e., a worldly mindset which judges worth based on classes, etc) and denigrated the laity and secularity in the process. This, as I am sure you well know, is emphatically NOT what Vatican II intended.

Neither is it the solution to your predicament, for I believe you have lost sight of (or chosen to ignore) precisely the element which allows your vocation to make profound and challenging sense in today's Church and which would be a key to resolving this predicament for so many others --- not least those who find themselves resenting that they are "only" called to be lay persons (called to the extraordinary dignity and challenge of baptismal consecration) and/or those whose main arena of activity is the saeculum. This is one of the places the power of paradox becomes so very evident --- along with so much of Christian theology which stresses the subversion of the status quo and dominant paradigms by self-emptying, losing one's life, the perfection of power in weakness, a foolishness which is far wiser than the wisdom of men, becoming a fool for Christ, etc. In every way, Christianity is countercultural and those who wish to serve as icons of the body of Christ need themselves to truly be countercultural in the same way.

Implications for Consecrated Virgins Living in the World

What this means for Consecrated virgins is the assertion, not the denial of their secularity. When I say this I don't mean one should downplay one's consecration but rather assert it precisely IN its secularity. The two are NOT opposed any more than Jesus' divinity is opposed to his humanity or his Mother's consecration by God requires she retire from or denigrate the world in which she works out her motherhood. (Do we really think Mary was not an essentially contemplative and completely involved presence in her world? Do we not hear when she is given as a Mother to all of us that she is a Mother in and to the world? Even while she is a model to Religious, is she not also, and perhaps more poignantly, a model to Seculars?? Would she have been offended if told her vocation was to one of sacred secularity?) I don't think so, but the point is that these two things (consecration and secularity) do not conflict because the world is essentially good and holy, and because it is meant to be Sacrament of God's presence. Undoubtedly it takes workers within it to help recover its wholeness and holiness in God and bring it to fulfillment; it takes workers within it who truly believe that heaven and earth are called to interpenetrate one another and that God is meant to be all in all. This is the vision of reality which underlay Vatican II's insight and insistence on a universal call to holiness --- a vision which does not allow us to denigrate, even implicitly, ANY vocation by treating others as superior.

The consecrated virgin living in the world must be committed to the subversion of any other notion of heaven and earth, reality essentially divided into sacred and profane, etc. Instead she must embrace a Sacramental view. She must also, I think, be committed to the subversion of schema of the world which sees some vocations as higher than others, some as "only" that of a devout layperson, some vocations (assuming they are lived well!) as more closely following Christ than others, some as secular when that means opposed to the sacred. (It is one thing to say that one practices a poverty or chastity that is more literally like that practiced by Christ and another thing entirely to say that one vocation follows Christ more closely (is more an instance of discipleship) per se. The first describes the way one expresses one's discipleship, the second refers to discipleship itself.) There is absolutely no reason to necessarily see Religious as better disciples of Christ than those living in and committed to the world (seculars), and consecrated virgins living in the world are meant to help the Church and world realize (come to know and make this real) as acutely and thoroughly (radically) as they can.

On Hierarchies and Anti-Hierarchies: "The first shall be last and the last shall be first."

One of the ironies of the Church, I think, is that she is hierarchical and actually prepares the way for a Kingdom which is anti-hierarchical. Too often, however, the hierarchical nature of the Church has been nothing more than an echo of the very worst class distinctions (and correlative denigrations) of the world. Your own local Church seems to do this by echoing the class structure of the surrounding society --- it continues to be a church which does not effectively value the lay vocation or even the consecrated vocation to a sacred secularity. (Unfortunately, your own offense at a temporarily professed Sister taking precedence over a consecrated virgin is also an instance of this, I think. It is interesting and disturbing to me that you would actually distinguish this religious as "temporary professed" for instance --- as though there would have been no (or at least less a) problem if she had been perpetually professed.) Vatican II was a step (a quantum leap in fact) away from the values of the world and towards those of the Kingdom of God. Consecrated virgins living in the world are called to implement this subversive vision in the most radical way possible ---- by reminding us all that the world is meant and called to be paradise, and that the Kingdom is NOT hierarchical as we so often see in a fallen world, but is instead the place of "the great reversal" where all of our worldly values (including hierarchy of every kind) will be turned on their heads. (I believe this is what Jesus was saying with, "the first shall be last" --- not that he was positing a new kind of hierarchy. Rather I think he was saying. "The kingdom will be unimaginable" --- for a world in which the last would be first was truly unimaginable.)

This is truly challenging even in a culture not structured on castes, but, I can see where it would be far more challenging for the CV living in such a culture itself. Still, Christ was a countercultural presence (and was despised by both the Romans, Greeks, and Jewish leaders because of it). He did not cave in to the values which surrounded him, but lived and died with integrity in the face of them ---- and redeemed them through that living, dying, and rising. Consecrated virgins are called to no less. Jesus did not retire to the desert for the whole of his life, but worked out his own vocation in the world in a way which did not leave the world unchanged. Consecrated virgins are called to no other, and, in their own way, no less.

A final Plea

I implore you (again, plural) then not to accent consecration to the exclusion or denigration of secularity. Embrace secularity as the means for your consecration to be truly meaningful. Make it clear to those whose values you decry that the universal call to holiness is both truly universal and a call to exhaustive holiness. Do not let your consecration as a virgin living in the world make second class (or less) the consecration to baptism which is the fundamental vocation grounding all others, nor (even implicitly) let it denigrate the saeculum which you are called to remind both Church and world is the Sacrament of God's Incarnational presence. Also, do not fear being a more or less hidden leaven. Let your consecration be evident in the graces of spiritual motherhood and spousal love revealed (realized) in the world. Let it be evident, that is, in its proper secularity. I promise you that if you do that, you will shine as brightly and be as extraordinary and as clearly set apart for God as anyone (and especially as God or his Church) could wish. Embrace the radical Christian vocation of Sacred secularity, not hierarchy or the Greek version of compromise, and the literal mediocrity of what is called the middle way.