P.A. Chacko SJ
It is a welcome thing that you have decided to set apart your lives for the service of God’s people, for the service of humanity. Stay on, forge ahead, and live to the hilt. Above all, remember that yours is God’s call. That makes it a precious treasure!
Be mindful of what St Paul says in the second Corinthians: ‘We are only earthen jars to hold this treasure.’ Paul goes on to remind us that ‘God’s overwhelming power comes from God’ to preserve this treasure and protect our lives. We all, nuns or priests, have to remind ourselves constantly that we are earthen jars, shaped by the potter (Jer. 18:6). We are clay and we are human.
Being human, this clay is brittle. God’s power is there to help us, keep up its shape. But, our cooperation is needed for God to make it happen. Let us not think that we are superhuman in handling our vocation or in exercising our responsibilities.
Being brittle, we can experience that ‘thorn in the flesh’ which St Paul himself experienced all through his converted life. He accepted to live with it but was never its slave. It was Paul’s down-to-earth humility that made him confess it not to a priest but to the whole world.
If we are humble enough, we will admit that each of us has that ‘thorn in the flesh.’ A rolling stone gathers no moss. But the stone has to roll, rub and dash against pebbles and rocks constantly.
Then it turns into a shining stone.
In a very memorable retreat, the saintly preacher reminded the retreatants one important thing in life. ‘The taller the building, the greater the shadow! As a novice, you will have your temptations or battles.’ Being a Frenchman, his pronunciation of battle sounded like ‘bottle.’ Then he went on. ‘As you proceed with greater responsibilities or positions of importance, your battles will increase. As Father Provincial or Mother Superior, you will have still greater battles.’
This shadow or battle, which the preacher alluded to, is very true with us all in our consecrated or clerical life. Let us not pretend that we are insulated from human temptations or brittle moments. Jesus Christ was human at His best when He cried with loud wails in Gethsemany seeing ahead the betrayal and the cross. Even as He experienced that ‘thorn in the flesh’ with excruciating agony, He surrendered to the Father’s will.
For us priests and nuns the ‘thorn in the flesh’ can be experienced in various ways. They can be feelings of sexual emotions, or pride of holding an important or prestigious post, or ambition to become Provincial or Bishop or General. It can be just a jealousy of seeing another nun doing better. Can you imagine that, in a cloistered convent, a nun pours water in a prepared thurible because she was jealous of the sacristan sister’s meticulous service?’ It is a true story. Jealousy was that sister’s thorn in the flesh. Such an instance may be an extreme case. But the thorns are there. They prick us, they poke us, they provoke us, they stimulate us, and they arouse us even as we live with our shadows.
Some psychologists point out this ‘spouse of Jesus’ trend among many nuns is an anomalous and misplaced factor. Imagine the Lord of the universe, the son of Almighty God is taken to mean to be the groom of a nun. They also point out that such allusions can conjure up in people’s mind weird feelings as if one is replacing a groom in normal life with Jesus as the groom, spiritual lover and what not. Imaginations can run riot in our clay phenomenon. When battles and ‘bottles’ get enlarged, one can even yield to temptations of the lengthening shadow factor by looking for substitutes for ‘Jesus the groom.’ That is where we can build up ‘extraterritorial’ loyalties, even frequenting a bishop’s or a priest’s room at the least provocation and the like.
Coming to the seemingly provocations from bishops or priests, use your head and your discretion before you yield to emotional vibrations. But, being an adult, you yield to some provocations and allow yourselves being used on a number of occasions, while enjoying some extra favours; you keep things hidden even from your superiors or colleagues. Then, as matters lead to a crescendo and you cannot handle it, you cry foul as a victim of exploitation; normal people will think twice before they give a thought to your woeful wailings of victimization. They may even say you stew in your own doing.
Remember sisters, Bishops, priests, deacons or seminary candidates, they are all human with clay feet just as other human beings. Just as you, they also go through rigorous training, discipline, counselling, mediation, bible study etc. In spite of that, in their clay pot phenomenon they can get damaged or sullied. They also may have occasions of wailing phenomenon. Their feeling of loneliness can crush them. Their sense of beauty can arouse in them feelings of appreciation. The sculptor in them can help conjure up imaginations of human figures inartistic forms. Sometimes, people get bowled out. Or they can appreciate the face of smiling child or feel the pain of a crying child in starvation or the agony of a bereaved family. There is nothing wrong in such feelings as long as they do not provoke people for illegal operations or do not violence to the rights of others. One is sure, you too, as human beings, go through such emotions, feelings or vibrations.
If you think some clergymen do not come up to your sensible expiations, keep a distance. Why go alone to a person’s room with a flower on his birthday when you are living with other sisters? Why cry foul when you may have provoked people even by your silence but cooperative presence? Why don’t you have the nerve to be honest with your own superiors when you think people are using you? Why not have the courage to expose them at the earliest?
Do not think provocations can come only from men outside. There can be hidden dangers or temptations in the niches of convents. Being human or being discreet, superiors can be strict and demanding. You want all the freedom you seek just because you happen to be the boss of a prestigious institution. If you happen to have your own rule book as regards religious poverty and obedience and play hide and seek with superiors and everyone else, who is to blame? You don’t pay attention to the shadow growing longer and larger just as you rise in your authority or position. There may come a crashing moment or the burst of the balloon!
There are umpteen examples of such happenings because people have not been honest with themselves, or courageous enough to make proper representations before matters fester or take proper corrections. Very often, people reach a blind alley because their prayer life was given a long holiday. Once a very ‘successful’ priest boasted that for four years he did not attend any annual retreat. He said it as a plus point. Then, by some quirk of circumstances, he attended a charismatic retreat. That did the trick. He became a fervent charismatic preacher and forgot all about his earlier ‘successful’ ministry.
Priests or nuns, we are humans. I repeat. Even with our spirituality, caution, prudence, discretion and transparency in our dealings are essential assets! ‘The taller the building, the bigger the shadow!’