Our readers seemed to enjoy the recent post wherein I commented upon the nature of vocation as it relates or fails to relate to the religious life. The book on which I based most of my thought, Fr. Richard Butler O.P.’s Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery, has other interesting, more general digressions about the spiritual life that are worth sharing. For instance, he notes how important a healthy psychology is for the proper living out of the religious counsels:
Even St. Thomas’ stand in favor of admitting habitual sinners, converts and children to the religious state must be qualified in order to be understood. He is speaking abstractly, not in reference to particular people, and ideally, without reference to prohibitive conditions. He presumes in the former sinner a will fixed sufficiently to break bad habits of the past. In the convert he is speaking of one embracing Christianity as a unified faith, without the need for the kind of re-education and re-orientation required in the contemporary convert from Protestant faith, tradition, environment and psychological orientation. In the child, he is anticipating a normal development to a well-balanced maturity. (116)
The need for a more complete understanding of conversion, especially from quasi-Christian sects, is something I’ve written about before. The same warnings about needing to thoroughly deprogram the convert from his former way of life before being considered for the monastery, should apply also to candidates for the priesthood.
Butler continues about the difficulty of finding mentally healthy people in our artificial age:
Social and personal conditions of human life are far different today than they were in the Middle Ages. Most obvious is the difficulty of achieving a normal personality in a social environment which is so removed from natural principles and so corruptive to the practice of faith. The force of faith has been diminished by the spirit of compromise and the ascendency of emotional attitudes over reasoned convictions…. Opposed to the supernatural values of poverty, virginity and obedience in religious life, are the modern tendencies towards material acquisitions, sexual promiscuity, and the revolt against authority. This is the Age of Selfishness. Artificiality of custom and pettiness of concern cramp the natural generosity of youth. (117)
He also notes that a healthy sense of humor is essential for living in a religious community, not to mention life in general:
Montalembert, in the introduction to his Monks of the West, gives three classic traits which indicate a healthy religious personality: simplicity, benignity, and a sense of humor….
Humor is based on man’s reasoned perception of incongruities. A lack of a sense of humor indicates a defect of the practical reason, symptomatic of nearly every form of derangement. Because of the religious man’s recognition, naturally speaking, of the implicit incongruity of man’s ascent to God, he must learn to laugh at his own nothingness before the august presence of God—He who is, while we are who are not. A sense of humor combats the thousand petty afflictions of a confined community life in the religious state. (122-123)
Towards the end of the book, he muses on the ways in which improper beliefs about “calling” and “vocation” tend to attract the wrong kind of person to the religious life:
Even in more scholarly presentations of the subject, the religious state is seldom seen in the context of theology, in the whole economy of salvation. There is always an unmistakable emphasis on exclusiveness, on something “special” and “extra.” Little wonder that the average generous soul cringes in abject retreat, before such august presumptions. As a result, religious institutes often attract the imprudent and the truly “special” fringe characters who are easily drawn to the esoteric. If we are not getting more sound, rounded, wholesome types as candidates but more odd, narrow, unbalanced postulants, then obviously our approach to the Christian faithful is somehow distorted and misleading. (153)
Fr. Butler’s book is worth reading in its brief entirety. From the time of his religious profession in 1943 until his death in 1988, Butler received multiple academic degrees, was ordained a priest, served in various campus ministry roles, served as the Vatican’s Secretariat for Unbelievers, and published six books. It’s a pity that none of his other works appear to be in print, and that TAN no longer has Religious Vocation in stock.