|8 Tips for choosing a Community
How often do they speak of God?
It is a good sign that religious speak often of God; for this indicates that their hearts are occupied with the very reason for their vocation. When Saint Teresa of the Andes was discerning her vocation, this is one reason why she preferred the convent in the Andes over a different convent; "I noticed that the Sister at the turn asked me about all kinds of worldly things that I didn't like...On the other hand, at Los Andes, we spoke only about God and just mentioned a few people to recommend them to God in our prayers...Their presence and conversation has deepened my recollection and brought me great peace." Saint Alphonsus tells us that the mere "good examples of her saintly companions" will help raise the religious to the heights of sanctity and "remind her continually of the transgressions into which she has fallen". Indeed, religious are meant to be set apart from the world; they are called to become saintly, not simply seculars living under the same roof who recite prayers together. Saint Bernard says that "a worldly spirit under the garb of the habit, is an apostasy of heart." As Saint Faustina once mentioned; "I tremble to think that I have to give an account of my tongue. There is life, but there is also death in the tongue." Indeed, just as edifying words can help sanctify one's companions in a community, so too can their bad example lead one another to ruin. Thus, it is a false to think that one can reform a community from the inside. As Pope John Paul II once said; "you end up resembling the company you keep". Why then, should we not seek out a community that will support and encourage each other through speech, prayer, and sacrifice? Is this not a prime advantage of community life?
: "[Religious] must not speak of things of the world; such as marriages, feasts, comedies, or of splendid dresses: they must not speak of eating, nor praise or censure the dishes that are brought to table... When religious hear unseemly discourses, they should, like St. Aloysius, propose some useful question, or take occasion from what is said to introduce some pious subject of conversation."
" I acknowledge having reached a very great desire to deal with people who have made progress on the path to perfection. I love them very much because it seems to me that they assist me greatly in loving God. [...] It gives me great pain to deal with others, except those people with whom one speaks of God and of the preciousness of the soul. This is why I love solitude so much."
: "The sisters should pay no attention to the affairs of the world, nor should they speak about them." We note here section 2d of the Vatican II document Perfectae Caritatis, which states; "Institutes should promote among their members an adequate knowledge of the social conditions of the times they live in and of the needs of the Church...to assist men more effectively." This directive of Vatican II suggests that while worldly conversation is discouraged, in these present times the Council desires religious to be more attune to the needs of the Church in the world.
: "Religious can expect to die more contented, assisted by their holy companions, who continually speak of God; who pray for them, and console and encourage them in their passage to eternity..."
"Never lower your voice in crying out to me to be merciful to the world....and with a restless heart, bewail the death of this child, humanity, whom you see reduced to such misery that your tongue could not tell it... This is what I require of my servants and this will be a sign to me that you love me in truth."
Does the spirit of love and joy reign among them? In 1938, Our Lord lamented to Saint Faustina over the fact that "Love has been banished from communities...I called convents into being to sanctify the world through them. It is from them that a powerful flame of love and sacrifice should burst forth". Our Lord desires such a deep passionate love from the heart of every religious, that they become like angels, completely divested of self and living only for others. The saints tell us that there is no one more worthy of the greatest graces and consolations than a good religious who daily makes sacrifices out of love for the salvation of souls (for in this way, we please God the most). Indeed, religious should be the happiest people on earth, because they are the spouses of God and co-redeemers of the world. Though they may weep for their sins and do penance for sinners, nonetheless, peace abides in their hearts. Though they may at times suffer in their bodies as well as in their spirit, they also are rewarded with consolation upon consolation; the "purest bliss". The greatest desire of the saints throughout history has always been; "To love and to suffer". Indeed, joy, when combined with austerity, becomes a powerful sign of sanctity. Saint Teresa of the Andes once described her sisters as angels clothed in human flesh, and admired their joy; "I love their simplicity and joy, as well as the familiarity that reigns among them." Saint Alphonsus De Ligouri says that religious address themselves as brother and sister "because they are such not by blood, but by charity, which should unite them in love more closely than all the ties of flesh and blood." Saint Teresa of Avila once said, referring to those discerning religious life; "As a rule, God gives them such contentment and joy, that the place seems a paradise to them." Does it seem like a paradise to us when we visit a community today? Do its members treat it in this regard, or have they fallen into the trap of habit and tepidity? In her book of the Foundations, Saint Teresa's nuns welcomed a new sister in this way; "all kept silence, and, lifting up their veils,
showed countenances cheerful and smiling." All kept silence--conveying their austerity and fidelity to the rule--yet all were cheerful and smiling. Furthermore, Saint Catherine of Sienna says that the holier one becomes, the less the faults of others disturb them. They are thus able to correct their brothers with true fraternal charity, concerned only for the good of their souls, rather than from a place of pride and judgment.
: "Find me, if you can...a soul more happy or content than a religious divested of every worldly affection, and intent only on pleasing God." [...] Regarding "melancholic" religious: By appearing sad and afflicted she dishonors religion, and gives all who behold her to understand that sanctity, instead of infusing peace and joy, fills the soul with sorrow and melancholy. But by a cheerful countenance she encourages others to the practice of piety."
: "The faults committed after profession by a good religious are expiated in this world by her daily exercises of piety, by her meditations, Communions, and mortifications. But if a religious should not make full atonement in this life for all her sins, her purgatory will not be of long duration. The many sacrifices of the Mass which are offered for her after death, and the prayers of the community, will soon release her from her suffering." We see then necessity of finding a community that will support and love one another in this way, especially through prayer. A soul that truly loves will continue to pray for her companions even after they have passed away, assisting their souls through a speedy purgatory and that much quicker to the throne of God, where they may in turn offer prayers for their community and the world. In this way, the Communion of Saint truly shines forth with such splendor in a faithful community.
"Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier. [...] The miracle is not that we do this work, but that we are happy to do it. [...] True holiness consists in doing God's will with a smile."
: "Once when I was suffering greatly, I left my work and escaped to Jesus and asked Him to give me His strength. After a very short prayer I returned to my work filled with enthusiasm and joy. Then, one of the sisters said to me, 'You must have many consolations today, Sister; you look so radiant. Surely, God is giving you no suffering, but only consolations.' 'You are greatly mistaken, Sister,' I answered, 'for it is precisely when I suffer much that my joy is greater; and when I suffer less, my joy also is less.'
"They are not scandalized by any grumbling on anyone's part...They are always peaceful and calm...In everything they find joy and the fragrance of the rose. This is true not only of good things; even when they see something that is clearly sinful, they do not pass judgment, but rather feel a holy and genuine compassion, praying for the sinner and saying with perfect humility, 'Today it is your turn; tomorrow it will be mine unless divine grace holds me up.' [...] They are never scandalized in those they love, nor in any person, because in this regard they are blind, and therefore they assume no right to be concerned with the intentions of other people, but only with discerning my merciful will."
Do they practice penance and mortification? Religious life, says Saint Francis De Sales, is a "school of mortification". When a young soul enter religious life, the words "I" and "me" should recede to one word only; love. For the soul no longer lives for itself, but for others. Indeed, everything that a religious does throughout the day, should be imbued with love - and as we know, the greatest proof of love is sacrifice. In her letters, Saint Teresa of the Andes writes; "How happy I feel when I can tell Him at the end of the day that I denied myself in everything." (That is to say; 'how happy I am when I can prove my love for Him'). And as Our Lord once told Saint Faustina, more souls are saved through sacrifice and suffering than through sermons and preaching. (In this way, missionary and teaching orders should also practice mortification, since words are only efficacious to the degree they are supported by prayer and sacrifice.) In addition to interior mortifications, corporal penances should also be observed. As the saints remind us, they are an important aid in the subjugation of the flesh, even though they are inferior to interior mortifications (see; Penance and Mortification) Among the corporal penances that one can practice, the Church considers fasting "chief", and gives it primacy of place above all other penances (see; Fasting and the Renewal of Religious Life). Therefore, fasting should be the preferred penance of choice for most, and should be practiced with regularity. It is reprehensible today that hardly any religious communities in the world--even the most orthodox ones--practice fasting with any degree of rigor (the traditional prescription of one day a week on bread and water is not too much to ask). Great attention should also be paid to what is served at table (see; Food Addiction in Religious Life). Restraint at table should be the norm, since the indulgence of the appetite, according to the saints, is a cancer of the spiritual life. It is also important to observe whether a community is balanced between love and mortification, realizing that human nature often tends toward one extreme or the other. Just as love without mortification is false love, so too is mortification without love also a counterfeit. It is thus that penance and mortification should be carried out with gladness--for what greater happiness is there than to please God and be useful to souls? Lastly, great importance will also be placed on the vow of obedience, as it is the principle means of practicing mortification in religious life. This includes things like promptness to the bell, as well as fulfilling commands (and even suggestions) of the superior. A holy community will not only be obedient in externals, but also posses the spirit of obedience, which will be manifest in what is said of the superior in his absence. Any sign of grumbling should be immediately suspect. As Our Lord told Saint Faustina; "Shun murmurers like a plague."
"Our human nature often asks for more than what it needs, and sometimes the devil helps so as to cause fear about the practice of penance and fasting...My health has been much better
since I have ceased to look after my ease and comforts."
"By prayer and mortification, we will make our way to the most uncivilized countries, paving the way for the missionaries. We will bear in mind that a soldier on the front line cannot hold out long without support from the rear forces that do not actually take part in the fighting but provide for all his needs. "
"For virtue can be proved only by its opposite. Sensuality is the opposite of the spirit, so it is through sensuality that the soul proves the love she has for me, her Creator. When does she prove it? When she mounts hatred and contempt against it."
How do they treat the sick, the infirm, and the difficult? Sometimes it will happen in community life that one person becomes a means of sanctification for the other members of the community. This may present itself in various forms, one of which may be a chronically sick member who requires continual attention, or perhaps one who may have many faults or be "rough around the edges". In such situations, the patience and charity with which they are treated will reveal much of the holiness of a community, leaving all judgment to God and the superior (and, in rare cases, when God clearly reveals, should they be corrected, realizing how quickly human nature sets itself up as judge rather than servant). As Saint Faustina once said; "In order to know whether the love of God flourishes in a convent, one must ask how they treat the sick, the disabled, and the infirm who are there." After giving a tour of his massive new publishing facility, Saint Maximilian Kolbe led his guests to the infirmary, where the sick are held, and told them; "Here is where the real work of God is carried out". Indeed, a good religious will see the sick as warriors on the front-lines, who protect the inner ranks from harms way. And even if, God forbid, a community has a troubled or prideful member who becomes a source of strife for the community (I say this as a concession, since such a situation should be diligently avoided by the superior), such members should be looked on with pity by his comrades, and considered as one sent by God to improve their patience, as Saint Catherine of Sienna confirms (see below);
"A soul who suffers with submission to the will of God draws down more blessings on the whole convent than all the working sisters. Poor indeed is a convent where there are no sick sisters. God often grants many and great graces out of regard for the souls who are suffering, and He withholds many punishments solely because of the suffering souls."
): "And if you should see something that is clearly a sin or fault [in your neighbor], snatch the rose from that thorn. In other words, offer these things to me in holy compassion. As for any assault against yourself, consider that my will permits it to prove virtue in you and in my other servants. And assume that the offender does such a thing as an instrument commissioned by me. [...] Even if your neighbor's sins are clearly shown to your spirit not just once or twice, but many times, you should still not confront them with specific sins. Rather, when they come to visit you, you should correct their bad habits in a general way and lovingly, and kindly plant the virtues, adding severity to your kindness when you must. And when it seems to you that I am often showing you some person's sins, unless you see that it is clearly a revelation, do not confront that person specifically, but rather keep to the more certain way and so avoid the devil's deceit and malice. For the devil would like to catch you with this inviting hook, often making you pass judgment on something that is not there in your neighbors, and so you would scandalize them. [...] And when you think you discern vice in another, put it on your own back as well as theirs, acting always with true humility. Then if the vice is truly there, such people will change their ways all the sooner, seeing themselves so gently understood. [...] ...so that the devil will not feed the root of presumption within your soul under the guise of charity for your neighbors...for often the devil would make you see too much of the truth in order to lead you into falsehood. He would do this to make you set yourself up as judge of other people's spirits and intentions, some of which, as I told you, I alone am judge. "
This reverence for suffering souls should also be reflected in the community's screening process, which should discriminate less on physical aptitude than on spiritual aptitude. Saint Teresa of Avila herself was very thorough in her screening process, so as not to allow a bad apple to "tarnish the luster of the community." (Note, however, that one need not be already perfected to enter religious life. The religious state itself is a state of perfection. And thus, as Fr. Adolphe Tanquerey reminds us in his treatise on the spiritual life, it is therefore "not necessary to have attained perfection before entering the religious life, but one enters it precisely to acquire perfection.")
How do they observe their rule and constitutions? The rule and constitutions should be the breadth of life in a community; it should govern and inspirit everything they do. According to the saints, the faithful observance of the rule and constitutions is another sign of a holy community. Saint Teresa of Avila once told her nuns that if they faithfully observed the constitutions, there would be no further evidence required for their canonization. This is yet another reason why Saint Teresa preferred one convent over the other, praising the nuns because they were "very observant of their Rule. The spirit of Saint Teresa is very evident among them." Saint Alphonsus tells us; "Yes, every religious who gives bad example by inattention
to the Rule does an injury to her own soul and to her fervent companions." The saint went on to say; "Generally speaking, all the irregularities that creep into convents are to be ascribed not so much to the young, as to
the advanced religious, who by their bad example lead the others to seek a relaxation of the rigor of the Rule." There is great truth to this statement. With age comes a greater temptation to complacency and cynicism, if one does not diligently lay the axe to the dead roots of self-will and vice. As the book of Revelation exhorts us to "return to your first fervor," so too must the religious repeat this prayer to himself daily.
: "On one occasion, Jesus gave me to know how pleasing to Him is the soul that faithfully keeps the rule. A soul will receive a greater reward for observing the rule than for penances and great mortifications. The latter will be rewarded also if they are undertaken over and above the rule, but they will not surpass the rule. [...] Although all the rules are important, I put this one in first place, and it is silence."
: "There are three degrees in the accomplishment of God's will: in the first, the soul carries out all rules and statutes pertaining to external observance; in the second degree, the soul accepts interior inspirations and carries them out faithfully; in the third degree, the soul, abandoned to the will of God, allows Him to dispose of it freely, and God does with it as He pleases, and it is a docile tool in His hands."
: "Let them beware, for the devil through very small things drills holes through which very large things enter. May it not happen that those who are to come say; 'These things are not important; don't go to extremes'. Oh, my daughters, everything that helps us advance is important!"
Is prayer given first place? Is work or conversation over-emphasized? One of the great temptations of community life is to become myopic in one's outlook, that is; to allow one's world to becomes very small, so that the one's thoughts become consumed by the pedantic details of daily life--of jobs that need to get done, of why this member was late, or why that member works so slowly, etc. This is a deadly tendency of our human nature, which plays itself out differently in male and female communities. In male communities, the tendency is to becomes Utilitarian in one's outlook (that is, merely functional, on "getting things done," where the value of a person is based on what he can do). Such communities may inadvertently dissuade their members from a spirit of prayer through an overemphasis on work. As Saint Faustina once said; "I must not let myself become absorbed in the whirlwind of work, [but] take a break to look up to heaven". This weakness does not exist so much in women as it does in men. Nonetheless, female communities may have their own unique struggles to contend with, such as a tendency toward mindless conversation which does not edify but instead robs its members of prayerful recollection (Saint Teresa of Avila noted this about her first community).
We must remind ourselves that the foundation of religious life is prayer; it is to turn one's life into a continual prayer, "to belong entirely to Jesus" (Mother Teresa). The work, the rule, the vows, the sacrifices, the fraternity; they are all merely a means to this one end. As Saint Teresa of the Andes says; "Our life is one continuous prayer, for, even though we have but two hours of prayer each day...and even though we have to work, we remain always one with Jesus." This is not to say, however, that work is unimportant. When it is time to work, we must work. But as Saint Alphonsus reminds us, it is prayer that fulfills the obligation of religious life, more than anything else; "To fulfil the obligations of her state, a religious should keep her soul continually united with God." Saint Teresa once gave similar advice to a group of novice masters; "stress the interior life more than exterior things, taking daily account of how the novices are progressing in prayer." Some questions one might ask are:
- Does the community rush through their prayers in order to get back to work?
- Do its members relax the rule for work, perhaps taking extra time to complete a task?
- Do its member talk for the sake of talking, over the value of silence and recollection?
- Is the Holy Mass treated with reverence, and as the summit of one's day?
- Do they linger in chapel to pray, or make regular visits throughout the day?
"Many people mistake the work for the vocation. The vocation is not the work. The vocation is to belong to Jesus."
"Their earnings must not come from work requiring careful attention to fine details, but from spinning and sewing or other unrefined labor that does not so occupy the mind as to keep it from the Lord."
"We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence... We need silence to be able to touch souls."
"The religious prays little, who prays only when she is on her knees in the choir or in the cell."
"The Church stands and falls with the Liturgy. For that reason, the true celebration of the Sacred Liturgy is the center of any renewal of the Church whatsoever"
"So often we should remember God as we draw breath."
Do they display holy modesty? Padre Pio once said that modesty is the greatest exterior sign of the interior state of a soul; "nothing more widely represents the good or bad qualities of a soul than the greater or lesser regulation of the exterior, as when one appears more or less modest." According to Saint Alphonsus, the exterior of a religious should reflect the interior sanctity to which his vocation calls him to; "In a secular, no one observes indecent words, because they are common in the world. But if religious who profess to aspire to sanctity be guilty of the smallest impropriety, universal attention is immediately directed to their conduct". Thus, he concludes, a religious must practice modesty "not only in looks, but also in one's whole deportment, and particularly in dress, talk, conversation, and all similar actions". Modesty is considered one of the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit, and is also one of the chief virtues practiced by the Blessed Virgin Mary. Saint Francis De Sales instructs us; "If you want to know whether a man is really wise, learned, generous or noble, see if his life is molded by humility, modesty and submission....those who cherish the angelic virtues of purity and modesty, will always speak simply, courteously, and modestly." Modesty may also manifest itself differently in men and women. For example, in men one may observe a calm strength, an anchor, rather than an effeminacy. And in women, one may observe a particular gentleness, meekness, or gracefulness. Such modesty is an important component to a good religious community, for it is the communication of one's exterior, perhaps even more than words, that can have the greatest effect on others. In other words, the modest countenance of a single member can thus edify and inspire the community to greater holiness. And conversely, an immodest countenance can have a discouraging effect, causing disquiet, laxity, and dissipation in the community.
: "The sanctity or the fall of each individual soul has an effect upon the whole Church. Observing myself and those who are close to me, I have come to understand how great an influence I have on other souls, not by any heroic deeds, as these are striking in themselves, but by small actions like a movement of the hand, a look, and many other things too numerous to mention, which have an effect on and reflect in the souls of others, as I myself have noticed. [...] One can speak a great deal without breaking silence and, on the contrary, one can speak little and be constantly breaking silence."
"You must be modest; modest in speech, modest in laughter, modest in your bearing, modest in walking. All this must be practiced, not out of vanity in order to display one's self, nor out of hypocrisy in order to appear to be good to the eyes of others, but rather, for the internal virtue of modesty, which regulates the external workings of the body."
Do they possess the three marks of an authentic Catholic? Perhaps this is the most obvious and at the same time the most important points of consideration: Are they Catholic. The following three marks have been described by the saints as the three signs of an authentic Catholic, and are an absolute necessity for any community to be one in mind with the Church;
I. Fidelity to the Pope.
One of the greatest signs of whether the spirit of obedience reigns in a community, is to consider how they speak of the pope. It is easy to criticize others, and to act like our own popes, thinking we have all the answers. It is far more difficult to practice reverence and respect in regards to others (though, regarding the greatest office on this earth, it really should be). In this way, fidelity to the pope is the first mark of an authentic religious community, without it, the community becomes like a sheep without a shepard; lost, without a direction, and subject to the wolves. As the vicar of Christ on earth, the pope's authority is supreme, even if he is contradicted by all the bishops of the world. As Lumen Gentium stated; "the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered." The first Vatican council even anathematized any Catholic who says that the pope does not have absolute power over the Church. It is thus important to observe whether a community speaks well of the Holy Father or not. Any negative detractions should immediately be suspect, even (and especially) if the current reigning pope might do things that confuse some people or even cause scandal. Far be it for a Catholic to act like a secular and jump on the bandwagon of criticism. One would hope that faithful Catholics would posses the barest minimum degree of humility to let their speech be only for the building up of the body of Christ.
Furthermore, we must also admit that the pope is singularly guided and protected by the Holy Spirit, unlike any other man on earth. When there is any question of ambiguity or doubt, it is necessary to always err on the side of charity (this should be a general rule regardless), and presume that the Holy Father has had certain insights into things that we are not privy to. If we want to understand the mind of the Church in the current world, there is no better source to turn to than the pope. The Apostolic Constitution on the Renewal of Religious Life stated all religious communities should "actively promote among their members an adequate knowledge...of the needs of the Church." Who better than the vicar of Christ--the one singularly protected by the Holy spirit---to know the needs of the Church? One might then observe if a community actively follows the latest writings of the Holy Father and how they seek to implement his decrees. One should pay particular attention to what is said at table over his latest encyclicals and exhortations (or if anything is said at all).
II. Love of the Holy Eucharist.
The Church teaches that the Eucharist is the "source and summit of the Christian life" (CCC, 1324). The saints have said that the daily life of a religious can be divided into two parts, 1) the preparation for Holy Communion, and 2) thanksgiving after Holy Communion. It is thus that a religious lives each day, with the Eucharist as its cornerstone. When visiting a community, then, it is important to observe how Our Lord is treated in the tabernacle. Saint Maximilian Kolbe was fond of making many brief visits to the Blessed Sacrament through the day. Saint Faustina would also pause to greet Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. This will be a sign of prayerful hearts that are Eucharistic-centered. One might also observe the reverence, silence, and recollection displayed before the tabernacle, or whether the community has periods of meditation before the Blessed Sacrament, or daily Adoration. A holy community will be able to quickly and easily enter into a prayerful state upon entering the chapel, even following recreation. (The holier a soul is, the easier it is to enflame one's heart with love in prayer, even amidst the greatest exterior distractions).
III. Devotion to Mary.
He who loves God, also loves what God loves. And there is no being in creation more loved that His very masterpiece, the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this sense, devotion to Mary is not an option, but a necessity for all Christians. Pope John Paul II once said that Our Lady is of such primary importance, that She is in a way first above Peter (in moral hierarchy). The Church teaches that Mary is our Mother, Advocate, Mediatrix of all grace, and Co-Redemptrix. In many ways, She is the best kept secret of the saints. Saint Louis De Montfort once stated that the holiness of the saints in the end times will far surpass the holiness of the saints of old; and it will be due to the fact that Our Lady will become more known and loved. Mary is the who is able to most quickly and easily raise a soul to the heights of sanctity, formed in the image of Her Divine Son. Saint Teresa of the Andes constantly asked Our Lady to give her Her heart, saying; "With this treasure I will have everything, given that in it is Jesus and all the virtues". Saint Louis De Montfort once said; "One of the greatest reasons why the Holy Spirit does not do astounding wonders in our souls, is because He doesn't find sufficiently great union with His spouse." Saint Montfort even suggested that the demons fear Mary more than even Jesus Christ Himself. Why? Because while Jesus is God, Mary is a mere human elevated above all the angels in heaven, which wounds his pride more than anything else. Mary's status it thus a greater triumph against the pride of Lucifer. It is thus that a good community will possess a deep devotion to Our Lady, which will be evident in their daily prayers, rule, and constitutions.
Davide A. Bianchini, Contact