Hippies, self-sacrifice, and disappearing nuns.

Benjamin The Loving Life

In a post about marriage a couple weeks ago, I said that our modern way to look at marriage tends to be in terms of self-fulfillment. This is actually a form of selfishness, which makes it difficult to accept children and nearly impossible to truly love. A very clear portrayal of where that attitude leads showed up recently on the Internet: a woman who divorced a kind and patient husband because she was unsatisfied with her life (I link to the Catholic who comments on the post). Self-fulfillment is a way that leads to death: the death of every relationship around you as you consistently put yourself first in front of friends and family, and ultimately the death of yourself because as your relationships dry up, there is nothing left of your life. Because self-sacrifice for the good of others gives them life, the more authentic our sacrifice is, the more we end up fully living, because we are thriving in the midst of flourishing friends and family.

The shift from self-sacrifice to self-fulfilment also explains the way nuns gradually vanished from the Catholic scene after Vatican II. Catholics have a tendency to blame the Second Vatican Council for the disappearance of nuns, because its desire to update and renew religious life, but without a clear idea of what needed to be changed, opened the door for sisters to swap out the habit for secular clothes, to stop praying, to stop living in community, and to find themselves in social justice advocacy and massage-ministry.

The truth is that the Second Vatican Council is not really to blame for this disappearing act. Just as the Church opened the windows, the “Spirit of ’68” swept through Western civilization. I recently found a rather dark article commenting on this cultural tsunami. Describing the summer of 1968, the author said, “A second hideous year of hippies with their ‘summer of love’…was just an excuse for selfish, spoiled college kids to get high, fornicate and think they were some how doing a noble thing”. Out-of-control hippies, along with protests and demonstrations, assassinations, riots, and “wars and rumors of wars” made it feel like society was collapsing.

In fact, society was collapsing. A good part of the social structure of every human society (before the present one) is the bulky but necessary walls and dams mantained by our ancestors; moral laws and social conventions designed to keep us and the people around us from doing whatever we feel like doing. There is a darkness that lurks in the human heart, and we are capable of incredible acts of destruction, and people have to be carefully formed to know what is right and prevented from doing what is wrong. This protects all of us from being damaged by the people around us and by our own bad inclinations. The “Spirit of 68” is exactly the attitude that these moral and social restraints don’t matter, and a person should be free to do whatever feels good. The terrible truth is, sometimes it feels good to do evil.

I am not saying that nuns were running wild, but the same spirit blew through a lot of religious orders, bringing the attitude that the old ways of doing things didn’t matter any more. Why pray if I didn’t get anything out of it? Why not help the poor instead? Why live a hidden life in the cloister when I could be teaching theology to undergrads? Besides, why should all the sisters in the order teach? Maybe I don’t feel called to teach, maybe I want to do something else…

Nuns chose to do whatever seemed like a good idea, adopting the same clothing as lay people so as not to feel different, choosing ministries where they felt like they were making a difference, or giving up community life because it was not a good fit for them. Having the freedom to do what they felt like doing allowed sisters to “follow their heart” and to “be themselves”, and this was supposed to make them happier…because we thought happiness came from self-fufillment. As soon as nuns tried to find themselves they lost their vocation, and many left religious life completely:

The number of religious sisters and cloistered nuns in the United States was almost 180,000 in 1965. In 2009 there are just over 59,000, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. A steady decline in the number of women religious, together with the fact that their median age is 75, is a sign that religious life in the United States is a dying institution. Yet new communities have sprouted up in which women religious don a traditional habit and follow a daily schedule of prayer and service. These communities are attracting youthful, vibrant vocations.

That quote is from a 2009 article written by a sister who wears no habit, whose community is one of the dying ones, but who does not understand why vocations are going to orders with habits because she has found this secularized form of life more fulfilling. Once sisters began thinking in terms of self-fulfillment, their communities lost the capacity to generate life.

Once I begin to focus on getting what I need, I turn my life inward, focusing on myself. Even if my ministry is helping many people, it is ultimately serving MY need to be fulfilled, and so it is not giving to others but it is taking from them. At best it might be a kind of 50/50 exchange. Soon the ministry becomes sterile, and so does the minister. Only when I give so that others can have life do I find life for myself.

This truth is all the more intense in religious life, because it was never the nuns who brought new vocations, who touched the minds and hearts of students, and who transformed the world. Their work made a difference because it was Jesus Christ who worked through them. Sacrificing themselves so that Jesus could be present in the world, they lived from a life-giving relationship with Him, united to His sacrifice for the salvation of the world. Once nuns begin thinking in terms of self-fulfillment, they make the ministry about themselves, and lose contact with Jesus. Only self-sacrifice allows nuns, or priests, or lay people, to draw from the abundant life that flows from the cross. +