...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control.
Recently, I read a comment online where one poster remarked that most of the consecrated virgins she had met in the context of her vocational discernment tended to come across as discouraging and bitter (to see the actual thread, go here.)*
As a consecrated virgin myself, I have to say that not only was I not offended in the least by this comment, but I also found the honesty of the observation to be refreshing. To be very frank, it was a little like the relief we all feel at the end of the story when the child finally points out that the emperor has no clothes! Although I’ve never seen this discussed publically anywhere before, based on my own personal experience and observations, to me it seems like bitterness is a one spiritual and human formation issue to which modern-day consecrated virgins might be particularly prone.
It should go without saying that, like all generalities, this statement of course does not apply to each and every consecrated virgin categorically. Yes, I have been blessed to encounter consecrated virgins whom I could only describe as serene and joyful. But at the same time, unfortunately I do also have to say that some of the most disturbingly bitter women I have ever met have been consecrated virgins as well. And I’m sure I would be justified in supposing that most of us consecrated virgins have had personal struggles with temptations to bitterness at least at one time or another.
The Church Fathers often wrote about pride as a special temptation for the consecrated virgins of their time, identifying it as the vice most crucial for them to avoid and overcome. For today’s consecrated virgins, I think bitterness might perhaps take this place.
While consecrated virgins around the world may have very different opinions about what it means to be a consecrated virgin on a concrete level (e.g.: should our consecrated witness be totally open or more discreet? should we strive to work for the Church full-time, or have a purely secular career? etc.), I think we can all agree that our Lord, this vocation, and the wider Church would not be well served by the bitterness of consecrated virgins.
In some significant ways, bitterness can undermine the very purpose of our vocation, since it’s hardly an attitude conducive to a free and joyful giving of ourselves to our divine Spouse. Bitterness is also a very effective counter-witness to the rest of the faithful. In this sense, I think we could even consider bitterness to be a “scandal” in the true sense of the word—i.e., that which could cause others to falter in their faith.
I know that bitterness among consecrated virgins isn’t the most comfortable topic of discussion, but I do think it would be good for it to be discussed. My thought it that, like any spiritual problem on either an individual or communal level, simply ignoring this one isn’t going to make it go away, and may even enable it to grow.
I am quite aware that, with all things considered, I myself may not be the best-qualified person to begin this discussion. So for everyone who feels drawn to write in the comment box about how I lack the life experience, insight, personal maturity, and holiness to talk about avoiding sins related to bitterness—you are absolutely correct! Therefore I respectfully ask for your prayers, and that you patiently put up with my efforts here, which are first and foremost an attempt to preach to myself.
What is bitterness?
Just to make myself clear on what I’m talking about, when I refer to “bitterness” here, I mean the striking and demonstrable lack of Christian joy and hope. That is, the sort of noticeable lack which would seem to reflect an inner pettiness, sense of resentment, or an unbecoming anger at one’s life circumstances.
Outward manifestations of bitterness can include things such as: excessive complaining, an inappropriately sarcastic sense of humor, a consistently negative attitude towards life in general, and an overall tone of harshness in one’s speech and mannerisms.
In our inner lives, symptoms that could indicate that we are becoming bitter may include: a tendency towards self-pity, taking a certain delight in recounting all the ways we have been treated unfairly in the past (whether to ourselves or in conversation with others), being jealous of those who seem to be better loved and appreciated than we are, and regularly feeling disappointed or annoyed with most of the people in our lives for not treating us with as much respect and deference as we feel we deserve.
The act of being a habitually bitter person, whether or not we consider it to be a sin in a formal sense, certainly sets the stage for all kinds of sinful behavior. I think that some of the more minor and venial but still fairly common sins that result from bitterness are things like: gossip and back-biting; making unreasonable, and therefore selfish, demands on those closest to us; and a lack of charity in our actions that could be colloquially described as “just plain being mean.” Bitterness also fosters an absence of gratitude for the good things that God has already us—and perhaps could also preclude the initial openness to receiving these blessings in the first place.
What I am NOT talking about when I speak of bitterness are normal human reactions to difficult things in our lives, such as sadness or grief over a real loss, feelings of honest frustration when dealing with a trying situation, or the simple experience of having hurt feelings.
I’m also not talking about other kinds of personal character weaknesses or “human formation issues,” like a tendency to lose one’s temper or to having an inappropriately heightened level of emotional sensitivity (the kind of sensitivity wherein one could be described as being “touchy”). Finally, when I speak of bitterness, I am most definitely not commenting on diagnosable mental health problems like clinical depression or personality disorders.
But now, with consecrated virgins specifically in mind, here are what I see as some likely possible causes for bitterness, along with my reflections (however inadequate they may be) on how perhaps to begin to overcome them:
1. A real lack of support
It’s almost a bit of a truism to point out that, because consecrated virginity is such a “new” form of consecrated life, it isn’t very well understood even by many within the Church. Because of this, consecrated virgins often lack the support given to Catholics in almost any other vocation.
For example, right now in many dioceses, formation programs for aspiring consecrated are either very limited or literally non-existent. Also, while consecrated virgins are canonically under the direct authority and supervision of their bishop, for a variety of reasons (including many very understandable reasons) it can happen that in some places a consecrated virgin will not have a workable system of communication with either the bishop or a direct representative of his. All this is on top of the fact that, due to geographical distance and perhaps also to other social and cultural factors, individual consecrated virgins can tend to be quite isolated from each other.
These things can all lead to some consecrated virgins having what I think we could call a well-founded sense of being unfairly left alone, or to their legitimately feeling as though they been expected to “fend for themself” spiritually.
Similarly, consecrated virgins may also frequently encounter a lot of painful misunderstandings from fellow devout Catholics. When we explain our vocations to others, it’s not uncommon to hear things like: “you’ll never be as good as a nun”; “the Church doesn’t need consecrated virgins”; “the REAL brides of Christ are Sisters in habits”; “you would have done more good for the Church if you had been married and raised a good Catholic family”; or even “you wasted your religious vocation!” And sometimes consecrated virgins find that, within their parish or diocese, their vocation is regarded more as a burden and a liability for the community rather than as an objectively good thing for the Church.
The sense of rejection that can result from feeling that one has tried to offer one’s whole life and entire self to God, but that this self-gift is not wanted by His Church, can be a shattering experience. Therefore, it shouldn’t be too hard to see how this kind of pain can unfortunately lead to a consecrated virgin becoming bitter.
So what can one do to avoid becoming bitter in these kinds of situations? First, I would say that the best ways is to keep the truth clear in your mind at all times. Even if your parish priest (or the Sisters from the local mother house, or your daily Mass-going family, or your Confirmation sponsor, or the the Vicar for Religious from your diocese, etc.) says something insensitive or acts discouragingly towards your vocation on a regular basis, this does NOT at all change the fact that Christ really and truly did call you to be His bride. It also doesn’t affect the good that you can do for the God’s people, your identity within the Church, or your reward in Heaven. It’s a lot easier to let even frequent negative remarks roll off your back if you know and have confidence that they are wrong.
And on a related note, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is avoiding bitterness, it’s also good for us to learn to look at our discouraging experiences in light of their actual context. For instance, if someone in your parish says something hurtful to you about your vocation, it’s almost certainly the case that he or she was speaking purely out of ignorance and not out of any real desire to offend you.
On a deeper level, I think it could be helpful to take unhelpful or objectively unfair circumstances as a call to grow in what I would call a disciplined spiritual maturity. Being often overlooked, unappreciated, or even outright criticized because of one’s vocation to consecrated virginity is a powerful opportunity for us to purify our motives—i.e., to grow strong in our desire to live our consecrated lives purely out of love for Christ and His Church, without regard for the esteem of others. It also gives us a chance to live the spirit of the beatitudes more deeply, by resolving to be unfailingly gracious in our thoughts, words, and deeds, no matter how we may be treated.
However, at the same time I think it’s also important that we be honest about our situations, both to ourselves as well as to the appropriate people in the appropriate contexts. In my opinion, pretending to ourselves that everything is alright when this is objectively not the case (such as, for a hypothetical example, telling ourselves that we had an excellent formation program—when in reality, “formation” consisted solely in something like being asked to read through the materials on USACV website and nothing else) is only setting the stage for greater bitterness at some later point, when we run out of the emotional energy needed to keep up this kind of false optimism.
Additionally, an attitude of respectful honesty and realism can help us to be better aware of our strengths and weaknesses—along with whatever exterior limitations may be placed on us—as we strive to grow in our consecrated lives. We need this kind of self-awareness in order to become well-balanced and non-bitter consecrated virgins.
Finally, a respectful honesty about the “unfair” aspects of our experience of following a vocation to consecrated virginity is absolutely necessary if we ever hope to improve things for the women who may be called to consecrated virginity in the future.
2. Unrealistic expectations
Another probable cause of bitterness among consecrated virgins might be unrealistic expectations. Because there is so little information available on the practicalities and lived experience of consecrated virginity, and because the actual women who live out this vocation are so few and far between, I think it’s not unreasonable to suppose that a number of aspiring consecrated virgins enter into this vocation with what could be called an overly romanticized conception of the realities of this life.
For example, I often hear of aspiring consecrated virgins who say that they feel attracted to this vocation because they see it as a way to “fit in,” to find a niche, and to feel appreciated within the Church. Besides being a less-than-optimal motive for seeking consecration in the first place, this expectation emphatically does not correspond to the actual experience of life as a consecrated virgin in most places today.
Likewise, my impression is that many candidates for consecrated virginity might tend to over-estimate the sensible consolations they will receive as a result of their consecration, not fully realizing that any prayer life, like any marriage, will go through dry and taxing times as well as rich and joyful ones. To me it also seems that some aspiring consecrated virgins imagine that they will receive abundant personal, direct support and encouragement from their bishop and other priests in their diocese or from a local network of fellow consecrated virgins, and are therefore are unpleasantly surprised and disappointed when they discover that they need to be much more emotionally self-sufficient then they had hoped or expected.
For those of us who are concerned about becoming bitter as a result of this kind of disappointment, the easy (but perhaps not always immediately helpful) answer is to keep our expectations realistic. If you are presently discerning a vocation to consecrated virginity, find ways to ask the honest, hard questions. Do whatever you can to be sure you have a decent grasp, not only of the theological nature of this vocation, but also of the experiences you are likely to have when living it out in your day-to-day life.
Yet as is obvious to anyone who has become personally acquainted with this particular difficulty, “keeping your expectations realistic” is not always as simple a solution as it sounds. That is, if you are dealing with crushed dreams in the present, it’s not really possible to go back in time or to adjust your expectations retroactively.
But, similar to what I’ve written above, consecrated virgins who are feeling disappointed can reflect upon the fact that they are actually not disappointed in the deeper theological sense—that is, they have still received what they had been promised when Christ first called them.
Even if you aren’t now regularly receiving awesome mystical graces, or if you don’t have the personal mentorship of your bishop, or you’re not experiencing an ultra-close sense of sisterhood among consecrated virgins, or the people in your parish only think you’re weird when you talk about being a bride of Christ…ultimately, all of these issues are more or less superfluous. At the end of the day, you still have your spousal relationship with Christ and your special personal identification with the Church, which are the truly important gifts one receives in this vocation.
It’s also good to remember that we can always start to develop a sense of realism now, which can help equip us to live out our consecrated lives in a happy, healthy, holy way in the future. By ceasing to build up and entertain unreasonable hopes, even at this “late hour,” we can open ourselves to receive with gratitude the gifts that God is giving us in actual reality.
I suppose that it could happen that a consecrated virgin becomes so disillusioned by the difference between her consecrated life as she first envisioned it and the concrete reality of her life as a consecrated virgin that she begins to doubt she even discerned her vocation properly in the first place.
While anyone in this situation should be talking to a good spiritual director instead of reading this blog, I do have one observation that might be pertinent. That is, perhaps a consecrated virgin suffering though such a situation might pray for the grace of a renewed sense of vocation…or even for an interior experience of being called, as if for the first time, to what consecrated virginity actually entails—i.e., a total, sacrificial gift of oneself to Christ, and in Him, to His Church.
3. A fundamental selfishness
Admittedly, this last heading sounds a lot harsher than I would like it to, but I really can’t think of any other words to describe the idea I’m trying to convey. Of course, I highly doubt that many consecrated virgins (if any at all) discerned their vocation with motives that were blatantly and manifestly selfish. And it also goes without saying that, given the realities of our fallen human nature, very few human beings ever do any good deed with an entirely disinterested heart.
But even taking these two points as a given, I think it’s good to reflect on how easy it could be for us as consecrated virgins to develop a spiritual worldview that turns out to be subtly—and I want to say even almost “innocently”—selfish on a very foundational level.
At this present time, to me at least it seems like most of the existing informational material on consecrated virginity tends to focus mostly on the individual virgin’s personal experience of receiving the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. For example, much of the available vocational literature consists of personal reflections from consecrated virgins on the graces they received at their consecration, on the beauty of their consecration Mass, on the touching level of support they were given by their parish community, or on the joys of being a bride of Christ.
Naturally, all of this is good in and of itself. Consecration to a life of virginity is indeed a very precious and beautiful thing, and this vocation is truly great gift to the individual consecrated virgin.
But while a consideration of the personal benefits of consecrated virginity certainly isn’t wrong or theologically problematic, I do think we could say that, when taken only by itself, it is a somewhat unbalanced understanding of this vocation. That is, an exclusive or near-exclusive focus on the elements of consecrated virginity which are of primary befit to the individual (i.e., what a woman “gets out of” this vocation) undermines the pride of place that should be given to the more central aspect of this vocation—namely, the call to sacrificial self-giving for the honor of God and the good of His Church.
While this might seem like only a slight matter of emphasis, it really is significant. A candidate for consecrated virginity who looks forwards to a lovely consecration Mass and to the graces of that day—or a consecrated virgin of many years who enjoys meditating on her identity as the beloved bride of Christ—is obviously not selfish in the sense of maliciously seeking her own best interest at the expense of others. But at the same time, it’s important that we realize that if these things are the sum total, or even just the principal theme, of a consecrated virgin’s or candidate’s interior life, then her spiritual focus actually is primarily on herself and her own consolations.
This kind of subtle selfishness is, of course, not nearly as morally problematic as the more egregious varieties of selfishness which manifest themselves in the grave matter of mortal sin. In most contexts we really can’t compare the selfishness behind patently corrupt acts (like adultery or defrauding the poor of their life savings) with the much more “benign” kind of selfishness involved in things like an over-emphasis on experiencing spiritual
consolations for the sake of our own pleasure.
Yet in many ways, this more minor and understandable type of selfishness is actually more of a danger for consecrated virgins, since we are much more likely to give into temptations to selfishness on this level. And while our particular species of selfishness might never metastasize beyond the category of minor venial sin, we should remember that any and all selfishness keeps us from being as close to Christ as we could be. To borrow an illustration from St. John of the Cross, it ultimately doesn’t matter whether a bird is tied down by a heavy rope or by a fine thread—both of these ties can be equally effective in keeping it from flying upwards towards the heavens.
The reason why these observations on selfishness are pertinent to this post is that selfishness, no matter how subtle or unwitting, is by its nature connected to bitterness.
As human beings, we can only reach our fullness of life and happiness when we are striving to give of ourselves in love. The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes acknowledges this reality when it states that man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (GS 24) Because we are made in the image and likeness of God, we can never fully flourish unless we, in some way, come to reflect the total self-giving of the inner life of the Trinity in our own lives.
Our call to reflect the inner life and love of the Trinity, first in our vocation as baptized Christians and then in our lives as consecrated virgins, involves our learning to love, eventually, without concern for our own consolation. While of course we all have human needs that are right and proper for us to take into account (and while God also does want us to seek Him as our true good for our own benefit), at the same time we need to remember that real self-giving love doesn’t ask “what’s in it for me?”
If our main intentions in following our vocation are ultimately rooted in selfishness, even if it’s a “pious” selfishness like desiring beautiful experiences in prayer for the sake of our own enjoyment, we will never grow to our full stature as daughters of God and brides of Christ. Consequently, we will not progress as the rate we should—presuming that we manage to progress at all, or that we don’t in effect move backwards—in our growth in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. And a deficiency in any of these virtues will more than probably manifest itself on the level of our human personality in the form of bitterness.
Avoiding this kind of bitterness will never be exactly easy, because overcoming all forms selfishness is one of the central struggles of the Christian life. And in the consecrated life, this struggle is magnified—although I think we can say that it is only magnified so that the victory we win with the help of God’s grace can be even more complete and perfect. So while the journey here (which I think all of us consecrated virgins, not just those of us presently struggling with obvious bitterness, have to take) is difficult, it is also very beautiful.
As consecrated virgins, our growth towards the disinterested, self-sacrificial love to which we are called will give us a greater affinity with our sisters, the early virgin-martyr saints who were so important to the flourishing of the Church in her first centuries. And even more importantly, it will bring us towards a closer likeness with our crucified Spouse, who came not to be served, “but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)
* Just as a side note to anyone who actually goes and reads this thread, for a lot of reasons, I do NOT think that it's appropriate to call consecrated virginity "the single life," "consecrated single life," "lay consecration," or anything similar. But that's a topic for another post!