Today, Sr. Laura Katherine, of the Community of St. John Baptist, writes this article for The Angelus, the weekly newsletter published by St. Mary the Virigin in New York:
The three traditional vows, poverty, chastity, and obedience, are one aspect of the religious life that has attracted a good deal of attention down through the centuries. There are many studies of the three vows already in print, so I thought it might be useful to speak about the religious life by discussing three other facets of that life, facets which are not unrelated to the traditional vows, but which are nevertheless quite distinct. My thinking about these things - integrity, self-knowledge, and the forgetting of self - has been shaped in some new ways by my reading of a book by the late Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Basil Hume, OSB (1923-1999). Cardinal Hume was a monk, and then the abbot, of the Roman Catholic Benedictine monastic house, Ampleforth Abbey, North Yorkshire, England, before he was elevated to the episcopate in 1976. His book, The Intentional Life: Making of a Spiritual Vocation (Paraclete Press, 2004), consists of talks and teachings given to various novices while he was abbot of Ampleforth (1963-1976).
The first aspect is integrity. This is a broad term with multiple connotations, such as honor, uprightness, probity, the ability to adhere to fundamental principles, trustworthiness, and, perhaps surprisingly, wholeness, soundness, and unity. Integrity may be regarded both as a personal and as a corporate virtue, since members of religious communities are distinct individuals who try to live together as one, in a body that has a distinct corporate identity. On the personal level, individual integrity involves an awareness of, as well as the attempt to live by, one's own principles, values, and sense of honor. To surrender any one of these things can mean relinquishing some essential part of one's self. Living with integrity means living up to, and into, one's core values and principles as fully as one is able. Of course, life is filled with challenges and it is not easy to live with integrity. Still, trying to do so is something that should not be dismissed. There are a number of ways a person can and will negate who they are, often without realizing it or the consequences of doing so.
Integrity is an important part of living in community as well. A community's core values and principles are usually spelled out in the community's constitutions and in other formal and legal documents; however, they are also part of a community's oral traditions, things that have been practiced, observed, handed down, taught, and imitated. However, tragically, corporate integrity can also be negated in a variety of ways as well. A community needs to be aware of the risks of violating its foundational principles and failing to preserve its integrity. Religious communities are institutions of which much is not only expected but also demanded. They are not islands unto themselves, for they exist within social, cultural, political and, indeed, ecclesiastical structures. They are visible, and how they live makes a difference. A community's internal integrity must be carefully guarded and upheld.
The second aspect, or facet, is that of self-knowledge, which can be summed up as the practice of learning about oneself. There are many masks and façades behind which we are tempted to hide and they are not easily removed. We are often invested in a self-image that we wish were real. This makes it difficult to discover who one really is. Self-knowledge is also self-discovery. Self-discovery is certainly possible, though it can be difficult to achieve. We learn from the reactions of others: what is appropriate and what is not, what behavior is pleasing and what is not. Self-knowledge is not easy and there are usually some hard knocks along the path to self-discovery as one begins to understand what is underlying the ego's response. All the members of a religious community must try to recognize their strengths and their weaknesses, their gifts as well as their faults. They must ask some difficult questions, naming and defining the problems one has with others and asking why such problems arise. However, the rewards of self-discovery are great. Confronting these hard questions is necessary if inner change and growth are to happen. We cannot really begin to know others if we avoid knowing ourselves. The members of many religious communities live together twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. They may dress the same way and share many things in common, but they do not necessarily think, react, or respond in the same way. Individuals who live in community have quite different personalities and may possess very different habits and have very different likes and dislikes. Self-knowledge helps to prevent insensitivity, indifference, self-indulgence and behaviors that are unfeeling or offensive. Self-knowledge promotes community by helping one to live with others peaceably and lovingly.
The third facet or aspect is self-forgetting. To be self-centered seems to be part of our human nature. "Self-forgetting" is an ambiguous term and can be misinterpreted. I am not talking here about a form of self-abnegation which can be seen as negative and destructive. On the contrary, I am talking about a form of "self-forgetting" that can be positive and quite productive. I believe that human beings need not be always and only selfish and self-centered. Human beings also seem to have an inherent capacity to let go of the ego's insistent demands, desires, and personal wishes and pleasures. This "letting go" involves surrendering self-will, the desire for self-aggrandizement and self-gratification, and the need for constant recognition and approval. The ability to "forget self" can make it possible for one to recognize and support others, to allow others to have their way, and to give others the opportunity to flourish by being themselves. This may be a matter of simple courtesy, as one realizes that "I am not the only pebble on the beach." It also means being aware of and awake to others, an awareness that is linked to the capacity to love and to care, and which also involves acknowledging and respecting others. This aspect of the religious life teaches us to go beyond self in order to meet others where they are. One learns that the more one is able to live in a way that is not self-centered, the more joy and love there is in one's life.
Though integrity, self-knowledge and self-forgetting are essential aspects of the religious life, I think that these things are important in the daily lives of all Christians, no matter what their vocation, no matter what their walk of life. Sister Laura Katharine, C.S.J.B.