At some point just before my search for God really began, I had a sort of 25-year delayed reaction about the priesthood and religious life. I read some Catholic writer’s lament that so few people follow God’s call to religious life these days, that not very many young men and women are willing to leave the world to serve God alone, and I thought with shock: “You mean there are any?”
I guess I did know that nuns don’t marry, and I’d heard something about priests and monks staying single, but it had never sunk in. When I really got it through my head that there are actually people out there who live just for God, I felt bewilderment and surprise…and an odd sense of hope.
At the time my life was extremely “worldly.” I didn’t believe in God and was completely immersed in socializing and career and vapid entertainment, so I really couldn’t imagine why someone would become a nun or a monk or a priest. I tried to figure out what their payoff was: obviously, I thought, there must be some selfish reason for choosing to do this. But, from a worldly perspective where things like the pursuit of pleasure and being able to do whatever you want were extremely important to quality of life, I couldn’t figure out what it was.
I know it sounds ridiculous, but all my life I held on to this vague notion that nobody seriously believed in God. Looking back, it’s a little disturbing to think of what a great determination I had to cling to cynicism and sarcasm when discussing Christianity. I simply refused to entertain anything related to this religion that rang of selflessness or sacrifice or hope, immediately explaining it away with some cynical retort. I looked at my Christian neighbors and chose to focus only on the worldly aspects of their lives, noting that they drove the same cars, wore the same clothes, ate at the same restaurants, went to the same schools, and even watched the same movies as we did. I interpreted all this to indicate that they were hedging their bets, so to speak. In a testament to just what an uncharitable, deeply cynical person I was, I claimed that the driving force of Christianity was selfishness; that Christians were all about God when it came to judging others, but not so much when it came to actually sacrificing anything.
In this area, the whole notion of consecrated religious life was a bur in my side. Once I was aware of the concept, I tried to brush it off my telling myself that only people with “issues” would enter religious life. That notion didn’t last long, especially once I realized the sheer number of people who do this.
If you had asked me a few years ago to guess what the total number of priests and religious brothers and sisters there currently are in America I would have said 50. Maybe 75. But when I started to learn more about Christianity and found out how very wrong my estimate was, I couldn’t be intellectually honest and tell myself that every single one of these people had some kind of issue that led them to make such huge sacrifices (by worldly standards). In fact, the more glimpses I had into this mysterious way of life, the more I realized that it was likely that the vast majority of these people lived this kind of life because…well, because they believed in God.
Pondering the fact that so many men and women had walked away from American life and willingly vowed not just to accept but to embrace chastity, obedience, and in some cases poverty — ideals that are utterly counterintuitive to those of us who were caught up in seeking comfort and completely unrestrained freedom — was a ray of hope so bright that even my extreme cynicism couldn’t quite block it out. Thousands of people in America alone had given up the ability to date, to marry, to have kids, to wear what they wanted, to live where they wanted, all for this God I couldn’t seem to find. The way I saw it, they’d taken all their chips and put them on the “God exists” square. It was a huge bet. I was intrigued.
It occurred to me that with all the comfort and decadence that comes part and parcel with modern American life, every single person who walks away from it to join the priesthood or enter a monastery or convent is like a prince or princess doing so in a previous era: most people in our society have access to luxury and sex and totally unfettered freedom that only the richest of the rich could have even begun to imagine in any other time in history. From a materialist standpoint alone, there’s no good reason to walk away from such a society where opportunities for riches and decadence abound. Yet some people do — not just a few, but thousands. And sometimes even the most cynical atheists stop and take note, and can’t help but feel a little bit of hope.