Of course, religious life is built on the concept that one enters a particular community, a particular school of love, to give one's self away completely in love, to become perfected by becoming perfected in love. A more mundane perspective is that community life is meant to be supportive, encouraging, enjoyable and fun. But no one is crazy enough to think one is fit for the convent life merely because one has good intentions. While learning to love is a life-long process, requiring skills, attentiveness, and supernatural graces, as well as good intentions, the Church assumes persons called to religious life need some basic formation.
When I was a young doctor, I had the heart of Mother Teresa and the doctor patient relationship skills of Attila the Hun. I had to learn to see my blindspots. I was shy and specifically I did not know how to connect to people; I could not enter and exit a conversation graciously. I could not get feed back from others. Also, I had about zero self-esteem and self respect. I let people demand my time, interrupt my patient visits, and run myself ragged. Because I didn't have any sense of self-respect, I couldn't show honor to others.
Women come to us from every possible condition in life:
--shy homeschool kids who don't think they are capable of an apostolate
--women from foreign cultures
--women with professional degrees and masters degrees in theology
Each one has to be formed individually to live a loving family life and to carry out an effective apostolate. Each one has to learn to integrate their spiritual ideals with practical attitudes and skills. In almost all cases, they need to heal, overcome generational attitudes, develope a new sense of identity, and grow in many skills and realizations. This process is bathed in prayer, sometimes invovles professional counsling or prayer teams, and is carried out with tender loving care and honor in the love of a family alternative.
Foundational virtues are enhanced by learning how to be healthy in body, mind and soul, how to manage finances, schedules and human relationship skills. No one can do much loving if they don't show up or have no energy. Religious life is a journey to grow in love!
Learning to love is learning to express:
--empathy--respectful sympathy for others
--love--a Pauline understanding of what love is
It is not enough to know one wants these things. We need practical communication and practice skills, the ability to perceive others needs, and a sense of order and making time for community, and a strong sense of self-esteem, value and goal orientation.
Some of the resources I have found helpful include:
Keep Your Love on by Danny Silk
Honor's Reward by John Bevere
Born to Win by Zig Zigler
Authentic Relationships by Wayne Jacobsen
Messages Workbook by Paleg, Davis and Fanning
Personality Plus by Littenhour
The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman
Love Your Patients by Scott Diering, MD
and, yes, a book on manners written for convents!
Each woman has to learn to form real relationships with real people. In the old days, the focus was on avoiding particular relationships, in other words, not excluding anyone and not becoming romantic! But all relationships are particular. We love and honor each Sister with her own weaknesses and strengths, her own language of love, her own passions and gifts. In the end, Christian civilization is about recognizing how much God has cherished and honored each woman.
As we grow in religious life, we find ourselves always experimenting, always flexible, trying new things. Does making the effort to greet each person in line by name help them feel like they belong? Is it helpful to leave encouraging notes? Do we need five minutes in the morning just to check in with each staff member and see how their family and concerns are going? To greet them and show appreciation for something they've done recently? In our own household, we experiment too. We don't have "date night" in a religious house, but we do have monthly reports and meetings with our superior, community recreation nights, shared meals, shared day long recreations, shared retreats or time we carry the responsibilities so others can have a Quiet day or day of recreation, faith sharing and prayer groups, chior practice, and superiors to mentor and nurture us. We stay current with the concerns and best practices in other religious houses so we can do a good job loving first on one another and, then, on those outside our walls.
I say we are not Robin Hood. First we earn a living and take care of our own; then we extend our hands and hearts to love on others, sharing Jesus with them, as we first show them honor and love. This, too, takes balance and boundaries. We can not do a good job if we are frazzelled or our own love bucket is empty.
And we are supported in this way of life by a loving, honoring parish church. We are ministered to by others, and learning to accept their love and feedback. It means the world to me, personally, that I can go to church and have a prayer team pray with me for whatever need I am going through, that I can join in recreational and growth activities with women of the parish, that if I am traumatized, I know who will minister God's grace to me, until my cup is full to overflowing. It was James Dobson who said, "One of the most important decisions you can make for your family is the church you attend." The parish church is really the place where we imbibe a sense of God's love and grace, where we are formed more deeply, nurtured, fed, supported in hardship and the people we celebrate with and serve beside.