Religious life, between the bear and the ant

The days we spent in quarantine, 107 to be exact, have given me time to think, to reflect and consider many aspects of our religious life in the light of this experience. Quarantine for we religious, in so far as being “confined” meant not only an intense personal relationship, living in a limited space, deprived of all social activities, etc., but it also revived a dimension that was perhaps somewhat forgotten or adulterated by the hyper-active life we lead.
Quarantine has reminded us that all religious life has an inherent contemplative dimension, a cloistered space, and that to lose it would weaken our own vocational option. So, in this way during this confinement, isolation, … we have experienced a time of desert, but not of aridity and dryness, of death and desolation, but the place where our first love is renewed, as the prophet Hosea indicated (2:14): “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and take her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.”

What did we hear in our hearts in these days? What interior encounters have we experienced in prayer and contemplation, in silence and in the passing hours of the days? What thoughts and reflections absorbed us? What emotions did we feel and how did we experience them? What concerns arose and who were the object of those concerns? ‘Speaking to the heart’ is not exclusively affective, in literature the heart is the vital seat of a person, but it wants to address totality, not only the emotional sphere, however important and significant that may be. Deep down, I think the essential question to ask is: have I lived totally for God in this time? And there are certainly indications that show to what or to whom one felt attracted:
— How did I employ the extra time?
— In moments of anxiety to what or to whom did I cling?
— Was I tired and bored?
— What was my main concern?
— Did I worry about the poor in these days?
I shall share my experience with you during this time. Two options appeared to me: either to live like a bear (and not just because of my bushy appearance) or as an ant.
When winter comes, environmental or of the soul (of which Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa and so many other saints spoke), we are presented with two vital options that have their parallel in the animal world: bears and ants. Winter is an ‘apparent’ time of death or, at least, of no life (which is not the same). Every tree, as a tree, does not feel it is dead but only in its winter hibernation/lethargy ‘waiting’, because it does not have the faculty of hope, but only the change of season that sooner or later will end as a new life force starts stirring within (and usual because it is a seasonal cycle), making it sprout and bear fruit again, according to its nature. If a plant ‘can live’ this, why is it so difficult for people to recognize this law that conforms our life? And even more specifically, if religious life is a sign and prophecy of the Gospel and of Jesus Christ himself, why do we live our autumn and winter as moments of fragility, limit or end? Perhaps coming to grips with our nature can help us to find our place as people and as religious. These thoughts gave rise to my reflection today, based on our practical confinement and observation of creation around us.

Bears, like other animals, in the face of inclement winter conditions, due to the icy temperature and lack of food (not an option but imposed by the environment) store food in the form of body fat which will be consumed during their seasonal inactivity and hibernation. It is a natural survival mechanism, since in winter they do not feed on provisions they have gathered and stored but on their own prior consumption; their own fat is their ‘larder’ in winter. (We cannot call this a selfish measure of survival).

This process is entirely self-centred, because the parents do not even feed the cubs. The cubs have to store their own supply of food, enough to last the entire hibernation period (in this state less energy is consumed), in order to survive without eating. The situation is so extreme that, were one to enter a bear den in the middle of winter and wake them up, they would not look at one tenderly, as if to say: ‘let me sleep, I’m very sleepy’, like an average teenager, but rather would ferociously attack and devour one, without thinking twice, driven by acute hunger. This is precisely what bears do when the winter period is over and they go out hunting again.
From this ursine practice we shall draw some obvious conclusions:
— Faced with inclement weather and scarcity, one has to gather and store one’s own provisions for when there are none.
— When the external threat exceeds one’s strength, it is better to foresee it, even at the cost of physical hardship (in this case).
— During winter, those who take care of themselves have to be inactive in order not to waste any energy because they do not have much.
— The most important thing is to survive on the store of food gathered during the spring, summer and autumn months.

Ants are a species that is known for its social organization. Each one hatches with a specific ‘vocation’ and some of them with the possibility of developing that vocation to become a queen. Basically there are the workers, the soldiers, the princesses and the queen. This may vary according to the species, but very little. We are not going to give a lesson on myrmecology, which is a branch of entomology that studies these insects. Let us focus on your answer to winter, as we did with the bears. What do ants do in winter?
Ants do not need to hibernate because there is no food in winter, but because of the effect the cold weather has on their bodies. Like us, the cold affects their lymphatic system and paralyzes them. To avoid this, they either live in warm places, or hibernate where there are low temperatures in winter. How do they prepare for it? Well, in an organized way, without stopping to think (even if they don’t think) as a group, they collect and store food in their ‘cupboard’, (well ventilated places in their nest to preserve food). They tend to dig deeper, that is, down to the deepest places in the ants’ nest where it is warmer and they continue to work very slowly. The workers feed the queen and the others; the soldiers take care of the larvae and guard the entrance. The queen continues to give life, that is, continues to spawn eggs (larvae) that will hatch into new ants. They have to do the cleaning and guard the entrance from possible intrusion/danger. When the prolonged cold weather is over, they take advantage of sunny moments to go out, absorb heat in their body and return to their place, very close together so that that heat lasts longer.

From this practice we can draw several conclusions:
— The ants do not stop working at any time, they just reorganize themselves in order to survive and ensure their future by taking care of the queen.
— Their tasks continue, although the objectives change.
— In general they tend to go deeper down to a warmer place, where the heat of the earth ensures activity and life.
— There is a tendency to gather more in order to maintain the body temperature and so prevent being paralyzed by the cold outside.
— The generation of life is not interrupted, therefore, they continue to serve the queen and take care of the larvae.
What do these two ways of re-acting to winter have to do with religious life? Well, they are like two up-to-date modern parables that seek to describe two attitudes of religious life in the present time we call “winter” (due to the dearth of vocations, due to the pandemic, due to the lack of Christian values in society …).

As Jesus insists on speaking in parables to those following him to listen to him, his intimate group of disciples come and ask him to tell them why. This moment is described in the Gospel of Matthew, precisely in the middle of the parable of the sower. The reason for the above comparisons also has an evangelical framework (Mt 13:10-16).
Why does he speak to them in parables?
Jesus answered: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has, will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables; because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled, the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive’. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn, for me to heal them….
“But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it; and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it”.
After listening to the explanation of the first part of the Gospel text, where do we stand? Among those who have “been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven”; among those who “hearing do not hear”, among those who “seeing do not see” or among those with “blessed eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear”? (Mt 13:14, 16).

Religious life has a dimension of intimacy, of being part of that small group that accompanies Jesus present in our time. The origin of religious life is not so much the evangelizing mission as we understand it today, but the living testimony and reflection of the life of Jesus Christ. We are called to discern his presence and his life in present events, in contemporary people, in a believing reading of recent history to embody it and reflect Jesus today. To have ears that hear and eyes that see is to have the ability, the gift, to listen with Jesus’ ears and to have the gaze of Christ.
Bears resemble “the rich man whose land brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself: ‘What shall I do for I have nowhere to store my harvest?’. And he said, ‘I will do this; I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry’. But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Lk 12:16-21).
Today we live in a tension of surviving at all costs; but I survive for myself, my community, my congregation, in the style of the bear. Let’s carry out an aggressive vocational campaign, let’s grow as much as we can and concentrate on our mission, in our space and with our people. Let us remain hidden in the face of such inclement environmental conditions, let us distance ourselves from the threat and create spaces for survival. I know this is an ‘exaggeration’ like each of Jesus’ parables in the Gospel, but in highlighting the reality one notices the nooks and crannies that need to be cleaned and renewed. Let us analyse more specifically the considerations that may arise within us and give us matter for reflection and discernment.
The parable we have just heard clearly describes the “bear’s” attitude, which can be seen in our way of life as follows:
— The biblical text warns us to “Beware of all covetousness”. Greed is the disorderly desire to possess things, characterized by not sharing them with anyone. I am sure that none of us hoard money in our accounts, and if some do, it is for necessities, but we may fall into the second aspect of greed, “not sharing with others”. In times of difficulty, trial, scarcity, the tendency is either to save up or take advantage. Let us analyse our position as religious, in these days: are we sharing who we are and what we have or are we just saving for ourselves? Of course I am not only talking about material goods (which we should also examine by looking around us), but about spiritual and charismatic gifts. The gift of self has to do with availability (and here our obedience to our Superiors and to the Church is relevant), it has to do with selfless dedication, in which I do not seek to be needed (a subtlety deeply rooted in consecrated life), but give impartially (the attitude of the sower) in a way that is in-keeping with the reality of our time. Thus each one contributes his/her charismatic gift, in answer to current needs. It is all very well to pray for those suffering, but perhaps a visit and a few words of encouragement are needed. It is very good to ensure catechesis, but perhaps food is needed too. It is very good to provide an educational service, but perhaps one has a defensive attitude on account of the situation.

— Another warning in the Gospel concerns whoever, “lays up treasure for himself…” (Lk 12:21). Again, if we understand these riches from the material perspective, none of us will be touched by this warning, but what if we, like bears, are accumulating spiritual riches to increase the body fat of our spirit? Here, the attitude Pope Francis calls “self-referential” comes in: where one’s spiritual life centres on self and one’s own needs. How many times in these days have we said to someone: ‘I need to breathe, I need my personal space, time to …’? Without a doubt it is a psychological need, it is a feeling that arises un-looked for. But in this period in which one has given priority to one’s emotional and affective outlook or to one’s physical needs one must remember that in addition to one’s affective and biological make-up, each one is also a rational, volitional and spiritual being. Wealth accumulates when one fails to balance these five dimensions of the person: physical, emotional, rational, will and spirit. Notice that it is easy to recognise someone who accumulates wealth in his body (fitness/gym, pays attention to appearance, obsession with weight and height) …, or even emotionally (I feel that way — so the reality is only what I feel—, I need to feel wanted, that I am useful … and one cannot budge them), or for arguments (based on reason, intellect, specific research/study, or the intellectual emancipation they speak of ex cathedra). But, how can we develop a strong will or spiritual wealth in life? The first has to do, once again, with obedience, with interior docility (which is never submission), with openness to the will of God — I do not pile up things, if I live my life as a search—, because the will of God draws me away from the tyranny of my own will and judgment, it is always a quest and, normally, shared, hence other factors come in here; to be accompanied and tested. And secondly, accumulating spiritual wealth is what Francis refers to as the enemies of holiness in Gaudete et Exultate and Evangelii Guadium: Gnosticism. That is, the certainty of knowing the truth and ascertaining it by spiritual means, the obsession with doctrinal and liturgical purity that distorts reality to conform it to Manichaeism (good and evil; right and wrong; true and false …) without allowing for nuances, interpretation, contextualisation.

Furthermore, this parable of Jesus concludes with a warning: “he who lays up treasure for himself … is not rich toward God”, (Lk 12:21). And He certainly does not refer to poverty as a humble attitude before God, but as someone who enriches himself (with whatever riches), focuses his attention on worldly gains. This expression fits in well with the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount when he speaks of almsgiving, prayer and fasting. There are actions or acquisitions whose reward is no more than their cost. But there is another way of living, which is to become rich before God, blessed, poor. And this necessarily passes through discretion, anonymity, changing one’s outlook and manner.
The ants are like those of whom Jesus said: “… Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; and yet, your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life for even an hour? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘what shall we wear?’. For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself”, (Mt 6:25-34).

The first thing that stands out in the example of the ants is that they give a community response to an environmental threat. Religious life is deeply communal. In the face of reality and the experience of its charism, its development, updating, mission, outlook and realization the Congregation’s response should be a community exercise which calls for each member’s discernment, like those particular insects. Each one has gifts for the enrichment and good of the others. Accepting the Pope’s call to live in continual discernment, and this is an exercise, a task, we must take seriously. Discerning is not just a practice, it is a way of life. In this period, have we asked ourselves how we should face this moment as a community, as a congregation? It is not a time to exchange gifts and talents but rather to adjust our objectives to an innovative vison.

Secondly, I shall highlight the ants’ tendency to dig deeper. What a suggestive image, to be able to go to a place where life is possible because it is warmer, a more suitable environment! What does ‘deepening’ mean for a religious? Go to the centre, go to the source, go to the essential? It is a privileged moment for mysticism. It reminds us of the Synod that was celebrated some years ago on Consecrated Life, which resulted in Vita Consecrata. That document encouraged us to recover this dimension inherent to our essence. Mysticism is not just praying a lot rather it is to arouse and to experience God, in oneself and in the community, helping to verify it, to seek it, to desire it. We often devote a lot of time to training, to talks, even to retreats, and that is good, but do we manage to increase our desire for God? As the poet Luis Rosales says, “at night, we will go at night to find the source that thirst alone reveals”. We are living in a time that is highly conducive to bearing witness to what we profess! Jesus, in this Gospel passage I have used as an example, makes an appeal to believe. A certain ‘wise rage’ can be discerned in his words: “If God so clothes the grass which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O people of little faith!”, (Lk 12:28). We will have to ask whether the words, worries and fears expressed in a rush hut on the hill were the same as those in our religious community. Dig deep to safeguard life….

Thirdly, what a graphic image of the ants huddled together, on top of each other, to retain the heat longer! If a situation like the pandemic does not unite us fraternally, what else can? In the face of the search for safety and taking precautions (which are fine examples of citizenship, no doubt) we should not shut our ears to Jesus’ exclamation, he framed as a question: In any case, however much one worries; can one prolong one’s life even for an hour? Worry arises spontaneously in a person, but to put concern at the centre of life is to live like the Gentiles, unbelievers, like people without faith. What can sustain our words if not our works? The word of a consecrated person should be sacred and this only happens if there is a close, consistent connection between our way of life and our words, naturally imperfect because it cannot be otherwise. Community life must emerge strengthened from this period by being receptive to each person’s needs and evangelizing them. Let us not lose this opportunity by hiding our wounds, our weaknesses, our failings, because only in sharing mutual fragility can we gain the strength of the Gospel: “for when I am weak, then I am strong”, Saint Paul acknowledged, (II Cor 12:10). Did you notice the huge difference between the bear and the ant? Unfortunately, not all the power, strength and magnificence of the bear will save the species from extinction. On the contrary, the ants will survive in their minority. It is the most adaptable species, the one that has adapted the best in each era with the human species.
And finally, the driving force, the raison d’être, of an ant: consists in taking care of the generation of life by being at the service of its queen. Focusing all one’s attention on the Kingdom of Heaven and doing what is right before God, one will also receive all these things, Jesus tells us in the Gospel. Good health, vocations, clarity, courage, hope, light, welcome, to be understood, to be loved, are needed to fulfil oneself…. Seek the Kingdom of God, because all the rest is “superfluous before God”. This is His reward.

Do you know the characteristic of ants? Providence. And we hold by the same Providence which encourages us to choose life. How Benedict XVI’s words ring out in these days in Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a Person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (n. 1). Is it not a propitious time to foster this encounter with this Person, with the Easter event, that we are experiencing? Can one console someone for a terrible human loss, taken by a virus? No, there is no consolation for wife, child or brother. Either we live the Paschal dynamic of Easter or this becomes the worst torment. Let us ask ourselves then, today, in light of how we have lived these days, what is our horizon and what decisive orientation have we given it? I felt elated (although it sounds bad), at seeing my brother priests in the parishes come out of their routine, structures and mediations dulled by routine to give an answer to those who are hungry, need oxygen, ask for the Word and the Eucharist. Indeed, for the Church, for religious life, this virus may be like the pebble that killed the giant with clay feet, Daniel speaks of in his prophecy, or a curse, with the same outlook as the Gentiles who worry about tomorrow, when each day brings its own troubles. We have a Father in heaven who already knows our needs, so let us live for our Father and when we pray, let people see it impressed in our works, in our gestures, in our words, in our life.

There is the call, the challenge: whether to fulfil our consecration as a bear or as an ant? There I leave you.

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