“So, what if you take solemn vows in a few years, and after that, you meet a girl that knocks you off your feet and you fall totally in love? What do you do then? Are you allowed to leave?”
In the six months that I’ve been a postulant, and the two years I discerned religious life prior to entering, I heard this question too many times. Honestly, it’s a truly despicable question. I find it to be very indicative of the culture from which it comes: one that is afraid of commitment and is obviously skeptical of celibate chastity, whether it’s implicitly or explicitly realized.
For starters, it implicitly treats the choice to enter religious life as a “Plan B”. If there is a possibility that someone would leave religious life for marriage (which there has to be in the mind of the questioner otherwise it would have never been asked), it means that God is not ultimately the first choice; religious life was an option chosen in the absence of one’s “soul mate,” but if and when that person is found there is a new best option. In a surprisingly high number of cases, people who ask this question assume that the only reason people enter religious life is because they are either assexual or were incapable of forming and maintaining an intimate relationship with another.
The truth is, a large number of healthy men and women in religious orders have had experience in love, (and yes, even sex), before entering and taking vows. In my own life before I decided to enter, I had experienced 2 two-year long relationships with women that I loved enough to marry and was fully aware of the prospect of finding another. My choice to be a part of religious life was not without other options, nor will it be without new options in the future. (Many will tell you it’s not a matter of what to do “if” you fall in love, but rather “when.”) Like all healthy religious, however, I discerned that my life would be more greatly fulfilled in celibate chastity than in marriage, and so it was my “Plan A” to seek God in this way.
I imagine that God is insulted by this question for the same reason: is it not possible that someone could see a life fully devoted to God as the best option, an option greater than even the man/woman of one’s dreams? Not only do I know that this is entirely possible, I feel very strongly that God has called me and others to this life, and that it is just as much his choice as it is ours. When I’m asked about leaving after solemn profession for the sake of “love,” I get the sense that the asker either refuses to believe or is unable to understand that one can want a relationship with God in the form of a celibate chastity more than an exclusive relationship with another person.
The final, and most disappointing part of this question is that it completely disregards the gravity and sanctity of a covenant with God. Does solemn profession mean so little that one would be curious enough to ask whether or not a religious is willing to break it? I imagine that these same people wouldn’t ask an engaged man, “So what happens if after you’re married you meet a woman that knocks you off your feet and you fall totally in love? What do you do? Are you allowed to leave?” It’s an incredibly insulting question. Why doesn’t it sound as insulting when someone asks it about a commitment to religious life? Again, I think the person that asks this question implicitly values a commitment to God and an ascetic life less than a commitment to another person.
If you’ve asked this question before your life, I forgive you. I imagine that the implications of the question were not quite realized at the time, and had you known, you would have never asked it. For others, I hope that it is just as appalling to you as it is to me, and you will help to create a culture that views a solemn commitment to God as an extraordinarily fulfilling way of life.
At this point, I’m a long way to away from professing any sort of formal vows, and so am quite free to leave whenever I wish. At the same time, I have placed the prospect of marriage on hold for a while as to enter into an intimate, exclusive relationship with God, discerning a lifelong commitment by essentially “dating God” (a term Dan Horan, OFM has famously used.) If and when that day comes when I’m ready for solemn profession, and someone very unfortunately asks me what I would do if I fall in love, I’ll have the perfect answer for them: “I already have.”