Yesterday morning, I was a part of a beautiful, powerfully inspirational ceremony in New York in which three men committed themselves to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the way of St. Francis of Assisi. To the outsider, what they did was radical, countercultural, and strange. What would possess someone to choose a life “without anything of one’s own,” in celibate-chastity, obedient to both superior and equals? What would possess someone to devote their entire life to the welfare of others, often sacrificing one’s own livelihood in the process? What would possess someone to wear a brown dress and a rope in public?
As I thought about it all over the past week, I realized that what was truly countercultural about their lives was much deeper and yet so simple: at the heart of their life is commitment to something other than themselves.
What was once a problem seemingly exclusive to young men in relationships, I believe that a “fear of commitment” has become a cultural problem in our day. Everyone knows that divorce rates in this country are astronomically high (roughly 50% of first marriages ending in divorce), but what about the declining marriage rate, down 60% since 1974. (Those people sure aren’t all running to religious orders, I can tell you that!) And yet, the problem has nothing to do with the institution of marriage or people becoming less dependent on each other. No, the decline in marriage is one symptom among many of the growing fear of commitment we experience as a culture.
Last week at our sexuality workshop, one of the presenters asked the question, “What is the most difficult part of being celibate?” My response was, “Having to talk about celibacy so much.” And while in jest, there was great truth in it. People are enamored by what we do, not that we don’t have sex, but that we don’t have sex for the rest of our lives. One student pointed out, “For God’s sake, people are up in arms these days that they have to sign a year or two long contract to get a cell phone. How are they ever going to understand what we do?” How true. How very indicative of our culture. When I watch television, I notice more and more that it is not a product that I am being sold, it is a feeling of freedom, a no-strings-attached purchase that can be discarded or traded in for the next best thing whenever I want to. No matter what it is, we are told to follow our impulses, drop anything that gets in the way of our dreams, and to not let anything get in the way of what we want to do. With this way of thinking, there are no wrong choices because you never actually have to make one; without commitment to anything other than your own wants, you are free to drop the previous one on a whim for the next one.
When I look at my brothers having just taken their solemn vows, their final, life-long commitments, the voices of our generation echo in my head. “Think about all of the things they can’t do now.” “What if they want to leave?” “Don’t they want to live a little before settling down?” “Oh, I could never do that. I need my freedom.”
In each of these responses, there is a false sense of freedom, a false sense of superiority that being free from commitments allows one to do everything, a false sense of having it all. To commit oneself to is deny oneself possibilities. But how many possibilities does one actually have if one never makes a commitment? To stay single leaves open the possibility of marriage and religious life, but it never actualizes either; to switch jobs every two years leaves open the possibility of doing everything, but it never actualizes anything. To commit to something takes away some possibilities, for sure, but it also makes other ones real.
When I look at my newly professed brothers, I see men doing something completely radical, countercultural, and strange: they have committed their lives to finite actuality rather than remaining open to infinite possibility, men that have given up on everything for the sake of something. What they have done is not easy to do. “How do I know what to commit to?” That is the ultimate question, now, isn’t it? How we answer that will determine who we are and where we go, as well as who we aren’t and where we won’t go. The catch to this question is that it cannot go unanswered: to commit to nothing is still a commitment and it will still define you, but it will give back very little in the end.
And so I say, be radical. Be countercultural. Be strange. Make a commitment to something other than yourself. My Franciscan brothers just have, and I hope to do the same in three years time.