Thursday, March 8, 2012

Soldier of Christ

Sometimes Catholic religious compare themselves to an army. They call themselves "Soldiers of Christ". In their opinion, they are fighting against the forces of evil, in groups, training and sacrificing themselves for the greater good.

And it is true that the religious are disciplined, strong, well-trained and obedient, capable of great sacrifice, just as a good soldier is. There are many parallels that can be made between the two. But, having lived as a religious for two years, I have seen more of religious life than most people, and I can draw some more interesting parallels between religious and soldiers.

They Break You Down, Then Build You Back Up

It's no secret that the army recruitment training can be tough. It's been a stated objective that the officers training the recruits aim to completely break them, before building them back up into the desired soldiers. And it's pretty clear why. A soldier needs to be part of a whole; he needs to be instantly, unquestioningly obedient, loyal, brave and uncomplaining. Any soldier without the physical and mental toughness born of enduring their training would not last long in a war zone.

It's exactly the same for religious. I'm going to refer to "nuns" and "she/her", as this is from my personal experience, but I am sure this can extend to male religious as well.

A nun's probationary period, known variously as a "postulancy", "aspirancy" or "novitiate", can be horrendously difficult to endure. At least in the convent where I was based, there was little lee-way given to new sisters. New sisters were expected to quickly learn and follow the rules; this, coupled with a demanding physical schedule, could be exhausting. With little sympathy from the older sisters, new sisters would be expected to sink or swim under their own power.

It's hard to see why the experience should be so hard, but the effect was very similar to a soldier's training. Sisters would be broken physically and mentally, and if they survived, would be re-trained to think and act as a religious. While a nun may never need to enter a war-zone, the confines of religious life, coupled with their long days and rigorous schedule, requires a certain mindset and physical toughness. The probationary period is expected to produce that, whilst weeding out  candidates who couldn't or didn't want to make such a sacrifice.

I remember being broken in so many ways during my time in the convent. From kneeling to sisters when I broke the rules, to giving up personal gifts to the convent, to being denied phonecalls to my family - they all worked to break me down. The idea was that I would become selfless, identifying myself with the convent. But, at least for me, it didn't work. All it did was hurt, leaving me sick and broken.

They Both Value Obedience Over Individuality

Soldiers are not known for their individuality. They give up much of it when they first join, being addressed as "Private", rather than by their name; wearing uniforms; eating, sleeping, training and recreating in communal, utilitarian areas; even marching in uniform rows. Soldiers who stand out either do so because they failed to conform to expectations, or because they went over and above expectations in performing their duties. The great majority of soldiers are a uniform group, all with the same physical abilities and mental mindset.

Nuns are very similar. Of course, there are the habits, which turn every sister into a perambulating sheet of dull cloth, but there are the names too. Depending on the order, every person who goes into religious life can expect to be referred to as "sister", and even give up their given name for a new one. For example, my name is Felicity, but when I was in the convent I was referred to as "Sister Mary Raphael".

All sisters are expected to live alike, with no one having any privileges or possessions that cannot be shared with all the other sisters. Even more than soldiers, nuns are taught to hold everything in common, and to move, act and think alike. They become part of a whole, and are encouraged to disregard their own needs and wants in favour of the entire group.

I was quite ok with a lot of the methods used to make me a part of the convent whole. I didn't mind giving up my possessions, or sharing food, rooms and books. I didn't even mind being called by a religious name. For me, the problem began when I was led to believe I should give up everything, even my own well-being, in order to better serve the convent. I was ready to do so, and tried my best, but in the end, when I was ill and asked to leave, I felt rejected, as if I had given everything, and received no gratitude in return.

 They Are Open To Abuse

I'm not going to make this into a post about the various failings of soldiers or religious. Every organisation is open to abuse of the system, and for every example of power abused, there is hundreds of examples of the organisations working. If an adult chooses to take one of these paths, they should be mature enough to understand the pitfalls and dangers they are risking. Soldiers know they risk injury and death serving their country, and nuns should know they risk isolation and physical and mental exhaustion serving their God.

What interests me is the way soldiers and nuns both value their loyalty over their own well-being. From the before-mentioned training, both are conditioned to value the good of the whole over that of the individual. They are taught to be obedient and selfless. The problem can be if the organisation that they have been trained to be loyal to fails in its responsibility to the individuals making it up.

Even after I left the convent, I was very reluctant to discuss the convent. I used to deflect questions with humour, and tell quirky stories, rather than reveal what I had truly been feeling over the time I lived there. I think now that it was because I still felt this loyalty to the convent. Even though I had been rejected from it, even though I had no ties there anymore, and even though it may have hurt me, I couldn't bring myself to criticise it.

These days, I think of my time at the convent was as character-building as a stint in the army - with most of the same pitfalls. I may not have gone to a war zone, or developed PTSD, or been injured in the line of duty, but I bear my own scars of serving, even if for only a couple of years, as one of the Soldiers of Christ. The convent was not perfect, but I learnt many lessons. Rather more of them were learnt the hard way than I would have liked, but still, I have experiences and memories that will shape me forever. And it taught me the ultimate parallel between the army and religious:

Being a soldier is hard. One may asked to make the ultimate sacrifice for one's country. But being a Soldier of Christ is harder, as they aim to make every nun make the ultimate sacrifice for their God.


  1. This is so sad, Felicity. I thought a convent would be filled with love but it sounds like a heartless prison.

    Your posts are very moving and it's nice to know how you are doing. I hope we can stay in touch:) xxx

    1. Dear Auntie Vicky did I never answer your comment? How rude of me! I'm so sorry!

      I don't think all convents are like this, or all experiences are like mine, but this post was meant to draw some interesting parallels I found between the convent, and the very rough and macho life of a soldier. One day I might go into more detail about my convent experiences, but I need to make sure I am ready to talk about some experiences that are still a bit raw for me.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. estupenda la formacion de un caracter fuerte, recio, valiente; porque SatanĂ¡s no es blandengue, no es debilucho, al contrario, es muy astuto, y quiere que caigamos para que Dios no sea glorificado.
    no podemos ser debiles en la lucha contra el mal. Apoyo a los conventos.

  3. Funnily enough you reminded me of something I was told many years ago. I was training as a hypnotherapist (I wanted to go into mental health) and the lecturer told us that Catholics and Soldiers make some of the best subjects as they are used to following orders.

    1. Maybe I am just too much of an individual! My psychologist is a trained hypnotherapist, and he's never been able to put me under! Apparently I don't relax enough and have too active a mind.

      Thank you so much for commenting!