Monday, August 08, 2005

Market Economics and Vocations

I don't like to dwell much on the fact, but I once belonged to an avant-garde musical ensemble, a project cooked up by my best friend and me after we won our high school talent show with a piece that we wrote that featured two saxophones, a trombone, four voices, and so on--the works! Well, it's one thing to wow 'em in a small Catholic high school in Wisconsin. It's another thing to make a living doing tricky music.

From the beginning of the project which we began in earnest after each of us studied music either in college and/or for a couple of years after college, we looked at the venture as a business. We knew that we would need to market ourselves cleverly if we were going to survive. The idea that the creme automatically rises to the top is a myth, one on which I will comment at a later date.

In any case, we read up on ideas having to do with market systems and competition and stumbled upon a novel discovery: most bands that we knew looked at each other a bit warily because the feeling was that there were only so many gigs and so many fans' dollars to go around and that put us all in competition with each other. What my friend and I discovered, from our own analysis as well as the recent 'Seattle grunge' phenomenon at that time (the early 90's) is that the competition is not between bands but between rival ideas of what music should be played. The more bands there were doing similar things, the more they created demand for their product, especially if it was a good product. We used to refer to this with a shorthand phrase: "Our competition is not other bands but bad bands." This is because bands doing new music that turned people off made the fans suspect of all new music, and we of everyone needed fans to come to our performances with an open mind.

This thought came to me this weekend, as we hosted a young man who is about to enter the monastery of New Norcia in Italy in the fall. I have been in contact with him for about two years and he is a fine candidate. I'm sure any community would be happy to have him join. Indeed, we might be tempted to try and steal him away from New Norcia. There are so few vocations to go around today! We need to snap them up quick!

Unfortunately, I know of communities that think and act this way. It creates bad feelings between communities, as you would expect. But the truth of the matter is that if all of us religious were just doing our jobs, then the holiness of our life, apart even from the grace that would obviously work through those lives, would create a demand for our life. If we were full of the joy and life of the gospel, young men and women would get caught up in the excitement of it all. Today, I fear, when a candidate meets a dour community, the fear that religious life is deadening stays with him, and he views even joyful and solid communities with suspicion. And let's face it, most young people learn about religious life from either the examples of anti-Catholic movies or from aging and angry old-guard revolutionaries. I hope that doesn't sound too dismissive: I know a few persons for whom the label isn't entirely unfair and they often have many good insights on religious life if you take the time to get to know them. If you don't, you might get the idea that religious life lost its fun somewhere in the 1980's. As far as popular culture goes, how many people get to see movies like "Going My Way" or "The Bells of St. Mary's" these days? I mean, who wouldn't want to be Bing Crosby or Ingrid Bergman?

"The competition is not other religious communities but the perception that religious life is for losers."

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