On November 21 (the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Temple), the Church will celebrate World Day of Cloistered Life, also known as “Pro Orantibus” Day, which is a Latin phrase meaning “for those who pray.” This is an important ecclesial event for all Catholics worldwide to commemorate the hidden lives of consecrated religious in cloisters and monasteries.
We celebrate this day because the contemplative life is a gift from Almighty God to us all — all the world benefits spiritually from the prayer and sacrifice of these dedicated and faithful souls, even when we may not know it. On this day, the faithful are encouraged to reach out to the cloistered and contemplative communities in their diocese, through prayer, encouragement, and material support.
Most of us recognize the beauty of the religious life. For most, the beauty of monasticism stands out. But its other forms us as beautiful as well because love is the motivating center. But why is the religious life beautiful? In order to answer that question we should first list the classical criteria of beauty. Thomas Aquinas says three things are necessary for beauty:
First, (1) integrity or perfection, for things that are lacking in something are for this reason ugly; also (2) due proportion or consonance; and again, (3) clarity, for we call things beautiful when they are brightly colored.
Since Christ is Love made visible and religious life is conformity to Christ, religious life is a continuation of that love made visible in Christ. Love is perfect, showing forth integrity (1). There is no lack. It is the perfection of all things. It is harmonious and proportionate (2). It does not undermine a(they part or add superfluity. The parts are united into a harmonious whole (order). Lastly, it shines forth (3). It communicates itself, bringing others into its life.
If religious life is an intense participation in the Christ life which is Love, it will meet these three criteria. In an age full of thrills but lacking in beauty, Dostoyevsky’s prophecy that “beauty will save the world” needs to be taken seriously. Taking into consideration what was said above, then it makes sense to say the beauty of the religious life is integral to saving the world because in and through it Christ is encountered.
Why did the early Church accept some strands of Greek philosophy and not Greek mythology as a whole? Both had a theological worldview, one possibly more specific than another. It was not as if philosophy was simply within the realm of reason yet as one step to faith, but Greek philosophy already had a more or less distinct vision of God and man according to which the soul ought to conform. Accordingly, Plato’s Academy was more like a monastery (seeking God) than today’s university (seeking Information). Not only were ancient philosophical schools for discovery and contemplation, but its practices were integral to the end of union with God. While not the fullness of Revelation, philosophy manifested aspects of the truth, whereas, the mythological worldview contradicted Revelation, presenting a false image of God and man, i.e. idolatry.
The Church still struggles with competing mythologies about God and man. Currently, she clashes with many modern idols of God and man, seeking to remake all things in its basic image and likeness. Such an idol destroys man because it doesn’t manifest the truth, making him a slave. Modern philosophy very often is at the service of such idols, but like Moses it should destroy them. If you want a revitalization of Catholicism, pray for a revitalization of philosophy that it may return and follow the example of the midwife of Wisdom, Socrates. Like Moses, he was an idol smasher, namely, smashing the idols of the city. He paid for it with his life. I think that after the smashing he would have been open to the Revelation of the true God, thus making him someone who would have been close to the Lord. Erasmus echoed the Church Fathers by loosely designating Socrates a saint. They were on to something, i.e. the marriage of philosophy and the Word. Pray for a revitalization of philosophy because when that suffers the Word suffers.
When I lived in Washington D.C. there was a group of nuns that accomplished everything. They were the hardest working people in the city. I once asked them how do they find the time to accomplish all of their work and still find time for other things. Their simple answer was prayer. Taking the time to pray focused them not only on God but on the task at hand. They were not prone to the million little distractions many of us go through because the act of praying disciplined their attention. Many of us do not work well because our hearts are divided. Kierkegaard said that purity of heart is to will one thing. Part of the ascesis of the religious life is learning how to will one thing, ultimately the will of God.
Many companies struggle to keep their employees focused, especially if the work is on the computer. The internet has presented innumerable distractions. It almost seems to be made for distraction. I have never talked to someone who said the internet has made them more focused. On the other hand, almost every gardener tells me that gardening actually makes them focused, bringing them a sense of calm and confidence. Eden was a garden and Adam a gardener. Internet work seems to make the modern Adam anxious and frazzled. This might be the reason I have never met a religious order that makes working on the internet their main apostolate. It might lead to some very unhappy nuns.
Looking at the ways religious orders order their lives is necessary when the dominate way of life lacks any coherent order. Many social commentators agree that we live in a “Anxious Age”, an era that is leading many people to depression. Often this is found within technologically advanced countries. Some technologies are supposed to help people accomplish their work quicker and free up some time in their schedules. However, most people are overwhelmed and have no leisure time whereas the nuns who did not use many technologies to speed up their work had all the time in the world to pray and enjoy leisure. Now is the time to actually look at how religious order spend their time and what is key to their success in making time.
Saint Paul in his epistle to the Hebrews writes that the Christian virtue of “Hope” is set before us as “an anchor of the soul, sure and firm.” (cf. Heb 6:19) The anchor of a ship is that substantial piece of equipment that when thrown down, grabs hold of the solid sea bed below. The winds may blow and the waves crash about, but the anchor provides security and stability until the skies clear and the waves calm.
The community of religious brothers called the Brotherhood of Hope was founded in 1980 by Father Philip Merdinger. With their motto as “Primum Deus, Deus Solum”, Latin for “God First, God alone”, this community based in Boston, MA wears on their habit the Anchor.
With 18 young men in Brotherhood formation as of this writing, these serious, yet joyful men prepare to labor in the harvest of the Lord with a zeal for the “lost sheep”, particularly college students and young adults who are especially vulnerable to being lost in the storms of the increasingly secularized and hostile culture with its many allurements and distractions.
From the earliest days of the Church, the Anchor has served as a powerful symbol of Hope in Christ our Resurrected Savior and His promise of eternal salvation, with countless examples found on the epitaphs of the faithful departed within the catacombs in Rome.
The important work of the Brothers is that in their apostolate, in their fidelity to Christ and to the Church and their works of mercy, they inspire Hope and demonstrate the “freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21)
“Religious profession so orders our whole life to God and neighbor that it is a sign the unity of the Trinity reflected in our unity and our outpouring love for God, our sisters and all mankind. It is this loving kenosis which produces perfect human fulfillment.”
—Constitutions for Poor Clare nuns (Article 5, number 3)
St. Thomas Aquinas asserted that happiness is union with the One who is Goodness itself, namely God. Our country’s forefathers saw the human desire for happiness as not just a goal but a fundamental right, the “right to the pursuit of happiness.” However, pleasure and happiness are not the same and the “right to the pursuit of happiness” presupposes the moral obligation to live according to the laws of God. Indeed, the Catholic Church proclaims that we were created to know, love and serve God in this life so as to be happy with Him forever in the next.
This happiness or blessedness is ultimately holiness. Therefore, we can say we have been endowed by our Creator with the “right to pursuit of holiness.” This pursuit of holiness, or striving for perfection, is the life’s work and obligation of those who make profession of the evangelical counsels. We do this by daily offering our lives at the service of God’s plan in the vows of obedience, poverty and chastity, emptying ourselves in order to be filled with Christ and bring him to others. “It is this loving kenosis which produces perfect human fulfillment.”
Obedience is an act of the will, a free choice, not an act of fear or compulsion. “The love of Christ impels us,” St. Paul says, and it is through this love that any fear is transformed into the free surrender of our will and the great desire to do what God is asking of me at this moment. In his conferences on the evangelical counsels, Archbishop Charles Schleck, C.S.C. asserts that “obedience perfects the will instead of suppressing it. To love God is not merely to surrender or give up something of our own will. It is to adhere positively and firmly to the will of the one we love. And to love God means to do what He desires; it is obey. Obedience is universal in character and belongs to the very life of the Church. It brings to completion our baptismal faith … (it) perfects the consecration proper to baptism.”
In her biography of Saint Colette, Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C., describes the young Colette, with the vow of perpetual virginity fresh upon her soul, as a woman no longer alone in the world. She is espoused to Christ now. Yet this reality is hidden from the eyes of men and is part of the great paradox of Christian life where the one who loses her life finds it and the grain of wheat that dies brings forth much fruit. It is our radical renunciation of all things, even the great good of earthly marriage, for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven which is the source of our union with Christ. And it is our union with Christ which allows us to enter into His love for all mankind.
In a radical kenosis the second person of the Blessed Trinity became man to save us by His death and resurrection. In the words of St. Paul “… He did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at but emptied Himself.” Our form of life is to live the holy Gospel, and we do this by striving to imitate the self-emptying of Christ in every aspect of our life. “According to the thinking of St. Clare, evangelical poverty goes far beyond the renunciation of earthly possessions, extending to the whole of life. For in the Franciscan concept, the surrender of temporal goods is intimately bound up with the profession of obedience and chastity and also with enclosure and communion in the spirit” (Art. 11 #1).
“Enclosed nuns are called to give clear witness that man belongs entirely to God, and so to keep green among the human family the desire for a heavenly home” (Art. 20 #2). We strive for that union in this life and are a sign for the world of each soul’s destiny.
For those who are called and who respond to its totality of grace, ours is a life of profound joy in the pursuit of holiness through the total surrender of all we are and all that is, for God’s glory and the salvation of souls. “Amen, amen, without ever turning back” (Testament of our Holy Mother St. Colette)
Before St. Benedict of Nursia, St. Augustine of Hippo was planning on living in solitude in something like a monastic community, not necessarily modeled off the austerity of the Egyptian desert monks but closer to the “City of the Philosophers” dreamed of by Plotinus. It would have been a lay monastery. Augustine was ultimately prevented from establishing such a community since he was quickly made bishop of Hippo. However, it is important to remember his desire to live such a life. If it were not for the need of the Church, Augustine would have lived like a monk. He prayed and contemplated the Psalms every day. In fact, while he was on his deathbed, Augustine had the Psalms placed on the wall so he could recite them in his dying hour. He saw his life in the context of the Biblical narrative, a narrative through which everyone can find the hidden meaning of their lives. The call of God was at the heart of that. Let us remember the prayers of his mother Monica and her prayers for the conversion of her son. May our sons and daughters hear the call of Christ and respond with fear and trembling as the wayward Augustine did.
This weekend the Church celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Czestochowa. This feast commemorates the famous icon of Our Lady that, according to legend, was painted by St. Luke at the house of the Holy Family. The icon ended up in Constantinople due to the efforts of St. Helena, and then was brought to Poland before the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century. The icon became the spiritual heart of the Poles, reminding them of Mary’s maternal care through the hardships of their history. In 1979, shortly after becoming Pope, Saint John Paul II traveled to Poland in what has been remembered as the “Nine Days That Changed the World.” On that trip, he went to Jasna Gora, the home of Our Lady of Czestochowa, and reminded the Poles to consecrate “everything through Mary.” He urged them to give over to Mary’s maternal heart all their sufferings, sacrifices, and hopes. Only in Her, who is rooted in the Son, will they find the liberation they were seeking, the freedom grounded in authentic self-gift that only Christ can give.
Poland is a country that not only sees its history through the lens of Providence but a land where it is very common to find people who see their own particular histories through the dynamics of the Faith. Dedication to Mary is part of that. It begins in the home, especially through daily recitation of the Rosary and simple acts of consecration to Mary at a young age. Religious vocations flourish in such a culture because life is interpreted as bring from and for God, encouraging the youth to make Mary’s “fiat” an integral part of their lives. The vow of consecration and the vow of marriage are seen as participations in Mary’s way of life who is both Virgin and Spouse. The Institute on Religious Life has a special devotion to Mary since she is the Mother of Vocations. Each day we should pray through Mary for vocations, and we should look to Our Lady of Czestochowa for help and guidance.