The consecrated life. The religious life. The life of the vows. The life of the evangelical counsels. The cloistered life. What is this “other” way of living in the Church as a full expression of one’s baptism which is not married, single, or clerical?
It seems that there has always been a draw in the Church to live a life which enjoys and celebrates a special and different type of consecration. A life in which the person who chooses it is set aside to express themselves as a charismatic, gifted part of the Church’s life, and by which we offer a service to the Church which is absolutely complete in itself. One might almost say that, for as many needs as the Church discerns in her life and in the life of her members, and in the life of humanity, an expression of service is to be found in this life which is a consecrated “middle way”, belonging neither to the lay state or the clerical state, but nevertheless is a state which fully expresses the presence and foreshadowing of the Kingdom of God.
This makes it difficult to begin to describe what we loosely call “religious life” or “”consecrated life” – there are so many different expressions of this type of Church recognised life! Usually, each type is distinguished by what is known as the founding charism – the reason which was the charismatic impetus for the foundation of the order, or institute, or association. This charismatic impetus – as the name suggests, a strong and definite movement of the Holy Spirit expressing herself in one way or another to a person or group of persons to undertake a specific and new mission within the Church and on behalf of the Church and expressing the Church’s fundamental nature as proclaimer of the Gospel – is often defined in some kind of missionary way. It can be called a defining character, or gift, or grace. And essentially it’s this which attracts members to the institute: they perceive in an institute’s life and mission a way of life which resonates deeply with them – you look at the work which an order is doing, the kind of life its members live, how they pray, individually and together, the spirituality which their life embodies and which they propose, and you say – yes, this is for me, this is me, I want to live like this and be part of this, because, in some peculiar way, it is already a part of me, it expresses central aspects of who I am.
If we can recognise this then we are well on the way in our discernment journey – I seek a way of life which tells me, firstly, who I am and who God is calling me to be. Then we live that out in how we live, the mission that we undertake, the type of community where we find stability and security, the kind of spirituality which gives me the spiritual tools which best aid my spiritual growth, my becoming a follower of and image of Jesus Christ.
And so with the religious life – for a man, if I don’t in the first place feel called to be a priest who ministers in a parochial setting, in the day to day life of a diocese, with all its many modes of expression, by the way, then perhaps this way of consecrated life is where I should be.
Addressing that question firstly. Yes, there are many male orders and institutes which often ordain their members to priesthood – they are broadly known as clerical institutes. The ordained and ministerial priesthood here functions as a part of their mission within consecration in the religious life. Like priesthood which is exercised in a diocesan setting it is always for the sanctification of the people at whose service it is placed; there will be an element to it which is expressed in teaching; and leadership-service will be lived in some way also. But first and foremost comes the charism, the definitive Spirit-born character of the order, or congregation, or institute, or association, and those who enter the order enter firstly to learn to live that charism in service. A number of religious congregations preserve this central tenet of their existence – that one joins this body of men in the first place to embrace the charism and live as a brother in that institute, expressing the lived charism of the institute fully. Very often the institute discerns, in conjunction with the brother and his community, whether a man should be ordained, thus bringing an extra dimension to his life and ministry. Always, the appropriate studies and formation must be undertaken, and his vocation to priesthood must be recognised as authentic by the Church. Other congregations expect that, as part of amna’s ministry, he will eventually be promoted to ordination.
There is a vital point to be affirmed here. Two people get married, express their covenanted commitment to one another by their love and service to one another and by welcoming and nurturing the children that God gives them as graces and gifts in and expressive of their spousal union, because it is their vocational way to salvation. We need to articulate that very strongly and clearly – I get married, certainly, because I love someone and want them as my spouse for the whole of life, but primarily because this is the way that God has established for me which will offer me the fullest bag of tools by which I can take hold of his proffered gift of salvation. Marriage is my path to salvation.
The same for one ordained to the priesthood. I accept the grace of ordination, yes, because through it I will become, I hope, a grace for the People of God, sanctifying, teaching, serving as Christ would and becoming a Christ icon for them. But in the first place, I live this life because God says to me – this is your path to the salvation that my Son won for you. Live it as best you can.
And so with the consecrated life. Sometimes it can even seem a pointless way of life! (People actually do ask what point is there to monks and monasteries!) But when one considers that men and women religious enter this consecrated life, after discernment and prayer and thought and discussion, they do so, of course, to live the distinctive charism of the order and to emulate the wonderful life of their founder and the many holy people who have gone before them and left them extraordinary examples – but above all, because this is the path that God has set for them, and left open to them, to get them to salvation.
This is always an essential realisation as one approaches an institute to discern vocation, for both men and women. The distinctive title which we bear in our institutes – “brother” or “sister” – confirms strongly that embracing religious life and profession of vows is in itself a desire to mirror and live our Church membership through baptism by going back to the very roots of our Christian identity. In using these terms we reclaim forms of identity and address which were typical of the early Church: we recognise that we, members, are brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, and so in a very special way are brothers and sisters to one another. Religious life both recognises and brings to birth a new type of relationship which begins in our baptismal equality and is lived out in a fuller way by a shared profession of vows – what are formally known as the evangelical counsels, poverty, chastity, and obedience. This is a new familial relationship which is brought about by the gift of grace, and a special consecration. Indeed, it is often still the case for some religious that, on the occasion of their being received formally into their institute, which usually takes place as they begin their formal period of formation (the novitiate), they take a new name, signifying a new personhood and a new set of relationships within a new family.
The works of an institute, to turn to one aspect of the practical side of religious life, are part of the expression and articulation of the institute’s mission – the “how” of its foundation, more than the “why”. Everything exists in the Church for one reason only – the spread of the Gospel which happens so that the Kingdom of God may be more fully brought to perfection among us so that all men and women can be led to eternal life with God. A religious institute of consecrated life lives out a particular aspect of the Church’s life according to the idea and expression of its founder or founders. We can begin to think very concretely around some of these.
The Franciscans, in their many forms and expressions of that charism, seek to proclaim the fundamental simplicity of life which Francis embraced, proclaiming God’s presence and love by a radical form of renunciation of worldly things. So, poverty shapes their life, mission and charism above all else. The Domincans follow St Dominic’s call to live a frugal community life which supports and enables a life of preaching, so that the Truth who is Jesus Christ may have ready witnesses in the world. The Jesuits were formed as a society of companions in response to the reforming spirit in the Church after the Council of Trent, and seek through the personal growth of their members to be available throughout the Church’s missionary work, becoming woven into every aspect of the fabric of humanity and society. The Carmelites follow the call to deep encounter with God, for example, in their reformed tradition after the teaching of Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross, while sustaining pastoral ministries as well. And the many, many missionary congregations which have grown up over the Church’s history, and especially after the Council of Trent in the 16th century, have lived radically and most concretely Christ’s commission to us all to go out to all peoples and baptise.
By and large, these orders and congregations have an actively apostolic life and charism – their members, men and women religious, live in the world and bear witness in the day to day life and business of the secular age. Their lives and vocations are marked by the extraordinary variety of needs which people present – education, health care, social work, parish assistance and ministry, work with the terminally ill, work and witness in the most destitute of human circumstances; retreat work and preaching, faith formation and preparation for ministry, theological debate and discourse. All these areas, and more, are claimed as charismatic centres of operation for religious consecrated persons.
And yet, their work is not their principal task. Their principal task is to make Jesus Christ known in the world, having taken seriously the invitation to come to know him, ever more deeply, themselves.
On the other end of this very broad spectrum which represents consecrated life in the Church is that of contemplative monastic living. The Church has always made space for those who feel called to a life which is exclusively given over to prayer. This is not to say that those religious who exercise an active ministry in the world are not also people of prayer! Far from it! Their work would be nothing if it was not sustained by a life and rhythm of prayer, both their own personal interior work and that which they share in their various communities. And indeed this last aspect is essential for almost all consecrated persons – community and fraternal living is not something which happens to come along with the religious life – life in community is an essential expression of the life of the consecrated religious. Even the very strictest monastic form – the Carthusian life – is the life of solitaries lived in a community.
Again, focusing on the contemplative monastic life is not simply a matter of rejecting the active apostolic life. On the contrary, it is a sense that the work of my life is to enter into the privilege of a call to unceasing prayer and search for God, and that this search is so consuming that nothing else need get in its way. In this sense, the contemplative monastic life prizes a necessary simplicity and frugality above all else which help create the correct environment for this search to take place. So, the practice of ascetical renunciation in the monastic life aims to re-prioritise: it turns on its head, if you like, the priorities which the world sets, and enters into a context which is explicitly, and joyfully, Spirit-filled. One of the aims of the contemplative monastic life is undoubtedly to see one’s present life as already an opportunity to transcend, by opening our deepest eyes and see the transcendent God as always revealing himself now. The Church, and the world, need the witness of contemplative monastic women and men, who demonstrate that the human person can be called, and is called, into deep, transforming communion with God now.
As we have tried to show in other pages on our site, one of the invitations which a contemplative hears and accepts is to encounter God, joyfully and readily, in the very simple things which surround us. One needs to be able to learn again how to notice God present – in the beauty of the place in which we live and work; in the regular monotony of the rhythmical prayer through the day and night; in the love of learning and intellectual development; in the simple service of one’s brothers or sisters; in meals cooked with attention and care, and served out of love; in the gentle, loving care which is given to sick and elderly brothers or sisters; in the welcome given to guests, because Christ has come to visit the monastery in that moment; in the quiet minutes and hours spent in lectio divina, waiting for God to speak a word which changes me; in the hoped-for glorious silence of our cloisters and cells and hearts, a silence which is never emptiness because God waits to fill it.
It should be fairly obvious that, in order to begin to live such a life and to persevere patiently in such a life, a person needs to have an openness to silence and solitude, a desire to find these ways of being and be still in them, so that the quiet, gentle movements of God, within the person and around her, can be felt, enjoyed, tasted, and expectantly looked forward to again.
Men and women who feel that these things call out to them and “fit” them, as it were, might very well be called to live this monastic life of dedicated search for God.
Not for nothing is the principal work of the monastic called the “Work of God” – in some sense, it is already the work which God does himself, the always creative turning to himself in the community of the Trinity, the always being present to himself in the Persons of the Trinity. This always being present to God is expressed by us as prayer – prayer is already our participation, in some small and very imperfect way, in the always being Present Trinity. So, for the contemplative monastic the possibility of carrying others in prayer becomes an important work – one carries those persons, and their intentions, into the presence of God. That notion, which we have touched on before, that one can become prayer incarnate – living prayer – has to be a central part of what our monastic life is about. We seek to make of ourselves a worthy offering to God, consecrated to his praise and worship. And a monastery, and the life lived in a monastery, should always try to facilitate that for its members.
Perhaps the aspect which more than others characterises the consecrated religious life is that it is a life lived in response to and out of the profession of vows. Traditionally, these vows have been recognised as three. Known as the evangelical counsels, they, in their own way, try to sum up essential models which Christ lived so that the word of the good news which he preached became flesh with him for those who met him. These three vows – poverty, chastity, obedience – try to express the fundamental renunciation, the setting aside, which a person undertakes for the kingdom of God in their life as a religious. But it’s not just about setting aside or renunciation. To do that only would be a fairly negative way to approach an always positive and essentially joyful life. Each of the vows looks away from a worldly position represented by each of the notions and seeks a graced reality which supports one’s life and leads to a new way of living. In essence, the vows are, and should always be about freedom, not about restriction. Unfortunately, even in today’s world, people tend to see promises in terms of the boundaries and restrictions which they impose rather than the space which they open up to live. The vows are very personal – each of us must make the decision to undertake what they propose, and knit it into the fabric of our own lives. And yet they are eminently communitarian – all of us make the same profession of vows and so we not only embrace but are embraced by a life which is common, shared, undertaken in concert with others, and all focused on the one person of Jesus Christ, becoming one with one another and with him. It’s much more than creating a “level playing field” – this isn’t a blind uniformity in which the individuality of the person is lost. On the contrary, each one strives, according to his and her own gifts and failings towards the same Christian ideals, and by our own example and struggle both help one another and hopefully are helped by those who share the common life with us.
The vows need a little more than this said, of course, and more specifically the Benedictine vows propose a slightly different slant on the reception of Gospel living, being, as we know from the Rule, the vows of stability, obedience, and conversion of life.
These reflections seek not just to offer some little explanation or answers to questions which you may have had – they are directed towards those among us – and there are many! – who may be wondering what vocation within the Church will be the great framework for their life lived to its fullest. And given the beauty and diversity which exists within the religious and consecrated life we hope that these words can touch not a few of the people who read them and take time to ponder them in their hearts and prayer, to realise that they are being called, now, to this consecrated life in the Church and the world.
-Part of our ‘Vocation’ series-