Richard Norman explains why the religious life should be taken seriously by those exploring vocation
The evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience seem to me to be best summed up in one key idea: the idea of audacity. Priests-religious, who live the consecrated life, dare to do so because of the love of God, which emboldens the religious to declare with all their being who and how God is.
The Catechism explains that ‘[in] the consecrated life, Christs faithful, moved by the Holy Spirit, propose to follow Christ more nearly, to give themselves to God who is loved above all and, pursuing the perfection of charity in the service of the Kingdom, to signify and proclaim in the Church the glory of the world to come …[They signify] the very charity of God in the language of our time .’
Paradox of the Cross
It is alarming enough to feel the need to explore a vocation to the priesthood; in most cases, the thought of a further element of vocation to the religious life is embarrassing, distressing, or risible. The criticism is that the religious life has become irrelevant, or that it cripples the gifts which a man embarking on the priesthood possesses – who would want to waste their talents behind the closed doors of a monastery? – or that, while it may be fine for some, it’s certainly not something for me.
One might explain away the monasticism of the past, when monasteries were full, as the result of men trying to secure an education, or social security, or just trying to escape the conditions of life outside the cloister. Why today ought one even to consider hiddenness, silence and self-denial?
An elegant silence
The answer – familiar though nonetheless unsettling – is the paradox of the Cross: life from death, victory from defeat, exaltation from humiliation. While the monk may be hidden, his life is testimony to the Kingdom to come; his silence is an eloquent expression of Gospel truth; and by foregoing riches, romance and the right to self-determination, he is enabled to grow into the true humanity seen in Christ, the image of the invisible God.
But although, thus far described, the religious life sounds a wholesome ideal, thoroughly commendable to someone else, one still hesitates. So why ought priests, ordinands and those exploring vocation take the religious life seriously?
I would suggest that the priestly disciplines of prayer, the fraternity of the ordained ministries and the call to witness to the Gospel are all enabled and encouraged by the religious life. Moreover, the religious life is a prime vehicle for the expression of our Catholic Anglican identity. Among other things, the concern for social justice, the prophetic role which we have in relation to the rest of the Church of England, our rich theological, aesthetic and cultural traditions – these all may flourish via the activity of professional religious.
At the heart of priestly ministry is the sacrifice of the Mass: the priesthood which speaks most clearly of Christs own high priesthood is likewise sacrificial. Do not suppose that your own future ministry – indeed, your own future as Christian disciples – will not require sacrifice.
Sacrifice and consecration
But, as Calvary and the Mass both so readily express, authentically Christian sacrifice is simultaneously consecration – the transformation of what is ordinary into what is extraordinary. Imagine what an invigorated religious life could do for Catholic Christianity in this country!
Imagine lives set ablaze by the love of Christ burning in the heart of every religious. God speaks to the heart: because what is given is then transformed, he will not allow you to give anything less than everything.
A sense of vocation to the priesthood is itself extraordinary -as is the audacity shown in being open to God. The religious life will always be a specialised vocation and not one to which many indeed are called. But continue listening, continue daring, and still be prepared to be surprised by God. |