“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
“You did not choose me, no, I chose you; and I commissioned you to go out and to bear fruit.” (Jn. 15:16) Jesus wanted His disciples and all those who would be chosen to follow Him in the future, to understand the essence of their vocation. A vocation to the religious life and in particular to contemplative life, is a special call. It cannot be explained, only accepted. It is a silent voice whose urging creates within the soul a burning desire to know God, to be with God, to serve God and completely dedicate one’s total self to God. It is not something the soul decides-it is an acceptance of a choice made by God-it is a courageous gesture of love on the part of the soul and an outpouring of merciful love on the part of God.
Religious life is an encounter with the living God. Sometimes that encounter is preceded by a kind of soul searching agony that tries desperately not to hear, runs in the opposite direction and frantically tries to reason itself out of answering the invitation. This is so because the world has conditioned our minds to believe only what we see and never to venture into the unknown unless success is guaranteed.
In the quotation from St. John, Jesus asked two things—to “go out and to bear fruit.” This going out entails a change of place, work and mission but most of all a change of self. A vocation not only demands a gift of talent, time, possessions, family and friends but a gift of one’s own self. “Unless the grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain.” (Jn. 12:24) Giving up one’s prized possessions and one’s self is not as negative as it seems. God does not make demands that leave us in some kind of vacuum. St. Peter asked Jesus what reward would be given those who had left all things for Him and Jesus answered, “Everyone who has left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or lands for the sake of my name will be repaid a hundred times over and also inherit eternal life.” (Matt. 19:29)
A vocation is a gift from beginning to end—a call to rise above the things of this world and prove by a living witness that there is something more and better to come. Those who have been called to this witnessing role are not deprived of love, comfort or joy. They merely find these gifts on a more spiritual and lasting level. Their personalities are not destroyed in some sacrificial act of piety, but developed and made beautiful by the grace of God constantly being poured into their emptying vessels.
Grace builds on nature and, contrary to popular belief, those called by God to be holy in this special way find their identity, fulfill their life, love without limit and are free of attachments. They are not afraid to know themselves, for self-knowledge makes them humble enough and wise enough to realize how very much they need God as Savior and Lord. This realization is the beginning of freedom—the door to holiness—the entrance to the Temple of God.
To assure themselves of this self-knowledge and positive growth in holiness, those called by God to be religious bind themselves to live in community and consecrate their most prized possessions—the faculties of their souls—by the three vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. The Vows are not Chains that bind, but Keys that open—they are not things sacrificed, but gifts received—they are not privations that warp, but freedoms that deliver—they are not the myrrh of penance, but the incense of sacrifices lovingly ascending to the throne of God. The purified faculties are like three rings, each more beautiful than the other, ever growing in value and brilliance as they reflect more and more the Source from which they come—God.
These thoughts are not poetic ramblings about some impossible ideal, but the obligation of everyone to whom God has given a religious vocation. A religious is to be a “Light in the Darkness”—a “city on top of the mountain” for all men to see and praise their God. It is for His Glory they are to “shine like stars”, not their own. A religious is a special envoy from God to the world and irrespective of the mission entrusted to them, their union with God is their greatest work. Religious are more than workers in the Lord’s vineyard —they are friends who are tied to the Master of the vineyard by the bonds of friendship —friendship that is powerful in its intercessory role. This role is more important than any amount of work accomplished and we find this explained by Jesus when He said, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask what you will and you shall get it. It is to the glory of my Father that you should bear much fruit and then you will be my disciples.” (Jn. 15:7,8) We who are religious, or those who will be called to that state, must keep in mind the importance of bearing fruit before we distribute that fruit to our neighbor. We cannot give what we do not possess. It is not enough to be servants who distribute the Master’s goods. We are to be disciples, who bring in the sick, lame, crippled, blind and deaf and seat them at the Master’s table—not for some temporary handout, but an ongoing banquet of good things for them to permanently feed their souls upon. St. Paul tells us the Word of God is “living and active—like a two-edged sword.” The fruit a religious is to bear is the glimpse of Jesus he or she gives to the world by their imitation of Jesus. Whatever mission flows from that wellspring of holiness is secondary. Whether that mission is teaching, nursing, social work or intercessory contemplative prayer, it cannot be substituted for the witnessing role of a life of holiness. The Father is glorified when a poor weak creature, made in His image, yields itself so completely to the sanctifying power of the Spirit, that a “reflection turns to transformation.” (2 Cor. 3: 18) When the poor are fed the food so necessary for the body, they cannot De deprived of the food so crucial for the soul—the example of a religious who is a breathing image of the love, mercy and compassion of Jesus. To give them one without the other is only to make them more poor and deprive them of God—given rights when they already suffer the privation of human rights. We have been promised by Jesus that we would always have in our midst disciples whose lives would prove His love and Lordship. “With me in them,” He said, “and you in me, may they be so completely one that the world will realize that it was you who sent me and that I have loved them as much as you loved me.” (Jn. 17:23) The personal and communal life of every religious must exemplify this union with the Trinity—a union that encircles the world with love—the same love with which they are encircled. Without this union with God, the religious only fulfills part of his vocation, and may one day see the reality behind St. Paul’s awesome statement. “If I give away all I possess, piece by piece, and if I even let them take my body to burn it, but am without love, it will do me no good whatever.” (2 Cor. 13:1-3)
Religious are not better than other men—they are chosen for the benefit of mankind and the glorification of God on earth. Men climb mountains, scale heights, venture into the unexplored to prove to other men it can be done. This is the witness of today’s disciples—they provide a needed witness that holiness is possible in today’s world because there is one whose Indwelling Presence accomplishes the difficult, the impossible and the miraculous—a change of life, ideals and goals. Let us look briefly and see how the Spirit works in the soul that has been chosen for this way of life.
“None Of You Can Be My Disciple Unless He Gives Up All His Possessions” (Luke 14:33)
The Vow of Poverty purifies the faculty of the intellect promoting a growth in Faith and producing the fruit of detachment, patience, humility and long-suffering.
Though there are few religious who suffer from want, their Vow of Poverty obliges them to give all they possess to the religious family they join. It is a total dependence on a community for every need in life and a deterrent against greed, superfluities, avarice and worldliness. In the world a poor man may be rich in desires but the Vow of Poverty strips one of those legitimate desires to possess—those human rights to own property, dispose of possessions and make decisions regarding life-style. The renunciation of these interior rights to possess, frees the soul from complicated ambitions and goals that weigh the soul down like a ball and chain. The intellect is free to ponder the mysteries of God for it is no longer entangled in the reasoning, cunning and shrewd intellectual battles that occupy the mind as it seeks to keep what it possesses and acquire more. This necessitates a constant growth in Faith for when “things” are taken away from the soul—then one sees oneself in a mirror, wiped clean of the dust of possessions, dependent upon superiors and fellow religious and the privations incumbent to communal living promotes a growth in humility and patience. Mutual forbearance of human weaknesses is a major part of the Vow of Poverty for it makes one forget oneself for the good of others. The constant demand to change is to empty oneself like Jesus did. The Vow of Poverty is a daily death, but a daily resurrection for every part of us given is replaced by more of Jesus. This is like breathing the air of eternity—free, pure and unimpeded by any particles of possessions.
This Vow reaches down into the depths of the soul and requires a generous gift of one’s time, talents, strength, love, virtue and even life if necessary. The soul truly living the Vow of Poverty lives and gives completely as the Spirit leads in the present moment. Yes, this Vow goes beyond things and reaches the depths of one’s being—permitting one to sacrifice for God and neighbor. Then it is that the soul reaps the fruit of the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Freedom of spirit makes the soul cry out, “I have been crucified with Christ and I live not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in this body I live in Faith—faith in the Son of God who loved me and sacrificed himself for my sake.” (Gal. 2:19,21)
The Vow of Chastity purifies the Memory promoting growth in Hope and bearing the fruit of joy, trust, child-likeness, mercy and compassion.
A eunuch in Our Lord’s day was completely dedicated to the service of the Queen. He was chosen to live a celibate life so his attention would not be divided. There was, in these pagan times, a deep realization that the affairs of state could brook no competition. The very heart of the eunuch had to belong to the Queen in order for his mind to be undivided by desires and goals other than hers. No one questioned the sovereignty of the Queen, who made such demands and yet there are many who question the right of God to make such requests. Unlike the royalty of old, God, who gave us free will, requests, calls and gives grace when His mission on earth demands one’s total attention by a celibate life. This is why Jesus ended His teaching about continence by saying, “Let anyone accept this who can.”
The Vow of Chastity, like Poverty, goes much deeper than the privation of a spouse and children. It is a call from God to arrive at such a degree of holiness that a never ending flood of love issues from the heart to the world. A love like to God’s love —unhampered by the necessity of worrying about oneself, about tomorrow or providing for the future. God has a right to call some of His creatures, elevate them by grace and then put them in various positions in life in which they can radiate His unselfish love to the world. He does neither the one He calls nor the world any injustice. He knows the faith of many is enhanced only by seeing visible fruit of His existence in a fellow human being. He also knows that His children need examples of self-control, dedication, zeal and selflessness if they are going to lead virtuous lives. The Vow of Chastity leaves the soul unencumbered by the flesh in the same way the Vow of Poverty releases the soul from the world.
The religious who observes the Vow of Chastity is free to love every human being with the love of Jesus. It purifies the faculty of Memory, for the pleasures, enticements and inordinate desires are held in control. Legitimate human rights to possess a family of one’s own are offered to God as a sacrifice of praise. This sacrifice covers the world and then it is that the words of Jesus become a reality. “There is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, father, children or land for my sake…who will not be repaid a hundred times over, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and lands…not without persecutions…now in this present life.” (Mark 10:29,30) One does not give up love through the Vow of chastity but one does give up exclusive loves for the gift of possessing an all embracing love. The heart of the celibate is strong enough to be on fire with zeal for God and Kingdom, large enough to embrace all mankind, warm enough to give without receiving in return, trusting enough to forgive without limit, peaceful because God’s Will is its only goal, persevering because it is not its own end, courageous because it grows more beautiful in sacrifice and serene because it always possesses its Beloved. The Vow of Chastity truly frees the heart to love, because its Beloved is ever faithful. The religious has no fear of loss, for its Treasure is within—no sense of insecurity for its beloved is all provident, no jealousy for it is the object of His total love. Yes, the religious who is faithful to the Vow of Chastity has a heart full of love—”pressed down, shaken together, running over” for its Source of love is infinite and has free reign in that soul.
“My food is to do the will of the one who sent me, and to complete his work: (Jn.6:34)
The Vow of Obedience purifies the faculty of the Will, promoting a growth In Love and bearing the fruit of self-control, courage, meekness, peace, serenity and perseverance.
The most freeing of all the Vows is the Vow of Obedience. This is not because someone else makes decisions and the religious merely follows directions. The role of the superior is not one of dictatorship and Jesus made this very clear. “Among pagans,” He said, “it is the kings who lord it over them…this must not happen to you. No; the greatest among you must behave as if he were the youngest, the leader as if he were the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24-27) Obviously if a leader is to be a servant the directions he gives are not to be difficult or authoritative. The religious subject has a right to receive humble commands if humble obedience is to be given. However, obedience to lawful authority is only part of the Vow of Obedience—it is in reality the effect or fruit of its more positive aspect, an aspect without which the Vow can become merely an escape from personal responsibility or a charade of external piety.
The religious with this Vow witnesses to the world of the reality of the Presence of God in the present moment. It is the Vow of union and sanctity for it looks for every opportunity to unite the Will of the religious with the Will of God as it makes itself known in the present moment. Like Jesus, the Will of the Father is its daily food—a food unknown to the earthly and worldly. Obedience strengthens the Will because it is constantly being freely exercised and made strong by its adherence to the Will of God in the present moment. The soul of the religious, faithful to the Vow, strives to see God in everything and in everyone. The Will is ever seeking the many daily opportunities to be like Jesus, to overcome its weaknesses, to become strong and free—free of rebellion—free of doubt, free of anger, free of the tensions of that inner struggle seeking to do one’s own will.
Not only does Obedience free the soul in regard to itself, but also in regard to one’s neighbor. We often rebel at the actions, sufferings, pain, injustice and trials in the lives of others. To do what one can to alleviate the pain of others and then be at peace with the Will of God in their regard is also part of this Vow. A religious bears witness to the world that accomplishing God’s Will, manifested in lawful authority, in one’s duties, state in life and in the present moment, is possible, sanctifying, freeing, holy and fruitful.
It is Love—love of God and neighbor, that is the power behind such a Will. As love increases through courageous perseverance, serenity and peace fill the soul to overflowing. Truly, the obedient are blest for they see the Father in the present moment and imitate Jesus in every action as their hearts are ever open to the Spirit of Love.
In order to be faithful to these high ideals, the religious must daily grow in a greater participation in the Divine Nature—in grace. The Vows empty the soul in order for God to fill it with Himself. There should be a constant “emptying-filling” process of growth until the soul and God are one.
Just as there are three Vows to empty the soul, there are three sources of grace to fill it. The Vow of Poverty empties the soul of possessions as Scripture fills the soul with the Word of God—its sole possession. The Vow of Chastity empties the soul of an exclusive love as it is filled with the all embracing love in the Eucharist. The Vow of Obedience empties the soul of self-will as it is filled with the courage obtained by Unceasing Prayer.
Yes, the Vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience nourished by Scripture, the Eucharist and Prayer, increase Faith, Hope and Love, purify the Memory, Intellect and Will as union with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit grows brighter and brighter for all the world to see.