As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
In the calendar of the church, today marks the day in 1841 that a Marian Rebecca Hughes made religious vows of poverty and celibacy and obedience, the very first woman to take such vows in the Church of England since the Reformation, becoming the first Superior of the Convent of the Holy and Undivided Trinity at Oxford . A year earlier Priscilla Lydia Sellon founded the Society of the Holy Trinity at Devonport. Both of these communities grew, and both of them died. And this is true for so many other religious orders. The founder of our own community (in 1866), Richard Meux Benson, imagined that our own community would die after the first generation. On the one hand, you could say there is something quite sad about these statistics. Religious communities not having a kind of enduring permanency; and yet, on the other hand, they really do model “the paschal mystery.” That is, there is a birthing and a dying, a birthing and a dying, a birthing and a dying that informs life, including the religious life. And if this does not happen literally, it will need to happen spiritually and symbolically, and probably on a daily basis, otherwise religious orders simply become archival institutions, that is, institutions that may be historically interesting, maybe even important, but which have no currency or relevancy in the moment. What Jesus said of the householder applies, I would say, to a monastic household if it is to stay vibrant: the need “to bring out of the treasury things new and things old.” [i] Both.
Several qualities about the religious life that have survived the test of time that have informed this way of life down through the centuries, in its many manifestations.
For one, members of religious orders have traditionally been traditionally been eccentric. I’m not speaking about quirks or oddnesses… though that could certainly apply to some of us. But I mean eccentric in an etymological sense: eccentric as in the Latin eccentricus , meaning “having a different center.” Some of this, I would say, is how religious orders constellate their values, seeing praise, and presence and service of God being the most important thing. The praise and presence and service of God is at the center, and everything else is like a concentric circle in some nearer or farther proximity to this center. Whether you are preaching a sermon or washing a window or pulling a weed, what you are about is learning to “pray your life,” to use a phrase from our own Rule of Life . I would say that religious are “eccentric” also in the sense of being “liminal.” I’m not saying “limited,” though this life brings its own share of limitations and – if it fits a man or woman – it brings freedom in the context of those limitations. But I’m not here saying “limited,” but rather that word’s cousin, “liminal,” that is, at the limen, at the threshold. Those of us who come into this life have our feet firmly planted on this earth and our eyes clearly gazing after the glory of God. A kind of both-and existence. We brothers here are sometimes chuckling about living in such close proximity to Harvard Square . Here we live. We go off for a walk in our surrounding neighborhoods and we look like normal guys (especially if we aren’t wearing out habits), and we read the newspapers and have some occasion to travel and have a great many conversations of depth with other people. We know what’s going on in life… but I would say it’s knowing life from the inside out. The trends, the fads, they come and go. And we have to be conversant and well informed if we’re to be translators of the gospel, if we’re to speak the languages that surround us… but this life really invites a man or woman to plumb the depths, and intensely. We don’t live on the surface of things.
A second quality I’ll name is detachment, and it’s mostly the sometimes-quite-painful detaching of our identity from our own superego needs. The primary pronoun of the religious life is “we,” not “I.” Identity found in the context of a body. And so, to use of the language of Saint Paul , “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” [ii] It is a shared life, enormously costly, equally remunerative. A Sister Mary Edna wrote of this life, many decades ago, “The desire to give is fundamental to human nature, and giving entails giving up… It is the consecration to God, and not the deprivation of self, that is the primary idea in sacrifice.” [iii] The sacrifice of “praise and thanksgiving” involves a great deal of giving up, giving up every day: giving up, not in the sense of throwing something away or forgetting it. Quite the opposite. Giving it up like we will momentarily “give up” the bread and wine, that it become even more real, and more revealing of the real presence of Christ.
A third quality about this kind of life, this religious life, is about love. If this life is being lived authentically, we are being carried by love with love for love. I’ll quote Sister Mary Edna again. She writes, The great religious…(were) the great lovers, the intensity of whose love would be a danger to themselves and to others if it were not consecrated and canalized… and whose power to arouse love in others would impede the service of God if it were directed to them personally….” [iv] There’s an old adage that goes, “a habit does not a monk make.” I would say that for the monastic habit to have authenticity and integrity, it needs to be an outer sign of our being “clothed in love.” The habit is a complement to this informing quality of love that permeates the life.
I think that the religious life is here for the long haul. In every culture, in every age, in virtually every faith tradition there have some men and women have been seized by the presence, the service, the call of God Almighty. And, down through the centuries, these men and women have discovered like-minded souls along the way who are companions for the brief while that we have life on this earth. It is a very curious life to follow. Is now. Always has been. And for those of us whom it fits, it’s marvelous, it’s the best… most days. Some days not. Clearly. Whatever… if not a day to lift our voices in joy and praise, then a day to bow our heads and bend our knees and recognize, anew, our deepest dependence on God, the giver of life, this extraordinarily wonderful life.
[i] Matthew 13:52.
[ii] Corinthians 12: 26.
[iii] The Religious Life by Sister Mary Edna, p. 128.
[iv] The Religious Life by Sister Mary Edna, p. 19.
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