The Restoration of the Religious Life
In the late 1530s, King Henry VIII disbanded all the monasteries, convents, and friaries in England, Wales, Ireland – there were almost 900 religious houses in England alone – with both people and properties left for ruin, an appalling chapter in western history. More than 300 years would pass until in 1841, on this day, Marian Rebecca Hughes made religious vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. She was the very first woman to take such vows in the Church of England since the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Our own community, the oldest Anglican men’s religious community, was founded 25 years later, in 1866. Down through the centuries many things have changed in the religious life, true to life. Some qualities about the religious life have survived the test of time.
For one, members of religious orders have traditionally been eccentric. I’m not speaking about people’s quirks or oddities… though that could certainly apply to some of us. But eccentric in an etymological sense: eccentric from the Latin meaning “having a different center.” Religious orders constellate their values, seeing praise, and love, and service of God being the most important thing, the center of life, with everything else being like concentric circles in some nearer or farther proximity to this center. Whether you are preaching a sermon, or washing a window, or pulling a weed, your focus is learning to “pray your life,” to use a phrase from our own Rule of Life.
A second quality is detachment, the sometimes-quite-painful detaching one’s own identity from being #1 in life. The primary pronoun of the religious life is “we,” not “I.” Our individual identity is found in the context of our membership in a body vowed to stay together. If we only had good days together, we would not need vows. We take vows to keep us together, especially on bad days, to “bear with one another… with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”[i] 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] This is a shared life, enormously costly, but equally remunerative. Many decades ago a Sister Mary Edna wrote of the religious life: “The desire to give is fundamental to human nature, and giving entails giving up…”[iii] This – what’s called a sacrifice of “praise and thanksgiving” – involves a great deal of giving up: giving up every day, not in the sense of throwing something away or forgetting it. Quite the opposite. Giving up the whole of life as an offering, 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 the religious life is love, God’s love. If this life is being lived authentically, we are being carried by love with love for love. Sister Mary Edna writes that, down through the centuries, “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 [channeled]…[iv] There’s an old adage about the clothing worn by a monk, called the “habit.” The adage is, “a habit does not a monk make.” 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: an eccentric life; a detached life; a life of love.
The religious life is archetypal. In every culture, in every age, in virtually every faith tradition there have at least some men and women who have been seized by the presence, the service, the love, the call of God Almighty. Down through the centuries, these men and women have discovered like-minded souls along the way who are companions for the brief while 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 it’s not a day to lift our voices in joy and praise and gladness, then it’s 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 we share.
[i] Colossians 3:12-13.
[ii] 1 Corinthians 12: 26.
[iii] The Religious Life by Sister Mary Edna, p. 128. Sister Mary Edna was a member of The Community of St. Andrew (CSA), founded in 1861, an Anglican religious order of professed sisters serving in diaconal ministry. She was a graduate of Cambridge University, where she studied English and law.
[iv]The Religious Life by Sister Mary Edna, p. 19.
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