In the years after college, when I was discerning religious life, I went out to dinner one summer afternoon with a good friend, Betsy. She too had been discerning religious life. But like me, she was starting to wonder if that was her proper vocation. She shared with me an insight that I think we should all live from.
She realized that what she was really longing for was not religious life, but heaven. Later I would find that this is exactly what Vatican II and St. John Paul II say about religious life: it is the eschatological life, a life that lives more directly the desire for heaven.
It is essential to all other vocations that we be inspired by this witness. We should all, on some level, be drawn to religious life, because it shows us our true heavenly vocation.
If I understand Canon Law, there are two kinds of consecrated life, “religious institutes” and “secular institutes.” The distinction is that religious “pronounce public vows . . . and live a life in common” (CIC – i.e., Canon Law – 607§2) whereas secular consecrated “live in the world” (CIC 710). Maybe more important, religious life “manifests (CIC 607§1) and gives “public witness” (ibid. §3).
To put it simply, religious are the kind of consecrated people who wear habits. They make their consecration visible.
This is important to the Church: it serves the rest of us at least as much as it serves the religious themselves. Most of us are not called to “look Christian” in such a visible way. But we should all carry with us the sense that we are separated from the world; we are not the same as our non-Christian brothers and sisters; by our Baptism itself we are set apart for Christ.
The religious habit reminds us all of our consecration. We need that.
All consecrated – religious and secular, visible and less visible – are defined by the three “evangelical counsels,” poverty, chastity, and obedience. They are called evangelical because they are recommended in the Gospel and because they help to reveal the true meaning of the Gospel.
They are called counsels because they are not necessary – not commandments – but are just one way of living the Christian life. Nonetheless, Christ counsels them, recommends them, because, in another sense, we are all called to embrace the true spirit of these counsels. We all need the witness of consecrated life.
The counsel of Poverty reminds us that life is not lived for earthly goods. No thing can make me happy – and the loss of no thing can separate me from my true happiness, who is God.
Canon Law almost seems to wink when it says religious should live poverty “both of things and of spirit.” That is, the consecrated person can’t just say he is “spiritually” poor – consecrated life is about living out that spiritual poverty by actually giving up material possessions.
There is freedom here. We are all called to discover that freedom. We don’t need all the stuff! And we do need the witness of those who freely give it up.
We with careers and families need more stuff than consecrated people do. But we should look to them with some jealousy. How good it would be to be more poor!
The counsel of chastity reminds us that God alone is our true Bridegroom. There is some irony in calling the vow “chastity” – the virtue of chastity is not a counsel, it is a commandment, something we all must live. Consecrated people go further, into celibacy.
But again, they have something to teach us. Marriage itself depends, says John Paul II, on a kind of virginal soul. “You are a fountain sealed, my sister, my bride,” says the Bridegroom in the Song of Songs.
To truly love another person – especially those we love most deeply, in our family – we must recognize they have depths which we cannot plumb. They are made, finally, for God, not for us. We love them most deeply when, like two members of a religious order, we kneel side by side in adoration of Christ.
We who are married are not called to virginity. But we are called to this virginal spirit.
Finally, the counsel of obedience acknowledges that life isn’t about doing it my way. How we need the witness of that freedom: the freedom to love, to embrace Christ, and not to be so worried about winning every argument.
We who are not under obedience don’t have that freedom. We actually do have to make many more decisions for ourselves. But let us long for the freedom of giving in, wherever we responsibly can.
We who are married need the witness of religious life, to call us to live our life in more radical love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Are there consecrated people in your life? How do they call you deeper into sanctity?