Reflection on Contemplative Life
The Call Within
by Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP
Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist
As pilgrims of ancient Greece drew near the temple of Apollo, they noted an engravement of ageless acumen: "Know thyself". It pointed them to the importance of knowing why they did what they did and where they were going in life. Philosophers of all ages have taken this invitation to ponder man's interior life as the first sanctuary of divinity. Impressed upon the souls of all seeking wisdom is this challenge of finding life within self and thus one's true name before God.
Probing this more thoroughly, we realize that in each of us there exists more than our individual personhood. God lives in His baptized people as gift and discovery. What a tremendously sweet experience it is to lose ourselves in the "Someone" who lives within! While He has made His Presence ours for the taking, it follows that we will live in a supernatural awareness with greater ease if we follow faithfully the vocational grace God's Spirit gives, uniquely and by name, to each of us. Such grace, as Vatican II assures us in Chapter V of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, is a baptismal gift that prompts us toward holiness. The fruition of this grace is shaped by our response to God's call lived out in one of three generally recognized callings or vocations.
While the married vocation will always be the life commitment to which God calls the majority of people (and the Church is gifted with manifold examples of devout spouses), the vocation to the single state might be one less appreciated because it is less common.
Nonetheless, an excellent example of this holiness is seen in Saint Joseph Moscati, who, while still a medical student, spent long hours in prayer discerning his vocation. He finally resolved to remain celibate, consecrating himself to an apostolate within his medical profession. This service would demand his complete availability to others, an availability that marital and paternal responsibilities would necessarily preclude. Other diverse examples of sanctity via the single vocation include Saint Joan of Arc, Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati.
The lives of such men and women, such friends of God, remind us that the primal and universal vocation is that of baptism. Yet, there remains a way of living out that baptismal call within Christ's Church: the call to religious consecration/priesthood. Though I will focus more on the religious consecration in our present consideration, please know that the Sacrament of Ordination is implied in many ways as well.
In Perfectae Caritatis, the Church's Decree on the renewal of Religious Life (appropriately named "Perfect Love"), the origins of this vocation are explained. "From the very beginning of the Church, there were men and women who set out to follow Christ with greater liberty, and to imitate Him more closely by practicing the evangelical counsels.... Many of them, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, became hermits or founded religious families. These the Church, by virtue of her authority, gladly accepted and approved" (PC 1).
In response to this call, certain men and women entrust the totality of their lives to God by means of the evangelical counsels... They open themselves in a particular manner to the Divine Presence and spend their lives being transfigured into that Presence. A society steeped in a hedonistic milieu finds the radicality of the religious consecration a source of confusion and mystery. Even the closura (cloister) that frequently houses the religious is regarded as a place of intrigue, speculation, or perhaps worse, a lingering remnant from past history.
If looked at through an unbiased eye, however, history proves that monasteries and convents have always been to the world what vast gardens are to large cities: places necessary for preserving the purity of the atmosphere. Convents gather the light and appreciate the silence without which all sight is blinded and all words empty. Would we not agree that people who really have something to say are not very numerous while those who listen are fewer still? We need role models to teach us the delicate art of listening to God's silence, which resonates from the heartbeat of the Mystical Body of Christ.
Some men and women are called to this more intense listening and they dedicate their rapt attention to God's unrestrained Spirit. They then become the hollow reeds through which the voice of that Spirit reaches mankind. When they speak out of holy silence, the world hears a renewed hope. Whether they teach in universities or in elementary schools, nurse the sick and elderly, care for orphans or the disillusioned, or weave their energies into a tapestry of continual prayer and hidden sacrifice, they enliven the entire Body of Christ on earth. Perhaps they best manifest the sentiments of the seventeenth-century physicist and religious thinker, Blaise Pascal: "Do the little things as if they were great things because of the majesty of Jesus Christ who accomplishes them in us and who lives our own life; and the great things as we do the small and easy ones, because of His almighty power".
Who are these doers of the "little" and the "great" whose consecrated lives seem so different from the rest of the world's?
Perhaps more mysterious than this, why would any young person freely chose to live such a "sheltered life" of closura? In answering these questions, let us first reflect that too many people in the Church today believe the choice of a religious consecration doesn't exist anymore or is chosen only by those who "couldn't get a spouse if they tried" or who were "too fearful of the real world and so hid in a convent".
Because the visuals of the Religious' identity and accountability (vesture of habit or clerical attire) have become more of a rarity among religious themselves, young people are left to conclude that there just aren't any religious left. "Besides", they are frequently counseled, "this is the golden age of the laity and God is no longer calling people to the radical consecration of religious vows. Why don't you try nursing school?"
As one of four religious Sisters who, in God's providential goodness, began a new Dominican religious institute in 1997 and whose "family" has grown to a whopping 37 today, my Sisters would all agree that religious life -- as it has entered the third millennium -- is anything but dying. If the 900% increase in size of this community in our six year existence is seen as insufficient proof of this point, perhaps we might also mention three discernment-oriented retreats that the community holds yearly. On each retreat, an average of 60 girls hail from the various corners of the globe with sleeping bags and rosaries in hand. They lay their worldly baggage down on the doorsteps and enter into a dedicated 24 hours in order to get a clearer picture of religious life and become more aware of its place in each of their own lives. Through all the laughter and prayer, much is learned and it is generally agreed that religious life is quite different from what most of these women had previously thought.
The vows are not the oft-reported negations of one's freedom; rather they are the fullest expression of the individual's right to choose God as one's dearest "possession". Chastity is not an absence of marriage but rather a spousal commitment to Christ and to one's spiritual maternity/pat-ernity toward all His people, since all are seen as children of God. Poverty sharpens the individual's appreciation of the little things while replacing the world's material values with eternity's spiritual riches.
Obedience becomes an obligation of unlimited openness. As such, it can only be seen as the proper placement of God's transcendent will over an individual's more narrow, weakened and sometimes faulty judgment. The grace to live the vows is given by the Holy Spirit on behalf of the entire Church and such a life brings to the individual who professes these vows the Spirit's desired gift of peace.
Accordingly we have come to see that a life that embraces the evangelical counsels is not spent running away from the reality of this world, but entering the fullness of life; an encounter with the divine Source and the embrace of one's Spouse and Creator. It is a lived experience of ever seeking God's strength for the welling up of the Magnificat, which lies at the heart of the matter and elevates the cosmos above its humble condition. In the words of Pope John Paul II through his apostolic exhortation Redemptionis Donum, "The evangelical counsels in their essential purpose aim at 'the renewal of creation': 'the world', thanks to them, is to be subjected to man and given to him in such a way that man himself may be perfectly given to God" (RD 9).
Finally, we circle back to the exhortation with which we began our reflection: "Know thyself". We admit that such a challenge ushers us into a life-long exploration. For spiritually minded people, religion is as simple as life itself, life lived in its fullness because of leaning toward the "other", toward fulfillment, completion, God. Each of us carries within a mystical vocation of which we are, most times, unaware. This mystical vocation will develop best when we discern the particular life calling for which God has equipped us. In the total gift of self to that particular vocation, we will find our happiness as we lose sight of self and disappear into what (Who) is beyond ourselves. Then we will be able to say with Saint Paul, "It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me". Or, to borrow from a more contemporary source, the 19th century English poet and convert to Catholicism, Coventry Patmore: "All realities will sing, nothing else will".
Sister Joseph Andrew, OP, is the Vicaress and the Vocation Director for this young Religious Community. Sister is also a speaker and a published writer on various issues in the Church, including religious vocations, John Paul II's Theology of the Body, and women's role in the Church today.
The Domincan Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, are hosting retreats for young single women May 24-25, 2003; October 11-12, 2003; February 21-22, 2003 and May 22-23, 2004.
For more information, please contact:
Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP
Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist
4597 Warren Rd.
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105
click here to send e-mail
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