I don’t belong to a religious community, but I’m deeply grateful religious communities exist. As a diocesan priest for 38 years and a bishop for 26, I’ve had the privilege of knowing and working with a number of men and women in them. This work has involved the ministries of teaching together, working on retreats, and reaching out to those in need. By expressing my gratitude for five of the qualities that I so often find in religious communities, I want to demonstrate why, at least for me, we need religious women and men.
Many DOCTORS of the church were members of religious communities,
including Saints John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, who were Carmelites.
So many Doctors of the Church—that is, the great spiritual thinkers and writers—are members of religious communities. The most recent Doctor, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), has enriched the world by telling the story of her soul. For Thérèse, God is a God of love and mercy. Her little way, doing every task with love, makes spirituality available to everyone. And her suffering at the end of her short life, a suffering that involved intense doubt, witnessed to our world that faith lies far beyond intellectual nimbleness. Her famous statement—“After my death I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my heaven in doing good on earth"—has been verified by the many miracles attributed to her intercession.
Another wise person in religious life is Father Don, a contemporary professor and writer. He is a wise man; he knows “what is pleasing to God"—the heart of wisdom. His life is one of study and prayer. His knowledge and love of the Christian tradition is truly amazing. Even more impressive is his knowledge and love of his students. They learn as much from his presence and concern as from his words.
The human heart holds many hungers, and the lives of men and women in religious life address many of them. The hunger for meaning and depth and the hunger for intimacy and wholeness are four key longings. And then there is the hunger for commitment, to give one’s life in a total, sacrificial way. Here we can turn to Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) and the Missionaries of Charity as an example of total commitment.
Nothing is held back. Mother Teresa reminds us: “God has identified himself with the hungry, the sick, the naked, the homeless; hunger, not only for bread, but for love, for care, to be somebody to someone; nakedness, not of clothing only, but nakedness of that compassion that very few people give to the unknown; homelessness, not only just for shelter made of stones, but that homelessness that comes from no one to call your own." Many religious communities demonstrate radical, total commitment to the work of the kingdom.
Sister Maria also exemplifies this commitment. She works in the slums of Lima, Peru. This Franciscan sister has left family and homeland, security and comforts, to dedicate her life to the poor and to further God’s kingdom. Supported by her community, she gives totally of herself. Sister Maria was a student of mine many years ago, and even then I already saw in her eyes that look of generosity and dedication.
Scanning our culture and the world scene, with its hurricanes and wars, its violence and diseases, sometimes we are hard-pressed to experience joy. Depression and despair often reign in the hearts of many. Religious life is not immune to these dangers, but, from my experience, I have found that a predominant mood of joy permeates most of the religious I have met.
Sister Pamela, for instance, works in a large city parish. It’s her smile that makes her an extremely attractive minister of the Lord. She delights in teaching, organizing, and reaching out to the poor. Her smile is contagious; her joy is exuberant. I have seldom seen a happier person. She knows herself to be loved by God and God’s people. That experience of love is her joy, and she freely gives it away.
The house at rest
On a dark night
Kindled in love with yearnings—
Oh, happy chance!—
I went forth unobserved,
My house being now at rest.
—Saint John of the Cross
How does one hush one’s house, each proud possessive wall, each sighing rafter, the rooms made restless with remembered laughter or wounding echoes, the permissive doors, the stairs that vacillate from up to down, windows that bring in color and event from countryside or town, oppressive ceilings and complaining floors?
The house must first of all accept the night. Let it erase the walls and their display, impoverish the rooms till they are filled with humble silences; let clocks be stilled and all the selfish urgencies of day.
Midnight is not the time to greet a guest. Caution the doors against both foes and friends,
and try to make the windows understand their unimportance when the daylight ends. Persuade the stairs to patience, and deny the passages their aimless to and fro. Virtue it is that puts a house at rest.
How well repaid that tenant is, how blest who, when the call is heard, is free to take his kindled heart and go.
From The Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers OR The House at Rest , published by ICS Publications, Washington, D.C.; The House at Rest published by Carmelite Monastery, ed. by Regina Siegfried, A.S.C. and Robert F. Morneau. All copyrights, Carmelite Monastery, Pewaukee, WI. Used with permission.
Hope is the virtue of the “not yet." It looks to the future with expectation that what God has promised will be fulfilled. Religious life is grounded in a promise—the promise that God will be with us forever. It is grounded in the promise of a new heart (Ezekiel 36:25-27), a heart of flesh and not of stone.
Brother Steve lives with a sense that change and conversion are possible. Indeed, he lives with a sense of endless possibilities. He has, as one person put it, “a passion for the possible." His field of ministry is social justice. Not only does he touch individual lives in meeting their needs, he is deeply involved in changing social systems that hurt the poor. His community organizing is about the work of the kingdom. And he never quits. Hope, for him, is a way of life.
We need religious because they are willing to struggle with the human condition with honesty and courage. As a church of saints and sinners, those in religious communities know the burdens of our human existence and have often articulated what it means to be human.
For many of us, Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is an example of what it means to be a struggling pilgrim. His writings, which, more than 35 years after his death continue to sell in great quantity, trace the complexity of our relationship with God and the world. Merton wrote about being grateful to God for three gifts: “First, my Catholic faith; second, my monastic vocation; third, my calling to be a writer and share my beliefs with others." Elsewhere, Merton describes himself as a pilgrim and an exile on this journey, never feeling at home on the planet. Yet he exercised his gifts amid great personal struggle.
Obviously religious sisters, brothers, and priests are not the only Christians with these five qualities. I name them here because in my dealings with religious, I so often find they enrich our world with these qualities. I had the privilege of knowing the Carmelite poet Jessica Powers (Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit). Her poem, "The House at Rest" (inset), inspired by Saint John of the Cross, speaks powerfully of religious life, a life of discipleship, stewardship, and evangelization. It is always good to give a poet the last word.
Bishop Robert Morneau is auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin.