Only a very superficial idea of the religious life would be formed by any inquirer who should not at the outset fix his attention upon the mystery of the Incarnation itself and its incalculable consequences. “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”1
This is a fact of immense importance. It is none other than Eternal Wisdom humbling Himself even to the lowliness of human nature to teach men with His own divine lips. It is the life of God made man exhibiting from the Crib to Calvary an ideal of holiness which the most ambitious of moral greatness may strive after, though he can never fully attain its perfection.
More than this; by His death on the cross Jesus, at the price of His own blood, raises us to a kind of equality with Himself. In the eyes of God, Christians in the state of grace are no longer servants, but friends,2 brothers of Jesus Christ,3 adopted sons of God,4 temples of the Holy Ghost,5 partakers in the divine nature.6 This gift, like a divine seed,7 transforms our nature into a new nature,8 intended to grow continually, under the breath of grace and the influence of the sacraments, even to the full bloom of eternal happiness. In the mystery of the Incarnation, it is indeed the divine nature that is poured out upon the world. The life of our Lord, His teaching, and His gifts raise man above all that human reason could have conceived. Since God has loved us so much, and enriched us with so many gifts, but little elevation of mind and nobility of heart is required to put us out of conceit with that mere honest mean, or even balance between opposite extremes on which the sages of old used to plume themselves.
Jesus calls on all His disciples—that is, on all Christians—to be perfect.9
Now, Christian perfection is charity. Jesus himself has said that in the love of God and of our neighbor are contained the whole law and the prophets.10 The more one loves God, the more does one advance toward perfection.
Charity, and consequently perfection, admit of degrees. The first, which is necessary for salvation, is the keeping of the Commandments. “If you love me, keep my commandments;”11 and this is a love which may at times require very much of the Christian. He must be ready to sacrifice all, even life, rather than offend God mortally by a grievous transgression of a single commandment. But charity can rise higher. True love of God does not rest satisfied with merely obeying His commands; it seeks in every way to fulfil His good pleasure; it forgets its own interests to be taken up with those of Jesus Christ alone; it devotes its life to His service—ready to spend and lose it for His honor and for His glory, for “greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”12
The love of God is, then, the very ideal of perfection and of Christian life. Now, is this love, even in its lowest degree, the observance of the Commandments, easily kept ever alive without even casual failure? Above all, is it easy to carry this love to the self-renunciation preached by Jesus Christ? Alas! “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh weak.”13
God is not perceived by our senses. Though intimately and mysteriously present to each of us. He does not force Himself upon our notice. How quick we are to forget Him! Things of the senses, on the other hand, unceasingly present themselves to entice the heart, to attract and captivate it by a thousand cords of desire and enjoyment. How love God with one's whole heart when it is entirely taken up with the things of earth? The divine sower passes and casts the seed of his love upon good ground, which seems indeed well prepared; but the cares of life and riches, like thorns, grow up and choke the good grain.14 “Where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also,”15 saith Jesus. If the heart is given up to riches, to luxury, to comfort, it cannot be devoted to God, for, continues our Lord, “No man can serve two masters: God and mammon.”16 The good things of this world are the first hindrance to the love of God.
A second obstacle we bear within ourselves —an inclination, namely, to pleasure and enjoyment of the senses. There are pleasures that God blesses in lawful wedlock; yet even these divide the affections. He that is with a wife,” says Saint Paul, in his frank and unstudied speech, “is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of the world, how she may please her husband.”17
If this be true of the lawful pleasures, what must be said of such as are not lawful? The animal nature which we bear within us, if we but slacken the reins or treat it with too much delicacy, will rebel and claim its prey. The more we yield to it, the more does it demand. Thus it is that so many Christians, fed for years with the Eucharistic Bread, like the prodigal son, wander away to squander, far removed from God, the best substance of their youth.
A last obstacle to the love of God, and perhaps the greatest, because it emanates from a higher and more immaterial source, is pride. Man so easily lends an attentive ear to the old temptation of the Earthly Paradise: “You shall be as Gods.”18 He wishes to be his own rule of conduct, to depend upon the lights of his own unaided reason, to do only his own will and make everything yield to its desires. He thus unavoidably comes into collision with the unbending law of God, and his charity, if it be not altogether destroyed, is always weakened.
Jesus Christ knew all this. And in His divine wisdom He had calculated the extent of the influence of these three obstacles. Thus to all who aspire to Christian perfection—tha is to say, to persevere and to advance in the love of God—He holds out and counsels, without, however, imposing it upon them, a means as efficacious as it is radical.
Have you set your heart upon higher things; is it your ambition to love God, as He deserves to be loved ?Ah then! soul of my choice, follow me; like me, embrace a life of poverty, of chastity, and of obedience. Poverty will free you from the dangers of riches; chastity will shield you from the deceptive and wayward attacks of the senses; obedience will shelter you from the peril of pride. And, mark it well, it is not some few isolated acts, performed, as it were, in passing, that our Lord Jesus Christ counsels. He desires an irrevocable engagement in a permanent state of life. “No man putting his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”19 If thou wilt be perfect, He says to the young man, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me.
There is clearly no question of ever taking back again goods once sold or given away. To the disciples He proposes a chastity such as, from the very terms He uses, can admit of no revocation.20 If He invites us to follow Him along the path of obedience, He is careful to let us know that, before us, He has been obedient unto death.21 These are the reasons why the practice of the Evangelical Counsels implies a lasting engagement. There can be no religious life, such as Jesus Christ conceived it, without abandonment of self to God. The vows must necessarily come in to transform the best of desires and the most excellent of resolves into a permanent state of life.
Such facts and reflections lead clearly to the conclusion that the roots of religious life lie deep in the Gospel itself. It springs from the Gospel as one of the choicest fruits of the teachings of Christ.22
Let religious life disappear and the Church would remain mutilated and uncrowned. It would no longer accomplish its full mission, since it would cease to teach mankind to keep and practice whatever Christ has taught.
This is why Catholic doctors think that religious life, in all its essentials, will endure as long as the Church itself. Like the Church, though in a different sense, it has Christ for its founder. He founded it by His teaching and by His example.
He has established the religious life in yet another way—by the merits of His precious blood. If in the days of our Lord the wise men of the world, then living, had heard Him proclaim the poor blessed, counsel abandonment of all possessions; if to disciples who could not even understand the possibility of marriage without divorce, they had heard Jesus speak the praise of chastity and of a life more angelic than human; if they had been present at exhortations to absolute self-renunciation and hatred of self, surely these wise and prudent men would have smiled, and would have looked upon such a life as a chimera. But Jesus was God. He sketched the plan of a perfect life, and then He shed His blood, and from that divine blood have sprung up thousands of men and women devoted to voluntary poverty, virginity, and obedience. All the lights that have guided the founders of orders, all the graces which have urged men and women to enter monasteries and religious houses, all the helps that secure their perseverance, were merited for them on Calvary. It is not one of their least comforts, nor one of their least effectual spurs, for religious to be able to say to themselves that the call which they have heard, that the graces which sustain them, that the very life they lead, have come forth from the heart of Jesus upon the cross.
1St. John, 1:14
2''I will not now call you servants: for the servant knoweth not what his lord doth. But I have called you friends: because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you." St. John, XV-15.
3"And stretching forth His hand towards His disciples, He said :Behold my mother and my brethren. For whosoever shall do the will of my Father, that is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother. (Mat. 13:49-50) "Go to my brethren, and say to them: I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God. (John 20:17)
4"Behold what manner of charity the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called, and should be the sons of God." 1 John 3:1
5"Know you not, that you are the temple of God? 1 Cor 3:16. "Or know you not, that your members are the temple of the Holy Ghost. " 1 Cor. 6:19/
6"By whom (Jesus Christ) he (God) hath given us most great and precious promises: that by these you may be made partakers of the divine nature." 2 Peter 1:4
7"Whosoever is born of God, committeth not sin: for His seed abideth in him. " 1 John 3:9
8"If then any be in Christ a new creature, the old things are passed away, behold all things arc made new." 2 Cor 5:17
171 Cor 7:33-34
21Phil 2:8 “He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.”
22"The religious orders, as everyone knows, take their origin and heir motive of existence from those sublime counsels of the Gospel, which our divine Redeemer addressed, for the whole course of ages, to those who wish to reach Christian perfection." (Letter of Leo XIII to Cardinal Richard, December 23, 1900.)
In Thy Courts - Chapter 1 - Jesus Christ and the Religious Life