Project Canterbury

Problem Papers
Holy Cross Press
This piece was originally published in 1940 As Problem Paper No. 12 at West Park, NY

transcribed by Dr. Robert Stephenson
AD 2000

What is the Religious Life?
By The Rev. Mother Mary Theodora, C.S.M.

"Well, I never knew you had monks and nuns in the Episcopal Church!"

How many times in the course of a mission in which vocation has been mentioned has the preacher been greeted at the end with some such exclamation. The widespread ignorance in regard to this question of such vital importance is appalling. Few sermons, however, are ever preached on the calls of God, and how can people be expected to hear without a preacher?

This particular pamphlet will attempt to answer a few of the many questions, which are often presented to Priests and Sisters.

The Episcopal Church does have monks and nuns, and just for one reason,—because it is a part of the Holy Catholic Church. Wherever that Church has been planted, under whatever skies, amidst whatever races, sooner or later it has always produced the Religious Life.

The interested inquirer with an investigating turn of mind will pursue the matter further, and want to know why this should be.

The simplest answer is that God has made it so. The Church, the kingdom of heaven on earth, belongs to the realm of the supernatural; but like the vegetable or the animal kingdom, it is governed by laws, which God has made. As an orange grove always produces oranges, so the Catholic Church is always found to bring forth the fruit of the Religious Life.

Deep down in every human heart there is something, which has been well described as an instinct for God. Man cannot get away from the fact that he was created "in the image of God," and no matter how far "the likeness" has been lost, "deep calleth unto deep," and the instinct must always find some mode of expression. With savage tribes it has manifested itself in the form of superstitious fear of the supernatural, which leads to propitiatory offerings. But God’s chosen people, the Israelites, who were to prepare the way for the Incarnation, were trained to love God as well as to fear Him, and in addition to the sin-offering and the peace-offering, there was the holocaust, or the burnt-offering, which was a sacrifice of the best of the flock as a gift of love.

This great principle of sacrifice was carried on in the Church. The upper chamber in Jerusalem, where the bewildered company of disciples waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit, contained the germs of both the Christian Church and the monastic system, which were to be developed through the ages by those first Apostles and their successors. This little group had obeyed our Lord’s ascetic precepts literally, they had left their all to follow Him; "if any man had aught, he sold it and laid the money at the Apostles’ feet." We are told furthermore, "They continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. . . And all that believed were together, and had all things common." They looked for the speedy coming of our Lord, and this undoubtedly stimulated their fervour and developed the spirit of other-worldliness. As time went on, however, the Lord delayed His coming, and, as new recruits were gathered in from the heathen world, there was a relaxation of this primitive zeal. Then it came about that certain souls cleaving to the earlier and stricter ideals, consecrated themselves to exclusive devotion to God and His service, and became known as "the virginal" or "widows that were widows indeed," or hermits. Manuscripts have come down to us from the early centuries containing treatises for the instruction of virgins, one of the most notable being that of St. Methodius, who died a martyr’s death in 311 A.D. All of which serves to prove that a consecrated form of life was duly established and recognized before the close of the third century.

Our first parents fell through yielding to the threefold source of sin, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. The forerunners of the monastic life set out to wage a relentless warfare upon this triple-headed dÊmon, and the three-fold monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were the final result. For a long-time celibacy was the characteristic mark of these ardent souls. They were all aflame with love of Christ, and to Him, the heavenly Bridegroom, they dedicated their bodies as a whole burnt-offering. Soon the vow of poverty followed, as an expression of the utter abandonment of the world with its passing riches and pleasures. Poverty and chastity continued to be the chief distinguishing features in the life of those great ascetic specialists, the monks of the Egyptian desert, down to the early part of the fourth century. Then St. Pachomius, who was a converted Roman soldier, was inspired to found a monastery at Tabenna in Lower Egypt, where monks could live together under a common rule of life. According to tradition, an angel appeared to him and dictated the rule and constitution. It must have been an angel of good counsel, for when Pachomius objected to certain provisions as being too easy, the angel insisted on moderation, saying that it was better to consider the weaker brethren in matters of obligation, the zealous could add for themselves extra devotions. This rule of St. Pachomius, about 315 A.D., introduced necessarily the vow of obedience into the conception of the Religious Life, and it is the most powerful weapon against that dangerous enemy of all souls, the pride of life.

St. Pachomius’ place as the first recorded monastic legislator has not received the attention it deserves. St. Basil and Cassian visited Egypt and saw the Pachomian system in operation and made it the basis of their institutes in the East and West respectively. In the sixth century St. Benedict, taking over in turn the work of St. Basil and Cassian, developed his rule, which has been the basis of nearly all monastic rules in the West for these fourteen centuries since his time. The early Benedictine monks converted Europe, and wherever the Church has penetrated, their successors, or others living under similar rules, have established foundations.

We have reviewed a brief outline of the history of the Religious Life. Let us now consider some questions frequently asked about it.

1. Weren't monks and nuns abolished in England at the Reformation?

We must consider first just what happened at the Reformation. Many corruptions had undoubtedly crept into the Church, and in the sixteenth century different attempts were made with varying results to remove them. In England the reformation was very unlike the Protestant reformation on the continent, since the English Church never repudiated its apostolic ministry and sacraments, although much of value in the way of accessories of worship was thrown over in iconoclastic zeal. The king and his ministers, greedy for money, abolished the monasteries and pocketed the spoils, but, in spite of all the despoliation, the Church of England remained a part of the Holy Catholic Church, and by the indwelling Holy Spirit was led to restore what the ill-advised reformers had torn down. Early in the nineteenth century the Church began to regain some of its lost heritage. Churches were restored and adorned; worship on earth began to take on once more some better semblance of the worship of heaven. In 1845, the Religious Life was restored. Its phenomenal development during the past ninety-two years is one of the most remarkable signs of God’s approval and blessing upon the Church of England.

Today on every continent and in many islands of the sea, monks and nuns of the Anglican community are a fruitful witness to the fact that although the Religious Life was abolished at the Reformation, it has come back, and is strong as "a giant refreshed with wine."

2. Doesn’t a person have to be very good before he can receive a call from God?

Some persons are called because they are very good, but others seem to be called in spite of the fact that they are very bad. Soeur Therese was a spotless little flower from her childhood; St. Augustine had sunk to the depths of sin through the lusts of the flesh and worldly ambition, yet both were called to the Religious Life, both answered the call, both persevered unto death, and both are now numbered among the saints of the Church.

It is a great delusion to imagine for an instant that a convent or monastery is peopled with saints or angels. Members come from the rank and file of the Church Militant. Our Lord has laid His hand on certain ones and said, "Follow Me," and they have followed, but the mere fact of response does not transform by miracle a bad disposition, a quick temper, a sluggish body or mind. St. Paul loved to use the metaphor of the Olympic Games in describing the Christian life. For us perhaps the figure of a hurdle race is more vivid. The victor is the one who wins out in spite of the obstacles, and so in a Religious Community, while one brother is overcoming some trying and perhaps grievous fault, another is gaining his reward by patience and charity. The Religious Community, like the Church, is a dragnet, composed of many kinds of souls in varying states of imperfection, and few are drawn into it because they are very good.

3. Have there not been mistakes and failures in Religious vocations?

    Yes, unfortunately, just as in every other walk in life, there have been failures also in Religious vocation. A great man has well said, "Es irrt der Mensch so lang er strebt." He proceeded, however, to modify that statement by the comforting words, "Wer immer strebend sich bem¸ht den k–nnen wir erl–sen."* Goethe, the great heathen, as he has been most unjustly called, certainly did not have in mind the Religious Life, yet how marvellously does the saying apply. A Religious vocation is different from an ordinary avocation. When God gives a call, and a man, like a wise builder, has counted the cost and bound himself by a solemn vow, God gives him the grace to perform it. As St. Augustine has said, "God crowns His own gifts in us," but we must surrender our wills and persevere.

    Religious profession may well be compared to the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Each state involves a life-vow. In the old days before divorce became such a common occurrence, many a man or woman found themselves bound to an uncongenial partner, but the irrevocable character of the marriage vow was accepted, and with patience and resignation such adjustments were made that in-time a genuine affection often succeeded the first transient passion. There is this difference, however: in the monastic profession, a Religious can never be disappointed or disillusioned in the heavenly Bridegroom; whatever difficulties arise come from his own unfaithfulness to his vision or from incompatibility with his human environment, the man who closes his ears to the voice of the tempter and continues striving earnestly to be faithful to his call, will at the last hear the "Well done, good and faithful servant."

4. How do you know that you have a call?

God calls in different ways. Often the call is not unlike that to some other vocation; there is an inward urge, an impulse, which seeks expression in some special way, much as the painter or musician seeks it in his art. At other times a verse of Scripture arrests attention, as with St. Anthony or St. Francis, and a new and personal meaning is revealed. Sometimes it is another's example or suggestion.

Many years ago in one of the leading colleges for women, there was inscribed upon the walls of the chapel this text: "I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me." In those good old days attendance at daily morning prayers was considered a necessary part of a liberal education, and as the years went by, one student after another, meditating on this text day after day, was led to answer God’s call to the Religious Life.

A "call" to the Religious Life is simple and straightforward, and very much like any other summons in this world. If a father "calls" his son, the boy may refuse, or answer, or delay.

The word "call" has the same meaning in the Religious Life. It may arise in various ways. But whatever the form of the call, the important thing is to answer promptly and generously.

5. What steps must one take to answer such a call?

As soon as one is assured in his own mind that God is calling, he should consult some wise priest who understands the Religious Life. If the priest feels that it is a genuine call, he will direct the aspirant to make a visit at some Religious House, where he will have an opportunity to see at first hand something of the life and also to obtain expert advice as to his fitness for the same.

6. Why do Sisters wear such horrid clothes?

A Religious habit serves a two-fold purpose. It marks out the wearer as a special soldier of the King of kings, to whom any one may turn for help; it is also a sign of separation from the world, and it is a safeguard to the individual who wears it. Wherever she goes she appears in her habit, and that is a constant reminder that she must walk worthily of the vocation of which the habit is the outward and visible sign.

How of ten is a Sister greeted on the street with some such request as "Say a prayer for my boy"; how often in cases of accident is she called upon to render first-aid, or to minister to a dying soul. A Sister was once accosted by a small boy with the blunt question, "Are you a witch?" (It was just after Hallowe’en.) Being assured that she was not, he continued his queries: "Why do you wear such a funny dress?" The Sister explained that she wore a uniform, just as a soldier or a policeman did, so that people could recognize what she was, and would know where to turn if they needed help. A different sort of policeman was an attractive discovery, and the little boy seized the hand of his new acquaintance, and trotted along chatting merrily.

7. What do monks and Sisters do to keep reasonably employed? Have they not sometimes been called idle, lazy parasites?

A brief visit in any monastery or convent would soon dispel this delusion, but for those who may not have such an opportunity, a brief, explanation of the daily occupations in a cloister may be useful.

Monks and nuns are sometimes called Religious, not because they are necessarily more pious than others, but because the original etymology of the word implied something of a binding character. Now Religious are bound by their vows to the worship and service of God, the most important part of which is prayer. Every convent is a school of prayer. Each day begins with Mass and the rule of the Psalmist, "Seven time a day do I praise thee," is carried out faithfully in having seven "Offices," or monastic services. These Offices and the times for private meditation and intercession occupy at least from four to five hours daily, and constitute what St. Benedict called the "opus Dei", --that is, the "work of God." In addition to this there are the regular household tasks to be performed. There are few servants in monastic establishments, yet the neatness and order of such houses is proverbial. There are also the demands of the multiform active works undertaken, letters to be writ- ten, visits to be made, interviews to be held; preaching, teaching, nursing, and all the other corporal works of mercy which a man or a woman can perform. A Religious House is a veritable beehive from early dawn till nightfall, and there is abundant employment for all, whether possessed of the humblest gifts of service or the most brilliant intellectual ability.

No, monks and nuns are not lazy.

8. Monks and nuns may have served a good purpose in the Middle Ages, but do we need them in this enlightened age?

It is a great mistake to suppose that monasticism was a mere mediÊval institution. As we have seen, the monastic ideal is of the same age as Christianity itself, and its organization was completed and well established within less than three centuries after Pentecost. That can scarcely be termed mediÊval!

There is quite as great a need of monks and nuns in the present age as at any time in history, and that for two chief reasons, one from the standpoint of individual souls, the other from the standpoint of the Church. There are certain men and women who seem to be marked out by God for Himself and His service. Like the Psalmist, their souls are athirst for God, and they can find peace and happiness in no other way than by a complete consecration of themselves. Many a Religious Order in our Church can point to certain of its members who had never heard that there was such a thing as the Religious Life in our Church, until some happy chance in God’s good providence brought it to their notice, and in the vocation, which opened up before their eyes they found the fulfillment of the vaguely understood longings of many years. Undoubtedly there are many more such souls, if only they could be told the secret and given the key to the gate of peace. Who will be accounted responsible for such unfulfilled vocations? Oh, that there were more prophets in Israel! We need a league of priests who will agree to preach each year at least one sermon on vocation to the priesthood and to the Religious Life.

The Church, however, as well as special souls, needs the Religious Life, which essentially is nothing more than the attempt to carry out literally and perfectly the principles of the primitive Church. Our Lord’s words, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect," and "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God," were addressed to all Christians. The goal of the monk or nun is Christian perfection by the road of self-renunciation and prayer and the final union with God in the beatific vision. No less an ideal is placed before each baptized person. Although the Church is a divine institution, it is composed of human beings in varying degrees of sanctification, and constantly the flesh drags down the spirit. There is much need of the example of devoted lives and purity of motive.

"No life can be pure in its purpose and strong in its strife, And all life not be purer and stronger thereby."

The Church needs the prayers of those who are specialists in this art, and have the time set apart for intercession. Every convent from that of the most active order up to the enclosed contemplatives is a school of prayer, and only at the last day will it be known what help has been given to a lonely mission work in some distant field, or to some sufferer on a bed of pain, through the prayers going up to God before a convent altar. Monks and nuns pray for those who have neither time nor desire to pray for themselves.

A third reason why the Church needs the Religious Life is found in the actual corporal or spiritual works of mercy performed by its followers. This really is the least important of the three although it is the most conspicuous and self-evident. Religious can throw themselves wholeheartedly into any good cause; they have no encumbrance in the way of family ties or duties. Their vows of poverty and obedience free them from worldly care. They have the companionship and protection of their brethren or sisters in their common life and the convent home to which they can return when incapacitated by old age or illness-having nothing, they yet possess all things.

The Church needs monks and nuns. God may be calling many souls. Is it not possible that you who read these lines may be one such? If so, may you answer the divine voice, "Here am I, for thou didst call me."

9. What about the monastic vows? How much reality is there in the vow of poverty? Isn’t it just an escape from responsibility?

Here again we need a definition of terms. There are poor rich men and rich poor men. Did not the Apostle Paul speak of himself as "having nothing, and yet possessing all things"? St. Francis represented poverty as a lady loved for her charms. St. Augustine conceived of it rather as a "liberator of the soul." St. Benedict’s conception of poverty was thus interpreted by the Abbot Delatte: "We are children of a family forming the family of God and remaining minors until eternity. We live in our Father's house, the house of God. All the possessions of the monastery are His and He dispenses to us what we need by the hands of the Abbot, His representative. We are poor in the religious sense not when we are in want of all things and suffer from scarcity, but when we have nothing in our possession save what the Abbot has given us or permitted us to keep. . . . We are not poor in order to be poor, but to be rich with God and rich like God."

Monastic poverty is the renunciation of proprietorship over material things, and, as St. Augustine taught, it works the miracle of substituting for personal interests the interests of Christ, and for private convenience the common good. The surrender of individual proprietorship strikes hard at the acquisitive instinct, so universally active in all human nature, and few persons care to "shirk responsibility" at such a cost.

Although economy and thrift are not in themselves the primary object of religious poverty, they are nevertheless essential features.

A few years ago a social survey was made of the minimum cost of living for working girls in New York City. Statistics were gathered from the lower grade of shop and factory workers. No allowance was made for vacations or amusements. After the average had been obtained a comparison was made with the per capita cost in a nearby community, where the Sisters had a pleasant convent home, all the necessities of life, and provision for their care in sickness or old age. It was found that each Sister’s yearly expense averaged about $250 less than that of the working girl. A visit to this institution led the late Hon. Andrew D. White, former president of Cornell University, to exclaim, "All this beauty and peace, and the kingdom of heaven beside!" Such is the earthly reward of monastic poverty.

10. Then there is that vow of chastity. What would happen to the human race if all persons become Religious?

The answer to this question is obvious. The human race would cease to propagate itself. Of course, it is a purely hypothetical question, and the only one who really can ask or answer it is God Himself. We might wish that all persons were Religious, having in mind the heroic faith and glorious consummation this would mean. Even so, St. Augustine when confronted with this question could exclaim, "Ah, would to God that it might be so! provided that it might be with the charity of a pure heart, a good conscience, and a true faith. Then the city of God would be more speedily filled and the end of this age more quickly attained." But notice that St. Augustine limits his pious wish by a "provided that," an "if," which in substance amounts to the great overruling condition, "if it were in accord with God’s will." And the facts give us a certain answer that it is not the will of God, since both the vocation to the married life and to the Religious Life are present in the Body of Christ, and are to play their parts in the establishing of the Kingdom which He is calling into being.

11. How can one be natural and not be a hater of the opposite sex if a vow of chastity has been taken?

We are too ready to look upon the vows from a negative point of view, and to think of what is given up rather than what is gained. The man who has given up his material goods in poverty, and his body in chastity, for the love of God, is lifted up into a different plane of being, as it were. As God is the Father of all, and Christ the Elder Brother, so he enters into somewhat similar relations to all mankind. His capacities for loving and the field of his activities are marvelously enlarged. Hate can find no place in such a soul. To that ardent lover, St. Francis, even the beasts and the birds became his "dear brothers."

We hear much of the sublimation of instincts The Religious substitutes only a higher for a lower form of activity.

12. People may observe poverty and chastity without taking any vows, but isn’t a vow of obedience a sort of spiritual suicide? Oughtn’t a man to be "master of his fate"?

A great deal of nonsense is prevalent about our "unconquerable souls" and being "masters of our fate," but as a fact, nobody is such except in so far as he is free to choose either the right or the wrong. In the physical world, nature serves those who obey her laws; in any trade or profession there are definite rules to he observed, and a man’s success is inextricably bound up with obedience.

Religious Communities are the oldest form of democracy in the Christian world. The Superior to whom obedience is rendered is elected usually for a limited period, and is governed by fixed constitutions. The aspirant before taking any vows has abundant opportunity to find out just what the conditions are to which he subjects himself, and his final vow is an act of intelligent free-will. He knows that no command will be laid upon him, which will involve sin or endanger his eternal welfare, and this belief is founded upon no mere fanatical other-worldliness. Each member of a Community has equal rights and privileges, and to the surrendered soul full scope is given for individual development and initiative. It is a well known historical fact that many a peasant-born boy or girl has developed under the fostering care of the cloister into a great abbot or abbess. The humblest member shares in the achievements of the whole body. As the love of country has led men to deeds of outstanding heroism, so the love of one’s Community becomes a mighty inspiration and awakens powers undreamed of in the individual who has made a full surrender. A Religious Community living in obedience whether under the pattern of an army or a family witnesses a perpetual repetition of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The gifts of each, large or small, are offered. God accepts them and the final results far surpass the aggregate sum total of what the members by separate effort could accomplish.

"The great object of the Religious Life is to attain the perfect love of God and the perfect denial of self. This glorious path of interior obedience leads directly away from self-will to the will of God."

*Man still must err while he doth strive. Whoever strives forward with unswerving will, Him can we aye deliver.




THE ORDER OF THE HOLY CROSS. A Religious Order for Priests and laymen. Address: the Father Superior, O.H.C., West Park, N. Y.

THE SOCIETY OF ST. JOHN THE EVANGELIST. Lay brothers are united with the priests. The American Congregation is divided into four provinces:

The Home Province, St. Francis House, 980 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, MA.

The Pacific Province, Church of the Advent, 162 Hickory St., San Francisco, CA.

The Canadian Province, House of the Transfiguration, Bracebridge, Ontario, Canada.

The Province of the Far East, care of the American Church Mission, Ikebukuro, Tokyo, Japan.

THE ORDER OF ST. FRANCIS. A Community of priests and laymen following the Rule of St. Francis. Address the Fr. Guardian, O.S.F., Little Portion, Mount Sinai, Long Island, NY.

ST. BARNABAS’ BROTHERHOOD. A Religious Order of laymen. Address, the Brother Superior, St. Barnabas’ House, Gibsonia, PA.


THE ALL SAINTS SISTERS OF THE POOR. Orange Grove, Catonsville, MD.


THE COMMUNITY OF ST. MARY. Peekskill, NY. and Kenosha, WI.

THE COMMUNITY OF ST. SAVIOUR. 720 41st Ave., San Francisco, CA.


THE ORDER OF ST. ANNE. Each convent of the Order is autonomous. The several Convents of the Order as now existing are: Convent of St. Anne, Arlington Heights, MA.; St. Anne's House, 44 Temple St., Boston, MA.; Convent of St. Anne, Emsworth, Hants, England; Wuchang, China; Church of the Ascension, Chicago, IL.; 287 Broadway, Kingston, NY; St. Anne’s Convalescent Home, 2701 S. York St., Denver, CO.; Margaret Hall, Versailles, KY.

THE POOR CLARES OF REPARATION AND ADORATION. House of Prayer, Mount Sinai, Long Island, NY.

THE SISTERHOOD OF THE HOLY NATIVITY. 101 East Division St., Fond du Lac, WI.

THE SISTERHOOD OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE. A Canadian Order with work in USA. 28 Major Street, Toronto, Canada.

THE SISTERHOOD OF ST. MARGARET, 17 Louisburg Square, Boston, MA.

return to Project Canterbury