THE RELIGIOUS STATE FOUNDED BY OUR LORD
The Effect of the Incarnation in Elevating Marriage--It gave also a Value to the Consecrated Virgin State--The latter Established by Christ as a Means of Expressing the Soul's Devotion to Him--Caution not to find Fault with Others Differently called from Ourselves--How the Lord revealed the Religious Life in the Counsels of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience given by Him--How He taught the Value of these Counsels by His own Example--His Assumption of Voluntary Poverty--His Example of Chastity--His Practice of Obedience to a Written Rule--His training of the Disciples in these three Counsels--Why these Counsels were chosen for His own Guidance and Theirs--Why called Counsels of Perfection--Christ's Blessing on the Religious Life--What our duty in this Respect--If Christ calls, saying: " Let him " enter this Life, who may forbid It?
THERE is one other side of this subject often overlooked. The utility of Sisterhoods is admitted, but clergy and parents often fail to grasp the idea that it is a state of life established by Christ.
The Incarnation gave a new significance and dignity to marriage. It revealed the purpose God had from the beginning in making human nature so different from the angelic. The duality of the sexes and their union in marriage was to be a witness to the union of the Incarnate Word and His bride, the Church. "I speak," St. Paul says, when writing of this mystery, "concerning Christ and His Church."
Hence we may see why Christian marriage was made permanent and indissoluble. It was to testify to the indestructibility and eternity of this union of God with human nature. In virtue of this high office Christian marriage had a special dignity and grace bestowed upon it, and for this reason under Christianity polygamy was abolished and a Christian could have but one wife, even as Christ could have but one Church.
But also the Incarnation, through the moral as well as physical instrumentality of the Blessed Virgin, gave rise or value to the consecrated virgin state. Not that a dedicated virginity was unknown in the old world's life. The Greeks had their virgin priestesses of Apollo, and the Romans their vestal virgins, who kept alive the fire that symbolized the national life. The superstitious Scandinavian races of the West had their virgin prophetesses, and in the East the followers of Buddha adopted a celibate life. The virginity, however, upon which Christ placed the seal of His divine sanction had a different origin and a unique purpose. As Christian marriage was to bear witness to the unity of Christ and His Church, so the virgin estate was to set forth the idea of the self-consecration and sacrifice embodied in the Incarnation. It was also to prophesy, by its sacrifice of the present, of the coming kingdom of the Lord in Glory. It was further to declare the power of the grace flowing from the Divine Humanity and to extend its triumph. It would, moreover, ever tell the world of the love of Christ, for whom the suffering of the loss of all things was to His devoted followers a joy.
This consecrated estate, therefore, was not the product of human pride, nor did it spring from a gloomy and false asceticism. It was not the outcome of Indian ideas of deliverance of the spirit from the bondage of matter. Nor did it rise from that mistaken theology which supposes heaven is gained by man's own merits, or that suffering and pain are in themselves things dear to God. The desire for this consecrated condition is born of the love of Christ, to whom, indeed, all Christian souls are united, but of a love so real, that as He is so would it be in this present world. With the keenness of love-begotten intuition it has fathomed the philosophy of Christ's own life, and seen how He made His life fruitful through the seeming sterility of death. Realizing how He endowed His Church with an unfailing energy of perpetual renewal, by letting the seed first fall into the ground and die, in the self-abandonment of love, it would go and die with Him. Through its mist of penitent tears it sees shining the love of God unable to express its fulness save by pouring out its life on Calvary, and so it must respond by an entire oblation of self and give back heart for heart, life for life, and love for love.
Christ knew there would be souls to whom such intense desire would be as daily hunger. He knew there would be-some hearts so set on fire with divine love that they must steep them, as it were, in the blood of His own passion. He knew that some would so thirst to forward His work among men that they not in conscience hold back aught from could Him.
Do you, dear reader, in your comfortable home and surrounded by all He has given and blessed to you, blame Him that He has provided for the heart-wants of others? Can you find fault with Him because, having made for you life beautiful and your cup of blessing to run over, He has allowed others to share in His labours and given them out of His cup of suffering to drink? To you a saintly life is not denied, and you may grow in union with Him by all He has given you to love; do not hinder those who would be united to Him by ministering of their substance and following Him to His Cross. Your married estate has been ennobled by Christ and enriched by His grace; be diligent in corresponding with it and not troubled by the Master's different call to another. "If I will that he tarry till I come what is that to thee? Follow thou Me."
"Each as they stand in their appointed lot And seek to do His bidding,--here Bravely set upon the right and noble duty 'Midst earthly struggle; or 'neath the sheltered roof-tree Training with patient toil the children of His love; Or in the cloistered home where prayers and service Blending make continual praise,--each will of The Master gain their blest reward."
The higher or deeper life, call it what you will, is open to all, and according to the degree of our conformity to grace do we become more and more sanctified; and according to the measure of our sanctification will be the capacity of our future joy and our nearness to Christ on His throne. We should, however, recognize the teaching of Holy Scripture and of the Church that, as Christ created and blessed marriage, so He likewise established and blessed another estate. For the "devoted" or religious estate is not merely an unwedded condition, it is an estate of the Gospel, revealed by our Lord in the counsels given by Him of voluntary poverty, chastity, and obedience, as a special means of union with Himself, begun here to be perfected in eternity.
Let us consider how our Lord teaches this by His example and by His dealings with His disciples, and also the reasons for His choice of these three counsels as the counsels of perfection.
I. Consider first the example of our Blessed Lord.
Among the principles of His own interior life was that of voluntary poverty. Christ was poor by His own choice and act. Born in poverty, leading for thirty years a hard and laborious life, yet on entering His ministry He voluntarily abandons what little He has and becomes a homeless, destitute wanderer on the face of the earth. The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head. All the riches of heaven and earth are His, yet He will have nothing He can call His own save the dress His blessed Mother doubtless wove for Him, and for which by the Cross the soldiers cast lots.
There was a deep meaning of devoted love in this voluntarily adopted condition of abject poverty. Man, losing by his sin communion with the Voice which walked with him, the gates of Paradise are closed and he becomes an outcast. The Voice, to which man, by himself, cannot return, comes out to meet him. It comes to lead him back to God, and so identifies Itself with him. Thus it is that the Word comes not with the outward glory of the first Adam, but takes upon Him the likeness of our sinful flesh; is born, not in some garden shrine, but like an outcast in a stable cave; joins in contest with Satan, not in a paradise, but in the wilderness; takes His place among earth's penitents as they come to the baptism of John; as representing outcast and guilty humanity, kneels down in the garden where man has sinned, to repent there for man with tears of blood; is lifted up upon the Tree to replace there the fruit He never took. And as part and foundation of this blessed truth of His identification with us, He stripped Himself of every earthly possession, and for our sakes, "though He was rich became poor."
Harder than the discipline of poverty, with its anxieties, its pains, and its scorn, was that of His affections. Never in this world has there been a truer or closer love than that which knit together the hearts of our Lord and His blessed Mother. The natural affection of maternity was increased by the grace-endowed love she bore for the Holy Child conceived in her by the Holy Ghost. It was a love returned by Him with divine tenderness and devotion to her, upon whose loving consent the mystery of the Incarnation had at one time hung. It was a love which had developed by every ordinary act of intercourse during thirty years, when every word of His was a hidden benediction, and every kiss a sacrament of grace. She had hung on every word and act, and treasured them in her heart, until that heart was melted into His and there seemed but one life between them, and that His own. She was by all Christian acclaim a type in a singular degree of that Church which was to be His bride. Hence, in that mysterious first miracle where the marriage of the Incarnate Word to humanity is mystically set forth, the only names of persons mentioned are those of Jesus and Mary. Yet, dear as that intercourse was, at this feast the Lord takes leave of her, with the saying: "Woman, what have I to do with thee?" Now the sword pierces her own heart, and what makes the pain to her so acute is the fact that He whom she loves best places it there. Whatever rewarding recognition He may lovingly grant her when the hour of His cross and triumph come, now He leaves her, trustfully abandoning her to the providential care of God. It is a revelation of her wondrous growth under His training that she discerns His purpose and without a moment's hesitation submits to His will. She immediately gives up what is so dear to her and, resigning her place of authority, says to the servants, "Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it." By this voluntary detachment when leaving home, by this parting of hearts, this wounding of the most loved, by this subordination and triumph over the greatest of human affections at the call of God, our Lord manifested the glory of the counsel of chastity, or that choice of the love of God above all other love, which controlled His interior life. For chastity relates not merely to the government of the lower portion of our nature, but essentially to its higher, and is found in the single eye and purity of heart which has God ever in its embrace and lives in the perpetual subordination of the heart's affection to Him.
If voluntary poverty and self-sacrificing chastity are seen in our Blessed Lord's life, no less is the counsel of obedience. That which man most of all rebels against, namely, the dictation and control of another, was by Him most completely submitted to. It was more than submitted to, it was embraced as a law of His life. He was obedient from the first moment of His Incarnation. "Lo, I come to do Thy will, O my God," is His utterance while yet unborn. Obedient to the law, in infancy He is circumcised, and obedient to a divine command He receives His name. In childhood He goes down to Nazareth and is subject to Mary and Joseph, though they were wise only with imperfect wisdom. At twelve He is found in the Temple, obediently catechized according to the law by His servants. The one utterance of the thirty years, made so emphatic by the surrounding silence, is that of obedience: "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business? " Later, He goes up to Jerusalem, keeping the prescribed feasts, and also He pays tribute to Csesar; and thus, by His submission to His blessed Mother, and to St. Joseph, and to the lawful claims of the Church, and to the State, He gives to all men, in their common duties, filial, civic, and religious, a perfect example of obedience.
But beyond this, which was by way of precept, He voluntarily accepted a most searching and minute control over all His inner life. He did not come to save men, thinking His way out as He went along. He had a severely hard and most trying rule of conduct laid down for Him, on the perfect keeping of which the deliverance He sought to effect constantly hung. First, He was to be true to the terms and conditions of the human nature He had united to His own. He had to act out the divine life through it. He was to be true to all its conditions and at all times. True, for example, to the law of its infancy while He, the Eternal Word, lay as an infant on His mother's breast. Before Him were all the hosts of Heaven, and the secrets of all the universe were His. The marvellous panorama of all the orderly progression of nature lay before Him, and the forces of creation moved at His divine will. Yet not His mother's weakness, nor her oft-times fears or more enticing words or loving looks could draw Him to break that law of silence which made Him one with us in infancy, or exert that power for her succour or His own.
So also in the temptation. He had, when hunger gnawed within Him, the power to speak and the stones would have become bread; but He must not call upon the resources of His Divine Nature for His succour, for He must fight out the battle of humanity, and reverse its defeat by the powers of humanity alone. He was, moreover, not to act on His own judgment as to His course in life; it had all been laid down for Him in a written code. The types, the prophecies, the Jewish ceremonial which we read with curiosity, or for their evidential value, were to Him minute directions for His daily conduct. Every kind of sacrifice offered in the Temple had its special law to which He was continually to conform. It told Him, in its every detail, not only what he was to be, in His outward life of suffering and death, but of the perpetual oblation of Himself in His interior life. Every prophecy and Messianic psalm gave Him direction concerning not only His every act and word, but moreover regulated His hopes, His desires, His fears, His aspirations, His every thought. God bound on the first Adam only one command; on the Second, the Scriptures, which were His constant guide, were filled with them. All were to be remembered and executed with an exactness perfect in its interior and outward expression. It is in reference to this law of His life that our Lord so frequently says, "So it must be," and "The Scripture must be fulfilled." The will of Christ was surrendered to the will of God, and the mind of Christ was cast in the mould of Holy Scripture as the complete manifestation of that will. There was an absolute surrender of Himself to a revealed law, which tested every portion of His human nature, declaring what it must do, and, even in things otherwise lawful, what it must not do. The mysterious saying concerning the final coming at the last day shows how that in one thing this further discipline was planned for Him, namely, that His human mind might not gaze into the Divine Nature and know what so it might have learned, and which had for Him so intense an interest. His mind was to bear the mark of a humbled curiosity, a submission in this realm of knowledge to the sovereignty of God. So complete was this voluntary obedience that He did not speak of Himself, but "as He heard, so did He speak," for beyond the written rule, His humanity was under the control of a personal Master, and in all His actions and thoughts "He was led by the Spirit."
Thus our Lord became the pattern Man through a perfect conformity to the will of God, wrought out by the practice of the three counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
II. Consider we now our Lord's dealings with His disciples.
He first called them to leave all, as He had done, and follow Him. They were to leave their old religious teacher, St. John Baptist. They were to leave their father, their boats, their fishing, or their publican's table. His call had a constraining efficacy, and their hearts went out to Him and they left all, though they knew not all that following Him meant. They committed themselves to Him, and He made known to them the principles of His own life. They heard Him declare the counsel of poverty, when to the rich young ruler seeking perfection He said: "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast and give to the poor, and come and follow Me." When they disputed who should be greatest, He told them of that royal road of obedience He travelled, by putting the little child before them, and saying: He that would be greatest, let him become humble and docile as a little child. He revealed to them His own life of detachment of heart, in His saying, "He that loveth father or mother more than Me, is not worthy of Me." He taught the same law when to one of His disciples who said, "Lord suffer me first to go and bury my father," He replied: "Follow Me; and let the dead bury their dead." Further, when in answer to their question as to the advisability of marriage, He said, "All cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given." "There be some who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it."
In what He by word made known to them as His own life, He trained them by a rigid and most exacting discipline. All portions of their triple being, body, soul, and spirit, were brought under the transforming power of His potent counsels. Trained already they were, for the most part, to endure bodily hardness, but the Master took them along with Him into His life of poverty. It belongs to the poor man to be despised, rejected, scorned. "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of His household." "If the world hate you, ye know it hated Me before it hated you." He might at times enter the houses of the rich and sit at meat at the publican's table. St. Matthew might make a parting feast as he left all to follow Him. But the life of Christ was uniformly a severe one. He had entered on His ministry after so terrible a fast that the marks of that discipline of hardness never left Him. In the hour of H£s crucifixion, when His wasted and lacerated body was exposed to view, the scoffing beholders stood staring and jeering at Him. Into His own life of days weary with labour and nights given to prayer Christ took the twelve. They must walk with Him even if the provision of bread fail. He who will work miracles to feed the hungry multitude will work no miracle to bring them food. They must eat at times of the raw corn as they rub it in their hands while walking through the field. Hardy, brave, and daring as they were, He will take them with Him into such a storm as makes their natural courage fail, that it may become supernatural by the supernatural strength of faith. They were to learn the poverty of all natural powers, that they might enter into the wealth of the power of God.
Comparatively easy was it to brace them for their future work by the outward trial of poverty; the more difficult task lay in the discipline of the mind and spirit. The breaking down of their Jewish prejudices was not to be effected by persuasion. Christ disciplines His disciples. He seems to act arbitrarily. He begins with little things. He makes them violate the lesser traditions of the elders and eat with unwashen hands. He purposely violates their rigid ideas concerning Sabbath observances. He utters parables they do not understand, which force them to come to Him for explanation. He questions them concerning their dispute for precedence; searches, as with fire, their consciences. He rebukes them when together for their want of spiritual discernment and their lack of faith. He humbles them before the people by sharp censures of their conduct. He warns one of them that he is a devil; tells others that they know not what spirit they are of; and says to St. Peter, " Get thee behind Me, Satan." He sends them out on a trial mission of three months, giving them most precise rules respecting their conduct. They must go only into such places; they must not go as they please or where they will. They must not go singly, but two together. He gives rules concerning their coming into a town; where to abide; how to depart. He regulates their dress, their food, their silence, and their speech. His directions read like those of a Master of Novices dealing with his monks. The Apostles were so to come under obedience to Him as to believe and to obey without question what He said because He said it. To others the command might seem trivial, or impossible, or absurd. They were to go to a place where two roads met and find an ass tied and a colt with her, and to take them. They were to go into a city and would find a man bearing a pitcher of water, and they were to follow him, and take his large furnished upper room for their paschal feast. They obeyed because their Master's victory was complete and their minds and wills were His. Thus trained in the counsels of obedience, poverty, and detachment, their spiritual lives were formed upon the same interior principles as that of the Lord.
III. We may now consider why these three principles were chosen for His own guidance and for theirs.
Threefold, according to the scriptural division, is man's being. "I pray that your whole body, soul, and spirit be preserved blameless." Now in each portion of this triple unit there is a root of evil. Sensuality, or unruly appetite, has its seat in the body. Covetousness, or inordinate desire, lives in the soul. Pride, or independence, infects the spirit. These are the three roots of all our sins: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. And for these three primal germs of all sin there are three specific remedies. The discipline of the body, or chastity, whose lower function is to purify the body as in its higher it purifies the heart. The spirit of poverty, which is the cure for the unbridled desire for possession, whether it be of knowledge, or fame, or honours, or power, or wealth. Lastly, obedience, which casts out the pride and independence of the human spirit, and so makes man humble and docile toward His Heavenly Father, peaceful and at rest within himself, and kind-hearted toward others.
From their great excellence the Church has been wont to call these three counsels the counsels of perfection. Not that their profession makes one perfect. Not that their observance is exclusively confined to those called "Religious," for in a degree they enter into every Christian life. Not that they are in their highest degree of practice anything but the development of our Baptismal vows. Not that their practice, even with Apostolic heroism, makes them ends in themselves. But they are called counsels of perfection, first, because they are the principles of the inner life of the All-perfect One. And, secondly, because their practice makes us like Him, in perfect union with whom perfection consists.
It puts a new aspect on this matter of self-consecration when we realize that, for the better fulfilling of these three evangelical counsels, and thereby the more complete union with Himself, the Lord established the estate known as the Religious Life. He explicitly revealed this peculiar estate by His language [St. Matt. xix. 11, 12], "All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb; and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men; and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake." In fairness it must be admitted that here Christ is counselling, not a temporary unmarried condition of life, but, by a carefully-selected term, describing a state having a permanent and unalterable character.
As having such a character He pronounced on it a special blessing both here, saying [St. Mark x. 30], "He shall receive an hundredfold now in this time," "and in the world to come eternal life," "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it."
In the presence of this solemn utterance of the Master, the question of duty as to a choice in life, whether on the part of the daughter weighing the thought of an entire self-dedication, or of a parent hesitating to permit it, becomes one of grave concern. The fact that the Religious estate has been created by the Lord as an institution of the Gospel, and that the Holy Spirit calls souls into it for their perfection, involves in serious responsibility both parent and child. "For God, who gives us," says England's not least-sainted teacher, Dr. Pusey, in discussing this matter, "the transcendent privilege to be workers together with Him, leaves us also the awful power of marring His work."
It may be marred by refusing to obey His call; by choosing the pleasures of an Egyptian establishment rather than the hardness of the Christian wilderness; by casting some grains of disloyal incense on the altars of society and doing homage to the world's empire rather than sharing the ignominy and, it may be, persecution of the outcast Monarch; by letting the glittering baubles of ambition, clinking in the ear and deceiving the heart, drown the complaint that comes from the parched lips of the Crucified, asking the solace of our companionship and sacrificed lives; by an indulgent weakness which looks at the weight of the Cross rather than to the jewels of the Crown. Or, on the other hand, it may be marred by a parental selfishness which cannot give its best to Christ, or a hesitating faith which cannot trust the fulness of His promise, or worse, a blind worldliness, that wraps itself in an inveterate obstinacy and will not receive Christ's words.
Such a period of consideration of this question is a time fraught with grace and with peril. A time for the exercise of much patience and humility, and for much prayer. Here some soul is pressing forward, willing to respond to grace, and angel-hands are stretched out to direct her, and the blessed saints bend rejoicingly over her, and the great army of the martyrs, confessors, and virgins hope well for the promised accession to their ranks, and the heart of the great Monarch beats with the same love with which of old it moved toward those who sought perfection, and the assuring voice says to the child, "Come," and to the parent, "Let him."
Christ says to the one, "Come!" What subtle power is it that works within us to thwart Heaven's high purpose and turn our feet from off the narrow pathway shining with the safety of promised succours into the labyrinthine uncertainties and unsatisfactory pleasures of a worldly life? If duty bid thee remain at home, then remain. Duty first, and duty always. Duty is the voice of God. But if not duty, fear not to venture, for the "Come" of Christ is mightier than all the "Cannots" of our feeble hearts, and will sustain thee as it did one of old in his venture of faith upon the stormy waters to come to Christ. "And Peter said, Lord, if it be Thou, bid me come to Thee. And He said, Come!"
Christ says to the other, asking ofttimes the greater sacrifice on the part of the parent, yet with a pathetic tenderness that shrinks from giving pain, "Let him." Who is it that upon his own authority or upon the basis of his own experience, or through the following of the traditions of men, will venture to forbid what Christ approves? One limitation we know there is to all authority, namely, it must be "in the Lord." Christ says: Let him leave all as I left all; let him live after these counsels as I did; let him enter this estate I made My own; let him be so united to my interior life that I may reproduce it in him; let there be a wedded union of our hearts, and minds, and wills, that through him I may the better bless the Church; let him! What Christian parent, as he remembers at what a price he has been redeemed and thinks of what a true-hearted allegiance he owes his King, shall find it in his heart to deny his Lord's request and say to the Master, "No! He shall not!"