Project Canterbury

An American Cloister

The Life and Work of the Order of the Holy Cross

By Shirley Carter Hughson, O.H.C.

West Park, New York: Holy Cross Press, 1948.

Chapter I. The Religious Life.

THE Religious Life at the present day is attracting an extraordinary amount of attention. It is the constant subject of enquiry by both those who sympathize with it and those who oppose it.

The opposition of the latter in many cases would vanish if they understood what the Life was. And it not infrequently happens that those who give it their enthusiastic support exert far less influence than might be expected because their zeal is not balanced by a definite knowledge of its principles and practice.

The first question that is asked by any serious and intelligent inquirer is: "What is meant by the Religious, or Monastic, Life? What are its principles?" In almost every part of the Anglican Church it is under discussion, and it is necessary that the knowledge be acquired which will make the discussion intelligent.

In the simplest terms, the Religious Life may be defined as a method of serving God in which men or women consecrate to Him their life and labour under the perpetual vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience in a Religious Community.

"But can we not serve God without taking such formidable vows?"

[2] Certainly. In fact, the vast majority of men and women in the Church have always served God without any such vows. It is a special vocation and is not intended for all. But from apostolic times there have been those who have heard in their hearts the voice of God calling them to leave father and mother, sister and brother, family and children, house and lands, all things, in short, and to follow Him in complete and loving surrender of body, soul and spirit. And human experience shows that any such dedication has indefinitely more force and permanence if it is sealed and secured by a life-vow.

Nor is it experience alone that witnesses to the value of a life-vow in Religion. Where God asks it, the instincts of human love demand this response. If a man loves, he always desires to express that love by giving himself without reserve to the object of his love.

Say to a man about to marry a noble woman: "You must go slow. Do not give yourself up all at once. Have a trial marriage for a year and see how it works before committing yourself for life"; and he would feel insulted. Love demands that he give himself up wholly, and love for God cannot ask less of us than human love.

So the heart that truly loves our Lord scorns to make a half-offering. This is the test of love. Anything short of this shows it to be a calculating, commercial thing which neither God nor man would accept. It must also be remembered that as Christians [2/3] we are all bound under our vows of baptism which are more far-reaching and irrevocably binding than any other vows that could possibly be made.

In answer to this instinct, the Church has never permitted those who give themselves to this Life without taking vows to assume the name of "Religious." The essence of the Religious Life lies in the life-vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. The pledge is given to God once for all and can never be taken back. However saintly men or women may be, however strict a life they may live under Rule, without taking their vows they can no more be Religious than a man can be a priest' without being ordained, though he may have the profoundest' knowledge of theology and the, deepest love for souls.

There are three special obstacles that stand in the way of a complete, foot-loose, and heart-free consecration to such a service of love. These are:

(1) The possession of worldly goods.

(2) The obligation of family ties.

(3) The desire to have one's own way.

The man who has worldly possessions must look [3/4] after them. He is, as it were, tied to the place where his property lies. His interests are there and he cannot go very far away. He must take care of these interests and therefore he must limit the service he might give to any other cause.

A Religious by a vow of poverty frees himself from every such care and obligation, and puts it out of his power rightfully ever again to burden himself with personal possessions.

A man with wife and children is bound under pain of serious sin to care for them. Say to a man with a family to support: "Drop everything and go and preach the Gospel in China, asking nothing in return" ; and he would rightly think you either a bad man or demented. He is not free to give such a service.

But a Religious, desiring the freedom to work for God unhindered by family cares, sacrifices the satisfactions and joys of family life, and emancipates himself once for all by a vow of celibacy.

Again, the best work, whether in business or in the army, or in religion, is done by men who are willing to place themselves under authority, and to follow orders with prompt obedience.

But the human will is a perverse thing, and even men whose lifework depends on their obedience, in a fit of self-will sometimes throw everything up and quit. The head of an important work cannot develop his plans unless he has some sense of certainty that he can depend on his directions being followed [4/5] with faithfulness, enthusiasm and perseverance.

The Religious, once for all, puts beyond him the possibilities of so quitting his post or resisting his Superior (save with sin and dishonour), by vowing himself to obedience so long as he shall live.

These are the principles of monasticism, and Religious men and women seek to exemplify them in their life and work. With hearts burning with love they give up all--possessions, family, and their own self-will--to serve our Lord. If they are true to their ideals they can say as can no others:

"Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee."

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