"One thing have I desired of the Lord, which I will require: even that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and to visit his temple."
MUCH has been written about the Religious Life, from standpoints historical, argumentative, devout; but those who read these books are for the most part those who already have some knowledge of and sympathy with it. The large majority of Church people however have little or no conception of the Religious Life at all, for its principles and the possibility of vocation to it are so seldom preached from the pulpit that even to this day we hear of persons to whom the very existence of Religious Orders in the American Church is unknown. Even among those who are informed, and look upon the life of the Convent with approval, there is often a misapprehension as to the true nature and aim of the Life. From this it naturally follows that here and there a woman presents herself as a Postulant for some Community, attracted by the order of the Convent, or the external life of the Sisters, or the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, or the privilege of many hours in chapel, and makes her venture of entering the Novitiate; but it is only to find disappointment and loss, because of her lack of an adequate knowledge of the nature of the life she is undertaking.
Perhaps such an one has been present in a Religious House during a three days' Retreat. All has been carefully planned to set her absolutely free in mind, to make her as comfortable as may be in body, and to nourish and stimulate her soul. With no other duty to disturb, with the charm of the unusual to attract, or of renewed association to hold her, she finds devotion easy, and is responsive to the uplifting spiritual influence. She sees well-appointed services, and Sisters always present at them. What a contrast to the difficulty of attending her parish Church, whose hours are always in conflict with the family time-table, or with other duties,—real duties to a woman living in the world; with her heart in Jerusalem, she may have to live at Nazareth.
Or, there may be friction in the parish Church itself where she resides. The services may be cold and as bare as Bethlehem, the priest only half convinced of his divine commission and wholly persuaded of the truth of his own opinions. There may be a real dearth of such sacramental opportunities as are plainly intended and provided for in the Book of Common Prayer. She longs to offer the best of everything, and to have her own best made better with the offering; but her ecclesiastical environment in the world seems to her to present no proper opportunities.
If her surroundings are all that could be wished, and her devotion is well nourished,—may be a little admired—both at home and in her parish, she may have been told "what a good Sister" she would be; perhaps, even, "what an acquisition" to this or that Community. She would be missed, greatly missed of course: but what a beautiful sacrifice it would be, and how great a benefit she might confer by entering Religion.
Now a woman may be attracted by what she sees of Convent life, her own life in the world may be unattractive, and she herself may be a devout and useful person in the parish, and yet all this is no sign of Vocation to the Religious Life.
The Convent is a household of busy women, glad to welcome a Postulant, but not at all disposed to regard her as an interesting martyr. (She becomes more or less aware of this idea lurking in her own sub-consciousness.) Instead of visiting the poor, or teaching little children, or nursing the sick, she may find herself set at making button-holes or at work in the Refectory. Much of her time is necessarily spent in silence, and when there is conversation it may seem to her trivial. The hours in Chapel are an incessant repetition of the same Psalms, and even her Meditations and Spiritual Reading are brought under discipline and direction. After a longer or shorter experience of the Religious Life as it really is, many a Postulant or Novice has said, "My sisters in the world are doing more for Christ and the Church than I am doing here. The Life is not what I supposed." And so the disappointed one has returned to the world,'— perhaps with a last grieved surprise that no one in the Convent saw the justice of her remarks, that no one begged her to stay and reform the grave errors which she had pointed out. But here is another thought to be considered. In the same Novitiate there are others, who s/ay, and about whose staying there is never a question in the mind of any one. With the same ability for nursing and for mission work, they settle quietly to the button-holes or the table-linen, in tranquil contentment; and ever hearing the bell as God's voice, whether it call to prayer, to meals or to work, their ready answer is ever the same, "Lo I come to do Thy Will, O God; I am content to do it; yea Thy law is within my heart." God's voice. That is the secret, the underlying principle of the whole Life, God speaks to every soul He calls into being; and especially to every soul born by Holy Baptism into the Christian Church is His question fairly put: "Wilt thou then obediently keep God's Holy Will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of thy life?" The promise given in reply to this question includes all the future, all that God's will may require, a life of outward prosperity, or of adversity, of sickness or of health, of household affection and the joys of friendship, or of loneliness and desolation, of family life, or of life in Community, or of any combination of these alternatives, except of the latter two, which are always distinct. The true Religious, though set apart from the ordinary life of women, does not feel that she has a vocation and others have not; but she believes with all her heart that she is called of God to this Life, while others are just as truly called to some other form of discipline; for there is no true child of God made perfect without discipline of some sort.
In what manner, then, is God's voice the secret, underlying principle of the Religious Life? In the first place, one must examine herself, and be prepared to say that she is offering herself in response to God's Call, and not because of her own fancy. The choice is objective; it is God's choice. And how is the soul to know whether it is being called by God to the Religious Life? There are two means of determining this; there is the inner persuasion that it is God's will, and there are the exterior circumstances, existing also by His will, and rendering possible obedience to the call.
The idea of Vocation may indeed be presented in different ways. It may come through the personal word of a trusted spiritual adviser, or through an article in some popular magazine. It may be the natural "next thing" in a life given to God from its earliest consciousness, or it may follow upon one of those crises in experience which demand that the soul shall face new conditions, and reconstruct its scheme of life. The heart may be opened to God's voice by deep joy and gratitude, or by the failure of earthly hopes, and the realization that God only is immutable; or by the recognition that one's character will develop more perfectly under a fixed Rule than in the turmoil of changing circumstances.
The inner persuasion may not always be welcome. It may be a conviction, a sense of duty, rather than a pleasing attraction, or it may be both; but the desire to fulfil the Will of God must be the prevailing motive, if the vocation is to have staying qualities. Our own choices vary with changing years. What pleases at one time may fail to please at another. But to rest ever upon the Divine Will gives permanence and stability.
And so, if outward circumstances forbid, or if health proves not sufficient for the laborious life, with its strain upon every faculty of mind and body; if those who have long and varied experience, and know fully the demands of the Life, judge that this one or that one is not fitted for it, the soul is not disturbed. It still seeks to know only God's will, and returns to its place in the world without bitterness, "ever equally blest."
It often happens that a soul, feeling herself called of God, finds all but insuperable difficulties in her outward circumstances. These are intended to test the faithfulness of the soul, and to develop some necessary virtues which are lacking. The soul persuaded of the inner vocation will not lose heart, when thus held back for a time, but will pray that the obstacles may be removed, or that she may have strength and courage to surmount them, in God's appointed time. But there are many for whom no barrier exists, who lack only the inner voice. They ought also to pray, that God may "speak to their hearts," and show them His Will. And we who know the blessedness of the Life ought to have the courage to suggest to those under our influence that they consider the Religious Life as possibly the Vocation with which they are called. At least we can offer our intercessions, which by the blessing of God will result in the quickening of desire and the strengthening of purpose in those whom God has destined to follow the perfect life of Christ Jesus.
WE SPOKE in our last paper of the Divine Will calling this one and that one out from the world to fulfil her Vocation in the Religious Life; that is, the Regular or Ruled Life, the Life under Vows and under a fixed Rule.
Let us make it clear to ourselves in the first place, that the Religious Life is not constituted by a few women or a few men deciding to live together, to have all things common, and to obey one of their number, chosen by them for wisdom or piety, or influence. That might be a Society, a Guild, a practical organization for work, but not a congregation of Religious. No; there is an essential spirit, and there are universal traditions belonging to the Religious Life, of such a nature, of such force and permanence that they form an entity, a literal Life which vitalizes all true congregations, communities, or societies of Religious. This Life has its own customs, even its own vocabulary, which is as the mother tongue of those who truly embrace it, and sounds strangely on the lips of strangers. It has a history full of significance, studded thick with biographies of men and women great beyond the measure of their times. It has conserved learning, and inspired art and mobilized philanthropy.
And so, when one conies out from the world to enter upon the Life of Religion, if she be humble and docile and ready to learn, there lies before her a new world to awaken her interest , new fields of knowledge to cultivate, a new language to learn, new occupations, new customs, even a new code of etiquette.
These last are not the arbitrary by-laws of a club. If the Postulant disapproves of them and feels herself moved to try some other Community, more strict, or more lax, or devoted to some other special work, the chances are, the all but unfailing experience is, that she will find herself out of place in the next Community to which she goes. They are all alike, these Religious Communities, in certain essential points. They are not upon trial before the world, to be modified and reconstructed at the pleasure of patrons.
It is a well-known fact among students and teachers that docility of mind is a first requisite in all true learning. Students of science know further that knowledge acquired from books is not such a true knowledge as is acquired by experience. The book which appeals to us most forcibly is the book which verifies, and is verified by, our own actual life; whether it be a book of history or of fiction, of travel or of poetry. Applying these two principles to the study of the Religious Life, we see in the first place that a person who comes to us knowing all that the books can teach her, has yet very much to learn in the Convent, and if she thinks otherwise she will never learn it. But on the other hand she may be persuaded that an institution of such antiquity as the Religious Life, and of such intense conservatism, and of such strength that it can afford to be conservative, must be worthy of respect, of study, and of devotion. And if she yield to its laws, she will find herself educated, drawn out along new lines; and the books she has read will take on a new meaning.
It is like the transition from the book-study of any science, to the field where knowledge must be worked out on practical lines. To stick to the book-learning is simple pedantry, and puts a stop to real education.
We are speaking of one who has already realized the duty of submitting her will, in response to the Divine Vocation, and who yet needs to see that her intellect and all its possessions are included in God's call; and that, neither to a deathlike inactivity nor to a supercilious criticism.
God never wills a belittling thing. If he calls, it is to something noble, to something worth while.
For those who are ready to learn, there is the danger of trying to grasp too eagerly the completed system at the outset, to know the whole of the life before beginning it. There is au equal danger, a little farther on, of sinking into a routine and giving it no farther thought. Then, alas, the mind, no longer stimulated by contact with the world, and failing of its Divine Vocation to share in the activity of God, is arrested in development and becomes a pitiable burden to itself and to its fellows.
In all this we are speaking of the intellectual side of the Life itself quite apart from the study necessary in connection with exterior work.
The outward form of the Religious Life is a fixed time-table providing for certain devotions. Chief among these is the regular recitation of the Divine Office, or the seven Canonical Hours of prayer; the Meditation; the Spiritual Reading; the Recreation. In these four ways the mind is exercised; in fixed attention upon one unchanging theme,—the law of God; in constant effort to bring one's thoughts at least into harmony with God; in learning from the masters of the Spiritual Life the sacred science of the things which concern the soul's life in God; and lastly in translating ourselves in kindly intercourse with those who live the same life with us.
Do you say this sounds very pious but not at all intellectual? Well, perhaps you have not tried it, or have not tried putting your mind into it. It may be a mechanical routine; or in the ardour of novelty it may be a devotion of the heart and nothing else. But some of us who have said the "Psalm of the Saints" every day for twenty years or more can testify that it both requires and repays mental effort. The words are so familiar; the thoughts are quite inexhaustible. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that God is the Highest Intelligence; that He sums up all knowledge in Himself; that there is nothing to know outside Himself; and that the Life which provides most time for bringing our minds into contact with Him, will not fail of being the most keenly intellectual life possible to each individual soul who lives it, unless the soul of her own fault lapses into sloth, or by intellectual pride stops her ears and says there is nothing to learn.
These various duties of the day will range themselves, to the intellect no less than to the soul, according to the old tradition of the threefold way of perfection; the recitation of the Divine Office in measured course representing the discipline of the Purgative way in the control of the mental attention; the reading of God's word and other spiritual books the Illuminative way in the development of power of thought; and the Meditation and Holy Communion the Unitive way in more direct contact with the Source of mind and thought. For these are not successive stages, but are to some degree co-ordinate in every life.
It is not without thought that the Community Recreation is here cited under the head of devotions, and as a factor in intellectual development. It is an hour set apart for the Sisters to spend together, in conversation; not in idleness, but with some light work which will not engross the attention. It is a duty for every Sister to be present, and to contribute, to the general good, cheerfulness, sympathy, tact, courtesy and all that range of social virtues which go to make life happy. It is not always easy. One would sometimes prefer to be alone, or to have an uplifting talk with some one congenial spirit, or to read a good book. But what one prefers is apt to be less of a moral power than what one accepts as a duty. And nowhere does duty faithfully done bring a more sure and sweet reward than in an unselfish recreation. If one drops out of the work, another takes it up. If one fails in choir, the Community carries on the Divine Office: but the power of personality in the Common Life is most individualized in the hours of recreative intercourse, and there its loss is most felt when the Sister is transferred to some other post of duty, or is called to her eternal rest in the company of the blessed.
Having now spoken of the obedient Will, responding to its Vocation, and the humble intellect prepared to accept the Rule of Life, we will next say somewhat of the Interior spirit.
OUR Lord has said to us, in the Religious Life, "I am the Way;" "This is the way, walk ye in it;" and we have yielded the consent of our will. He has said "I am the Truth," the sum of all knowledge. We have consented to yield our intellect, warped by misconceptions and cramped by prejudice, to be straightened and developed by contact with the Mind of Christ, in the daily recitation of the Psalter and the other spiritual exercises prescribed by conventual rule.
Our Lord says also, "I am the Life." The principle underlying the continuity of life, is Love; the higher the life, the more exalted the Love. God is love, the sum and substance of all Love, as of all intelligence.
There can be no Love, as there can be no knowledge, outside of God. And as there was never a moment in our existence when we were without life, so was there never a moment when that life was not sustained by divine love. It is not a new thing, then, the Love that calls us into Religion; not a new love, not a different love, but only a new manifestation of the eternal love wherewith God has loved us. We have perhaps been blind all our life, not knowing what purpose was before us, but content to be just led along by a loving Hand, we, trustful and loving in response. But now the Love of God finds means to open our eyes to what his will is with regard to us. There must be pain at first from the revelation; and He that made the eye knows what obedience will cost us. There is the sense of strangeness, and the little humiliating blunders of our inexperience; and the growing knowledge of what even the outside world expects of us. We thought we knew Him so well, His Voice was ever our delight. It was His beloved Voice that spoke to our heart calling us here; and now all our experience goes for nothing, and we are put to learn about Him from a stranger who cannot possibly know how and what he has spoken in our soul. We are all eager to do just what is expected in the Convent, and we are continually corrected and restrained as though,—well, as though we needed it. And perhaps friends and acquaintances? outside cause embarrassment by their failure to understand what is required by our new relationship, and what remains of the old.
One is tempted to give up the vision, and return to the life of less responsibility, wherein God's love was so sweet and constant a consolation. Or one is tempted to assert herself, and explain how close is her relation with God, and how little need she has of so much human instruction and discipline. But there is a more excellent way. We must remember that as the Vocation originates in God's Will, and as its development intellectually depends upon the soul's docility under the formative power of contact with His knowledge, so the continuity of the Life lies not in our own experience or emotion or affection, but in His Love. The question is not at all, What have you already attained in the spiritual Life; but, How can you manifest your gratitude for God's loving choice of you? You are not conferring a. favour upon Him or upon the Religious Community in responding to His call. You are but placing yourself under a new obligation to Him,—and yet, since He gives the call, you cannot escape the obligation by refusing your consent. Rather, in that case, you show open ingratitude. You love God because He first loved you, and still loves you. This you believe; then you must believe also, that knowing every difficulty before you, and every unpleasantness that surrounds you, knowing the exact measure of each, and its especial effect upon your individual soul, He yet leads you,—ah! never sends you—into these circumstances, and does so in infinite Love. He knows the resources of His own Nature, the uplift he can give you. You do not enter the Religious Life for any motive less than to answer His call. In every difficulty whatsoever, great or petty, He is close at hand, and He is ever saying "The same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren in the world;" "I have chosen you out of the world;" The afflictions are but incidental. They are not the Life; "I am the Life."
And so the Postulant, the Novice, the Sister of whatever rank, trained as befits her more than royal Vocation to a royal reserve and prudence with regard to her inner life,—a reserve which often gives pain to those whom she has left in the world and rebounds in pain to her own heart,—has ever this resource: Her Rule provides certain times for private devotion, either in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament or elsewhere, times when no one but God knows what she says, how she unburdens her heart, how she falls back upon the continuity of the Love she has always known, or rests in a little guarded space of present confidence, or looks forward to that wide eternity of unhindered Love which will so soon blot out the memory of everything that is not God. And none but her own soul knows how, in those silent times, He condescends to enter into the minutest details of her life, the difficulties in her work, the adjustment of relationship with those others whom He has called into the same Life, the rebellions of her own nature or its feeble aspirations after the Life of Perfect Love. She comes to understand and value the hours of Silence, as God's opportunity, His own provision for private intercourse with her even while outwardly she may be at work. She learns to store up His consolation against a time of siege. She trains herself to look at things from His point of view, which is no less a thing than seeing them from all points of view, fairly and truly. Above all she more and more cherishes her Communions, as the token and pledge of all that is unspeakable in life. They are not a mere spiritual luxury, so much more easily attainable than when she was living in the world. She does not approach the Holy Table at the dictate of her own desires, or even her felt needs, now with frequency and again at longer intervals, but always according to the provisions of her Rule as expressing the Will of God for her. Thus desire may be chastened by a reminder of past unfaithfulness to sacramental grace, or quickened by the apprehension of God's love manifested in His will to summon her to His Banquet.
She may begin by saying, "My Beloved is mine and I am His;" but if she be a true Religious she will after awhile learn to say, "I am my Beloved's and His desire is towards me." That is the assurance of safety and of continuance.
WE have been considering Vocation to the Religious Life as originating in the Will of God, developed and vitalized by the Mind and Love of God. The vocation is to be consummated in a vow. But the vow itself is two-fold. Like all else, it begins in the Divine Nature.
The history of the ages is the record of God's faithfulness to His vows; to Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, to Judah, to David, to the Blessed Virgin Mother, to the Christian Church, to the Religious of every age. It is God Himself who formulates the covenant, and in the first instance pledges Himself. It would well repay the devout student to meditate upon these covenants, one by one; observing God's initiative, reverently searching out His purpose, and noting its perfect fulfilment. All would lead naturally to the Vows of Holy Religion. But for the present let us think especially of those which approximate most closely to the Religious Life, and see to what God pledges Himself.
In a previous chapter the thought was of Love as the principle of Life. Love has been variously defined as, "a desire to possess the person of the beloved;" and as in its last analysis, "the desire to give." These two apparently diverse ideas are perfectly co-ordinated in the Love of God, and in its sacramental operations.
Father Benson has told us that "natural birth is a disintegration," a setting forth upon life of a new and detached individual. It is a perpetual marvel to study the little new-born personality, self-centred, self-contained. From a natural point of view, it stands so helplessly, hopelessly alone. From the moment when it first begins to think, no other human being can enter into its thoughts or fully understand its motives. As soon as it breathes it begins to show forth its own will, which no human power can control. With the first development of discrimination it begins to choose and to desire. It stands alone, an individual soul; and what can be done for it? The title "faithful Creator" pledges Almighty God to all that He can do towards restoring the soul to that participation in His own Nature from which it is separated. In Holy Baptism, the Father goes on to tell us, the soul is born back again into the Body of Christ, of which it is henceforth a member. So does God provide for His first possession of the soul, and herein He endows it with an ineffaceable character, and with the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, for the healing of the three wounds in intellect, affections and will. We all recognize the advantage to the child, of this covenant of God. So great is it, that when we have been told that God will for His part surely keep and perform His promise, we do not hesitate to stand surety and make the three-fold vow of renunciation of faith and of obedience; and we teach the child that he is bound to believe and perform as we have vowed in his name.
In Confirmation the soul is further endued with the seven gifts of the Spirit, to strengthen it for conflict with sin; and the sacrament itself is the preparation for God's most perfect bestowal of Himself, and His supreme possession of the soul in the Holy Eucharist.
These sacramental operations are familiar to us. We quite understand that they are gifts from God, and are for our advantage.
The vows of Religion, though not sacramental in the same sense, are yet somewhat of the same nature. For in them as in the Sacraments God bestows certain powers, namely, the power of Holy Poverty, the power of Holy Chastity, the power of Holy Obedience. These powers have all to do with life in this world, since at death every soul is in the nature of things stripped and separated and subdued These powers, therefore, belonging to life in this world, if they are bestowed by God as a participation in His nature, we should expect to find most clearly exemplified in our Lord's life in this world. That is to say, His Vocation to Religious men and women is, to live as He lived.
The Sacraments convey to us. in the measure of our faithfulness, a death unto sin, a new birth unto righteousness, the strengthening and refreshing of our souls, and all that participation in the Divine Nature which we call inward and spiritual grace.
Between our Lord's Baptism, which sanctified water for our regeneration, and His institution of the Lord's Supper for the sustenance of life, there lay three years, whose record fills but a few brief chapters of print, but whose power is greater than that of any empire in the world to-day. It is that power which He stands ready to bestow upon the Religious, who, before His altar, makes her three-fold vow of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. It is a power, in the first place, over herself; not her own self-conquest, but her acceptance of His support and defence and authority; and this intimate dependence upon Him develops within her a power of working with Him for the furtherance of His kingdom upon earth. The world and the Church look to her for certain things which they have a right to expect from her because of her union with Him in His Human Life. Whether consciously or not, they feel instinctively that His work is to be reproduced or continued in the Religious. He "taught the people;" He "healed the sick;" He cherished little children; He sheltered the sinner; He interceded for all men. He was poor, and chaste, and self-sacrificing. Men and women too shallow to see the importance of doctrine, too busy to consider their own sins, too prosperous to know spiritual hunger and thirst, still look with reverence upon a devoted life, and, feeling more or less of its beneficence, at least wish it good luck in the Name of the Lord. To them there may be a conventionalized idea of pathos or of fanaticism in a woman "giving up" so much, and binding herself by vow to the supernatural life, but if she is faithful to it they will sooner or later recognize its power, and will unconsciously do much to fix upon her the ideal to which she must more and more conform.
The permanence of the Life under vows follows logically upon this conception of its character. The gifts of God are without repentance. He changes not. Consider for a moment what would be the consequence either to individual souls or to the Church and the world at large, if His vows were "temporary vows," or if His Nature were such that He could change His purpose; and then remember that a life called into union with Him is under the same obligation of steadfastness.
THE woman who finds within herself that she has been called to the Religious Life, unless she is in exceptional circumstances, will be asked all manner of questions, many of which she will do well to avoid answering. Nevertheless, they will lodge in her heart and perhaps cause her to waste time and energy in opposing her conviction of principle to her ignorance of detail. One of these stock questions may be generally stated thus.—Why should God call some women to a life which is manifestly not intended for all? It could easily be worked out to a reductio ad absurdum, so stated. Holy Scripture puts the converse proposition clearly: "If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased Him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet one body." The advance from the simplest form of animal life, the stomach, with tentacles to draw in food, up to the complex organism of man with his three-fold nature, is too obvious to require comment.
But there is, after all, a real question underneath: not the whining child's Why must I do this? but the intelligent child's inquiry into the reason of things. And white it is better to avoid argument with objectors, it is also very good to so study the Mind of God as to give a reasonable assurance to one's own conviction.
The old, old Song of Moses, which is the Canticle for the Office of Lauds on Saturday, tells us, week by week:
"When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam; he set the bounds of the people; according to the number of the children of Israel. For the Lord's portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.....He led him about, he instructed him; he kept him as the apple of his eye."
The name, Most High, in Holy Scripture, is used to designate God in His relation to all people upon earth. All are His, and He, whether they know Him or not, is the God of all. It is a matter of history that He did choose one nation, one family, one tribe, to keep as the apple of His eye. They are scattered world-wide to-day, and are yet a separated people.
They were not chosen for exalted goodness. The following verses go on to tell of their wickedness and their discipline. The choice was purely subjective with God, yet carried out through successive ages, by means of the correspondence of this man or that woman whose ear was attent and whose heart recognized the Voice of God.
We find, then, that God may choose individuals; may single out this one or that one; and that as a matter of fact He has done so, and therefore it must be right. We can never understand His reasons for anything, unless we begin with a hearty acknowledgment of His right. Even we, in our poor human decisions, decline to give a reason when it is impertinently demanded. We are not asking whether Vocation is an unreasonable discrimination. We are trying to see, practically and spiritually, for what it stands in the economy of Providence.
In the first place, then, it serves to remind the world of God, and eternity, and the comparative value of things. In the busiest streets of the money-making city there is a constant object-lesson in another business, with an outward presentment that no one can mistake.
In the front rank of the educational and philanthropic works of the day, where each school and hospital is striving to keep abreast of the latest findings of science and the most perfect development of mind and body, there stands in the institutions directed by Religious, the concrete expression of another idea; the insistence that mind and body are not all, are not even the chief part of the scheme of existence. The standard of scholarship in a school conducted by Religious may be such as to attract many who would rest there. The brilliant no-religionist, the Hebrew, the sectarian, the worldling, sometimes puts in a plea that the child whom he places in the school may not be influenced along religious lines., and the answer of the Sister must ever be the same, "Sir, you see what I wear. You certainly could not trust your child to me if you felt me to be indifferent as to the use of my influence." And so, from the tiny tenement child learning to use a needle, to the girl of position and intellect preparing for College, all must understand that the Sisters stand first of all for God, for Christianity, for the Catholic faith, and the practice which it implies. Knowledge must ever be uplifted by the recognition of its source. Humanity is valuable chiefly for its immortal part. If the parent insist, that in the work of education the soul is to be ignored, he must take his child elsewhere. There is something lying back of all this. The world knows the outward manifestation of the consecrated life, and sometimes the rich world sends a handsome contribution to be used at the discretion of the Sisters in their work. But more often, far more often, there is a humble nickel or a bit of silver from some hand that has earned it and knows its value; and with it a request for prayer. Working men and women, in the din of shops or the clamor of tenement homes, have scant time to pray; but they know and claim their share in the prayers of those who are set apart to pray seven times a day. If all cannot do it, surely it is well that some can. God works by a representative system, without losing sight of each individual represented. The little coin is not to pay for the prayer,—God forbid! It is to represent the time that belongs to God, time's worth, so to speak. We are all members of the one body, we Religious, and they working people; we are the voice and they are the hand. For this reason it is above all things important that the Hours for prayer and other Religious duties be most rigorously maintained. If we represent the prayers of the people we must be faithful to our duty. Our work must never be allowed to supersede our devotions, or to make us so weary that we are unfit for them. They demand the best energies of our lives. If there is a question of over-fatigue, (and we are all in human frames) the relief should be from work rather than devotions. "The Life," said a beloved Mistress of Novices now at rest, "The Life will either break you down or build you up." The work cannot be carried, with its scrupulous attention to detail, unless the mind and soul are continually refreshed by breaking away from that work and rising to the contemplation of things divine, or expanding in intercession over the needs of the great world. This is a matter of experience, as well as of logic and reason. Many a Religious can testify to the real refreshment of mind and body that comes with the devout and careful recitation of the Divine Office, even at the end of a fatiguing day.
We think then of God's two-fold purpose in His special Vocation to the Religious Life; first, to represent Him to the world by an outward reminder of the eternal verities; and secondly, to represent before Him the devotions and needs of His people whom He has called to other duties and responsibilities, not only the poor, but also those who carry on the necessary work of the world, in any of its departments, social or political.
IN all Religious Communities there is a period, generally not less than two years, allowed for the instruction of Novices in the character and obligation of Vows. A few general principles may be set forth in this place.
It is a principle of equity in spiritual things, that the failure or fault of one person cannot excuse or dispense another person from a vow, unless it be so stipulated expressly. In the marriage vow, for example, the man and woman each make a separate vow to God before pledging their troth to each other; and the failure of either one to keep that vow does not free the other. Herein does marriage differ from any other arrangement of human affection, in that it has the sanction of a vow to God, received in His Name by the Church. Our affections in themselves have varying degrees of stability, so that an act vital to the protection of society, the family, and the state, needs a special grace to secure it. Every vow is made to God, who gives the necessary grace for its fulfilment; and any violation of the vow is first of all an act of unfaithfulness to grace and to God. No one then who suffers because of fidelity to a vow made to God, need try to right herself, because that appertains to Almighty God, and the cause of the one who suffers is His cause also.
This principle is the safeguard of the vows of Religion. Each one who is called into the Religious Life, and responds to the Vocation, makes her vow primarily to God, although it is to be rendered through obedience to the Community. On God's part there is the promise of the gift of Himself, for the perfect satisfaction of every part of the nature of the one vowing, and this promise is absolutely infallible; and on the Sister's part there is the pledge to live in Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, according to a certain Rule whose provisions are familiar to her. Thenceforth, no human factor can enter into this great equation, the covenant between God and the soul of the Religious.
It is true that the vow is exercised under conditions of delegated authority; and people sometimes object to the Religious Life on the ground that we are responsible for the use of our will, and have no moral right to surrender it.
There are many things to say, in answer to that stereotyped objection. We have to surrender our own wills constantly, from the time we first cry for the moon until the hour when we give back our bodies to the earth. Human society is only possible as the individual will yields to personal authority or to corporate government. In religion, the individual has chosen, once for all, to what person and to what corporation it will be subject. This free act of the will is comprehensive rather than detailed, but it is no less an exercise of that sovereign endowment. One may buy a railway ticket to some destination by this road or that; but no one expects to have the train subject to intermediate caprices of desire
There are two pluses of Religious Obedience, one, a mere matter of compliance with outward observance and routine, an economic necessity of the individual in any body corporate; the other, the inward spiritual grace, whereby the soul accepts authority as being the expression, through human agency, of the will of God.
Human authority is always liable to error. The blessed Virgin Mother herself and St. Joseph once went a day's journey away from her Divine Son, supposing Him to be of the company. But it is significantly told us, directly after this error, that He went down to Nazareth, "And was subject unto them." He, the all-wise God, was obedient to a fallible woman and man.
The truth is, that the will is more vigorously exercised and developed in the keeping of a vow than in any other way whatsoever.
It is not what we are bidden to do or to leave undone, that counts in the formation and development of character; but what does count, is our recognition of the fact, that our Lord chose for Himself this vow of Obedience, as a fitting discipline of character, and that we can only submit to God by submitting to those whom He has set over us, or to the circumstances He has placed about us. It is our definite, steady resolve to take every "obedience" laid upon us just as we take letters from the hand of a carrier, wholly intent upon knowing what message has come to us from the Unseen Friend;—yet perhaps sympathizing with the bearer of the message, who has heavy burdens to carry, and steep hills to mount, and sometimes bad storms to encounter.
The same conclusion is reached from an entirely different starting point, in Father Waggett's most absorbing book, The Scientific Temper in Religion. It is hardly fair to take a little bit of the argument so forceful in its completeness, but perhaps the paragraph following will bring the book under the notice of some who have not read it.
"There has been a tendency, among some who believe in spirit, in freedom, in will, and personality, to speak as if the advance of the observed range of natural law was a menace to the kingdom of freedom; as if the place of freedom began when law was left behind, so that it became the interest of those who believe in freedom to keep back the advancing waves of manifested law.
"But the extension of the range of law does not carry with it the restriction of the law of freedom. Freedom does not find its refuge where law is absent or unknown. On the contrary, freedom never has its chance excepting in so far as the free person not only is existing under a system of law, but has discovered its nature, and so is able to lay hands upon its advantages. Long ago Hegel said that necessity and freedom were the same thing looked at from different sides; and this statement represents not simply a truth of higher logic, but a fact of experience. What we find in experience is, that law is everywhere, and that freedom without being absolute runs all through it, and increases in the ratio in which the law is observable and is observed."
AMONG the questions arising in the mind of a woman who feels herself called by God to the Religious Life, there is one which she may state to her director, or to the Superior of the Community to which she is looking forward: What shall I do by way of preparing myself, while waiting to come? The answer is most wisely given: Be faithful to the duties of your station, as God at present orders it.
There is no better preparation for anything that the future may hold, than a steady perseverance in the common round of every day life. To try to keep the time-table of a Religious, while living in the world, is as great unfaithfulness as it would be in a Religious to neglect that timetable. The woman who makes her household uncomfortable and herself conspicuous by an unreal method of life, should not be surprised to find them distrustful of the principles underlying the life, and antagonistic to its practices. There will be far more discipline to her own soul, and she will do far more for the furtherance of the Life to which she is looking forward, if she will enter fully into the joys and sorrows, the pleasures and the trials of those about her, without any attempt to be other than she is, a woman living in the world. St. John Baptist prepared the way for the coming of our Lord, and made ready the hearts of his disciples, by counselling them to greater faithfulness in their common duties of intercourse with the world about them. She who has been the best daughter in her father's house, dutiful and obedient to her parents, tender with the aged, cheerful and sympathetic with her companions, loving and patient with the little ones, courteous to guests, and truly interested in all, will be better prepared for life in Community than one who keeps herself and her Vocation very much in evidence. Obedience is the safeguard of the Religious Life; and for a woman to attempt the practices of that Life without the safeguard, is to plunge herself into self-will, perhaps even to the unbalancing of her faculties. We have all read, in the days of our youth, the whimsical story of the girl who liked to "pretend," until, by way of curing her, she was taken to live among people who could do nothing else. Pomona in the role of a duchess, sets forth the absurdity of seeming to be other than we are. To anticipate God's plans is, in a certain degree, to pretend to an estate which He has not yet ordered. To look at things of the present in the light of a possible future, however great may be the dignity of that future, is to derogate from its dignity, because dignity is inseparable from simplicity and truth. The imagination, if allowed a morbid unreality while one is still in the world, will be equally ready to run riot later on, and may, perhaps, reverse the processes, to a final falling short of the high Vocation.
The determining power within, while strictly restraining this facility of imagination, should vigorously contend for a perfect docility of will. The value of living with a whole heart in the present lies in this: that it prepares the soul for equal pliancy in the future. The sacrifices must be wholly within. A showing of them, utterly destroys their value in the sight of God, and in the development of spiritual force. If God has called the soul to a life of special union with Him, her intercourse with Him should be hidden from all the world; and here we do not mean the worldly world, but all the world. She must know, though she may not anticipate in detail, that so high a calling must involve heroism of the most exalted kind; not the sort that is heralded with display of banners and martial music, but the nobler kind that is known to God alone, and is shared with One whose Life was to human eyes the most unparalleled failure. To make up one's mind to this or that course of conf duct, however good in itself, is to court actual failure; but to resolve earnestly to conform at every point to the providential indications of God's will, makes for the highest success, even though it be "obedience unto death."
But quite aside from any anticipatory practice of the Religious Life while living in the world, it sometimes happens that a woman, desiring to offer herself and all that she has to God, in response to His call, feels that her offering should be more worthy. She has lived comfortably at home, as was her right, but she feels that her acquirements would not make her independent, if she were alone, and she hesitates to present herself to a Community unless she can bring a trained service to add to its efficiency. And so she sets herself to learn some art or handicraft that will make her a valuable acquisition. Experience shows that one of two results is apt to follow. Either she becomes absorbed in her new occupation, and diverted entirely from her Vocation; or, bringing her new-found power with her into the Community, she prides herself upon it, and is more ready to teach than to learn. The Convent is glad to use the best that comes to hand; but its methods cannot be changed with the advent of each new Postulant. The Community is perhaps widely spread, and customs cannot be changed for the mere convenience of one place, without considering the moral effect upon the whole. Things must be so ordered, that a Sister suddenly called to take up work in a new place may know in a general way what she is to expect, and what may be expected of her. And this is not, as some may seem to think, a repression of the individual, but an opportunity for the individual to grow by discipline. There is a balance to be preserved between work and work, and this requires a higher order of mind than the specializing of one sort of work. Conservatism in methods of work is quite consistent with development of character. A woman who has been trained for nursing or teaching or some handicraft may find herself hampered when she first tries to combine the practice of her art with the restrictions which are fundamental in Community Life. If it is something which she has thought of as especially useful or needed, she is chagrined to find it must be secondary, or perhaps entirely set aside for some other employment. And so it may be better, when one is called into the Religious Life, to come "without delay," remembering that God calls us knowing just what we are, and asks of us chiefly, a free heart and an obedient will.
WE have already spoken more than once in these pages, of the positive character of the Vows of Religion; and yet there seems little danger that the point will be over-stated. Even when we have been many years under the Vows, learning their practical application to the details of every day life, in almost every Retreat we have some new light thrown upon the far-reaching possibilities attendant upon their ever deepening obligations. And so it will not be amiss to indicate a little more clearly, or to re-iterate a little more insistently the factors which make for reality and strength.
On the one hand, the world says there is so much to give up, while the true Religious comes to feel ever more and more that the demand for development is positively without limit. On the other hand, a woman in the world, who has perhaps for some years directed her own course, says there is nothing in the Vows which she is not already practicing; she is dependent upon her own efforts for a living; she is never misled by impulsive affections, and she understands that obedience is an economic necessity in any organized society; and perhaps she may be a long time in the Community without ever passing beyond this negative and colourless conception. She truly never encounters anything new or hard, and is quite unconscious that she is making no attainments. She knows the commercial value of her time, and is satisfied that she is doing more for the Community than her living would cost; therefore the balance represents poverty. Perhaps she even feels that the margin is her own to draw upon, in the sense that she may be exempt from this or that, may be a little less diligent than if her position depended upon it. A Superior is wary of refusing dispensations. She generally grants what is claimed; and the responsibility rests with the Sister, who must be on her guard against that quality which, in material things, is called shiftlessness. There is a wide difference between the shiftless poor and the thrifty poor, a difference not of possessions but of personality. The poverty of the Religious is not the privation of food and clothing and shelter, except as an occasional and accidental adjunct. Even the Franciscans, wedded to poverty, found the course of this world so ordered that they must have some possessions. Poverty itself so appeals to the world that the world gives promptly to relieve it, and in so far as it is relieved it becomes non-existent.
What then is the reality of Religious Poverty? What is the Poverty to which appertains the beatitude of the heavenly kingdom? The blessing is promised to the "poor in spirit;" and we shall do well to study the spirit of those who are actually poor in order that we may conform ourselves to it. One needs to live among the poor, to share their life and interests, and learn their standards, in order to appreciate a whole line of virtues which, however we may theorize, are best exemplified practically in the conditions of their life. We often have occasion to say, "The poor are so good to each other." In settlement work or mission visiting, we find them sharing with each other, when there is but little to share: caring for each others' children, and nursing each other in sickness, like members of one great family. It is an example for us, who so often hug our own little interests, and think we have done our duty if we bear our burdens alone.
The poor live so close together; and so do we in Community. One cannot have even a grief or a joy all to herself, without doing violence to an unwritten code. Even her faults and sins belong to the Community, and must be dealt with as such. These are far more vital points of poverty than an empty purse, or a patched shoe, or a cotton umbrella.
The poor we expect to be humble, and respectful, and grateful; above all things to be grateful. And if our spirit of poverty is real, it will be manifest in just those qualities. It is true, we are called to the great dignity of a life of special union with our Lord; but in His human state He was despised, rejected, and He opened not His mouth. It is enough if we be as our Lord; discredited of those who really and truly ought to believe in us. This is real and not artificial poverty; and it is quite possible to be happy under it, or over it, as the humble poor are happy.
St. Matthew gives us our Lord's word, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." St. Luke records another saying, "Blessed be ye poor." We may then go on from the spiritual aspect of Poverty to consider its working in regard to personal possessions. Our Lord has given us the example we are to follow. His earthly life began with the poverty of childhood. A child has absolutely nothing of his own, nothing but what may be taken from him and given to another, without his consent; nothing which he may give away without leave, expressed or implied. He shares in the lot of the household, be it poor or rich; and yet if it be rich he may be wisely kept from some of the complex life of the family. Our Lord chose to be born into a poor household, where the virtues of industry and frugality and fortitude were of natural consequence.
It is an ill omen if one responds to her Vocation by beginning to inquire, Shall I have to give up this or that. It is only by giving up all, absolutely everything, that one can attain to the virtue of real gratitude for such things as the Rule provides, for health and comfort, for convenience and efficiency in work.
THE three-fold Vow taken by every Religious at Profession, no part is so often misapprehended as the Vow of Chastity. On the one hand it is apt to be confounded with the purity of soul and body which is of obligation upon every Christian; and from this misconception arises a stunted and insufficient idea, a mere negation; whether the purity be a natural virtue or one attained by grace. On the other hand, the aspirant or Postulant finding herself and all her actions brought under a training as rigid in detail as the requirements of Court etiquette, may fancy that strict outward conformity to all prescribed observances will be a sufficient guard and guaranty of her life, and she may become so scrupulous in her demeanor that no one, least of all her own self, can find her in actual fault, while yet she has not mastered the essential principles of her Vow.
Now, these two factors, purity of heart and life, and restraint in demeanor, are essential in every soul called to a life of union with our Blessed Lord in the midst of this miserable and naughty world; and yet they are not Religious Chastity. They are as far below it as is a piece of flawless marble, fashioned by an artist's unsparing chisel, from the living, breathing form it simulates. The world has its complete Book of Decorum, and the devil himself, we have been reminded, is pure as ice. so far as sins of the flesh are concerned. But to be cold and unloving is not to be in union with our Lord: much less to be disagreeable and repellant. "Without natural affection," is a phrase occurring not in the list of spiritual graces.
Perhaps we may change and soften the exam, pie. The little child, fresh from the bath, laid down for its morning nap, is beautiful and perfect in every line; but if it should sleep on and on, you would soon put the little body away out of your sight. Chastity must have life and vigour and activity and development if it is to be a worthy offering to Almighty God.
We are trying especially in these brief chapters on the practical aspects of the Religious Life to keep in mind the positive character of the Vows; not prohibitive rules, but counsels of development. We have but to consider the unceasing activity of the ever blessed Trinity to realize what must be demanded of a life especially called by God. If we study our Lord's human life, we shall find it full of the most intense concern for every one with whom He came in contact. There was no withdrawal, except to the mountain-top for prayer; and from the one great prayer recorded for us by the beloved St. John, we may infer how much of His communion with the Father was charged with thoughts of His poor human followers. What a contrast to the sheer selfishness of a spiritual life that thinks to keep itself blameless by letting everybody alone! He was not afraid to be seen in company with the weak, the erring, the sinful, though He knew that they would cause Him bitter pain and grief. Ah, are we not at last drawing near to the heart of it all,—the willingness to suffer through our Vocation. The venerated Foundress of a Religious Community wrote to a woman asking for admission, " Have you pondered well what those words mean, Yea a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also?"
The relation between chastening and chastity is obvious. "The affections, being God's gifts, are not to be crushed , nevertheless they must be purified and regulated." They must be purified from selfishness; and probably none know until they take themselves seriously in hand, how few drops of pure affection they can distill from a great accumulation of self-pleasing. Why do yon like to be with this or that companion? Is it the Blessed Virgin's "vigil of love," looking into human eyes and seeing only God? Or is it our Lord Himself within you, looking out through your eyes as He looked upon one and another during His earthly life, upon the rich young man, upon St. Peter, upon the woman who was a sinner, upon St. Mary and St John, upon the penitent thief; with varying degrees of the love of complaisance, but ever bent wholly upon glorifying His Father? Or, is it a mere, innocent but wholly natural congeniality of thoughts and tastes, traditions of past life and hopes for the future, with or without a spiritual setting? Perhaps you cannot tell; and scrupulous introspection would only bewilder and do you harm.
But in the Religious Life there will be tests, safe and sure, whether you have attained or are attaining to the union with our Lord which alone enables us to love and let go, to love and let go. If there is no love, there is no virtue in letting go. You must learn to love everything and everyone, because all come from God and are beloved of Him; to feel the pain of letting go, and rejoice in it, because pain also is His good gift, and whom He loveth He chasteneth. You must love the Divine Office in its most perfect rendering, with music and incense and an altar rich with lights and flowers and costly hangings, because we would give our best to Him Whom we love: and yet you must be quite willing to live in a poor House where the Divine Office is read, and all is of the plainest, because He chose poverty for Himself. You must love the little children because they have never strayed far from Him; and yet turn from them to the outcast and fallen because He wants them back. You must love the perfect order of a modern Hospital, and yet be willing to throw yourself with real enthusiasm of a practical sort into Mission visiting in unsanitary tenements, because He is there also, waiting to show you why you kneel at His Incarnatus. You must be willing to love generously such and such Sisters as may be for the time your companions, willing also to bear the wrench of separation when His work demands it, not holding aloof from the common life to spare yourself the discipline of pain; to love and let go, because love is of God, and when let go, it is still safe in His keeping.
This is the one simple principle, but its working out is as manifold as the varying circumstances of the numberless souls that embrace it. There is a special form of this supreme love of God manifested in our relationship and intercourse with those whom we have left in the world, those related to us by consanguinity, by the Providences of our past years; those whom we have come to know because we are Religious, our Associates, our children, our poor; our Superiors and companions. At any point it is possible to go astray, but also at every point there is the opportunity for development and progress and elevation of spirit.
"A garden enclosed is my Sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed." A garden, where grow all manner of fruits, new and old; enclosed from trespassers, but open to the Beloved, and lifting up fair blossoms for His pleasure. A spring shut up from the defiling tread of roaming beasts; a fountain restrained from ceaseless tossing in the air; that the stream of pure crystal issuing from the throne of God may be conserved to moisten the lips of One who deigns to say, I thirst.
THE foundation of the Religious Life, as well as of all Christian living, is laid at Holy Baptism, when the promise is made that the child shall obediently keep God's Holy Will. For we are taught from the outset, that our Vocation is from God, that it is not a matter of our choosing, and that it cannot be carried out in self-will, but must be fulfilled along the lines which God lays down for us. And so, of the three Counsels of Perfection, Obedience is that which particularly distinguishes the Religious Life; and therefore in some Religious Orders it is the one Vow made at Profession. For while a man or woman may hold every atom of worldly possessions as a steward of God, and may live chastely in the midst of the world; yet if there is not the humble obedient will there cannot be the Religious Life. But where there is Religious Obedience there also will be found Religious Poverty and Chastity. They cannot be absent if Obedience be present.
Now Obedience is only developed by discipline; and this discipline is provided by means of Community Life- One is seldom quite certain whether the Will of God calls to action or to inaction, unless there be a mediate authority. God has Himself provided the family, the State, and the Church, as sources of authority for His people at large. But He may go beyond these general provisions and call a soul into special covenant with Himself, giving it an advanced opportunity of obedience, without contravening any already existing obligations. We learn from the answer of the Blessed Virgin to the Angel Gabriel that God does not give conflicting vocations. There are certain classes of persons who, in the Providence of God, are not eligible to the Religious Life, There is a limit of age below which parental authority must prevail, and another limit, beyond which a habit of life is not ordinarily capable of being formed. One may not be received at any age, if there are parents dependent for material support, or, on the other hand, if one is in debt, or has no natural capacity to add to the common stock of the Community, or has some strain of physical or mental infirmity threatening to incapacitate her from the routine of the Life and a generous and uncalculating share in the work. These things are all signs to the soul of God's Vocation to a life in the world, and may be the means of the highest sanctification, if they are accepted as part of the divine discipline.
But Vocation to the Religious Life is a call to those who are "able" to live in Community and under Obedience. This Obedience is first of all, under God, to a certain Rule whose provisions are fully taught and explained to the Novice; and secondarily to a Superior who is herself bound by the same Rule. In the scheme of government these two sources of authority may represent respectively the legislative and the executive: the Rule being some special type of the Religious Life, revealed to the Foundress of any particular Order, and manifested in her life; .and the Superior having been elected by the Chapter or appointed under the provisions of the Rule, and so being the Community's mouth-piece and instrument for carrying out its will. And we may say that the judicial sanction, the third function of government, resides in the Vow itself, since it is that which establishes our relation with the other two, and by it we stand self-condemned for every violation of written law, or disregard of appointed administration.
As sin is the transgression of the law, and the law is the authoritative expression of the conditions of well-being, and the authority of the law is that of the Creator, Who alone perfectly knows those conditions; so in the specialized Life of Holy Religion there can be sin in the transgression of the Rule, because the Rule is the expression of the conditions of well-being in the Community.
It is sometimes a stumbling-block and a hindrance to earnest souls, that obedience is not always enforced, and manifest faults are not summarily dealt with; but here again we must consider that Obedience is a Vow, and must be fulfilled not by external compulsion but by the progressive appreciation and development of the soul herself. Too much insistence upon an advanced ideal might retard rather than further this end.
If it is, in the first place, God's Will that a soul should be called to the Religious Life, then it must be also His Will that the soul should accept the conditions of that Life as they exist in the Community to which He by His providences directs the soul. This Community may be in an imperfect or formative state Certainly, in any case its members will not all have attained to perfection, and there will be much to discipline the Novice in her contact with those she finds in the Convent. We may even say that as years go on, and one's own ideals develop, and one's companions advance along different lines, according to God's leading, and younger Sisters are brought in, and different methods of administration are adopted, there will be more discipline in Community Life. But still, and always, the conditions of the Community are for the individual Sister the expression of that same Holy Will of God to which Obedience has been promised once for all. God never wills imperfection, but He wills to make us perfect through contact with the imperfections of others. It is, as one has said, our "golden opportunity."
And this brings us to the heart of the matter. To obey, in the popular conception, is to do this or that which is commanded; and there are provisions of the Rule as well as directions of the Superior which call for just this sort of primary obedience. One must keep silence at certain times and in specified places; must follow the routine of the household; and must conform to the Community customs in endless details. One must go where the Mother sends, and take up such work as the Superior appoints, and do it in the accustomed way. But this is the external side of Obedience. The Vow is subjective, and has to do with the interior spirit. The exercise called in conventual language "Obediences," is frequently an occasion where no direction whatever is given to any one present. Nevertheless, all must be there, attentive, and ready to hear with deference and accept with docility whatever may be said. Obedience is an attitude of the will, of the intellect, and of the affections. It is not to be mechanical and unreasoning; it is not to be indifferent and soulless. The obedient spirit may even dictate disobedience to the mere letter of a command, not because of any real variance from the judgment of the Superior, but because it perceives that the circumstances under which the command was given having changed, a different line of procedure is necessary in order to fulfil the true intent of the command.
In surrendering our will in the Vow of Holy Obedience, we do not therefore lay aside the use of our reason. But lest we should trust our own judgment over much, let us look at the practical working of our reason. It has suffered the wound of sin, like every other part of our nature. As we cannot positively affirm that we are in such sound bodily health that we will so continue for a year, a week, an hour, so we cannot be positively sure that our reason is so enlightened that it will not mislead us. Although, in the ordinary affairs of life, it is necessary to presume that one will be physically able to carry out certain plans, and that such plans are good and reasonable; nevertheless the true Religious will always be ready to accept, as God's Will, a total change of all her plans when it is made by authority or by the force of circumstances. The test of this spirit of Obedience, in the ordinary life of the Religious, or of any Christian, comes when health fails, and plans fall through, and one's best reasons are contravened by the judgment of others, who are, perhaps, equally liable to err; then is revealed the inner spirit which lives within the Religious or Christian. It is related of an ancient monastery that the Abbot required one of the monks, a very learned man, to change (incorrectly) the pronunciation of a Latin word, and the monk when rallied for the error replied that his obedience was of far more consequence than the quantity of a Latin syllable. That monk had grasped the spirit and principle of Religious Obedience.
We are told that our Blessed Lord learned Obedience. It is a most significant phrase; and we come into Religion that we may be united to Him in this supreme knowledge. We must seize every lesson that is presented to us, lest we lose some precious feature of our Lord's likeness. We can never hope to be as sure of our own integrity of purpose and our own discretion as He was; but if in some small degree we are conscientious, and have a balanced judgment, two duties lie plainly before us when we enter a Religious Community, and in both we are apt to fail.
First, we must never let an unthinking, literal obedience suffice us. It is too cheap, and we may even say too showy. It sometimes suggests the nouveau riche in its lack of appropriateness; and it is apt to bring humiliation upon the Postulant who thinks she at least knows how to obey. She wants everyone to know that she keeps her Rule, even at the expense of courtesy and charity. She is not willing to accept any dispensation; she is anxious to learn more than is taught her and to undertake more than is laid upon her; she is sure she is practicing whole-hearted obedience, and perhaps she thinks, looking at others who take the life more simply, that her devotion ought to be appreciated. But she forgets that we are all members of one body corporate, and one member does not plan its own obedience. The eye of the artist, the ear of the musician, the cunning hand of the artisan are trained not each of its own choice, but by the central governing will of the body. Who has not felt the hand of a little child grow rigid at the first grasp of a pen? The initial lesson in any craft must be ever to relax, to learn flexibility, to become dextrous by forgetting the member in use, and uniting the mind immediately with the matter upon which it would work. It is the hand that paints, the hand that plays, but our thought is of the artist and his picture or his symphony. We feel it an impertinence when details of technique are forced upon our attention. But if the Postulant or Novice may not rest in a technical obedience, to either Rule or Superior, still less must she set up her own judgment as a standard. There must come times when she will of necessity use her own judgment, in a hospital ward, or a class in school, or in dealing with the poor, who gratefully or otherwise know us as "The Sisters," and hold all responsible for the sayings and doings of each. Or, quite aside from the active occupations of public charity, one may have to use her own best judgment in the management and economies of the household, so important for the well-being of the Community. She may do her best to adapt the traditional use to some domestic emergency, and may then be found in fault by a Superior who has had either more or less experience in emergencies. She might be quite willing to follow any direction given, yet having been thrown upon her own resources, she does not wish to be blamed. But here is another opportunity for that attitude of Obedience, after the occasion for Obedience is past. If she has a truly obedient spirit, she will accept the correction precisely as if it were a direction, without any ex post facto assertion of her own will; only by accepting what is said, without gainsaying, can she make her Obedience perfect. Her spirit of Obedience may be perfect up to this- point; but it is just here that so many fail, and it is just here that the hardest lesson of the Religious Life has to be learned
We have considered then in this chapter the three steps of Religious Obedience; and as Obedience itself is the supreme Vow, including the other two, so these steps in Obedience may be likened to the three Vows. There is, first, the Poverty of conforming oneself to an external rule, as the poor are governed by circumstances; and secondly the Chastity of being detached from one's own way of Obedience; and lastly the essential and perfect Obedience which accepts correction with as much facility as the body accepts what we call "changing our mind," and goes on smoothly and serenely, seeking only and always the Will of God, in things great or small, and believing that whatever comes is His Holy Will for us.