How do you make sense of a radical commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience in the contemporary world? Is it possible for someone to say: “For love of Jesus Christ, and in answer to his call, I desire to give myself to him, freely and forever, and to devote my whole life to the extension of his Kingdom”?
It was good to be with Sister Cathy Mary of the Holy Spirit on Saturday, as she said these very words and made her final vows in the Congregation of the Religious of the Assumption in their beautifully restored chapel in Kensington. You can see their website here.
I’ve already posted about the renewal of religious life in this country, and one of the many encouraging signs on Saturday was the number of young religious sisters from other congregations who were there to support Sr Cathy.
Fr Matt Blake OCD gave a beautiful homily about the meaning of a lifelong commitment in religious vows. Three thoughts really struck me. First, reflecting on the journey of faith that brings someone to this point, and why the extended period of discernment and initiation is so important, he said:
It takes time for God’s deepest desire for you to become your own deepest desire for yourself.
That’s why, quite often, when we make a heartfelt prayer to God that he would reveal our true vocation, the answer doesn’t always come straight away. It’s not just that we aren’t ready to hear; sometimes we aren’t ready to want what God wants, or to want what he wants us to want.
Second, he spoke about a scene from the film Of Gods and Men, which I haven’t seen yet. One of the monks is agonising about whether he should stay in the Algerian monastery and risk giving his life as a martyr. In response his abbot says something like, ‘But you have already given your life without reservation to God in your monastic vows’. And the monk is overcome with a sense of clarity and peace about his desire to remain where he is – whatever the cost.
Fr Matt drew out from this a profound thought about the nature of commitment: that instead of acting as a restraint, which is what we often fear, it actually gives you a greater freedom. When you make an unconditional ‘yes’ (e.g., to Christ, or to a specific vocation, or to a husband or wife), it means you have already accepted all the future commitments that come along implicitly with this original commitment. Some, of course, will be difficult; some will be unexpected; some will even seem to stretch the meaning of that ‘yes’ in ways that seemed unimaginable at the beginning. But they will all be part of the same decision to give oneself completely.
This gives an enormous freedom and security. There will be incredibly difficult choices to make, but the fundamental one has already been made. And that takes away the existential anguish of constantly having to reconsider whether this purpose, this deepest commitment, is actually worthwhile or not.
The final thought was about the Gospel reading, which was the story of the Annunciation – when the Angel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary and announces that she will give birth to the Son of God. Fr Matt said “I’ve always thought that the most important line in the whole passage is…” – and we all started guessing whether it would be one of Gabriel’s profound words to Mary or Mary’s profound words to Gabriel. But he went on “…the most important line in the whole passage is the last one: And the angel left her.
That threw me. I must have heard this passage a hundred times, but not once have I thought about that last line. It doesn’t mean, said Fr Matt, that God ever abandons anyone, or that the gift of his Holy Spirit is ever taken away from those who are trying to be faithful to Christ in their vocation. But the glory that surrounds the event, even the clarity and inspiration that made the commitment possible – these can fade and sometimes disappear. What endures is the commitment itself. We don’t know if the Virgin Mary ever saw the angel again in her lifetime, but she treasured his memory and clung to the truth that he had revealed.
I don’t think Fr Matt was being pessimistic about Sr Cathy’s future by drawing attention to this line. He was just speaking from his experience of religious life, and in his own way he was offering encouragement: You’ve had a wonderful day professing your final vows, now you can get on with the business of living them.
PS: These thoughts came from silvana rscj in the comments:
Following on from your reflections on the angel… in PierPaolo Pasolini’s film the Gospel According to St Matthew, Mary does meet the angel again, 33 years later at the tomb of her son, now risen from the dead. There is a lovely look of recognition on her face, and, finally, understanding of everything the angel had told her all those years ago.
Maybe that’s how it will be for us too: many years and events later, we will eventually come to understand the promises God has made to us, and, like Mary, enter into a deeper, closer relationship with Jesus…