I write these words on the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton, one of the greatest spiritual writers of the twentieth century and a man who had a decisive influence on me and my vocation to the priesthood. I first encountered Merton’s writing in a peculiar way. My brother and I were both working at a bookstore in the Chicago suburbs. One afternoon, he tossed to me a tattered paperback with a torn cover that the manager had decided to discard. My brother said, “You might like this; it’s written by a Trappist monk.” I replied, with the blithe confidence of a sixteen year old, “I don’t want to read a book by some Buddhist.” With exquisite sensitivity, he responded, “Trappists are Catholics, you idiot.”
The book in question was The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton’s passionate, articulate, smart, and deeply moving account of his journey from worldling to Trappist monk. Though much of the philosophy and theology was, at that time, over my head, I became completely caught up in the drama and romance of Merton’s story, which is essentially the tale of how a man fell in love with God. The book is extraordinarily well written, funny, adventurous, and spiritually wise. In one of the blurbs written for the first edition, Fulton Sheen referred to it as a contemporary version of St. Augustine’s Confessions, and it was fulsomely praised by both Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Moreover, it contributed massively to the startling influx of young men into monasteries and religious communities across the United States in the postwar era.
I was so thrilled by my first encounter with Merton that I dove headlong into his body of writing. The Sign of Jonas, a journal that Merton kept in the years leading up to his priestly ordination, became a particular favorite. That work concludes with an essay called “Firewatch: July 4, 1952,” which Jacques Maritain referred to as the greatest piece of spiritual writing in the twentieth century. In this powerful meditation, Merton uses the mundane monastic task of walking through the monastery checking for fires as a metaphor for a Dantesque examination of the soul. The Sign of Jonas is marked by Merton’s playful and ironic sense of humor, but it also gives evidence of the enormous range of his reading and intellectual interests. To devour that book as a nineteen year old, as I did, was to receive an unparalleled cultural education. For many people of my generation, Merton opened the door to the wealth of the Catholic spiritual tradition: I first learned about John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, Bernard of Clairvaux, Odo of Cluny, the Victorines, Origen, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Hans Urs von Balthasar from him.
Perhaps the central theme of all of Merton’s writings is contemplation. What he stressed over and again in regard to this crucial practice is that it is not the exclusive preserve of spiritual athletes, but rather something that belongs to all the baptized and that stands at the heart of Christian life. For contemplation is, in his language, “to find the place in you where you are here and now being created by God.” It is consciously to discover a new center in God and hence at the same time to discover the point of connection to everyone and everything else in the cosmos. Following the French spiritual masters, Merton called this le point vierge, the virginal point, or to put it in the language of the fourth Gospel, “water bubbling up in you to eternal life.” In his famous epiphanic experience at the corner of 4th and Walnut in downtown Louisville, Merton felt, through le point vierge, a connection to the ordinary passersby so powerful it compelled him to exclaim, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Catholics throughout the world are encouraged to honor the cloistered and monastic life on Pro Orantibus Day, which is Friday, November 21, 2014, the Memorial of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple.
“The primary purpose of Pro Orantibus Day (“For Those Who Pray”) is to support—both spiritually and materially— the gift of the cloistered and monastic life,” noted Rev. Thomas Nelson, O. Praem., National Director of the Institute on Religious Life. And as Pope Francis reminds us, “it is a good opportunity to thank the Lord for the gift of so many people who, in monasteries and hermitages, dedicate themselves to God in prayer and silent work.”
In 1953 Pope Pius XII instituted Pro Orantibus Day, also known as World Day of Cloistered life, to recognize those men and women who so generously give of themselves to this unique vocation and who each day, from the various convents and monasteries spread throughout the world, offer their prayers unceasingly to build up the Kingdom. Pope John Paul II later expanded its celebration and encouraged the faithful to support this special vocation in any way possible.
Last year at a general audience in St. Peter’s Square Pope Francis reminded the Church, “Let us give thanks to the Lord for the powerful testimony of cloistered life.” He urged the faithful to lend their spiritual and material support to these brothers and sisters of ours “so that they can carry out their important mission.”
As a sign of spiritual solidarity Pope Francis visited a Camaldolese monastery to celebrate vespers on the Feast of the Presentation of Mary. In his address the Holy Father stressed Our Lady’s great witness to hope, even in the face of difficulties and obstacles. The Holy Father urged all cloistered nuns to keep the “lamp of hope” burning brightly, and that monastic religious must strive to conform their lives to the model of Our Blessed Mother.
The nationwide effort to publicize Pro Orantibus Day is coordinated by the Institute on Religious Life, a national organization based in the Chicago area. The IRL was founded in 1974 by Servant of God Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J., and is comprised of bishops, priests, religious and laity who support and promote the vowed religious life.
For more information or to download resources, click here.
The cloistered contemplative life is ordered exclusively to prayer, the one force that Our Lord said could dispel certain demonic strongholds. The early Christians were aware of this. In looking at the early monastic literature, one of the principal motives which drew men into the desert was to battle with Satan, and this in imitation of the Savior who entered the desert to battle with Satan. And their battles were not merely personal. They were trying to bind the demons, to tie them down so they could not go into the cities, where the people lived, to tempt them. So they saw themselves as soldiers, indeed, officers in the Lord’s army engaged in a real spiritual warfare, fighting back the demons so they could not enter into society.
This is what contemplative communities should be, centers of prayer to fight back the demonic. Entering the cloister has always been seen metaphorically as entering the desert, far away from the distractions of the world, and as a place where one fights the demons within oneself—but also to fight back the forces of evil as they attack the Church and society. We are all in the midst of this spiritual warfare, but the fighting is particularly intense in the cloister. If they win the battle within their own souls, within the cloister, then the demonic strongholds will be broken and we can more easily overcome the devil’s influence in our families and in society and successfully.
Now that is the responsibility of all Christians, to pray. But the contemplative life is exclusively ordered to and organized around the ministry of intercession. And because of their consecration to that work, their prayers are especially efficacious.
Read entire reflection here.
(Click for printable PDF of this reflection.)
In observance of Pro Orantibus Day 2012
Reading: Lk 19:11-28
Mary accomplished outwardly through her body what wisdom from within gave to her faith.
— St. Lawrence Justinian
These words, taken from the Office of Readings for the memorial of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, can help us glimpse how the journey of a single disciple and that of his or her community are intimately A Day of Support for Cloistered Life.
“For Those Who Pray” connected and together form a response of faith. In fact, communities of the contemplative life seek to establish within themselves the same dynamic connection that made the Virgin Mary both a hearer and doer of the Word. The journey of an individual, in fact, happens and grows in the atmosphere of a community that is genuinely dedicated to a search for God.
The parable proclaimed in today’s reading from Luke speaks of some servants who received varying amounts of money from their king. The “coins” are often seen to be the personal gifts or talents that God bestows on each of us in varying degrees. However, we could also understand the “coins” as the gift of time, and the members of the contemplative life invite us to consider how we use the grace of each new day.
Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Temple of Jerusalem. It is an ancient and very trustworthy tradition that Our Lady was solemnly offered in the Temple to God at the age of 3 by her parents, Sts. Joachim and Anne.
Devout parents should never fail by heartfelt prayer to consecrate their children to God, to His divine service and love, both before and after their birth. Some among the Jews, not content with this general consecration of their children, offered them to God in their infancy, by the hands of the priests in the Temple, to be brought up in quarters attached to the Temple, attending the priests and Levites in their sacred ministry. There were special divisions in these lodgings for the women and children dedicated to the divine service (I Kings 6:5-9). We have examples of this special consecration of children in the person of Samuel, for example.
It is very probable that the holy prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna, who witnessed the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, as we read in the Gospel of Saint Luke (2:25 ff.), had known the Blessed Virgin Mary as a little girl in the Temple and observed her truly unique sanctity.
The Gospel tells us nothing of the childhood of Mary; Her title Mother of God, eclipses all the rest. Where, better than in the Temple, could Mary be prepared for Her mission? Twelve years of recollection and prayer, contemplation and sufferings, were the preparation of the chosen one of God. The tender soul of Mary was adorned with the most precious graces and became an object of astonishment and praise for the holy angels, as well as of the highest contentment for the adorable Trinity. The Father looked upon Her as His beloved Daughter, the Son saw her as one truly “set apart” and prepared to become His Mother, and the Holy Spirit embraced her as His undefiled Immaculate Spouse.
Here is how Mary’s day in the Temple was apportioned, according to Saint Jerome. From dawn until 9:00 in the morning, she prayed; from 9:00 until 3:00 in the afternoon she applied herself to manual work; then she turned again to prayer. Mary was always the first to undertake night watches, the one most applied to study, the most fervent in the chanting of Psalms, the most zealous in works of charity, the purest among the virgins, her companions, the most perfect in the practice of every virtue.
The consecration of Mary to God presented all the conditions of the most perfect sacrifice: it was prompt, generous, joyous, unregretted, without reservation. How agreeable it must have been to God! May our consecration of ourselves to God be made under Her patronage, assisted by Her powerful intercession and united with Her ineffable merits.
On this day Our Lady appears as the standard-bearer for all those who completely give themselves to God by hidden lives of prayer and sacrifice. The Blessed Virgin Mary is the perfect model for cloistered, contemplative men and women religious who freely offer themselves as they give their “whole livelihood” to the Lord as did the poor widow in today’s Gospel. By their prayers and sacrifices they unite themselves to Christ’s perfect sacrifice on the Cross for our salvation.
The cloistered and monastic life is a powerful sign to the rest of the Church of the embracing of what ultimately matters in life: perfect union with God. On Pro Orantibus Day, the Church encourages all the faithful to show both spiritual and financial support for this special vocation. Each of us ought to do what we can to encourage young people to consider this unique calling and to support those who have responded to this particular vocation to be “hidden in Christ.”
Eternal Father, we honor the holiness and glory of the Virgin Mary. May her prayers bring us the fullness of Your life and love. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
—From the Collect for the Memorial of the Presentation of Mary
In a reflection on the contemplative life, Fr. Gabriel O’Donnell, O.P., has beautifully written: “A monastery of cloistered nuns is like a lighthouse set on a hill. It reminds the whole diocese of the presence of God in its midst and reminds us that our true destiny is to be with Him forever in Heaven. What the tabernacle is to the parish church, the monastery is to the diocese. Christ is there: waiting, calling, helping, healing and forgiving.”1 Today many people would like to have a fast-food spirituality in which they find some method or technique so that they can exercise a certain control over God. This is perhaps the result of our noisy, overactive, materialistic culture. The silence needed to treasure all things in our hearts about Christ as the Blessed Virgin Mary did is certainly not a much sought after value.
The cloistered life and the life of Mary stand in direct opposition to this. Instead of the closed fist of carpe diem (seize the day), Our Lady and cloistered religious say: “Let it be done to me according to Your word” with hands open to receiving all from God. This attitude of going with the movements of our life charted by God as He sees them has traditionally been called “abandonment to Divine Providence.” The Jesuit Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751) is the master at explaining what this means. He explained to the people of his time that the secret to developing a life of the spirit was what he called embracing the “sacrament of the present moment.” “God still speaks as He spoke to our Fathers, when there were neither spiritual directors nor set methods. Then they saw that each moment brings with it a duty to be faithfully fulfilled. That was enough for spiritual perfection. On that duty their whole attention was fixed at each successive moment like the hand of a clock that marks the hours.”2 The cloistered life is the perfect fulfillment of this practice.
Some people have read these words of Father de Caussade and taken them in an almost quietistic sense that no action on their part is needed, that they are merely putty in the hands of God and they contribute nothing. This is contrary to the Catholic doctrine of cooperating grace. Any true spirituality is based on the fact that our faithfulness to God’s plan is both active and passive. Active fidelity requires carrying out the duties of our state to the best of our ability and is the metal from which virtue is forged. When Mary conceived Christ, her first act was one of practical charity, visiting her cousin who was elderly and with child and perhaps even acting as midwife to John the Baptist. At the wedding feast of Cana, she is actively involved in saving a young married couple from embarrassment.
The pressure cooker of daily cloistered life, lived in such close quarters, demanding work, recreation and just normal household tasks is where the active virtues are put to the test. The cloistered religious who is faithful to these simple expressions of generosity with others fulfills both the words of Christ and goes with the flow of Divine Providence.
Passive fidelity to Divine Providence also entails accepting God’s will, especially when we suffer things God sends us from a grace-filled and loving generosity. Though the enclosure or monastic grounds is certainly meant to keep out distractions and not to keep those embracing it within, the very humdrum nature of the almost invariable schedule and the lack of outside influence can be a great cross. But if one remains focused on Christ, even standing at the foot of the Cross like Mary, one can discover the plan of God.
There are times in every life when one cannot quite make sense of what the plan of God might be. Suffering, either physical or mental, may be very acute. There may be people in the enclosed community who have very special temperaments and cause no end of difficulties for one or another member of the community. These are the times when all the love of active fidelity in the present moment is realized also in passive fidelity. Then one must truly allow God to work in the soul. This is an expression of the traditional Catholic theology of operating grace, a result of grace where God alone moves the person. The person merely allows God to move him. For such a person, “Everything is equally useful and useless.”3
The cloistered, contemplative life is a powerful sign and support to the rest of the Church of the embracing of the “sacrament of the present moment.” On Pro Orantibus Day, the Church encourages all the faithful to show both spiritual and financial support for this life. It is the life of Mary; it is the life of obedient love to which we are all called according to the duty of our state in life.
1. “A Day to Support the Cloistered Life,” The Compass (Diocese of Green Bay), November 11, 2009.
2. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence, I. I, 1.
3. Abandonment, I, 1, 6.
There is a scene in the film, A Man for All Seasons about the life and martyrdom of Thomas More in which his daughter Margaret comes to the prison to convince him to avoid death by taking the oath of the Act of Succession making the king the head of the Church in England. Her argument is that, “God more regards the thoughts of the heart than the words of the mouth, so take the oath with your lips but do not mean it in your heart.” Thomas More answers by saying, “What else is an oath but words we say to God […] When a man takes an oath he is holding his very self in his hands like water and if he opens his fingers then he may never hope to find himself again.”
Religious profession of vows, like oaths, entails words we say to God. They are words that represent a complete response to the Divine call to love Him because He first loved us. We did not choose Him, He chose us.
Let us look at two examples of the Divine call. In the Book of Revelation, after a very harsh rebuke spoken to infant churches in Asia Minor concerning their temptation to compromise with prosperous paganism because their Christianity has made them poor, the Lord invites them to intimacy with Him with the very tender words:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock.
If anyone hears my voice and opens the door,
then I will enter his house and dine with him,
and he with me.
I will give the victor the right to sit with me on my throne,
as I myself first won the victory
and sit with my Father on his throne. (Rev. 20-21)
Christ asks us to respond to this love by opening our wills to receive Him. Grace is always freely given by God, but God also wants us to freely accept it.
The invitation to Divine intimacy is also given by Christ to Zacchaeus despite his being a tax collector. Zacchaeus shows his preparation for receiving grace from Christ by climbing the tree since he is short. He also shows his good dispositions towards Christ because he wills to go beyond the letter of the law in reconciling himself in justice with others. The Lord responds with an action of Divine intimacy and love.
Today salvation has come to this house
because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.
For the Son of Man has come to seek
and to save what was lost. (Luke: 19:9)
God’s love always requires a continuous preparation of freedom on the part of the human being who receives it and Scripture points to those who emphatically show this preparation. The Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the one who makes the greatest response to the greatest invitation of grace in the history of the world is brought to the Temple by her parents at the age of three. They promised God if they could conceive that they would dedicate their child to the Lord, but they waited to this age before presenting her lest she miss her family. An early Christian source describes the scene vividly:
And the child was three years old […] and they went up to the Temple of the Lord, and the priest received her and kissed her and blessed her saying, ‘The Lord has magnified thy name in all generations. In thee, on the last of days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel.’ And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet and all the house of Israel loved her. And her parents went down marveling, and praising the Lord God because the child had not turned back. And Mary was in the Temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there […] (Protoevangelium of James)
The Presentation of Mary in the Temple, designated as a special day in honor of the cloistered life, is a most fitting feast to show our thanksgiving, solidarity and support for this vocation because all these important themes are united together in her presentation. She goes apart into the enclosure as it were to prepare herself in spousal love to be the Bride of Christ and the Mother of the Redeemer. She spends her time in contemplation nurturing the life of grace with which God will invite her to the singular response of being his mother. She prepares herself for a life long encounter with her Son and begins the long process of keeping everything and pondering them in her heart.
The contemplative life is a formal way of life recognized by the Church to invite men and women, but especially women to find in the suffering of the cloister a place where they can experience the loving exchange of hearts with Christ.
The enclosure therefore, even in its physical form, is a special way of being with the Lord, of sharing in ‘Christ’s emptying of himself by means of a radical poverty, expressed in … renunciation not only of things but also of ‘space’, of contacts, of so many benefits of creation’, at one with the fruitful silence of the Word on the Cross. It is clear then that ‘withdrawal from the world in order to dedicate oneself in solitude to a more intense life of prayer is nothing other than a special way of living and expressing the Paschal Mystery of Christ’. It is a true encounter with the Risen Lord, a journey in ceaseless ascent to the Father’s house. (Verbi Sponsa, 5)
The whole purpose of the cloister is not to flee from something evil but to concentrate one’s intention on the love of God. Often people who do not live the contemplative life think it is a good place to put social misfits. How many times does one hear people say, “The woman cannot get along with anyone, she belongs in a cloister.” Such comments completely misunderstand the purpose of the enclosure. It is not to keep people from contact with the world because they cannot get along with anyone. This is what a prison is for. It is rather a sign that the next world and the encounter of the soul with God in which each person surrenders the gift of themselves responding to God’s gift of Himself to us are the reason we exist to begin with. Cloisters should be founded and peopled by souls who are already perfect in the active virtues of loving others. They, like Mary, are so in love with God that they hasten, as she did in the Visitation to implement the conception of Christ in an evangelical act of practical charity—to be love in and for the Church.
In the wonderment of her splendid intuition, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus declares: ‘I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was ablaze with love. I understood that Love alone enabled the Church’s members to act . . . Yes, I found my place in the Church . . . at the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love’. (Verbi Sponsa, 7)
Cloistered religious are the heart of the Church because they truly show us the complete surrender and concentration of love. They are enclosed not because they have lost something, but because they have found Him.
Each member of the Church should look to the contemplatives to see an example of this spousal love for Christ after the example of Our Lady. Like her, we should open the door for Christ knocking there, invite Him to our house and rightly spend each day rejoicing in His presence.
In A Man for all Seasons, Margaret, frustrated, responds to More’s answer about oaths by saying, “But in reason, haven’t you already done all that God can reasonably expect of you.” More answers with Mary and all religious, but especially with the contemplatives, “Well, finally, it isn’t a matter of reason. Finally it is a matter of love.”
Among St. Thomas Aquinas’ questions in the Summa Theologiae on the happy life is one in which he asks: “Is the fellowship of friends required for a happy life?” Saint Thomas has already identified the ultimate happiness and fulfillment of man with the vision of God in heaven. As is customary with the Angelic Doctor, he rarely answers a question yes or no. The context of the question allows him to treat the issue in its entirety.
Regarding the fellowship of friends, Saint Thomas explains that: “The happy man in this life needs friends, not for their external usefulness, since his happiness is from within, nor for pleasure, since his perfect pleasure comes from the activity of virtue, but as contributing to that activity itself. He does good to them, he delights in seeing them do good, and in turn they help him and do good to him.” In other words, though the hope of the happy man is ultimately in Heaven, in this world his friends help him to realize that hope. They concur with him in that hope and aid him in attaining it by encouraging him both to avoid vice and to embrace virtue.
Hope is the theme of the most recent encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi. The Holy Father laments the fact that, following the Enlightenment, many people began to develop a boundless hope not in the vision of God, which would demand surrender in faith to God’s reason, but in what he calls faith in progress. According to this mistaken philosophy, science and human reason will produce utopia, a sort of Heaven on earth, if they are just freed from the shackles of things like faith in God. He quotes Immanuel Kant as a prime representative of this school of thought who wrote that: “The gradual transition of ecclesiastical faith to the exclusive sovereignty of pure religious faith is the coming of the Kingdom of God.” The pure faith of which Kant spoke is the confidence in the ability of human reason to resolve every difficulty so there would no longer be any need for a Savior.
Man’s hope would then be in something of his own creation and his nature would be fulfilled by just discovering the best social structure to implement this new vision. Though his hope would be in a human future, it would not be a future beyond this world, but a future of man’s own creation.
Since free and autonomous human reason would be the way to arrive at this hope, this hope would also be a solitary hope realized by the brave new individual, without any spiritual connection to any other. Placing one’s hope in autonomous human reason deals the deathblow, according to contemporary thought, to the fact that human reason cannot answer all questions.
Cloistered and monastic life stands at the very antithesis of this modern attitude. From the standpoint of human reason and pure freedom, it is a scandal. If man’s reason is sufficient and salvation for the human race can only be achieved through progress in science or politics, then those who choose to cut themselves off from both must be inhuman. The materialism of the present culture makes it impossible for people to conceive of a reason beyond this world or a spiritual awakening which includes a personal union with a transcendent being and the implementation of that union with the whole human race through a spiritual connection. For modern man, the cloister grille or monastery wall truly represents a prison to keep people in and a flight from reality.
Instead, authentic human reason has always pointed to its own limitation. For example, many scholars (including Saint Thomas) believed that Aristotle knew the soul was immortal from reason alone. The Fifth Lateran Council defined that one could know the soul was immortal from reason alone. Unlike Plato, who also discovered the immortality of the soul, Aristotle also knew that the human soul and body were in a substantial union with each other. Yet, it is evident to the senses that the body dies while the soul lives forever. This is an unnatural condition. Aristotle also has a principle that an unnatural condition cannot exist perpetually. Yet, there is no power in the human body or spirit to allow the body to live forever. There is no solution to this conundrum by reason alone. Only when Christ rises from the dead is the solution this problem posed by reason solved. The physical cloister is a sign of the resurrected life, the final completion of man, the only source of our hope.
The supernatural life of Heaven, the blessed life is the only true final happiness for man. This includes both the soul and the body. God’s divinity will permeate all in this blessed life. Though human beings can have a modicum of happiness here on earth and must be concerned for things which happen here, the final hope of man can be in nothing but Heaven.
The cloister or monastery stands in testimony to this fact. Not only is it a place where those already perfected in the life of virtues and gifts can give themselves wholly and utterly to God, but the very enclosure itself is a sign of that spiritual eternity which underlies, supports and moves the world of time.
Far from entailing a rugged individualism which denies interest in the neighbor, the cloistered religious experiences precisely through his or her union with the “alone with the Alone” a union with the whole human race based on the union with God they cultivate. This is true in the vagaries of the personalities of the physical community with which the religious must live, but it is also true of all those people, in this world and the next, for whom Christ bled. This union demands a spiritual friendship and interest with all.
For as Pope Benedict XVI states in Spe Salvi: “It was commonly thought that monasteries were places of flight from the world (contemptus mundi) and of withdrawal from responsibility for the world, in search of private salvation. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who inspired a multitude of young people to enter the monasteries of his reformed Order, had quite a different perspective on this. In his view, monks perform a task for the whole Church and hence also for the world. He uses many images to illustrate the responsibility that monks have towards the entire body of the Church, and indeed towards humanity; he applies to them the words of pseudo-Rufinus: “The human race lives thanks to a few; were it not for them, the world would perish…'(no. 15).”
Contemplatives, then, are the hope of the world in the sense that one sees in their lives what the final perfection of the human race should be. This is true because of their moral union with Christ. It is also true of their moral union with each other. It is also true of their physical separation in the cloister which emphasizes the next world and the resurrection of the body as the source of our hope. They are truly spiritual friends to the whole human race and though they rarely leave the enclosure, they do the greatest good to others, they delight in seeing others do good, and in turn others help them and do good to them, all through union with the Trinity.
“Blessed are you, O Virgin Mary, for your firm believing; all that the Lord promised you will come to pass through you.” Today we celebrate the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin in the Temple. She jumped up the steps and did not look back because she was so attracted by the Lord even at a young age. Tradition tells us that she spent her youth in the Temple among the virgins in a kind of cloister, growing constantly in her understanding of the mysteries of God. This preparation was completed when by an act of faith in response to the words of the angel, she conceived the Word in her body.
Mary’s time spent in the Temple was a fit preparation for her spiritual marriage with the persons of the Trinity. Her enclosed life is a fit model for the enclosed life of cloistered religious. “The monastic life of women has therefore a special capacity to embody the nuptial relationship with Christ and be a living sign of it: was it not in a woman, the Virgin Mary, that the heavenly mystery of the Church was accomplished?”1 Her experience being among the virgins, listening in silence and faith to the Word of God, was a wonderful seedbed for the final catechesis she would hear from the lips of the angel announcing the incarnation of the Messiah. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will over shadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Lk 1:35). As she was raised in faith and increased in faith, she conceives in faith and her whole life is lived as the fruit of this faith. “In this light, nuns relive and perpetuate in the Church the presence and the work of Mary. Welcoming the Word in faith and adoring silence, they put themselves at the service of the mystery of the Incarnation, and united to Christ Jesus in His offering of Himself to the Father, they become co-workers in the mystery of Redemption.”2
The virtue of faith is necessary for any Christian vocation but it is especially necessary and shines in the life of the enclosure characteristic of the cloistered and monastic life. Since “the cloister is especially well suited to life wholly directed to contemplation,”3 faith is the foundation of the contemplative life. Though it is certainly true that contemplation is completed in love for the Beloved, it is impossible to love what one does not know. Or if one has a mistaken idea of the person one loves, one loves a creation of one’s own imagination and not someone who is real. Such love would be false love.
The virtue of supernatural faith involves conclusions of the intellect. It is like science because it entails assent to propositions that are firmly held and increase the knower’s experience of the world. It is unlike science because, since it is about God, He who cannot be contained or limited by any human thought or definition, so also it demands an action of the will by which the believer trusts in the revealer’s word. Faith, then, also demands grace. “Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by Him” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 153). Though faith is a grace and demands interior aid by God on a daily basis to be lived, “believing is an authentically human act” (CCC, no. 154). St. Thomas Aquinas and the First Vatican Council with him, thus define faith as “an act of the intellect assenting to divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace.”4
Today it is popular to play off the contribution of the intellect and will against each other as though they were at war. To think too much diminishes love and to love means that one abandons thought. Not only is this contrary to the whole idea of faith it does not reflect ordinary spousal love in marriage. Is the bridegroom or bride less loving when they want to know all they can about their spouse? Are they not in denial or living a fool’s love if they create a false image of their spouse? Is love based on such denial real?
Vatican II teaches that Christ is the “Mediator and fullness of all revelation.”5 Knowing Him is the culmination of all wonder, which led the philosophers to search for the truth and the Jews to see the glory of God in the completion of the law. His human nature is a tool by which we arrive at divinity and prepare ourselves for the final knowledge which is the vision of God. “Faith makes us taste in advance the light of the beatific vision, the goal of our journey here below … so faith is already the beginning of eternal life.” (CCC, no. 163)
The knowledge of faith allows one to adopt the perspective of Christ and to see time through eternity and not eternity through time. This is the proper way of knowing because it is God’s way of knowing and He is the author of all truth.
The enclosure is often thought of as merely excluding evil influences of the world on the contemplative religious, as a place to hide from life. Though it is true that the enclosure is meant to reduce distractions from contemplation, nothing could be further than the truth. The difference between the world outside the monastic cloister and the enclosed world within is not the difference between good and evil. It is rather the difference between the everyday world of reason which unfolds according to calendar year and the eternal world of God which underlies all that is in that world and gives it meaning. Fascination with this world must permeate all the contemplative is and does. This is centered on fascination with Christ.
Cloistered religious therefore are not only models of faith and how the knowledge of God can change the world for others, but they must be passionate to understand it themselves. Faith is not just a series of propositions that one learns. Otherwise, people who get an “A” on a theology test would be believers. Nevertheless, understanding and assent to the propositions of the articles of the Creed are essential to have a right understanding of the Beloved. Given the nature of each religious institute a basic knowledge of catechesis and theology is essential to be a good lover. Assiduous study of Sacred Truth is not inimical to the spiritual life because the more one understands about Christ, the more one can love Him. St. Teresa of Avila preferred accuracy to piety in her confessors.
In her treatise on woman’s education, St. Edith Stein (a Jewish convert to Catholicism who later entered a Carmelite monastery and was eventually martyred at Auschwitz) is clear that by only being open to grace can the soul of woman be finally freed from the preoccupation with self which limits her full experience as a person. All of woman’s, and I would say man’s, positive tendencies can be spoiled because of the weakness of Original Sin. Only concentration on Christ and the high-mindedness which it engenders can cure this. “Thus, everything points to this conclusion: woman can become what she should be in conformity with her primary vocation only when formation through grace accompanies the natural inner formation. Because of this, religious education must be the core of all woman’s education.”6
“And Mary kept all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51).
1. Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life, Verbi Sponsa, no.4.
3. VS, no. 5.
4. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, 2, 9; Dei Filius, 3: DS 3010.
5. Dei Verbum, no. 2.
6. Edith Stein, Woman, ICS Publications: Washington, DC, p. 120.