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Life in the convent or monastery   

Called - To What?
Biblical-theological foundations of Religious Life

Religious - what are they? The elite among Christians or a fringe group? Privileged ones or people who have missed something in life? An unreachable ideal or "the last thing one wants to be"?

Neither the one nor the other. And this is so not because Religious Life and radicalism exclude each other mutually, on the contrary, but the question is asked incorrectly. Still, such questions are possibly often asked in a similar way and, most of all, the question on the meaning of Religious Life is occasionally charged with many reservations.

And is this not done rightly so? Religious today are no longer considered members of a higher class, nor are they admired for their ascetic lives. Most of all, people today do not seem to need the background of a Religious association in order to work in the social, charitable or pastoral fields. Many feel that they would be able to practise this much better "outside" - this IT, which they feel called to. But then - at least, perhaps, life in a so-called cloistered convent, where no special achievements have to be presented, where there is time for deep contemplation and meditation? Even here, there are considerable doubts concerning the lifestyle in convents. And with regard to either of the two forms, the question keeps being asked: But why does one have to take this as a life-long commitment?

Many feel themselves called, called to something more than just to work for a professional career, to make money, to establish a family and continue life in a middle class way. Called, but to what?

Following Christ - "Come and see" (John 1:35-39)

We can never answer this to ourselves. The answer can come only from where the call comes. It is what prevents a person from dealing with life in an arbitrary way and to be at the disposal of the call that comes at a given time. It has to do with what the disciples experienced when, at the question: "Master, where do you live?", they received the answer: "Come and see." And they went and "stayed with him on that day".

And not only on that day. They followed Jesus wherever He went. He became for them the decision of their lives. "Come and see!" This word fascinates and captivates. His person becomes the essence of life. It means setting everything on one card, as the merchant in the Gospel did with the precious pearl (Mt 13:45f). It borders on folly, especially since the answer to this call does not have any specific purpose: They go "where he lives" not in order to serve humanity, not to fulfil this or that important apostolic task. It is an interior call that cannot be defined or explained, but is powerful enough to move the innermost heart of a person.

Since this call is discerned in the innermost heart, the answer to it is by no means a heroic act, some performance that has been achieved by personal effort. For what person touched in her innermost being, could do anything but gladly open up and allow herself to be continuously gifted? Only persons in love can understand such a reaction.

Living The Gospel

Following Christ, understood in this way, does not want anything but live the Gospel. The Gospel in its fullness. It is not a question of picking out the one or the other sentence from the Gospel and take it more seriously than others, the so-called "counsels", for example. If the vows and the other practices of Religious Life do not lead ever more deeply into an existence that is marked by the central values of the Gospel, they lose their meaning. "The final norm of Religious Life is the following of Christ as it is put before us in the Gospel" (Perfectae Caritatis 2). This statement of the Second Vatican Council is but a confirmation of what the great founders of Religious Orders were aiming at. Religious are to witness to the Gospel by their total dedication, not only through their actions, but through the whole of their existence.

Community Rooted In The Gospel

Since one of the great problems of people today is the experience of being isolated and left alone, the experience of human community is one of their great needs. The Religious Community is the group of people who aims at realising such a life. The Gospel itself, promise of God’s forgiving love, is the source of community. Religious could not do this on their own. Community living cannot simply be practised, conquered, and finally be in one’s possession. It can only be constantly received as a gift, ever anew, gratuitously. We humans stumble already over the basic requirements. We count, instead of giving generously. "How often do I have to forgive my brother, my sister? Up to seven times?" (Mt 18:21) The life of Jesus is the answer to this question. He has come to offer God’s forgiveness, by his word, by his deeds, by his death. "Do you understand what I have done to you? I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you" (John 13:12-15).

If Religious set out again and again to follow their Lord on this way, it will last without wearing out and will be a sign of the People of God in the midst of a world of human isolation and abandonment.

Everything else that we expect becomes possible in such a community and will come out of it naturally. Religious hold in common not only material goods, but they also share their faith by sharing themselves. They share their hearts by sympathising with people. They share their talents by co-operating wherever there is need.

But, since Religious are always only on pilgrims on the way, this life as presented here does not succeed always and everywhere. Life in community can become a difficult bearing up or even a serious burden. Wherever people live closely together, as they do in convents, tensions and even conflicts may easily arise. It is not always a question of looking for failure or guilt. Where there is life, conflicts and tensions are bound to arise. But these must not be covered up or blurred, but have to be lived out honestly and patiently.

Religious Life wants to be a visible sign of God’s love for people. Convents want to be places where care is taken for everything that has to do with people; they want to be places of mutual sharing, of sensitiveness and, most of all, of reconciliation. This can be expected of any Religious community. If this is realised, convents can become places of real encounter. Here, people of various age-groups and social backgrounds can feel at home, because they feel accepted in an atmosphere of trust.

And this is meant not only towards outside, but also towards inside: In a Religious community, members of many different nationalities live together. As they live closely together, they have to rely and are dependent on one another. Seeing this witness, other people might be helped with their problems of integration. - In many convents, there is room for handicapped people, for people who are not in a position to be fully employed, who might be offered some work adapted to their capabilities and thus earn something for themselves. There are also communities, where people who are stranded or belong to fringe groups in society, can be accepted for some time as far as possible. Several Religious communities are places, where people of the various Christian churches meet for common sharing, prayer and celebration.

Prayer and celebration in common! This strong need of people of today is probably met by all the convents, be it through invitation to shared prayer or meditation, to celebrations of feasts on occasion of special events within the community or within institutions run by the community; celebrations which often bring together the whole quarter, the village or the region.

Religious communities, signs of people living together in mutual respect and reconciliation!

No Standardised Form

Although the Gospel is the guiding lead and "ultimate norm" in all the Religious communities and for all Christian Religious, there is no standardised form of Religious Life. Because the Gospel gives this type of life its meaning, the full richness of the Gospel becomes effective in it. There exists an impressive diversity of Gospel living. And whatever is said about the many Religious Communities, can also be said for all the individual Religious - whether contemplative-monastic (i.e. ascetic and restricted to a particular convent) or apostolic (i.e. involved in various activities and dedicated to a community life style). There is no sterile uniformity, but each Christian in Religious Life lives the tension between the theory of Religious Life and the personally realised following of Christ.

It may be obvious that a successful combination of a personally following of Christ and life in community may not be quite easy. But it is community life in particular which is an integral part of Religious Life.

Courage For What Is Unprofitable

A community that originates in the Gospel has to live by the Gospel. At the centre of every Religious community is the Liturgy celebrated in common in the form of the Eucharist and the Prayer of the Hours, reflection on the Word of God in personal meditation and in prayer. And this is done daily. Every daily schedule reserves a certain amount of time for this non-utilitarian activity. "Why this waste?" (Mt 26:8) This is the question of many in a society that is exclusively concerned with profit and has set shareholder-value as the supreme goal to be achieved.

That woman with the alabaster bottle, who poured her precious oil lavishly over the feet of Jesus, was reprimanded by those present, but confirmed by Jesus. "Why must you make trouble for the woman? It is a fine thing she has done for me" (cf. Mt 26:6-13). Religious have the courage to waste their precious oil, their time, in this way. Whether or not there is urgent work to do, they make it a point day after day to spend time with Him, who has set their lives moving. Here, too: Only lovers can understand this.

This precious oil: time wasted to be with the Lord. A whole lifetime given away to the absolute claim of God. A life that is made available, not to obey orders or to fulfil some law, but simply as an answer to God’s call as it is directed unmistakably and very personally through this Jesus of Nazareth to the individual person. No other answer can be adequately given to this call except this total surrender of self. The answer to the experience of being loved can be nothing but love. This is the secret of this waste.

The oil in the hands of the women in the Gospel is always seen in connection with the passion and death of Jesus (Mt 26:12; Mk 14:8; John 12:7; Lk 23:5; Mk 16:1). Just like Jesus in his self-emptying (Phil 2:7), so also must those, who waste their oil for Jesus, be ready to be handed over. This is the mysticism, without which Religious Life cannot exist. And if what has just been said applies in a special way to contemplative Christian Religious, i.e. to those Religious who do not perform any direct apostolic activity, it is still true to say that no Religious Life can continue to exist without this mysticism. "Why this waste?" - "Let her alone. You have the poor among you always and you can help them whenever you like; but you will not always have me" (Mk 14:6f).

The Vows: Poor, Virginal, Obedient

These are provoking attributes, expressed in these so-called counsels or vows (also called profession). What, after all, is the meaning of poverty in our affluent western society? What should be the meaning of virginity? And most of us do not have particularly good feelings about "being obedient", but have memories of rather questionable distortions instead.

And yet, every Christian Religious professes these, publicly and in full freedom, in a special dedication to the following of Christ and the realisation of the Kingdom of God. Through the vow (this is the term in most of the formulas), he solemnly declares his intention to remain poor, virginal and obedient ("evangelical counsels"). Jesuits, after a prolonged period of living in this society, take the so-called "Fourth Vow" - obedience towards the Pope. The aspect of the vows being taken in public is important. The Christian Religious makes visible what applies to every Christian. From this comes the responsibility which Christian Religious have with regard to the laity. These latter are disappointed if such a life fails. Initially, the vows bind the Religious to his community or Order for a limited period of time (normally 3 years) and later for life. There are a few Congregations, however, who know the regular renewal of vows right to the end of life.

Being poor in Religious Orders can be properly understood only in connection with the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is a question of constantly being ready, to go along immediately at the coming of the Lord. Whatever divides the heart, what limits personal freedom, has to be given away. The imminent coming of the Kingdom of God has to determine the conduct of the Christian Religious. This is not only a question of a spiritual idealistic attitude, but an attitude that has to show in the dealings with people; Christian Religious who are poor for the sake of the Gospel, are to show their solidarity with those who are poor by force of circumstances. Seen from this angle, the poverty of a community of Christian Religious has a political dimension. Whatever Religious earn by their work and what results of their simple lifestyle, has to be utilised for the service of the people, especially in the fight against misery and oppression. The vow of poverty is not a vow of thrift of the individual, but has to be an evangelical sign from the part of the community, which the people, specially the poor, are able to interpret.

What has been said about poverty, applies equally to remaining virginal for the sake of the Kingdom of God. It is a matter of constant readiness for the coming of the Lord. And since virginal life is a pure gift (poverty and obedience are consequences of our being creatures), it belongs to the innermost core of the Religious vocation. Out of a deep experience of God, the virginal person is called to be as close as possible to people, specially to the most miserable, the most isolated, the most desperate. Life in virginity, as a vital element of the call to Religious Life, expresses perhaps more strikingly than anything else what Jesus meant when he spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. Not to feed people with hopes for heaven, but to be so close to the least of persons (Mt 25:40) as to give them an experience of heaven. Virginal life does not turn Christian Religious into floating beings, but places them in a central place of the world, even to the heart of the world, so that people everywhere and in every situation may feel understood in their language of tears and joy, of sin and their longing for liberation.

The obedience of Religious is not just the carrying out of orders. Its roots are in the obedience of Jesus towards his Father. This is the life experience of an obedient person: God is Love. To know God’s Will and fulfil it is the passionate desire of the Christian Religious. Religious are constant listeners. It is a question of attentive listening to people and their needs. The responsibility to listen carefully and to draw appropriate consequences for action is a task not just for the individual Religious, man or woman, but for the community as a whole. With their obedience, Religious also want to bear witness to the fact that they do not want to hunt for power, for control, for authority over others. The obedient person rather wants to live humbly and non-violently in the service of people, always in the footsteps of the obedient, humble and non-violent Jesus. Therefore he, like Jesus, is vulnerable.

Mission In Church And Society

Together with the Church ...

What may be self-understood, yet often escapes the awareness of people: Religious communities are part of the Church and as such are completely incorporated into it, even though (not like the secular clergy who are directed towards their diocese) their status is of a different nature and thus they are often exempt from the jurisdiction of the bishops. Their very existence, as well as that of the community and of the individual Religious, can only be conceived within the Church. By their very presence they embody the Church. Religious Orders, therefore, are "useful" not only because they fulfil many pastoral and social-charitable services, even act as stop-gaps for missing pastors: Their first task is to be Church of Jesus Christ; that is, to be gift and mission at the same time: Gift of the Holy Spirit with the mission to incarnate this Spirit of Jesus Christ in the concrete reality of this world within the Church of the present time. Religious Life is not a "state" in the sense of an unshakeable stability, but a constant readiness to become a visible sign of the incarnation of God. This can only happen in the unconditional poverty of the one who does not possess anything, but receives everything.

The fact that Religious Orders are essentially Church, is the cause of a fruitful tension between the Hierarchy and the Orders. The Church is in constant need of initiatives, it needs criticism and reform. This becomes eminently visible in the persons of the founders of Religious Orders. When St. Benedict founds a monastery, when St. Francis of Assisi starts an entirely new way of life with a few followers, when Teresa of Avila reforms the Order of the Carmelites and Mary Ward sends her women on new ways of the apostolate, they have not received orders to do so from the hierarchy. On the contrary, at times they had to overcome considerable difficulties with the authorities of the Church. Such breaks-in of the Holy Spirit came and still come to the Church even today very often through Religious Orders. This is the prophetic function of the Orders, without which the Church cannot do. The Church needs the impetus of these passionate people fully imbued with the Gospel. People, too, who stand "in the midst of life", who have families and pursue ordinary professional careers, have recognised the prophetic dimension of Religious Life and get themselves involved in so-called "Third Orders"; these are somewhat formal unions of people who feel close to the spirituality of some Order, but do not leave their secular, social environment. "Circles of friends" and religious youth movements are of a rather informal nature, trying to realise the following of Christ in new ways. These groups, too, contribute to the dynamism of the Orders.

... in solidarity within the community

In Religious communities, space is created within the Church and society for that freedom which makes it possible to point out the wounds of this very Church and society and to adopt ways towards healing and renewal, in spite of institutions, laws and rules of conduct. A woman of such courage was, for example, the Dominican Caterina of Siena. Or we can recall the dauntlessness of many Religious women and men today in Latin America and Africa who exert themselves untiringly for the rights of oppressed people and consequently are persecuted and considered subversive by governments. Often enough, this costs them their freedom, even their lives. At the same time, they are precisely the ones who through their lives witness to a freedom that is possible only on the basis of the Gospel.

Or let us think of the Religious in Europe today, who witness to their solidarity with the excluded (the street children, the homeless, the drug addicts, the prostitutes...) and who, together with these people, work for their re-integration into society and speak up for the respect of human dignity: "Whatever you have done to the least of my brothers, my sisters, you have done it to me."

They still exist, these women and men, real prophetesses and prophets, who have got involved with the Gospel to the extent that they are ready to change themselves and other people and things, who, having been set in motion by God Himself, are, in turn, setting the Church in motion.

Ways Into The Convent

All of these are reasons why entrance into Religious Life needs a step-by-step careful introduction, in which both sides undergo repeated evaluation of what has been achieved and what is still to be achieved. Besides the spiritual conditions, there are a number of practical requirements. As an example for the phases of introduction into convent life, we are in the following giving a description of the process of formation in the Dominican Order for men in Switzerland and of that of the Dominican Order for women in Ilanz (Switzerland).

The minimum age for men wanting to join the Order of the Dominicans is 18 years; required is a completed grammar school education with school-leaving certificate which makes admission to university studies possible. In exceptional cases, a completed vocational training is acceptable. Before beginning the noviciate (after at least a year to allow mutual getting acquainted and introduction into Religious Life), the candidates are in regular contact with the responsible persons of the Order for some time (the so-called "postulancy"). After noviciate in one of the communities appointed for the purpose, which normally offers an internal formation for the Order, including also periods of practical training, the novices take their simple vows for three years (which may be extended to six years). At this time, the brothers engage in further theological studies demanded for ordination to the priesthood, and complete their ongoing internal formation for the Order. After expiry of the time of temporary vows, the candidate makes final profession which binds him to his Order for life. It is only after this and after completion of university studies that ordination to be a deacon and to the priesthood can take place.

With the Dominican Sisters of Ilanz, the minimum age for joining the Order is 18 years, too. A completed professional training or another type of completed certified education is desirable. Before their two-year noviciate, the candidates remain for some time in contact with the responsible persons of the Order, living for about half a year, the so-called "postulancy", in a community. After the internal formation for the Order, the noviciate, the novice professes her temporary vows for three years. This time can be extended to up to nine years. During this time, the Sister dedicates herself to further education, or she works in her original profession. After expiry of the time of temporary vows, Sister makes final profession which binds her to her community for life.

Much of what is described here is more of an ideal than a reality. Much is a blueprint that has not yet become a reality. But is it not precisely this which makes it truly human and, most of all, truly Christian? Once we are no longer able to think beyond our limitations, or even to dream, we renounce the quality that distinguishes human beings from animals. And most important of all is, to start anew and set out on the way day after day: This is what brings that dynamism to life and to the community as a whole, which is never satisfied with what has been achieved, but is always open for what is new, for the untried and for change.

Sr. Raphaela Gasser, Ilanz
Arrangement: René Aebischer