What Is Religious Life?
Religious life is essentially the total self-gift of a person to Christ and his Church for the love of God and his people. As the Second Vatican Council taught: “Through Baptism a person dies to sin and is consecrated to God. However, in order that he may be capable of deriving more abundant fruit from this baptismal grace, he intends, by the profession of the evangelical counsels in the Church, to free himself from those obstacles, which might draw him away from the fervour of charity and the perfection of divine worship. By his profession of the evangelical counsels, then, he is more intimately consecrated to divine service” (Lumen Gentium, 44).
The evangelical counsels are: obedience, chastity and poverty.
The Dominican Constitutions explains that “Obedience is pre-eminent among (the vows relevant to) the (evangelical) counsels. By obedience a person dedicates himself totally to God and his actions come closer to the goal of profession, which is the perfection of charity” (LCO, 19 § I). fr Timothy Radcliffe OP reflects on obedience and sees it as a loving gift of ourselves to God and we entrust ourselves to him through the Order and the superiors whom we elect. In this act of total self-gift, we follow Jesus who said “My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (Jn 4:34). It is the mark of our freedom as baptised children of God that we can give ourselves in this way and take a vow of obedience.
fr Timothy comments on vowed obedience in our religious life and says: “Within our own Dominican tradition this belonging together in mutual obedience is marked by a tension between two characteristics: an unqualified gift of our lives to the Order, and a search for consensus based on debate and mutual attentiveness and respect. Both are necessary if we are to be preachers of the freedom of Christ, the freedom for which the world thirsts.” Therefore, obedience schools all the brothers in the virtue of charity and this virtue fosters “willing service rather than slavish submission” (LCO 20 § III).
Chastity also frees us to seek God with our entire being. Chastity is a “special gift of grace, by which we unite ourselves more readily to God with an undivided heart” (LCO 26 § I). fr Timothy adds that “chastity witnesses to the deep love that is friendship” and together with married couples, consecrated religious (and single people) “show differently the single mystery of love” and so witness to the God who is love. Thus, “the first sin against chastity is the failure to love” for chastity is always founded on love; it can never be based on fear of our sexuality or our bodiliness or of others. As St John says: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love” (1 Jn 4:18). This gift of ourselves to God and neighbour in this way is by no means easy and indeed the Constitutions advises that “brothers should not rely on their own strength” but on God, through penance and mortification, and on the loving support of the brethren (see LCO 28, 29). Hence, fr Timothy reflects that “in religious life I’ve also found joy, happiness, friendship, bursts of laughter, spontaneity and a way of loving that is extraordinary.”
Poverty is more culturally determined than the other two vows, but as we see from the history of the Order, it was of great importance to St Dominic’s mission who chose to imitate the apostles in their common poverty. “In our profession, therefore, we promise God to own nothing by right of personal ownership but to hold all things in common and to use them under the direction of superiors for the common good of the Order and of the Church” (LCO 32 § I). Following the example of the apostles, we are given “in proportion to each one’s need” (Acts 4:35) from our common possessions. Our voluntary poverty is not destitution as such, although it implies a certain solidarity with the poor of the world, and we are called to live frugal and simple lives so that we might “put our treasure in the kingdom of God’s justice” (LCO 31 § II) and trust in his providence. Above all, though, Bl Jordan of Saxony OP says that the early Dominicans undertook voluntary poverty “to ensure that no worldly responsibilities and worries would hinder their task of preaching.” In the words of fr Timothy, poverty thus “offers us the freedom to go anywhere and preach. You cannot be a wandering preacher if you must transport all your furniture every time you move.”
These evangelical counsels are lived out as an essential part of our religious life that is lived in community. Certain disciplines, which are called ‘regular observance’ help to focus our religious life. Elements like the wearing of the religious habit, cloister, silence and penance are part of regular observance, together with the common celebration of the Liturgy, private prayer, the Rosary, study and apostolic ministry (see LCO 40).