Religious Life and Death
I once heard a priest playfully encouraging someone to think about entering religious life by telling him, “You have got to die!” A good reminder, that—both for those of us who already are consecrated religious and for those who would be: religious life requires a kind of death. In a way, of course, the same is true of every Christian’s spiritual life, starting from the moment the baptismal waters flowed over his forehead—scriptural support for this is abundant. But the evangelical counsels constitute something more, something deeper, something to which only some are called: the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are a “fuller, more explicit and authentic” (Vita Consecrata 30) participation in the death of Christ, who, hanging on the cross—and indeed throughout his whole life—was poor, chaste, and obedient.
We Dominicans have always given especial emphasis to obedience: in our profession of vows, it alone is mentioned explicitly. At solemn profession, we promise this obedience “until death,” usque ad mortem, the same way Christ himself was obedient: unto death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:8)—usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis. We don’t vow to be obedient simply until our dying breath, we vow to be obedient as Christ was obedient: emptying ourselves, humbling ourselves, shouldering the cross. Our “until death” is also an “unto death.”
“You have got to die!” This can also serve as a great big memento mori, a reminder of the inescapable fact of death, something which should never be far from our minds; as St. Ambrose wrote, “we should have a daily familiarity with death, a daily desire for death.” Admittedly, this can be the sort of thing that, taken wrongly, worries psychologists. But this mindfulness of death is nothing other than the desired result of the Ash Wednesday injunction, meant to spur us to live in a manner worthy of the call we have received (see Eph 4:1). This call extends beyond our earthly life into that which is eternal. Perhaps this is what Pope Benedict XVI meant when he wrote, “To die, in fact, is part of life and not only of its end, but, if we pay attention, of every instant.”
Religious life, then, is a preparation for death—and not just for death, but for the life that follows it. By living completely and totally for God here and now, consecrated religious anticipate the fullness of the kingdom of heaven, where God will be all in all (see 1 Cor 15:28). Being ever mindful of death spurs us to live well, seeking above all the one thing necessary (see Lk 10:42).
So religious life incorporates one into the death of Christ, and it prepares one for his own death. But, as indicated by its name, religious life is not about death. It is about life; it is about generously and lovingly responding to graces freely given; it is about God, the deepest desire of every heart and the giver of all good gifts.
You will show me the path of life,
the fullness of joy in your presence,
at your right hand, bliss forever.
Tomorrow, fifteen men who have perceived this call will move to Cincinnati in preparation for the beginning of their Dominican novitiate. People enter religious life for many reasons (as one of my confrères recently pointed out, the recession tends not to be one of the reasons), but at the root of them all is the universal and indefatigable desire for happiness, for a life united with God. Pray for these men as they seek to follow the Lord more closely in the footsteps of Holy Father Dominic, as they begin to practice the detachment from earthly goods by which they will be freed to seek more earnestly after heavenly goods, and as they are invited to a deeper participation in Christ’s death and thus a deeper share in his life, which is our true and final happiness.
Image: Dominican Friar Makes Solemn Profession, August 2014