05 April 2011
The Habit of Christ
We have within our Church: Westerners and Easterners, White Robes and Black Robes, Celibates and Married, defenders of the Faith and seekers of the Truth, university scholars and village peasants, CEO's and refugees, priests and pilgrims, the cloistered and the apostolic. As a Universal Church, the list could very literally go on forever, from one polar opposite to the other.
So what is it that unifies this old ragtag Church of ours?
As a member of an apostolic religious community, I am always particularly amazed by my counterpart in the Church: the monastics: the men and women throughout the world who haven chosen to follow Christ within the walls of their cloister or monastery. You have probably already heard of some of these groups. They have names like the Benedictines, Carmelites, Trappists, Augustinians, and Carthusians. By the time the Jesuits were starting to traverse the globe, most of these monastic groups were already considered by their contemporary society to be ancient ways of life. Yet despite their long heritage (or should I say, because of it?), each generation of the Church's monks and nuns continue to passionately follow Christ according to the specific teachings and habits laid out by their group's founder.
To many people inside the Catholic faith (and outside it for that matter), these monks and nuns are the world's true radicals. Just think about it: their routine of prayer (7x/day), unique robes, their unassuming austerity and simple diet, their uncomfortably communal way of life, their tested humility and persistent commitment to silence.
Located within a world saturated with materialism and individualism, their community shares each others' burdens and collectively raises them to our Father in Heaven. In his obedience, his chastity, and his poverty, each monk makes his life an offering to Christ. They live in the hope that, in response, Christ will do with him what He wills.
If I make a monk's life sound too romantic, that's only because I am not a monk. For sure, being a monk is hard work. Waking up early each day for prayer, keeping himself in silence, being grateful for his community, accepting that sometimes he will be misunderstood, constantly dedicating himself to his study and work, doing it all over again day in and day out.
Why do we consider monks to be so radical? As I have been reflecting on the life of a monk, I cannot help but wonder just how similar in spirit the routine life of a monk is to that of a parent.
Thinking about it, the mother wakes up early too, takes care of others, spends time at the desk, fills out the bills and family schedules, finds nuggets of time for rest and a prayer, feeds her family, puts the kids to sleep. Then, she does it all over again the next day. Although the parental robes look nothing like those of Carthusian and the parent's routine is anything but silent, overall, the daily life of a dedicated, faithful, and loving parent is not totally dissimilar from the daily life of the monks.
All faithful people share the habit (the day-in and day-out routine) of following Christ. All of us seek to have Him be our center, our teacher, our friend, and our Savior.
All too often we tend to think of monks as holier than the rest of us. For sure, monks are holy people, but so is everyone else who gives their lives to the Gospel. Holiness is not dependent upon what you wear, where you live, or the specific prayers you say. Holiness is dependent upon Christ. Whether we are a stay-at-home mom or the president of a company, a seminarian or a lapsed Catholic, to be holy is to give our lives to the teaching, example, and life of Jesus Christ. The Church is big and there is no one style of Catholicism that is "more right" than the others save that of making Christ the center of our lives. Whether we are in the Grande Chartreuse or Suburbia, USA, a life centered in Christ comes through the routine experiences of the Sacraments, service, community, and prayer.
In a review for PBS of the award-winning film Of Gods and Men, Fr. James Martin, SJ, said this: "The life of the contemplative and the life of the active person are untied in the monks and should be united in all religious people." Well said, Fr. Martin!
As a Jesuit, my life is lived more out of a suitcase than a monastery cell. So it goes that I am not a monk. The overwhelming majority of the Church aren't monks either. But as they hold a rich and lasting tradition in the Church, they have something to teach us about dedicating ourselves to a routine life rooted in the person of Christ. So when you have the time, search around the Church's attic. With 1.16 billion members, you will never ceased to be surprised by what you will find and, moreover, in what way those finding relates to you.