This year we’re remembering the Consecrated Life in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis asked religious and religious communities this year to remember their past with gratitude, to live in the present with passion and to embrace the future with hope.
The other day I was on the internet browsing through iTunes University, where you can get courses–most for free– from various universities on all kinds of subjects. I noticed a course from Yale, given by Professor Paul Freedman on monasticism and early religious life. I have an interest in that period, so I thought I’d see what the historian said to his students about monks in monasteries and hermits in the desert.
Freedman knows a lot about early monasticism and its history, people like Benedict , Augustine, Anthony, Martin of Tours. He offers some interesting insights, as you would expect from a Yale professor, but after listening to his lecture I’m not sure he really appreciates or understands what religious life is all about.
For him monks and the hermits were people who turned their back on the world to pursue a life of prayer. They gave up everything to be with God and separated themselves from everyday life. Because they did that, other people sought them out as intercessors. Ordinary people looked up to them because they’re above them, as it were. They’re holy people who intercede before God for you.
Certainly religious have that intercessory role. But the Epistle to the Hebrew, which we’re reading these days at Mass, reminds us that the one who intercedes must know and experience human life and its weakness. Jesus did that. He is a compassionate high priest, not because he turned his back on human life but because he embraced it. A compassionate high priest, he embraced the cross of human experience.
I’m not sure Professor Freedman appreciates that element of the consecrated life. Anthony in the desert and Martin of Tours in Gaul were wise teachers to whom others came, not just to ask for prayers, but because they knew the human heart. Freedman gives the example of Simon Stylites, the Syrian who lived on top of a pillar for years. People came from all over and built ladders to reach him and ask for prayers, Freedman says.
They weren’t only asking for his prayers; they wanted Simon’s advice, because from his high pillar Simon saw more clearly into their busy lives than they themselves did.
Indeed, the consecrated life goes beyond intercession and wisdom. Over the centuries, religious communities blazed trails into the future for the church and the world. They created new forms of life and culture, they provided missionaries who drew distant peoples together and thinkers who saw beyond the present. They saw what had to be done and did it. Christopher Dawson shows us the reach of religious life and monasticism in the period Freedman covers in his classic The Making of Europe.
It’s important to reflect on the consecrated life this year. It can be unappreciated. Even people in the consecrated life can get it wrong and miss its dimensions, so let’s do what the pope asks: remember our past with gratitude, live the present with passion and embrace the future with hope.