What Is The Religious Life?
The religious life is not merely a devout life given to much churchgoing. It is that, but it is much more than that. The word religious is said to mean "under bond" or "under a rule". Religious are men and women who have bound themselves by a vow to God to live their lives in a community under a rule according to the three Evangelical Counsels. How can such a life be justly considered strange or eccentric or selfish? It is no more than an attempt to live the Christian life in its fullness and perfection.
Our Blessed Lord Himself instituted the religious life. A rich young ruler once came to Him and said: "Good Master, what must I do to be saved?" To this our Lord replied: "You know the precepts of God. Keep them and you will be saved."
First to the Jewish Church, then to the Christian, God revealed His will as to how we should live if we are to enter into life. All the human race is equally called to keep the revealed commandments of God. But the rich young man was already living this way of the precepts. So he sought for a still fuller dedication, saying: "All these things have I kept from my youth up. What lack I yet?"
Then it was that our Lord formulated for him the principles of what we now call the religious life. "Oh, if you would be perfect—if you are seeking a special opportunity of being generous with God and of doing something more than merely to obey the precepts—go sell all you have, and so become poor, and then come and follow Me, without hope of wife or family, and in complete obedience."
Here we have our Lord's own authority for the three "evangelical counsels of perfection", poverty, chastity and obedience, to which every religious is bound. Poverty renounces all creation outside of oneself that one may possess God alone. Chastity renounces not only the gratification of the flesh but also legitimate family love and family ties so that one may love God alone. And obedience renounces the inner citadel of the soul, the will, that one may cling to God alone.
The page-heading over the story of the rich young man in Chapter 19 of St. Matthew could easily read: "The Counsels of Perfection." It is from this and similar passages in the Gospel that this distinction between the life of the precepts and the life of the counsels is made. The former might be called an expression of the will of God, the latter an expression of His intelligence.
Because our Lord said "If thou wilt be perfect . . .", the religious life is sometimes called the life of perfection. Religious are, of course, very far from being perfect. But they are under a certain obligation of striving for perfection, and the religious life is looked upon as a school of perfection.
An individual alone could not very well live the life of the evangelical counsels in their fullness. If he is to be really poor, there must be someone to be responsible for his temporal needs. If he is to surrender his affections in dedicated chastity, he must be trained to love rightly. If he is to be obedient, he must have someone to obey. And so there have grown up in the Church religious communities which exist for the purpose of making the religious life possible.
Religious communities differ widely according to the rule which they observe, the work they do, the way they are organized, and so on. But in general all of them may be classified according to three distinct divisions, Active, Contemplative and Mixed.
The active life is devoted to various works of mercy inspired by regulated spiritual exercises. The contemplative life has for its primary purpose the worship of God, and the pursuit of such occupations as may tend to the perfecting of this worship. The mixed life is less easily defined. It demands qualities belonging both to the active and the contemplative life. The mere use in the active life of spiritual exercises appropriate to the contemplative (e.g., the recitation of the Divine Office or daily meditation) does not constitute the mixed life. The spiritual quality of the contemplative life must also be there to provide a reservoir from which the channels of activity draw their supply, and these activities must be such as are compatible with the maintenance of the contemplative spirit.
The terms active and contemplative are often misunderstood because they are considered to be contradictory. They are not. The word "active"does not refer to a life in which there is no contemplation, for all active communities provide for an ordered prayer life. Again, the contemplative life is not one of inactivity, for contemplation is the highest form of activity possible to a human being. Misunderstanding and misuse of this technical terminology often leads to needless confusion.
Which type is best? The experience of the Church proves that all three types of the religious life are necessary. It is a matter of individual vocation to determine which type of community is the best one for a given aspirant.