What Is Religious Life Like?
Each religious community is a family within the wider relationship of God's family, the Church. Each one is a complete unit, having its own spiritual ideals, its own internal government, its own Rule of Life, and its own particular customs. Each is made up of a number of widely assorted human beings, all of whom are striving to attain the Christian virtues but who are all as yet far from perfect. Each community, therefore, has the joys and the problems that are always present wherever people live and work together.
The Rule, perhaps more than anything else, gives a community its distinctive personality. It is the Rule that enshrines the spiritual ideals and points the way towards their fulfillment. It may be ancient or modern, detailed or brief, it may be supplemented by Constitutions, but its acceptance is usually explicitly mentioned by each religious when vows are professed.
A religious has taken a vow of Obedience, and that necessitates having someone to obey. The Superior serves in this capacity as the executive of the Rule and the head or center of unity in the community. But a Superior is not an absolute ruler or a tyrant. The powers of the office are carefully defined in the community legislation and by agelong custom. The Superior is elected by the professed members of the community and must answer to them for the way the office is fulfilled. Other religious are appointed or elected to serve under the Superior as assistants. The titles given the Superior and these other officers vary according to the customs and organization of different communities.
The sign of membership in a community is the habit worn by its members. The habit is looked upon as a sacred garment, hallowed by tradition and blessed by the Church. The tunic itself is often made in the shape of a cross, and most parts of the habit come to have a symbolic meaning. Wearing the habit is an ever-present reminder to the individual religious of the life of dedication it symbolizes. But useful though the habit is, it is not an essential part of the religious life. Clothes do not make the religious. Unless inner dedication is present, the habit becomes an empty sign. And this dedication is not laid aside by the simple act of taking off the habit, which is done by modern religious when they go to sleep. In American communities of men it is often customary to dispense the wearing of the habit for travelling. This same custom is followed in some of the newer, active communities of women. And some communities do not even have a special habit at all. The wearing of the habit, or the not wearing of it, is a matter decided by each community according to its own particular needs and purposes.
If religious are to fulfill the obligations of the religious life, they must have a house to live in. The size of the house, the name by which it is known, its location and the arrangement of its rooms will depend, of course, upon whether it is for a community that is large or small, active or contemplative, obligated to corporate poverty or not, having a novitiate in it or not, and so on. But all religious houses have certain things in common.In each the most important room of all is the Chapel.
The Chapel is the center of the spiritual life of the community. Here the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered regularly, and here the Divine Office is daily said or sung. Here also the individual religious have opportunities for private meditation and prayer. Wherever possible the Chapel is arranged with a conventual choir, and in it each religious is assigned a special place or "choir stall". Ordinarily seculars are not seated with the community, but a special part of the Chapel is set aside for guests. In enclosed communities the Chapel is usually constructed in such a way that the choir of religious is kept quite private and is not visible from the guests' portion of the Chapel.
Conveniently located somewhere near the main entrance to the house will be found one or more reception rooms. They are used for transacting business with seculars and for entertaining relatives or friends who come to visit with any of the religious. If arrangements are made to care for overnight guests, a guest house is provided, or a separate part of the house may be set aside for this purpose. The rest of the house is kept more or less private for the exclusive use of the religious.
How the work rooms of a religious house are arranged depends, of course, upon the nature of the work done, whether it is a Mother House or a Mission or Branch House, and whether the work of the community is done mainly within the house or outside. The Superior of the house will need an office, and if it is a large community, other offices will be required for typewriters, computers, files, records, etc. Larger houses also provide special rooms for printing, sewing, laundering, art work, bookbinding, the making of altar bread, or whatever happens to be needed for the particular work of the community.
Very important to the physical life of the community is the kitchen and the room where meals are taken. This latter is called the Refectory and in ancient usage was considered a room of dignity next to the Chapel itself. Conversation at meals is permitted in most communities on feast days, but ordinarily the Refectory is kept as a place of silence. At formal meals, after grace is said, a portion of the Scriptures and of the Rule is usually read aloud. It is a common custom to have one of the religious read aloud during the rest of the meal from a religious biography or some similar spiritual book that is of interest to the religious. Whether seculars are served meals with the religious or in a separate refectory depends upon the custom of the community and the degree of enclosure it professes.
Each house has one room that is known as the "Common" or "Community" room. This is the room ordinarily used when the community comes together as a family, formally for recreation, and informally at other times. Each house also has a room, or at least a part of a room, for a library. In larger houses a portion of the building may be set aside as an infirmary to be kept ready in case of illness.
The sleeping quarters of a religious house are divided off into small rooms called "cells", so that each religious may have a place of privacy for rest, prayer, study and certain kinds of work. Among contemplative religious the cell is used a great deal. In active communities the religious ordinarily spend less time there. It is a common custom in religious houses to name each cell, as well as the other rooms of the house, after a saint or a virtue. Frequently this name is lettered on or above the door. It provides a convenient way of referring to the room without having to say "my cell". Religious who have taken a vow of poverty cannot truly call anything "mine", and therefore naturally dislike the personal pronoun of possession.
Wherever the location of a religious house permits, provision is made for gardens around it. The size of the grounds depends again upon the nature of the community. An enclosed community requires rather extensive grounds. In any case the gardens are used not only to provide food and flowers, exercise, fresh air and sunshine, but also places of recreation and prayer. Each garden will probably be dignified with a figure of our Lord or one of the saints.
If the size of the community permits, an entirely separate portion of the house is devoted to the Novitiate. Here the novices and sometimes the postulants as well, live and study and work under the direction of their Master or Mistress quite apart from the professed religious. The Novitiate is considered another very important part of the house, for these novices are being prepared and trained to take their places as full members in the life of the community.
Every religious house, no matter how small or how active its life may be, has certain rules of silence. Experience proves that much talking is not compatible with much prayer. Experience also proves that were there no rules of silence, religious would get frightfully on each other's nerves. All religious communities find that some silence is an absolute necessity. The degree of silence prescribed by community customs depends again upon the type of the community. Most religious houses keep the "Great" or "Grand" or "Solemn Silence" from the last Chapel service at night until after breakfast the next morning. During this time religious do not speak unless required to do so by some emergency of great importance. It is a time of quiet rest in God. The "Little" or "Lesser" or "Simple Silence" observed during certain hours of the day is meant to discourage unnecessary talking and visiting. At such times religious are permitted to speak whenever it becomes necessary to do so in carrying out their appointed tasks.
Some of the customs observed in religious houses may sound strange and novel to modern Americans unfamiliar with the traditions of the religious life. Actually there is nothing new about most of them. They are simply the ways that religious down through the ages have found to be the most practical and the most suitable for putting the principles of the religious life into practice. Some of these customs date back to the very beginning of the religious life.
Feeding the Hungry
Caring for the Needy
Visit the Prisoners
In the Garden
In the Kitchen
A Healthy Body
A Healthy Mind
Living for Others
Individual Prayer & Devotions
The Young at Heart
Spending Time With the Family
A Friendly Family Visit
Comfort the Afflicted