Last weekend I attended a vocation discernment retreat with a local order of Franciscan Sisters. The entire weekend I was completely struck and moved by these women’s sacrifices. What could inspire these women to give their lives to Another? How could they sacrifice so much and yet be radiant with joy?
As Edith Stein explains, “The motive, principle, and end of the religious life is to make an absolute gift of self to God as a self-forgetting love, to end one’s own life in order to make room for God’s life.” (2) The vocations of consecrated life and marriage are both unique calls to man. One is not better than the other. They are simply two different paths of sacrificial love to our eternal destination.
During one of the talks from the retreat, Sr. Thérèse Marie, TOR compared and contrasted the feminine vocation expressed through marriage and religious life. Sr. Therese Marie has an identical twin who is married with children. She has a unique insight regarding the sacrificial love of both vocations. In a poem she wrote titled Love Lives by Sacrifice she illustrates the beauty of physical and spiritual motherhood.
Sr. Thérèse Marie has taken the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. “Virgins are not people who renounce marriage. They are people who renounce a life long commitment to a creature.” (3) Religious sisters are celibate because they are brides of Christ, and it is He who becomes their spouse. Marriage ends at the death of a spouse. The vows in consecrated life do not end at death. They are a sign to the world of our destiny, our ultimate end--complete union with our Creator.
The spousal relationship in consecrated life steps over the threshold of our Earthly reality and enters into Heaven.
How can a mortal man become espoused to The Lord of the universe? It’s such a mystery! I find this unique espousal extremely intriguing.
It is clear that consecrated women are in fact women in love. When you are in love with someone, you often serve and give of yourself in crazy ways. For example, a woman in love, knowing that her boyfriend is sick, may do everything she can to care for him. If she doesn’t have a car, she will find one, and go to the store to buy him medicine. She will do everything in her capacity to respond to his need. In that same way, a woman in love with Christ will do radical things for her Beloved. She will arise daily at 5:00 am to listen to His voice in prayer. She will renounce her worldly goods in order eliminate distractions in their relationship. She will even give Him her fullness of love, intimately uniting herself to Him in a celibate relationship. In a sense, this explains a consecrated woman’s willingness to live out her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They are a response to a loving relationship.
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa says someone is metaphorically “espoused” to a cause, “when they have given themselves wholly to it, body and soul, making the interests, risks and success of that cause their own life.” (5) The religious sisters that I witnessed certainly have given themselves fully to serve the Kingdom of God. Living a life of celibacy gives one the opportunity to love in a wide manner. A mother’s love is primarily focused on the nurturing, care, and growth (both physically and spiritually) of her children. A religious sister, free from responsibilities of marriage, is able to focus her love in multiple areas.
Although I’m not sure that I’m called to be a religious sister, last weekend opened my eyes and taught me a great deal. I truly learned how to love, and what it means to give my life in sacrifice for Another. I left the weekend with a unique appreciation of the religious life. I’m not sure what lies ahead in my future, but I know that wherever and whatever I’m led to, my principle call is to love.
(1) Image One
(2) Edith Stein, Edith Stein Essays on Woman
(3) Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap, Virginity: A Positive Approach to Celibacy for the Sake of the Kingdom of Heaven
(4) Image Two
(5) Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap, Virginity: A Positive Approach to Celibacy for the Sake of the Kingdom of Heaven
(6) Image Three