[Talk given at a Congress of Young Women and Men Religious in Rome on October 1, 1997]
We have been called by Christ to follow him. This is why we became Religious, and this is why we are all gathered together here today. Yesterday we reflected on this calling, and today we shall meditate on the spirituality of this life to which we have been called and which we have chosen.
When talking about "spirituality" we obviously refer to the Spirit. And when the Bible talks about spirit, it speaks of breath, wind, fertility and birth. Each and every one of us, looking deeply into our hearts, can retrace the various acts of the Spirit which lie at the origin of our own consecrated life. I would like to invite you this morning to meditate together on the promptings of the same Spirit of God which lie at the source of the religious life in the Church, beginning with the One whom we have opted to follow: Jesus of Nazareth.
Let us begin, then, by contemplating a few biblical icons, with which we will put together a kind of large mosaic, of the kind one finds in the Roman Basilicas. And I hope that once all these icons have been placed into their proper places, a fairly clear picture will emerge of the origins of the consecrated life--the origins of each and every one of us here today.
I - Part One: The biblical mosaic of the origins of the consecrated life
1st Icon: The baptism of Jesus
Let us begin with the baptism of Jesus, because in that we can clearly see the very origin of the Christian religious life.
At around the age of thirty, Jesus left his native Galilee to go to Judaea with the crowds who were making their way from Jerusalem towards the banks of the River Jordan, and with the crowds of sinners he went to be baptised by John. As he descended into the water, the heavens opened and the Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove and the voice of his Father could be heard saying "Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased" (Mk 1:9-11).
This was an important turning-point in the life of Jesus. Immediately after this descent of the Spirit on him, and prompted by the Spirit, he left for the wilderness where he was to be tempted by Satan for forty days. After that, he began his preaching ministry.
"Thou art my beloved Son", said the Father ...
But how was it the son of the Father could be there in the waters of the Jordan, among the crowds of sinners, being baptised by an ascetic with a lifestyle akin at least to that of the monks of Qumrân who lived quite close by? How did this come about?
He was there at the end of a long journey. And in his Epistle to the Philippians, St Paul describes the long journey which took Jesus there, to that moment of his history and ours.
"Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men" (Phil 2:6-7).
This man, in the waters of the Jordan, on whom the Holy Spirit descended, was the Son of the eternal Father. He was there at the end of a long descent, from the bosom of God himself to the heart of our human condition. Why did this descent take place? In order to understand it we must go much further back into the history of humanity.
Let us, for the moment, leave this icon of baptism to return to it later, and add a second icon, in another corner of our mosaic. For we now have to go right back to the very first intervention of the Spirit in our history: to the moment of creation itself.
2nd Icon: The Spirit of Genesis engendering first life
The first verses of Genesis describe the whole universe as being created as stemming from the Spirit and the Word of God. "The earth was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters" (Gen 1:2). This primordial chaos was fertilised by the overshadowing of the Spirit, and the whole of the created universe was born by the intervention of the Word. "God said ...". Seven times. God said, and there was light. God said, and the waters were separated from the dry land. God said, and the sun and the moon gave light to the earth ... But above all, on the last day God said "Let us make man in our image after our likeness" (Gen 1:3-28).
God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils His own breath of life .—His own spirit -- and man became a living being (Gen 2:7). The human being was therefore created in the image of God, with the breath of God himself within him, and as St Peter was to say later, as a "partaker of the Divine Nature" (2 Peter 1:4). There was therefore a human being, a seed of divine life called to grow unceasingly. And since that seed is divine, we can say that all of us are born with an infinite capacity for growth.
Thus began the great adventure of man and woman. An adventure which, as we know, was marked by sin from the very first days. And the very essence of sin is that it is a rejection of life, of this life which the Spirit always wishes to allow to grow fully within us.
But one day, during the course of the long march of mankind, a human being appeared in whom there had never been any rejection of life, but on the contrary, a total receptiveness to it. There appeared a woman, sinless from her conception, so totally outreaching and receptive that the Spirit of God, that same Spirit that we find present wherever there is fullness of life--overshadowed her--just as it had overshadowed the original chaos, and as it was to overshadow Jesus thirty years later, and the disciples on the day of Pentecost, and on each one of us on the day of our baptism and our confirmation and on the day of our religious profession. The Spirit overshadowed her and she conceived by God (Lk 1:35). She gave birth to God (Lk 2:52). She gave birth to a man in whom the image of God was so totally fulfilled that he was fully man and fully God. Both fully man, as God had destined man to be, and Son of the Most High. From her own flesh and her own blood, and from the love of her heart she gave birth to God. She was Theotokos.
Let us now return to our first icon, the icon of his baptism. This son of Mary grew in wisdom and grace before God and before men, like any other human being. And when he presented himself to the ascetic, John, to be baptised, this act was not only the culmination of the first thirty years of personal growth. It was also the culmination of millions of years of divine preparation, millions of years of the growth of the seed of the divine life placed in humanity on the morning of creation.
And now what does Jesus do after his baptism, even before his forty days in the wilderness, according to the chronology given by John? He calls his disciples to follow him. And this will be the third icon in our mosaic.
3rd Icon: The calling of the disciples
Each of the evangelists has described in his own way this important moment of their calling. Let us dwell for a moment on the very moving description given to us by St John. First of all, John had been a follower of John the Baptist, and in an act of great freedom and great detachment, John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus the day after his baptism. "He who sent me to baptise with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptises with the Holy Spirit'" (Jn 1:29-39).
The first disciples to be fascinated by Jesus were Andrew and John. As soon as they heard the Baptist say "Behold the Lamb of God" they simply set out to follow him. The expression is worthy of careful attention. For this is the first mention of the sequela Christi in the Gospel. Jesus turns round and asks them, "What do you seek?" and they said to him, "Rabbi, where are you staying?" "Come and see", Jesus replied. This pithy dialogue of unbelievable beauty in its concision and emotional intensity certainly reminds many of us of the day we heard our call for the first time. Can we say, like John, that it was on that particular day, at that particular time, in such-and-such a place ... Like an elderly married couple who remember the day, the place, the time of their first declaration of love? (Jn 1:29-39).
Andrew went to look for Peter. On the following day Jesus himself called Philip, and Philip called Nathaniel (Jn 1:40-51). And very quickly a small community was formed around Jesus. Each one had been hand-picked, called personally by name, just as we ourselves have been called, each one chosen by name. Over the months and the years following this call these specially chosen disciples were to build up a community around Jesus that was later to be called the Apostolic Community. The crowds mobbed Jesus for many mixed motives, and then they left him. Some of them, who had received his message and believed in him, also wanted to follow him. But Jesus would not accept them. Some of them were even very intimate friends, like Martha, Mary and Lazarus, but they did not form part of this small group of disciples, among whom were those who would be selected one day as the Apostles and who followed Jesus wherever he went, adopting his austere way of life and his ministry to the sinners and the sick.
Jesus placed great demands on these disciples who followed him, radical demands even, expressed more than once in a very direct form, which may even appear harsh:
"Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God" (Lk 9:60).
"No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God" (Lk 9:62).
"He who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me" (Mt 10:38).
"He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Mt 10:38).
But he also made them a number of promises:
"Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother ... will receive a hundredfold" (Mt 19:20).
During the first few centuries of the history of monasticism, which were the first centuries of the Religious Life, reference was constantly made to this community of disciples with Jesus. This is the model to which we will be referring continuously.
From baptism, we have moved on to the calling of the first disciples, and from this calling to their life as followers of Christ. We must now place another icon right at the very centre of our mosaic: the icon of the Transfiguration.
4th Icon: The Transfiguration
John Paul II chose this icon as the starting point for his post-Synodal Instruction on the Consecrated Life. For it expresses several major aspects of our Consecrated Life with a very particular intensity.
This scene is set against the background of a particularly crucial moment in Jesus' life. The crowds have begun to desert him. He knows that he is shortly to die. He has already begun to forewarn his disciples of his death. He then choses three of them with whom he has the closest relationship, and introduces them a little into the mystery of his glory, but first and foremost, the mystery of his imminent death (Mt 17:1-9; Mk 9:2-9; Lk 9:28-36).
In order to help us understand the scene let us go back and look at the Christological hymn in the second chapter of the letter to the Philippians of which we just heard the first few verses a moment ago. The Word, who was in God "in forma Dei" emptied himself (kenosis), annihilated himself, taking our likeness:
"he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross!" (Phil 2:8).
This is where this unfathomable mystery of the "descent" of the Son of God is completed. He renounced all privileges, all rights. He did not want to "keep" anything. From that moment on, he could "receive" everything as a grace, as a gift:
He emptied himself ... and this is why God exalted him and gave him the Name which is above every name. When one gives up one's rights over others and waives all one's privileges, then one can receive everything as a "gift" (Phil 2:9).
This clearly shows us all the stages in the path that has to be pursued by anyone wishing to follow Christ. It is a path of communion which involves total self-denial, a path of death to self, leading to communion in the fullness of life, but a fullness which cannot be anything other than a gift. A gift which cannot be received except by the men and women who have emptied themselves (kenosis) of all claim to all rights and all attachments. "Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Mt 16:25).
In a moment we shall be returning, at some length, to the reality of this communion which lies at the very centre of the Consecrated Life. But before we do, we need to fill in a few more empty spaces that still remain in our mosaic, adding two more icons. The first of the two is the Last Supper.
5th Icon: The Last Supper
John, the same Evangelist who spoke with such emotional intensity about his own calling and the calling of the other first disciples, has also told us about the Last Supper with such a delicate touch that we can understand the very radical demands of Jesus that I mentioned a few moments ago in their proper context.
Jesus throws his heart wide open both to his Father and to his disciples. And the central reality which comes out through all his words at the Last Supper is the reality of communion, of love. He loved his Father, which is why he always did his Father's will. He loved his disciples, which is why he shared with them everything he had learned from his Father. He wanted them to be one, just as He and his Father were one. He made them a promise: "If a man loves me, he will keep my word and my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him" (Jn 14:23).
We all wish to dwell in God. But what Jesus is telling us here is that it is He and His Father who wish to dwell in us, to make their permanent home in us.
And that leads us to our sixth and last icon: the icon of Pentecost.
6th Icon: Pentecost
Let us stay for a moment with the Evangelist John, who places Pentecost on the very evening of the Day of Resurrection, describing it as a new Genesis (Jn 20:19-23).
Jesus enters the Upper Room; all the doors are locked; he reveals himself to them as the Risen Christ through his wounded hands and side, and he tells them "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you" (Jn 20:21). And having said this he breathes on them (just as Yahweh had breathed into the nostrils of the first man) and says to them: "Receive the Holy Spirit" (Jn 20:22).
We have now come back to where we began: the communication of the Breath of God, the communication of divine life. On the beginning it was the primordial gift of life in all its freshness. But this time it is the communication of the Spirit who restores the disfigured image, who gives back the life that has been lost: "If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven" (Jn 20:23). In the Acts, Luke tells of the way the Spirit burst in and rested on the disciples on the day of Pentecost, in an even more dramatic fashion, in the form of tongues of fire.
It was on that day that the Church was born, as the community of Jesus's disciples; this community which has now been given the mission of visibly embodying before men this fullness of life, this communion with the Father in the Son, the same communion that he brought to humanity.
From that moment onwards, with the birth of the Church, the Religious Life was born. For from the first Christian generation, women and men felt that they had been called to a permanent way of life in which to take up the radical demands that Jesus had made on those who had followed him the most closely or which he had made on certain individuals, like the young rich man, who would have liked to follow him. These virgins--of both sexes--and these ascetical men and women were to live in the local churches, and some were later to withdraw in solitude, and their relationship with the ecclesial community was gradually to become clearer. A few centuries later the monastic institution appeared. Fundamental commitments were gradually spelt out in the form of vows. And through the centuries, particularly in the West, there was a phenomenon of constant diversification of the forms of Consecrated Life. But there is no doubt that this form of Christian life that we now call "Consecrated Life" existed, as a fundamental reality, from the very first generation of Christians, and was rooted in the life of the disciples who had followed Jesus throughout his public life, and had its source in Jesus's own Baptism. I shall come back to this latter point shortly.
* * * * *
Let us now take a step back, and instead of looking at one or other icon, let us view the whole of the mosaic to gain a fairly clear overall view of the Consecrated Life as a life of communion. This obviously applies to every form of Christian life, but is true in very specific ways in the case of the Consecrated Life as the sequela Christi following the model of the first apostolic community.
The intimate life of the Father, the Son and the Spirit is a dance of love, a life of eternal and infinite communion. It is this communion that God wished to communicate to the whole of humanity by creating man and woman in his image, transmitting to them his Breath of Life. It was to lay out the path back towards the true configuration with the image of God that had been lost that the Father sent his Son to us. Not only is Jesus the path back to the Father for all of us, but throughout his earthly life, in the form of life he lived with his immediate disciples--a life of chastity, poverty, obedience to the Father, preaching the Word and caring for the least, in fraternal communion--he set the example of a particular way of experiencing this return to the Father, which we adopted when we made our religious profession.
It is this spiritual dimension of the religious life as a life of communion which makes up the second part of this meditation.
II - Part Two: Consecrated Life as a life of communion
The ultimate purpose of our Consecrated Life is to attain the fullness of this mystery of communion to which we have been called and to which Jesus has laid out the path.
We must live this communion at every level of our daily existence. We are called to commune one with the another in each of our local Communities, to commune with the whole of the Church, to commune with our brothers and sisters in the world in building up a new culture, to commune with the least and the poorest, etc. But first and foremost, we are called to commune with God. And when I say "first and foremost" I am stating a priority in terms of importance, not in terms of time, because all the other forms of communion are ways in which our communion with God is embodied, expressed and manifested.
Just as it would be wrong to think that communion with God only takes place in prayer, before moving on to communion with humanity, it would be an illusion to think that communion with God through apostolic work is possible without a constant meeting with God in prayer.
1) Communion with God in silent prayer
"When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret" (Mt 6:6). This is the first recommendation about prayer that Jesus makes in the Gospel. Prayer is therefore a contemplative meeting, a heart-to-heart affair. It is not some vague meeting with some abstract divinity, but a meeting with our Father.
And it is expressly "Christic" prayer, because God is our Father only because Jesus, the Christ, is the first-born of a multitude of sisters and brothers (Rom 8:29), and because it is in him and through him that we are also daughters and sons of the Father.
"In secret", says Jesus. This meeting needs moments of intimacy and secrecy, like all truly deep relationships. You cannot conceal strong friendships, and indeed people are delighted when everyone knows of them. But it is also in secret that friends tell and retell things that unite them most profoundly. And this applies to our friendship with God. This is one of the laws of the Incarnation.
While it is Christ and through Christ Jesus that we meet God our Father, this meeting cannot take place unless the Spirit of the Father and the Son comes to rest on us, for the Spirit is the breath of love that unites them. In the Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 8, St Paul gives us one of the most wonderful descriptions of Christian prayer that we have in the New Testament. First of all he tells us that we have not received a spirit of servitude and fear but a spirit of adopted sons and daughters which enables us to call out "Abba, Father!" (Rom 8:15).
It is in this word - Abba! - that Jesus expresses the whole of his being. The Father is entirely expressed in his Son and when the Son replies "Abba" in this simple word he expresses the whole of his being. Jesus is prayer. And since we are always on the way to gradually becoming configured to his image, we are not prayer ourselves, but we are relentlessly on the way to becoming prayer.
We do not know how to pray, says St Paul in this same chapter, but the Spirit prays in us with sighs too deep for words (Rom 8:26). What is this sighing, which is very similar to birth pangs, if not the expression of this desire that has been placed in our flesh and in our hearts since the time of creation? Is it not the desire that this image of God within us should be re-established in all its beauty? This sighing of the Spirit within us is the breath of God himself, who breathed it into the nostrils of the first man on the morning of creation. In short, within the economy of salvation instituted by Christ, the only prayer that exists is this prayer of the Spirit of God in us. All the other things that we call prayer, and which still remain extremely important, are no more than means of enabling this prayer of the Spirit to well up within us, enabling us to unite our prayers with it and make it ours, so that we can also say, paraphrasing St Paul, "It is not I that pray, it is the Spirit of God that prays in me".
The intensity of this prayer will be measured by the intensity of our love. Perhaps it is in this way that we can better understand the meaning of our consecrated celibacy. In the early ascetical literature written in Syriac, which was very close to Hebrew and the Aramaic spoken by Jesus, the name 'ascetic' or 'monk', which comes from the same root as the word used to translate the messiah, the yahid, is a word which signifies radical simplicity. In other words, not only the obvious absence of duplicity but also of any sharing of the heart between God and anything else; either God or Mammon. Is our heart shared between God and something else? If so, we must cut it off. "If your right hand is a stumbling block to you", said Jesus, "cut it off" (Mt 5 :30).
Through celibacy and consecrated virginity we express the degree to which we have been attracted and fascinated by God's love for us, and for the whole of humanity, and we wish to allow ourselves to be wholly imbued with that love. We want to love him ourselves with all the love with which he has loved us. While the vast majority of men and women are called to embody their love of God in their exclusive love for a spouse, we are called to focus our love undividedly on him, so that this love can then be poured out to others, not as a love which is our own and demands to be requited, but as His love, which is wholly freely-given.
This difficult gift of self--perhaps it would be better to speak of self-denial, like the Word of God "who though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself" (Phil 2:6)--this difficult renunciation that we make through consecrated virginity cannot be lived in a healthy manner unless it is a mad love of God which is continually expressed in the secrecy of silent prayer, "in secret", where it is unceasingly understood and received first of all.
It is also in these "secret meetings" and in these exchanges with the Father that we receive the anointing which can prevent our virginity from drying up our affections; on the contrary, they gradually give us a freedom of heart which enables us to love all those men and women who are on our path, particularly those in greatest need, who have been wounded by life and wounded by love.
Nourished each day in these moments of silent meeting, our prayer will gradually become a constant prayer, a prayer for every moment of the day. This is the second teaching of Jesus about prayer: "pray without ceasing" (Lk 18:1, 1 Thess 5:17).
Throughout the whole of Christian tradition, various "methods" of prayer have been developed. The most traditional and certainly the most "Christian" of all these methods is the lectio divina, namely, the careful reading of the Word of God, allowing that Word to penetrate within us, to question us personally and gradually and imperceptibly transform us. Other methods have also been developed in recent centuries, and even in the present day. Many Christians benefit, or have benefited at least during part of their spiritual journey, from using methods worked out by other major religious traditions. To all of these methods we can apply the words of Jesus: "Judge the tree by its fruits" (Mt 7:16).
We have, however, to remember that whatever method we use, it can never generate prayer. Every Christian prayer is a pure gift of the Spirit. All we can do is to place ourselves in readiness to receive this gift, firstly by the purity of our lives, and secondly by making peace in our hearts at the moment we enter "the secret room", allowing ourselves to become possessed by the presence of God, which unceasingly envelops us, but of which we are too often unaware. Any method that helps us to root out from within us all obstacles to the work of the Spirit, or which restores to our body and our mind that peace and tranquillity which enables us to remain attentive, is a considerable aid to prayer.
If God invites us to live this communion with him, in the Son, this communion must be manifested and practised in the Church, which is the sacrament in which this mystery of communion with God is made present in the visible sign of the disciples of Jesus who express their communion in faith, love and hope both through their daily lives and the sacraments.
2) Communion in the Church
As the Vatican II Constitution Lumen Gentium tells us, the Church is above all a mystery (mysterion - sacramentum) of communion. The Church is the means through which Christ, who is the "first sacrament", the full visible manifestation of the communion between God and humanity in a man-God, continues to be present in the world so that we can unceasingly relate to him in his humanity. She is the visible sign through the work of the sacraments in which she visibly expresses her faith in the mystery of salvation signified in various aspects, and in which she receives what she signifies. She is also this sign in the way she lives the Beatitudes through her members. And the law of the Incarnation is that this "gathering of Saints" has all the inherent limitations of any human society, just as the Son of God, by taking flesh, took on all the inherent limitations of an earthly existence.
As Religious we live this mystery of ecclesial communion at various levels:
in our sacramental life and our liturgical prayer, where this communion receives its daily nourishment and is visible expressed;
in our local communities, each of which is a visible manifestation of the total mystery of the ecclesial communion;
in our sharing in the evangelising and humanising mission entrusted by Jesus to his Church;
in our communion in mature, humble and sincere obedience to those who have a ministry of authority to perform at the service of communion within the universal Church and within our own communities.
It is therefore in this context that we must understand our vow of obedience. Once again to see this we must refer to the Christological hymn in the second chapter of the Epistle of St Paul to the Philippians. But first of all we must be sure we fully understand the context in which Paul cites this hymn.
Paul is urging the Philippians to fraternal communion, and he does so with an emotional intensity which hints at the fact that this communion was no longer very easy for the Philippians, any more than it usually is for us: "If there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,..." (Phil 2:1). But what does he exhort them to do? Very simple things, but which we know from our own experience in our community life are very difficult: "Being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness and conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Phil 2:2-4). It is at this point that Paul gives an example of all this in Christ, and particularly the obedient Christ.
"Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Jesus Christ" (Phil 2:5), he says. And then he quotes the hymn of Christ who "humbled himself and became obedient unto death". For Paul, obedience is the supreme form of love. It is the only form of totally free love. It is the form of love in which one deliberately renounces all privileges and all rights, as Christ did, and with Christ. Like Christ, it is only then that one can receive everything as a gift: "Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed (echarisato) on him the Name which is above every other name" (Phil 2:9).
It is also in the exercise of obedience that we very often experience the inherent limitations of the Church as a human reality (because that is also what she is by virtue of the law of the Incarnation). And it is also in this way that we experience our own limitations, the difficulty of dying to our own will: "For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Mt 16:25).
Obedience to the Church is essentially obedience to the demands of the Mission which all of us are duty-bound to perform but which God has not entrusted to any one of us in particular, but to his Church as a whole, namely to his People. And this People is a society, structured with a hierarchy of services and ministries.
3) Communion in the performance of the mission
The Church does not exist for herself. While there are people in the Church with the responsibility of performing a mission towards the other members of the Church, the mission of the Church herself is not for herself but for the world. "Go and make disciples of all nations ..." (Mt 28:19).
After Jesus' rising from the dead and after--even in his humanity--he transcends all the limitations of our human existence here on earth, he is present at all times and in all places, and identifies in a way with every human being. We can meet him personally in every woman and every man we meet on our path, or towards whom we are called to go ... even off the beaten track! But Jesus has revealed to us very clearly indeed that he identifies most specially with those whom the Gospel calls the "least ones".
For the Gospel actually speaks to us of two complementary experiences of our meeting with God. First of all, there is our meeting with the Father in the secrecy of contemplative prayer of which we spoke at the beginning. But there is also our meeting with Christ, identified in the sick, the prisoners, the refugees, of whom Jesus speaks to us in Matthew, Chapter 25. "I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was in prison and you came to me, etc. ... Truly, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me and vice versa" (Mt 25:35-45). These two meetings with God complement one another and are inseparable. We may be called by vocation to focus more on one rather than the other in our lives, but we cannot neglect the other. Contemplative prayer without paying attention to the "least" would be an illusion, and serving the "least" without paying attention to God in the silence of our hearts would be futile activism.
This communion with God in and through communion with the least, is mentioned not only at the end of the Gospel, in Matthew Chapter 25. It is also mentioned right at the beginning of the Gospel, even before mention is made of prayer in the silence of the heart. It is found in the Beatitudes which opens the Sermon on the Mount. When Jesus says "Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are persecuted, etc." (Mt 5:3-11) he is not simply offering spiritual consolation (an analgesic) to help them endure the sufferings and miseries of this world while waiting to enjoy the good things of the world to come. On the contrary, he proclaims the poor, the sick, and the persecuted as being "blessed" because he has come to free them of all these evils. And he says so very clearly when he answers the disciples of John who came to ask him "Are you he who is to come?" to which his reply was "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear and the poor have the Good News preached to them" (Mt 11:2-6). That is the sign that the Kingdom of God has come. What Jesus began, his disciples have the mission to continue. The Beatitudes are therefore not a consolation for the unhappiness caused by present evils, but a mission given to his disciples to deliver mankind from these evils.
Here again Jesus shows us the way. He came to liberate us from our evils and free us from our miseries. But what was the first thing he did? It was to take upon himself all our sufferings, to share all our evils, to take on all our poverty. There we can find the meaning of our third vow, the vow of poverty. Through this vow, we wish to commune with Christ, who chose to be poor, who gave up all his privileges, who emptied himself. We also wish to commune with all the other poor people in this world, who have never had the luxury of choosing whether to be poor or not. We have had this luxury. Until the Kingdom of God is fully established on earth, until Christians have fully fulfilled their mission the poor will always be with us. By choosing a simple way of life, through our vow of poverty, we wish to express our solidarity and our communion with them all.
4) Witnesses to communion in the face of division
The radical stripping of Christ and his obedience led him to death, and to death on a cross. He experienced in his own flesh the division at the heart of every man and woman, and between men. This division unfortunately exists at various levels even inside the Church, inside the community of those who say that they are, and wish to be, the disciples of Jesus Christ. And let us not merely think of the centuries-old division between the Churches of the East and the Churches of the West, the result of centuries of misunderstanding, or the division between the different Western Christian denominations, also the result of different ways of understanding the need for reform within the Church. Let us think also of all those tensions that exist even within the Catholic Church, between different ways of appraising the contribution of modernity, between one wing that considers itself or is called more liberal, and another which considers itself or is considered more conservative.
As Religious, consecrated in a very special way to communion, we must not only be effective agents within the ecumenical movement, but also agents of communion within our own Catholic Church. Any hardening of attitudes, whether it is towards the hierarchy or to other groups or movements within the Church, is in contrast to the very nature of our consecrated life. And if we are criticised or scorned or persecuted by anyone whomsoever, let us never forget Jesus' recommendation to turn the other cheek. This is something which does much more for communion than all campaigns and all crusades.
But once again the Church does not exist for herself. She has been sent on a mission in the world. In this world she meets the faithful of other religious traditions. Thanks to the dizzying development of the mass media over the past few decades, with whole population shifts--often caused by war--with the massive ensuing meeting of cultures, we are coming ever more frequently in contact with religions all over the world. Not only because we are particularly called to communion, but also because many of our religious institutes have spread worldwide, our communion with God must be expressed by endeavouring to dialogue and establish communion with all those who also bear within them the image of God and who, under the influence of the Spirit acting within their own religions for thousands of years, are also trying different ways to restore that image.
Some of us are called specifically to missionary work. But all of us are called to that communion which consists in seeing in our brothers and sisters from other religions the semina verbi of which Vatican II speaks, to contemplate in them the mysterious work of the Spirit and to respect it. We are not all called to specifically take part in inter-religious dialogue, which raises great difficulties. But certainly we are all called to embody our love of God in a dialogue without limits, for--as Paul VI said (cited in Vita Consecrata)--dialogue is the new name of charity.
And today, when many of our communities are recruiting above all in the Young Churches, it is important for this inter-religious dialogue to extend not only to the great universal religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, but to different religious traditions in Africa and America, and in the various countries of Asia.
5) Communion with the cosmos
Let us return once again briefly to our the second icon: Creation, where we contemplated the Spirit of God moving over the waters and fertilising them. And where we saw all these elements of the cosmos springing from the Word of God: "God said and ...". Created nature as a whole is therefore a reflection of the divine beauty. The beauty of creation lies in its harmony, the fruit of the Spirit's work. This harmony and beauty were destroyed as soon as the unifying action of the Spirit was troubled by exploitation, the fruit of the selfishness of man.
In Chapter 8 of the Romans, as we have already heard, which tells us that we do not know how to pray but that the Spirit of God prays in us with sighing which cannot be put into words, Paul also speaks of the presence of that sighing within creation. The whole of creation, he says, groans in travail, waiting for our adoption as sons (Rom 8:22).
Today, when created nature is being threatened by man, but where ecological concern can easily give rise to conflicts and ideological struggles, we religious Brothers and Sisters who have the vocation to communion, must know how to live this ecological concern as a form of communion with the nature created by God, and hence as another way of expressing our communion with God himself. As Jesus knew how to re-establish peace and to calm the storm with a word by walking on the waters, so must we know how to live our communion with created nature in a way which will enable the Word which we bear within us to penetrate nature and restore it to life.
Communion with the Spirit groaning within the whole of created nature is an essential dimension of an embodied spirituality.
6) Communion through and beyond the Cross
Let us now conclude by looking back for a moment at the icon of the Transfiguration. What did Jesus talk about with Elijah and Moses? Of his forthcoming death in Jerusalem (Lk 9:31). How far was Jesus obedient? To death, and to death on a cross. How far has he loved us? He loved me to the extent of dying for me, according to St Paul.
We cannot therefore expect to have any profound communion with Christ unless we accept communion with his Cross. Jesus promised those who gave up everything to follow him one hundredfold ... with persecutions (Mk 10:30). The disciple is not greater than the Master, he said. What they did to the Master they will also do to his disciple (Jn 15:20).
From the beginning of the Christian age Christians have accepted death to bear witness to Christ. And among the many martyrs of the 20th century, of whom the Holy Father wishes to create a Martyrology, the many lay men and women, priests and bishops are joined by so many Religious. They accepted to live their spirituality of communion to the very end, in compliance with the most radical demands of communion with God, with the persecuted Christ, with the least of this world, with all the nameless and faceless victims of our wars and the exploitation of man by man.
These martyrs stand as models for us. Few of us will probably be called to bear this ultimate witness to communion. But all of us are called to accept the Cross into our lives. Whether it comes in the form of persecution by the "world" or perhaps even by our own people, or whether it takes the form of hidden sufferings, lack of understanding or sickness. It is nevertheless always that same purifying fire which, by gradually reducing the needs which we have renounced through our vows, enables "desire" to grow within us. This desire, which is the desire for the fullness of life, for the total re-establishment of the image of God. This desire which is the groaning of the Spirit that, in the ultimate analysis is the only prayer that remains when all words become quiet and we are led to the original silence from which life first sprang.
He was obedient to death ... This is why God raised him up ... I wish that where I shall be you may be also ...
We will end with a fresh look at the icon of the Last Supper. After once again giving his disciples the commandment of Love Jesus promises them the supreme communion. "If you obey my commandments (in other words all those forms of communion to which he has called us) my Father will love you. We shall come to you and we shall make our home within you".
In the truly spiritual moments of our lives, we deeply yearn to live in God. Let us never forget that it is he who yearns to live in us. Shall we allow the Father, the Son and the Spirit to make their home within us?