The Joy of Religious Life – and the Joy of Christ

Being Quiet Enough to Hear the Proclamation

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Here is the most recent column from Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, reprinted from the Southern Nebraska Register.

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Religious life is serious. Religious life is a solemn commitment to a life of prayer, sacrifice, and contemplation.   It can be challenging.  In fact, religious life can be a lifetime of challenges.

But religious life is not joyless. Quite the opposite, in fact.  Religious life is the joy of commitment to Jesus Christ, and the delight—real, earnest delight—of a community of women or men earnestly seeking holiness together—seeking to become the men or women God made them to be.

Last week, I had the joy of celebrating a Pontifical Mass and Solemn Veiling of Sr. Maria of the Incarnation—a member of the Carmelite Monastery of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph outside of Valparaiso. This was third Solemn Veiling that I have celebrated there this summer. The Carmel is full of nuns—many of them under 30—who are alive in the tremendous grace of their vocations. Their joy radiates through everything that they do.

After the veiling, I was invited, along with the priests, deacons and seminarians who assisted in the liturgy, to enter the Carmelite cloister – a rare and honored privilege.  For the next hour, the sisters sang songs, played musical instruments, recited poetry by heart, and feasted.  I witnessed a community—a family, really—of women who experienced not only supernatural joy, but the natural happiness that sometimes comes in fulfilling God’s will.  It was a night I won’t soon forget.  The celebration of the Carmelite sisters was truly a Catholic celebration, and it was truly delightful.

I frequently visit the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters—the Pink Sisters—at Christ the King Convent in Lincoln.  And I am always grateful to visit the School Sisters of Christ the King, the Marian Sisters, and the Sisters of Mary, Queen of Mercy.  The religious sisters in our diocese are the lifeblood of our Catholic community.  Their apostolic work, and most especially their prayers and sacrifices, are among the principal reasons that our diocese has been so richly blessed. 

Each day, our sisters pray for holy families, for vocations, for the sick and needy, and for our priests.  Each of us is edified by their life of contemplation and sacrifice.  In 1996, John Paul II said that each of us depends on religious brothers and sisters, because each of us “can draw from the contribution of these generous souls’ powerful support on our journey towards the heavenly home.”

We can also learn from the religious sisters in our diocese. “In solitude and silence, by listening to the word of God, participating in divine worship, personal asceticism, prayer, mortification and the communion of fraternal love, they direct the whole of their lives and all their activities to the contemplation of God,” said John Paul II. “In this way they offer the ecclesial community a singular testimony of the Church’s love for her Lord, and they contribute, with hidden apostolic fruitfulness, to the growth of the People of God.”

The life of prayer, of contemplation, of silence, especially, that religious embrace is a witness to all of us in an era of disconnectedness, and noise, and distraction.  The silence the religious embrace—the willful disregard for the distractions of this world—is what makes their joy more complete.   The music I experienced in the Carmelite convent in Valparaiso, and the poetry, was an earnest expression of human happiness and supernatural joy, precisely because the sisters sing the joy the Lord has placed in their hearts—because they hear the joy of the Lord in the silence of their own hearts.  The lesson of our religious sisters—among others—is that if we want to know real joy, we have to quiet ourselves enough to hear the joyful proclamation of Christ in our hearts. 

Music is meant to move us to silence and wonder, to be stilled, to be mute. All truly profound things occur in silence: conception, the consecration, the sunrise, the blossoming of a flower, and true contemplation in the depths of prayer. The cadences and lofty notes of Gregorian chant have this direct effect on the soul, which is why the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass finds its natural setting in the ancient chants of the Church.

After the Bishop blesses the veil, the nuns chant these ancient words in Latin: “I love Christ, into whose chambers I shall enter, whose Mother is a virgin, whose Father knows not woman, whose music and melody are sweet to my ears. When I love Him, I remain chaste. When I touch Him I remain pure. When I possess him I remain a virgin. With His ring my Lord Jesus Christ has betrothed me, and he as adorned me with the bridal crown.”

Some of you may be called to religious life.  I’m praying for you, and so are the sisters of our diocese.  But all of us—no matter our vocation—are called to imitate the silence the sisters pursue—called to turn away from distraction in order to focus singly on Jesus Christ and his mercy.  And in the quiet contemplation of Christ, all of us are called to the joy that makes the Christian life beautiful, and delightful.

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