Hey, What Are You? - A Primer on Religious Life


One of the joys of being a senior brother in the religious community that I belong to is the myriad opportunities I have to watch newer members of the Brotherhood learn about what it means to be a brother in the Church.

I remember well the days of learning to articulate what it meant to suddenly be a brother to those in my life who had known me long before I made that choice. What was it (or is it now) that makes me different than I was? What IS a brother? “Are you like a priest or something?”

Even in our beloved Episcopal Church, there is little to no understanding of what a brother is, or does…or what makes us different. What makes us a religious — brother or sister — and what is the Church supposed to make of us?

This is nothing new. Even in the days of St. Benedict or St. Francis of Assisi as they founded religious communities, the Church was perplexed as to what to make of us. And often, the Church’s response was to quickly gather religious into and under the authority of the Church to keep them from becoming troublesome. Especially when they bandied about words like Poverty and Simplicity in the midst of a Church whose coffers were overflowing with money, and a magisterium that was filled with men referred to as Princes of the Church - ostentatious in their displays of wealth and power.

The community I belong to, the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory, is a religious community that lives scattered about rather than living in a monastery or a friary. We are open to individuals regardless of marital status, so many of us have spouses and families, and we live as religious in the world rather than behind a cloister wall. This adds another layer of complexity to trying to define what role religious play in the world and in the Church when we are no longer tucked away in quiet gardens out of sight.

So this is a primer — for those of you who want to know more about who we are and what we do, and also a primer for those newer members of religious communities who might find it hard to articulate what being a brother or sister means to those who don’t quite understand what your new place is — in or out of the Church.


One Rule to Ring Them All

The first and foremost thing that makes a religious brother or sister different is a document called a Rule of Life. A Rule (from the Latin regula for yardstick, measure) is a document that governs the life of a religious community and its individual members. A Rule contains a set of instructions for how we live, what we ought to do, and how we should measure our spiritual lives. It often contains “vows” and those vows vary from community to community. Poverty, Chastity and Obedience in some cases, Simplicity and Conversion of Life in others. But the vows are ways in which religious brothers and sisters vow to regulate their lives in areas of possessions, relationships, and decision making.

The Rule also governs such things as how often we pray and worship, how we study sacred writings such as Scripture and the lives of the saints, our perspectives on work, how often we take retreat time, meditate, and how we ought to treat each other in community and in the world. A Rule outlines perspectives and goals for living a full, balanced, and healthy spiritual life and how we take care of ourselves and others.

In the case of my own community, we see the Rule as a concrete way of living out the promises we as Christians make when we are baptized. The Rule is the way we check ourselves to make sure that God is at the center of our lives and actions, rather than our own selfish pursuits or the pursuits that the world tells us are valuable. This is why it is often said of religious that we live “in the world, but not of the world.”

The Rule is a tool that we use to check ourselves when we are out of balance, and a tool that we use to measure whether we are in balance and health with God, with our own selves and with others around us. It is the regula  or the measuring stick by which we evaluate that we are being true to God’s desire for us.

The Rule is a fundamental definition of what makes us religious. In the Church, people tend to divide the world into lay people (the ordinary folks in the pews) and ordained people (bishops, priests, deacons). Not so for religious. We see the world and the church in terms of regular (under a Rule) and secular (not under a Rule).


A Rose By Any Other Name

In some religious orders, it has remained tradition that new religious change their names on entrance to the community. This comes from a time when, again, mitigating individual status was important when living in a monastery. it was also useful when there were 20 or 30 men named John or 40 women named Mary to give them another name to avoid confusion!

Today, the symbolism of names in religious communities is different. Some choose to keep their given and baptismal names as a way of expressing continuity with their old life. Some choose to take a new name entirely to symbolize a complete break with an old life and the beginning of a new one in Christ. Either is perfectly fine. The only time it isn’t is when taking a new name results in one identity in community and another outside of it. God wants us to be integrated and whole, not lead double lives.

The challenges of taking a new name in religion lies in those who have known you for years with a different one. Especially when living as a scattered community such as ours. There are no hard and fast rules about whether to take a new name, and the challenges that come when one decides to do that. Even if one decides simply to take up their full baptismal name (i.e. Brother John Edward, or Sister Marie Grace), there will be moments for the new religious to explain exactly why they’ve chosen to be so called, and challenges on the part of those who have known him or her to use the new name in recognition of the new vocation, commitment, and role of their friend or family member in the world. It takes some stretching and patience on both sides.


Habit forming

Some religious communities wear a distinctive garb and others don’t. I belong to a community that does. This distinctive dress is called a habit, and it hails from a long ago time, and the parts of it originated with specific purposes — many of which are forgotten. The habit did not, in fact, originate as a garb distinctive from what everyone else wore at the time, with a couple of exceptions. The knotted cincture (belt) indicated the vows that religious brothers and sisters took, and the hood on the habit was introduced to solve the particular problem of the wandering eye! The cross, which is a strong symbol of a life dedicated to Christ, his life and death and resurrection, as a symbol for a way of self-giving. But, over time, the habit remained in some fashion or another as a distinctive clothing for religious even while the fashion of the world changed and moved on.

The habit, when it is used as part of religious tradition, marks the brother or sister in the same way a collar marks those who are ordained, even though some religious orders also wear collars as a part of their distinctive garb. It can be equally confusing for folks in the Church as in the world.

The habit also, when living in community, was a great equalizer of individuals. When some were rich and others poor, when some had means and others didn’t, when family ties and connections and status threatened to divide brothers or sisters the same way it does in the world, the habit was a tool for making sure that everyone appeared the same.

The habit is, like the Rule, a tool for religious that helps them conform their lives to the new role they take up in the world and in the Church. Its various parts and their symbolism (purity, labor, strength, etc.) along with the cross (the true habit of an order) can be useful to the religious and those they meet to mark a life dedicated to the service of God and others, and to signify a life set apart to a specific purpose that is God’s alone.


Who is My Brother (Sister)?

The word Brother or Sister is not an honorific (like Doctor or Father or Madame President). It is not a title. It is an indicator of relationship! And it is a relationship that is based on equality rather than hierarchy. A new religious does not take up the indicator of Brother or Sister in an attempt to be better than, more authoritative than, or more important than anyone else. We take it up so that you might know us as equals, relatable, and present in a way that embodies shared experience and desire, bountifully expressed in our shared status as children of God.

Because we are representatives of mutuality in our relationship with God, we are not like clergy who are sacramental presences of God’s authority. This is why we don’t do things like absolve of sins or celebrate Eucharist. We share in sin and we share in Eucharist equally with others, and our presence is meant to symbolize that.

We often play a pastoral role in the lives of others. So do clergy. To understand the difference, imagine sharing your secrets, your fears, your concerns with your parents as opposed to your closest sibling. Both are valuable. Both are cleansing. But they are different. Clergy who are fashioned Mothers and Fathers are vital to the life of the Church. So are Brothers and Sisters.

The Church often has a hard time understanding the role of Brothers and Sisters in religious community. Unfortunately, there is a long history of demands, educational requirements, responsibilities of clergy in the Church that has led to an equal sense of entitlements and privileges. We call this clericalism in the Church. And although in the Episcopal Church we have tried to mitigate it, it has found its way into the institution nonetheless. As a result, the presence of religious in the Church has created a dynamic that is confusing.

Again, while the Church sees lay and ordained, we find the distinction largely problematic for us. We religious don’t seek entitlement or privilege or authority. We only seek the exercise of a ministry of presence, a life of compassion, encouragement in gifts, and a deep sense of mutual responsibility to God and the mandates of Christ in the Gospels. We know that clergy seek this too, but we also recognize that the requirements and duties of ordained life often compromise the ability to pursue this witness to our mutuality. We try, in most cases, to avoid the entanglements of ordained life (unless it becomes a logical extension of our vowed life) to pursue a life that symbolizes what we refer to in the Church as the “priesthood of all believers.” This priesthood comes from our Baptism, and we as religious try to be icons of the life that Baptism calls us all to live as believers and followers of Christ.

There are Brothers and Sisters who are also ordained to one of the orders of ministry (bishop, priest, deacon) in the Church. We call them regular clergy (as opposed to secular clergy). Interestingly, in most cases, they still refer to themselves as Brother so and so, or Sister so and so…rather than take up the honorific of Mother of Father. This is telling, in that they still recognize that their approach to presence with others is still deeply informed by equality rather than authority.


Eat Pray Love

In the olden days of the Church, while clergy were tethered to the Church building, the parish and the local community, religious Brothers and Sisters especially in the era of the Franciscans and Dominicans, were wandering, itinerant preachers and teachers. The Franciscans were a radical departure from the communities of old who stayed firmly ensconced in the monastery and rarely left.

Most religious in the world today are closer to the Franciscan model, being permitted (or in some cases required) to walk in the world. Communities confined to the monastery or convent are more rare than ever given the way the world has changed. And, in the Episcopal Church which has claimed its Catholic heritage while remaining true to its Reformation roots, there is ever more likelihood that religious will be present in its congregations and life than at any time previously. And so, it is imperative for those religious, and for the Church itself, to understand what role religious play in its life and order.

Brothers and Sisters under a Rule of Life are called to bear witness to the vocation that all Christians are called to live. One of heeding the call of the Gospel life, one of helping to usher in the Reign of God promised by Jesus, and one that takes seriously the requirements that he laid down for his followers to bear witness to the God and Father he called “Abba.”

This means bearing witness to the shared life of all believers that is summed up in the breaking of bread (Eucharist), constant engagement with God (Daily Prayer), and the Great Commandment (love God and one another). Or as the title of a recent bestselling book succinctly put it, “Eat, Pray, Love”.

Religious Brothers and Sisters are engaged in a unique approach to this Gospel life that not only requires them to engage in this manner of living, but also to bear witness to this life to others — both in the world and in the Church. The world is surprisingly open and receptive to this ministry of presence, to the compassion, love and service that religious offer. The Church, too often sadly, simply doesn’t know what to do with us — convinced that we must either be clergy or some other anomaly that is peculiar and curious and perhaps irrelevant. 

The clergy often see us either as adversaries, pretenders, or second class citizens. The laity often see us as failed clergy or a different kind of clergy. We are not any of these things. We are, simply, what you are called to be. We are not better at it. We have no deeper knowledge or mastery of prayer, meditation, or more clear knowledge of God. We simply bear witness to what it means to take these things as central and essential qualities of life, and then to engage in them more deliberately as means by which we may discover what it means to live — as Jesus called us all to live — as people who claim to follow him more deeply into the love of God.

--Br. Karekin, BSG