Primer on Religious Life - Part Three: On Work and Service

“It is the work of the Brotherhood to witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus, which has been freely bestowed upon us and upon all of creation.” — Of the Work of the Brotherhood, BSG Rule

 

Why do we serve?

Rather than get into a very old, and in my mind questionable, discussion about whether it is faith or works that justifies the sinner in the eyes of God, I’d rather just upend the idea and start from a different place. The religious impulse to serve God and others is, or at least should be, love and gratitude! In an earlier part of these reflections, I made note that the taking of vows was, first and foremost, an act of love.

Religious community is not about working out a brother or sister’s personal salvation, although there should be no doubt by now that life in community acts as a forge, helping the individual conform themselves to a Godly life. Virtues such as patience, forbearance, generosity, charity and compassion can’t be learned easily without engagement with others. But, while community acts as a school for learning these things, it is the modeling of these things — witness to them in the world — that is at the heart of what religious witness is about.

Christians are called to be participants in seeking the conditions to help usher in the Reign of God. We are called to partnership with God in the healing of what is broken in the world. And, as such, community life is our testing ground for what shape the Reign of God might take, and a support for us as we demonstrate it in daily life to the world around us.

Religious witness is not about earning God’s love and grace. Rather it is a grateful response to the love and grace that we believe we have already received! It is, as noted in the quote from our Rule above, a witness to the love of God that has *already* been bestowed on us and all of creation.

Religious witness should also begin from a place of humility — the recognition on the part of the individual that without the love of Christ which precedes it, and the support of a community of others to support it, the individual is incapable of discerning the path and doing the work alone. It is a fierce critique of the individualism that our culture so values.

A life of love and service stems from a desire to share a blessing we have already received with a world terribly in need of blessing. We love because we are loved first by God, and we serve because our hearts recognize the abundance of that love and it impels us to share it in acts of love and compassion modeled by our teacher, Jesus, who taught us that in doing these things the Reign of God draws near.

 

How do we serve?

“Work, being our share in creation and partnership with God in that creation, can be sanctified. All labor is equal in glory, honor and importance and the work of a brother should bear these qualities. Keeping in mind that all talents are gifts of the Holy Spirit, the work of all brothers must be to the greater glory of God. Work is an oblation to God, as is service to our fellow man.” — Of Work as an Apostolate, BSG Rule

The vision of all labor being equal is not a stretch for those in religious witness. This in spite of the fact that the world may strongly disagree. But in a tradition that emphasizes the dignity of every human being, it should come as no surprise that the gifts and skills of each individual are a part of that inviolable dignity.

When communities of religious come together around a particular set of gifts and skills such as teaching, preaching, hospital ministry, etc. we call this a charism. Communal charism is workable in an enclosure like a monastery or convent, but becomes untenable in a community that is dispersed like my own.

The vision of the Reign of God pre-supposes that everyone will have a place and that everyone will have a role to fill. And, they will all be different based as they are on the unique gifts of the individual. The charism of the individual is lauded as a gift of the Spirit, and it’s use is put toward God’s purposes. What a vision!

It is not just the life of prayer and study, not just the work of the Church as an institution, not just those things we might lump under the heading “ministry” like teaching or preaching or worship that constitute “holiness” of life. But our work is an integral part of the wholeness of the individual, and bringing it under the discipline of a Rule of Life makes it an essential part of religious witness.

Imagine if every person approached their work with a sense of equality of labor rather than status as the world demands? Imagine if everyone approached their work in a way that modeled the qualities of fairness, justice, mercy and love. Or if they exercised patience, humility, quietness, and generosity in their work rather than seeing these qualities as reserved for “other” areas of their lives — how would the world change for the better?

Imagine if we looked at those we serve and those with whom we work - or those who provide for our needs by serving us — as having their own inherent dignity, and whose labor is equal in importance to God — how would the world change? This sanctification of work, and its understanding as part of the apostolate of every individual, is what religious bear witness to. Religious communities that are dispersed are in a unique position to bear witness to these qualities.

 

Where do we serve?

Our culture is filled with images straight out of Hollywood film or an Umberto Eco novel about what religious life is supposed to look like. The monastery is an idealized place, whose rhythms reflect the balance between work, study, prayer and silence. The monks or nuns in residence diligent in order and purpose, models of Godly life that are somehow working out their salvation by participation in the ordered life of the cloister.

Work in the enclosure is intended to keep hands from being idle, and the fruits of those labors largely in support of the monastery or the immediately surrounding community — the farming of vegetables, the kitchen bustling to feed an army of religious and the occasional visitor, the laundry and cleaning to maintain the order and dignity of the house. Today, these types of cloistered religious life are largely gone. And while this is a model still maintained in some rare places, these orders are disappearing as vocations dwindle and the realities of maintaining property financially strap the communities.

Within the contemporary communities that are dispersed, we often say that we carry the monastery on our backs. The trend of movement is away from the enclosure and into the world where religious witness might reach more people. The balance intended by the order maintained in religious houses must now be cultivated in the world among the myriad distractions the world has to offer. Work, study, prayer and worship must now be balanced with family obligations, secular job responsibilities, civic and community responsibilities and other needs in a manner that requires tremendous discipline. While many may be tempted to believe that being a religious in the world requires less of the brother or sister than a commitment to live in a monastery, quite the opposite is true.

The opportunity for ministry and witness by dispersed religious in the world is greatly expanded, and the potential for service is limited only by our imaginations. We serve whom God has placed right in front of us. Even, and perhaps most especially, by our labor — our work — in love and service to the glory of God.