If you are a Catholic and go to church regularly, your friends might call you “religious.”
But the term religious life has a very specific meaning in the Catholic Church.
Religious life, in short, is the life of priests, brothers or sisters living a publicly vowed life in community, which has a certain liturgical character, and that which gives witness to the union of Jesus Christ with the Church. (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, N. 925)
Religious life is both a response to a call from God and a total consecration to God. It is, in a sense, an amplified version of what everyone’s faith life should be. Religious life is a response to a call from God and a total consecration to God. And even though it can be seen as an escape from the world, it is a life with full intensity, concentrated on praying for the Church and the world.
Join our chatters in exploring the importance of this special gift of religious life, but also in exploring how it can teach us about spiritual life in general. One of the most unique aspects of this is learning how obedience can actually be liberating. You will also hear some accounts of where the trust in obedience can be misused by those in authority.
This chat was based on a letter that St. Francis de Sales wrote to a Soeur de Bréchard, a new Superior at the Visitation at Moulins. He gave her wisdom and instructions on how to embark on this journey, and we today have much to benefit from this wisdom.
If you like the chat below, check out the Living Jesus Chat Room of the Visitation Sisters. Join us at 7:30 p.m. ET each Sunday! We read a passage of St. Francis de Sales and then gather great insights and sharing!
Why Religious Life?
Question: What is the purpose of religious life? Is it simply a safe haven for people who want to escape the world and have an “easier” way to obtain holiness?
Sherry: I am so curious what you have to say to the first question, Sister.
Lydia: I think the Catechism answers that…know Him, love Him, serve Him. But isn’t that the purpose of anything, not just religious life?
Visitation Sister: Firstly, religious life is a response to a call from God and a total consecration to God.
Sherry: But Lydia – isn’t that the bandage for me as a Lay woman too?
Visitation Sister: God is not asking us to escape but to pray and serve His people and become His Spouses.
Sherry: Can you explain “total consecration,” Sister?
Lydia: Yes, Sherry.
Caroline: It is a leaven for the world.
Sherry: Does that mean – no other person – no other task is between my time with GOD?
Lydia: Knowing Him, loving Him, serving Him.
Amanda: St. Frances cited two reasons: prayers, spiritual warfare against the world, the flesh and the devil and the other charitable works.
Sherry: Sister, I also do not think that religious life is an escape – and if people would use it for that, I think the disappointment would be very great.
Visitation Sister: It is a state of life, covers all our movements, don’t know how to put it exactly.
Sherry: I think it clarifies a lot – to bring “state of life” into the picture.
Caroline: It is definitely not an escape, but life with full intensity.
Sherry: Cause, I like to think that I also pray and that I also serve Him, and my goal is to be or become His spouse.
Visitation Sister: It is a mystery like all God has called us to, but we try to understand.
Amanda: Someone once said monasteries are the lungs of the world.
Sherry: I like that, Amanda.
Lydia: Fr. Fiorelli said without monasteries the world could not continue.
Sherry: That’s probably true, Lydia.
Amanda: Same for religious congregations.
Lydia: The prayer holds back the wrath of God against sin.
Sherry: What is the difference between monasteries and religious congregations?
Caroline: Our prayers do matter even if it doesn’t seem like it.
Sherry: Would it be right to say that religious life is to better the world through prayer?
Amanda: Today’s Gospel affirms that all prayers are heard and answered, we need persistence.
Rachel: Our prayers change us, not God. God is ALWAYS LOVE.
Visitation Sister: A religious congregation can be apostolic or contemplative or both, but the monastery is the place where one lives alone with God, even in community, a place of dedication to prayer with a horarium.
Lydia: What is a horarium?
Sherry: I agree, Rachel, and yet – I do think that our prayers can clear the atmosphere in the invisible world – and indirectly change things in the visible world.
Caroline: Alone together in community.
Visitation Sister: Horarium is a schedule of prayer defined by the Church and the Order.
Sherry: Do you mean the Liturgy of the Hours by that, Sister?
Visitation Sister: Yes, Liturgy of Hours and other designated prayer times, reading, recreation, etc.
Patricia: So which question are we doing?
Sherry: First one.
Is Religious Life an Escape?
Question: What is the purpose of religious life? Is it simply a safe haven for people who want to escape the world and have an “easier” way to obtain holiness.
Caroline: Religious life in an order is a unique calling from God.
Sherry: It sure is.
Caroline: You cannot escape the world; you will just bring it in with you.
Sherry: Good point, Caroline. But you can leave the world behind, different than escaping it.
Lydia: I think you can have an interior life apart from the world.
Sherry: Of course, Lydia. That’s the exciting part of life, I find.
Caroline: Yes, Lydia, a hermitage in the heart.
Amanda: Practicing virtues, especially the difficult ones, prayer and charity, is asked inside or outside congregation. As you say, a calling to go above and beyond in community?
Sherry: I love to “retreat” into the hermitage of my heart during the day sometimes. It is the center of my life.
Patricia: To love and serve God single heartedly?
Visitation Sister: Yes, a community often comes with a specific spirituality, a way of living the Gospel and all there try to live the same spirituality.
Visitation Sister: That might not be the case for spiritual friends in a parish. One might be drawn to be a lay Franciscan, another Carmelite, another???
Lydia: I think Salesian spirituality is very sweet and kind.
A Specific Spirituality
Sherry: I talked to two priests recently – and both found it confusing, that I was using the word “spirituality” like Salesian or Carmelite spirituality – they said it is all one. And I said, “well...I guess I disagree.”
Visitation Sister: Yes, that is what we strive for in Salesian spirituality. Diocesan priests, not religious ones, I assume it is a charism one is given by the Spirit, the founders usually.
Sherry: There must be a reason why a heart feels drawn to a specific spirituality sometimes. It is like a “vocation in a vocation,” I find.
Caroline: For Franciscans, it is a balance between contemplation and action.
Lydia: I noticed that back when my class graduated, we were very quiet and timid and not ready for the world. We were treated so gently. The world was waiting to take advantage of us and could do it easily.
Patricia: I find myself moved to tears studying Salesian spirituality.
Sherry: Yes – diocesan priests. And I like them both – and honor them as Spiritual Fathers a lot – but they cannot seem to understand that one would be drawn to a specific Spirituality.
Rachel: I wonder how that works, Sister, since I find that at various times in my life various patterns of spiritual/prayer and study practice take precedence.
Visitation Sister: Probably because of the nuns today, it probably is a bit different to the lay teachers to try to live the spirituality.
Amanda: Different charisms in different orders?
Caroline: Yes, each order has a different charism.
Lydia: Mother, I am sure it is different. Very different.
Visitation Sister: Yes, all live the Gospel but with a different lens or emphasis depending on what God wants to accomplish through the congregation.
Lydia: I wish it was possible to have it be the same. Gentle hearts.
Sherry: That’s exactly how I tried to explain it, Sister. Glad I have you as a backup for quoting now.
Amanda: Like a garden, we need all kinds of variety of plants to make it beautiful.
Visitation Sister: See how seminary training is not complete, they should have learned this somewhere.
Sherry: Good one, Sister.
Sherry: Yes, Amanda, that sounds actually quite Salesian, the way you worded it.
Caroline: Maybe they mean we are all parts of one whole church?
A Mistrust of Our Own Powers
Question: How do we find the balance of having, what St. Francis calls, a “mistrust of your own powers” and confidently participating in God’s grace in order for Him to do good things through us?
Lydia: By faith.
Sherry: I am so in the midst of this very question right now. I would love to hear all your answers.
Lydia: Faith in God and willingness to accept His will.
Amanda: Simplicity and humility.
Caroline: Everything starts with solitude and contemplation where we are nourished for the work.
Sherry: But how do you know if something – for example a ministry – is not founded in your own will but truly in God’s will? It is so easy theoretically, but when something is birthed, it can be quite daunting, I find.
Lydia: I think even if we try to use our own power, if we trust God, he diverts things to His will, and we find it is better in the end.
Sherry: Good reminder, Lydia, that there can be corrections on the way.
Lydia: We just have to keep praying when we make a choice that it is what God wants. Ask God to show us if it is not.
Caroline: It is discernment, Sherry, and a good director can help you sort it out.
Sherry: I simply thought that The Lord had given me the desire for over two years – there must be a time where you stop asking “Is this your will?” and start acting on it. I am privileged to work with a great director. It is the voice in me that distracts me and keeps me back a lot.
Visitation Sister: Step by step it is revealed, so take a step and see what Providence allows.
Rachel: Good advice, Sister.
Lydia: Look at what you think, does it line up with what God says and wants, loving people.
Caroline: Each step is provided in the moment.
Sherry: Thank you, Sister. Good reminder – step by step.
Lydia: I think if you keep praying about everything, God will step in.
Patricia: Calm acceptance of each present moment including possible outcomes.
Visitation Sister: Yes, Patricia I think so.
Rachel: Yes, Patricia.
Amanda: St Frances wrote a book ‘Living in Divine Will’. I learned that one way to know if you are in divine will is to be at peace with a decision or action after seeking God’s will.
God Will Provide the Way of Escape
Question: Reflect on these words from St. Paul: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Amanda: Words of comfort.
Caroline: This is such a comforting passage.
Visitation Sister: Sometimes the temptation is to think over and over about something without deciding.
Caroline: Me too, Sister.
Sherry: I so agree.
Lydia: The way of escape should come from your conscience if it is well formed. Your conscience will tell you no.
Amanda: Fear is the opposite of love.
Sherry: We often call it discernment – but it actually is disobedience to believe GOD what He has shown.
Rachel: Maybe one of the reasons we refer to a spiritual JOURNEY is that it is often while we are in action that God’s Spirit works on us with course correction as necessary.
Visitation Sister: Good point!
Lydia: I think the Blessed Mother also works on us. She sends Grace. Saying the Rosary and wearing the Scapular protects us. Holy water too.
Visitation Sister: A well-formed conscience is a key thought.
Caroline: Because it makes it easier to hear.
Amanda: Sister are you saying a well-formed conscience will help you know the path, to be more decisive?
Sherry: I cannot speak for Sister, but, Amanda, I would think that a well-formed conscience recognizes – when the light of its groom (and source) becomes dimmer, and then it is time to look if we are on the right path.
Visitation Sister: A well-formed conscience thinks with the truth vs what one’s own conscience might just make up.
Amanda: Thank you??
Can Obedience Be Liberating?
Question: Religious life highlights the virtue of obedience and how liberating it can be. How in the world can the devil manipulate this in order to enslave/control people?
Caroline: If the person in charge uses the position for their own agenda, it can be devastating.
Sherry: Yes, Caroline, I agree. Sister, I would be so interested in how you experience obedience liberating. Does something – an example – come to your mind?
Visitation Sister: Not having to decide for oneself in an adult healthy way because you truly believe the Superior speaks for God Himself is very liberating because you know for sure what He wants.
Lydia: But what if the superior does not speak for God at times?
Visitation Sister: That is the danger, but one’s spirit will be discomforted, and as long as the command is not sinful, then it might be a matter of indifference because God straightens things out providentially very often.
Lydia: Yes, Mother, in the end He will.
Caroline: Do many orders have the superior talk with the person in question to get their input before requesting obedience?
Visitation Sister: Caroline, not in the past, but today yes very often.
Rachel: I remember the examples of “holy obedience” that were given one time when I was considering a religious community during college days certainly seemed to me to be sick, abusive. My parents did not want me to be a nun, and one time my father decided, “I’ll get you over this” and took me to a weekend for interested young women. It worked!
Amanda: The superior has to have a very fine-tuned conscience.
Caroline: Then if it is good for the person spiritually, they understand what they have been asked to do.
Lydia: That happened to St. Margaret Mary, her superior was not telling her to do God’s will, but God was OK with it for a time. Edith Stein was not allowed to do her writing for a long time until her superior let her.
Amanda: God loves obedience, true humility.
Sherry: I know a nun who is mightily suffering under her superior. She never ever speaks ill of her, but she is basically shunned from all meaningful work and is just allowed to clean, and she is a full-trained teacher, and the charism of the order is teaching. I admire the attitude of this nun. She does not complain, but you can tell how hard it is for her to be set aside like this.
Visitation Sister: Both sides are often tested. Especially when there are “special” people, mystics in the community and the Superior has an ordinary spirituality that takes a lot of trust and love to walk with each other.
Amanda: Takes a lot of love.
Sherry: I can imagine that it is very hard to be a superior. Like all forms of leadership always is.
Lydia: St. John of the Cross was thrown in prison for trying to reform the order.
Caroline: I was asked to stop writing to focus on formation.
Sherry: What kind of writing did you stop, Caroline?
Caroline: I have done devotional blog posts and am in a book of essays. I even got quoted in someone’s PhD at Emory.
Sherry: Did you get back to writing by now?
Caroline: St Faustina’s story comes to mind.
Visitation Sister: At some point you probably will be asked to resume.
Caroline: I am almost finished with formation work.
Sherry: Yes, I can see that this is difficult. But wasn’t this the case with St. Mary too?
Visitation Sister: St Margaret Mary, yes.
Sherry: Oh sorry. St. Margaret…yes.
Visitation Sister: So, obedience can also be twisted by the influence of the evil one, as has happened at times.
Denise: Sr Could you give an example? How this could influence…so obedience can also be twisted by the influence of the evil one, as has happened at times.
Visitation Sister: The horrible abuse situations we have heard about with leaders, spiritual directors, etc.
Denise: Oh yes. OK, thank you.
Visitation Sister: Cannot name a specific case at the moment, but there are charismatic religious leaders who have abused membership.
Enough Oil for Our Lamps
Question: How can we ensure we have enough “oil for our lamps”?
Lydia: “In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph!”.
Amanda: Oil for lamps - make my heart like unto thine, Sacred Heart.
Caroline: We must make time every day for prayer and contemplation.
Lydia: Do not waste our time on worldly pursuits, spend it on what God wants for us.
Amanda: Practice Kindness, gentleness meekness, humility.
Visitation Sister: Definitely prayer is my oil and being with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
Caroline: I like to use the online Adorations.
Visitation Sister: Reading the saints too is a form of oil for me. Right now, St Birgitta of Sweden and St Elizabeth Hasselblad are calling to me through books.
Rachel: Sister, I know this to be so important! When I cannot actually get to where the Blessed Sacrament is, I try to “orient” myself, facing the nearest church in a place where there are a minimum of distractions.
Caroline: I also have trouble finding an open church when I have a break, so virtual still allows me the luxury of live Adoration.
Visitation Sister: Jesus sends His grace through all these means.
Amanda: Oil for my lamp are acts of charity along with Holy Mass and prayer of the heart.
Visitation Sister: Powerful, Amanda.
Rachel: Regarding worldly pursuits, I find that often while I am washing clothing by hand or dishes, it is a good quiet time to chat with my Lord and sometimes his Mother.
Caroline: Busy hands and simple tasks free the mind.
Visitation Sister: Being with Jesus in all you do!
Lydia: Matt 11:28-30, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Visitation Sister: Wonderful quote to end with, Lydia!
Visitation Sister: May each of you be blessed this week!
Denise: Thank you, all!
Caroline: Thanks for staying with us, Sister.
Rachel: Thank you, Sister. And you, too.
Amanda: Thank you, all, and God bless??
Denise: God bless each of you.
Caroline: God bless you all!
Denise: A beautiful gift is this chat. Thank you, Sister.
Rachel: Thank you all of you. It is good to be with others seeking holiness. God bless you!
If you liked the chat above, check out the Living Jesus Chat Room of the Visitation Sisters. Join us at 7:30 p.m. ET each Sunday! We read a passage of St. Francis de Sales and then gather great insights and sharing!