A Life Held in Readiness for God
On the Meaning of the Consecrated Life Today
1. “He called to himself those whom he wanted”
The starting point decides everything in advance. If we begin—as usually happens in the postconciliar period—with the Church as a fully established and organized people of God, articulated in its various functions, then we have already decided to a great extent the answer to the question of the function that the life according to the counsels has within the ecclesial fellowship. To be sure, this presupposition allows many possibilities for determining its function: for example, one can speak of making places of silence available, of specialists in spiritual counseling, of models of liturgical life for the parishes; at best, one can even speak of prayer on behalf of the brothers who are actively involved in the world and who have ever less time, and perhaps ever less inclination, to carry it out themselves—although mentioning this function of prayer in isolation from action in the world will run up against skepticism and resistance. Is prayer, especially “contemplative” prayer in its pure form, which would form the basic content of a life, a function within the Church, or is it not rather something alien from without (Neoplatonism, Stoicism, Asian religion), which invaded the Church at a later date and which has fallen behind the times, given recent reflection on the mutual compenetration of theory and praxis, indeed on the priority that praxis must have over theory for a Christian? Is it genuinely meaningful to seek God “in himself” as one who exists eternally and to make him the object of our lifelong contemplation and adoration, when God after all has emerged from within himself and wants to be “God with us”: within history, sharing in suffering, sharing in the transformation of the world in view of a future that has not yet come? This question bores into the innermost core of the contemplative orders, creating an uncertainty, a disquiet that ultimately leads to a flight from the monastery into the Church’s service of the world. Pure contemplation—if we wish to use this unbiblical word—threatens to forfeit its own self-understanding; all that remains for the life of the counsels are the functions mentioned above, in which they can continue to carry out a service that is useful to the ecclesial organism.
This is how things look the moment we take as our starting point the proposition that this social organism, this “people of God”, is an adequate characterization of the Church. But the perspective shifts as soon as we recall that the term “people of God” is derived primarily from the Old Testament, so that it does not at all express the decisively New Testament character of the Church, which rather can be seen properly in the two terms “Body of Christ” and “Bride of Christ”, both of which are closely linked to the mystery of the Eucharist; the Church becomes a body through sharing in the real, sacrificed flesh of Christ and in his blood that was shed—and this is not primarily an organizational, sociological “body”, but a real “body” that is brought into existence through the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16 ff.). A little further reflection shows that it is only on the basis of the Eucharist that it is possible to conceive of the mystery whereby Christ the Bridegroom is “one flesh” with his Bride the Church (Eph 5:21 ff.). Otherwise it would remain merely an edifying image, whereas for Paul it is the conjugal union that is the image, referring to the accomplished reality of the unification between Christ and the Church. One need not categorize the reality of the Church that lies in the terms “Body” and “Bride” as the “ontological” presupposition of the sociological level (Church as people of God); the word “ontological” is inappropriate here, because both descriptions possess an event-like character, just as both have to do with relationship; nevertheless, both descriptions, “Body” and “Bride”, make it clear that in relation to Christ, the Church possesses no autonomy of such a nature that she could achieve in herself or—still less—on her own terms a self-understanding that would permit her to define and organize herself. To be sure, one cannot reduce the Church to the pure event of her springing forth continuously at every moment from Christ, thereby neglecting her relative position over against Christ (as a body stands over against the head, and the woman is over against the man in their being “one flesh”); but since this juxtaposition is never more than something relative, one may never detach it from the event of springing forth. It is not the case that Christ first forms a partner for himself, in order subsequently to communicate himself to her: rather, in his act of communicating himself, he creates his partner for himself, an extension of himself, “the fulness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23).
Precisely at this point and in this context, we must recall that the Church does not emerge en bloc from her origin; rather, she is built upon apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20; 3:5). She does not in the least distribute these out of her own self: rather, they are the “foundation” upon which all distributions are able to follow. And just as the Church’s ontic existence in herself is never able to catch up with the continually occurring event of her springing forth from Christ, so, too, the fact that she is constructed upon the “pillars” (Gal 2:9) that support her is never superseded but rather repeats itself explicitly again and again (cf. Rev 3:12); the calling of the Twelve, which derives totally from Jesus’ own initiative (Mk 3:13), is only a foundational beginning; the concept of apostle is already broader than that of the “Twelve”, for the case of Paul shows that there are new callings, new designations through the Holy Spirit (2 Tim 1:6 ff.); these also include the prophets who are mentioned alongside the apostles in Ephesians 2:20 and the evangelists, pastors, and teachers mentioned alongside the apostles and prophets at Ephesians 4:11—all of these are designated for the formation of the members of the community and for services within it. We see clearly here that the exalted Christ has not at all abandoned his activity of calling people to the Church and for the Church. Just as it will never be possible for the Church herself to get a precise grasp of the relationship between the Church and Christ (to what extent is the Church Christ himself; to what extent does she derive her existence from him; to what extent does she stand over against him?), so it will never be possible to calculate exactly the relationship between those “called” and the rest of the Church: To what extent are they a part of the Church; to what extent are they, in their relative juxtaposition to it, the presupposition for the community’s existence? At any rate, one may not think of the first reality without at the same time thinking of the second. Just as one may not consider ecclesiastical office in the postapostolic age as something bestowed by the Church, which “possesses” apostolic authority, so one may not reduce the ever-present event of the calling by Christ for the Church to a process that takes place completely within the Church, something that would He completely under the control of the plans of the Church as “people of God”. Just as office is established in her as an abiding and often uncomfortable sign of the fact that she does not belong to herself but to her Lord, so spontaneous, free vocations that cannot be manipulated are “instituted” within her by the Lord, which help her anew to achieve her own authentic “self-understanding”, that is, to realize her dependence on the Lord and her task of leading her brothers in and outside the Church to him.
Despite this relative opposition, one must not make a sharp distinction between the immediate calling by the Lord for the Church and the articulation of charisms within the Church (which are likewise for the Church); there is a fluid boundary between these two events. But one must not overlook the point here that the charisms themselves are never “allotted” by the Church; rather, they are “assigned by God” to each individual (Rom 12:3) and realized by the Holy Spirit in keeping with his own free judgment (1 Cor 12:11), so that all the members of the Church share to some extent in the fundamental character of the “apostles and prophets”, who are called specifically and in a qualitative way. Nevertheless, despite this inherent analogy, one cannot construct any egalitarian identity in the Church’s structure. This is shown and guaranteed by the total expropriation of the “Twelve” and then of Paul and those who have to enter his expropriated form of existence through the “holy calling” (2 Tim 1:8; cf. Rom 1:1; Gal 1:15). While we cannot equate “office” and “the call by which election is made”, both are spontaneous founding actions by Christ and, therefore, display a relatedness, indeed a mutual complementarity, since they both ensure that the “democratic” element in the Church remains bound to an antecedent fundamental personal element that makes it possible—and this is a principle that holds good right into the structure of the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21:10 ff.).
2. The Christological Foundation
What has been said hitherto remains very formal, but it had to be said at the outset, in order to preserve for the life of the counsels a theological locus that would prevent it from being absorbed into a closed sociology of the Church. If the Church exists at each instant as something deriving from Christ, a reality that he entrusts to her, then nothing prevents this very formal element, which constitutes the Church, from being explicitly held up before her eyes again and again through the “office” and through the particular “calling”. Being compelled to look upon herself in this particular mirror, she sees at each moment her own being and event as a whole. But how (we are speaking now thematically of “calling”, no longer of the “office”) is such an existence theologically possible at all? No doubt, it is possible by virtue of being ordered to Christ and being drawn into the act whereby his gift of self establishes the Church. But what act is this, and how is it possible to participate in it in a qualitatively special way?
The existential act of the Son is his permitting himself to be sent from the Father into human life and to be made incarnate by the Spirit in Mary’s womb and then to behave in all the situations of his human life as the one sent by the Father, the one made available to the Spirit and led by him in his mission. The fundamental act of his existence is that he does, not his own will, but the will of his Father, and all his individual tasks are specifications of this fundamental act, all of what he does and what he refrains from doing, all his dealings with those around him, but also his suffering and dying. One can call this fundamental act, which is antecedent to all the individual actions and passions, his abandoning of himself to the Father’s will, as this is made concrete and communicated to him in the Holy Spirit. Only this fundamental act supplies the key to the christological paradox that Jesus can appear with the highest claims and, at the same time, the greatest humility: where he apparently exalts himself in an inexplicable manner (“Who do you claim to be?”, Jn 8:53), he is utter transparency (“My teaching is not mine”, Jn 7:16); where the whole of his existence is taken up in an effort to allow God’s Word in itself to become “flesh”, it never points to its own self; rather it is “true” because it does not “seek its own glory” (Jn 7:18). Let us here note in parenthesis that the intermediate verse 7:17, opens the possibility for others to enter into this form of existence and thus to test its truth from the inside; but first of all, we must draw another consequence, namely, that the Son’s possibility of carrying out every human existential act as a function of his (active!) availability to the Father allows him to transcend the boundaries that are otherwise imposed on man: at the point where man himself fashions his decisions and works out of his own spontaneity, this spontaneity in Jesus (which is certainly present) is embraced and determined by his deeper gift of himself to the Father. And at the point where man’s spontaneous working comes to its end, so that he must allow that which he does not want to befall him—opposition, suffering, dying, the experience that all he has done has been in vain, and so forth—this experience of boundaries, since it is accepted in the undiminished willingness to do the Father’s will, is endowed with an equal, indeed, with an intensified “fruitfulness”. The biblical word “fruitfulness” can be employed here, because it points beyond those expressions that have their validity in the active sphere where the world takes form: “intention”, “goal”, “achievement”, “harvest”, “success”. What these words express can be measured—how many sick people have been healed, how much bread has been gathered together for the brethren, how many lonely old people have been cared for, and so forth—and this is precisely why it is finite, something that can be assessed and defined. But it is impossible in principle to assess and define and measure an unlimited availability, like that of the Son to the will of the Father, and for this reason there is no limit to the use the Father can make of it. This availability is the most precious material that can be offered to him—since it is not a resignation, but a love that is active and burning—and he can fashion whatever he wishes out of this material. Indeed, one must say that without this material, he could not form everything he wishes: for example, he would not be able “to reconcile the world to himself” by “making sin for our sake” the total loving willingness of the Son “who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:19 ff.), for this mysterious transfer on the Father’s part needs precisely this boundless availability, that allows itself to be shaped into whatever the Father wishes. Otherwise, human plans and activities would always produce only finite human results (albeit good results pleasing to God), but never the kingdom of God. Finite human plans can make a contribution to the coming of this kingdom on the condition that they derive, not from the principle of one’s own finite planning, but from the principle of perfect availability to the Father, in the Holy Spirit. Everything in Christ’s existence is fruitful because, beyond all his own plans, he allows himself to be “planned” by the Father; he would never have been able to use himself so thoroughly as he is used and abused for the salvation of the world. For he would not have been permitted to take his own life (as the Jews suppose, Jn 8:22) for the sake of his brothers; such an act would have been of no use to anyone. Nor would he have been permitted to enter by himself into the experience of abandonment by the Father, for that would have meant setting limits to his love for the Father, or else discovering hidden limits that were already present, and once again, that would not have helped anyone. The decisive “actions” involved in the charge he has received can only be imposed on him by the Father, and naturally these could not have been imposed on anyone other than the one who makes known an infinite loving availability to the Father that allows the Father to do more with him than the Son himself would be able to do in his own power; this is the one a priori condition for the possibility of all the initiatives the Father takes for the reconciliation of the world. Thus, to take only one example, the lavish squandering of Jesus’ existence to the whole world as Eucharist—flesh that is slaughtered, blood that is shed—is possible only because it is the Father’s action that hands over the Son as the “bread of life”, because the Son came from heaven, not to do his own will, “but the will of him who sent me” (Jn 6:35 ff.). The Son’s loving willingness to let himself be abandoned is no less infinite than the Father’s loving willingness to save the world through the abandonment of the Son, and it is through the equally great readiness in the opposition of the one who sends and the one who is sent (within the unity of the Spirit, who carries it out) that God’s plan can succeed. This one gesture of the triune God is his total, unsurpassable turning to the world; no individual Christian action directed to the world of his fellowmen deserves the term “Christian”, and none is fruitful in keeping with the mind of Christ unless it is “built upon the foundation of Christ” (1 Cor 3:11).
3. The Life of the Counsels
But how is it possible for a finite man, who of himself is unable to posit any infinite acts tending toward God, to enter into the “form of Christ” in order to share in the fruitfulness of his work? The answer to this question has various levels: fundamentally, through faith, which renounces its own measure for truth and the judgment of truth and allows that to be true which is true for God; through baptism, in which he makes the gift of his own existence into the event of the death and Resurrection of Jesus and becomes a function of this event through God’s act (Rom 6:3 ff.); through sharing in the Eucharist, whereby he hands himself over in body and soul to the Lord, as a “member” of his Body, which is fruitful in its being distributed (1 Cor 6:13-20; 10:16 ff.; 11:26; 12:12 ff.). But, contrasting to some extent to this general answer, there is a second answer, which consists in the “life of the counsels”, through which the act of self-expropriation in faith and of handing oneself over to God contains a completeness that cannot be surpassed by man himself. The first essential condition for this is that one can or may posit this act, not at his own disposal, but only on the basis of a particular condition of being disposed of being called, and receiving grace; otherwise this act would contradict itself as soon as it was posited. For it is not seriously possible to have control over the state in which one is totally subject to control by God; all one can do—though consciously, in love, giving one’s consent—is to allow oneself to be brought into this state. This insight forms the basis of the entire design of the Ignatian Exercises. It is demonstrated through Mary’s existence, with which the life of the New Covenant begins. Mary is made the mother of the Son in his Incarnation, and the grace bestowed on her makes her capable of uttering a boundless fiat to God, which is her fully activated faith (Lk 1:45; 11:2,8). This faith is offered, however, not in passive resignation, but with the active willingness of the “handmaid” for the action of the Holy Spirit, for something that she would never have been able to achieve by herself.
The Marian availability is so indivisible and comprehensive that it is pointless and impossible to distinguish within it the elements of virginity, of poverty, and of obedience. These are integrated in the fundamental act to the point of mutual compenetration, and they could be seen as individual elements only if one element were to be detached from the others and made the object of a reservation. Mary might, for example, have said: “God can have everything but my body”, on the grounds that she was already promised to the man named Joseph; but she makes no such reservation. Just as it is unthinkable that the living corporeal-spiritual existence of Jesus could have been made available as bread for the world under the Father’s hands if this existence had been bound elsewhere and made available in an earthly marriage bond, so it is at least in the highest degree “appropriate” that God should make use of a total human fruitfulness, unlimited by any tie, in order to let his Son become man: he makes use of the fruitfulness of a faith that places itself totally, body and soul, at the disposal of God’s call and his word.
It is quite obvious that the way in which Mary holds herself in readiness for God does not imply that “contemplation” predominates over “action” (if one has any wish to introduce here this pair of Greek categories that has no basis in the Bible) or that “turning to God” predominates over “turning to the world”. She knows well enough, on the basis of her Old Testament religion, that the God of Israel is a “God with us” and “for us” and that he lays claim to a human being as his instrument only because he wants to carry out, through him, a saving deed for mankind. Knowing this, and trusting completely in God’s plan of salvation, Mary unreservedly places herself in God’s hands in order to put no hindrance in the way of his holiness (“in order to be holy both in body and in spirit”, 1 Cor 7:34) and thus to permit God’s work in the world to take place through her. In the Magnificat, she sees herself as given a clear place in this work: “For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation” (Lk 1:49-50). Thus the pair of categories mentioned above is utterly inappropriate to the act that lays the foundations of the life of the counsels. The concentration of a believing existence on the core of an existentially realized absolute availability to God is not contemplative, since nothing is “looked at” or “reflected upon”: all that happens is that one makes what is one’s own completely available. Nor is it active, in the human sense of this word, for nothing is undertaken in one’s own power: all that happens is that one announces a fundamentally unlimited readiness. By the same token, this concentration cannot be called something “turned away from the world”, for here a man offers himself for every work of the God who plans salvation: “Here am I! Send me” (Is 6:8); “Behold, I come to do your will, O God” (Ps 40:8 = Heb 10:7). Nor is this act simply “turned toward the world”, for it is only through the will of the God who disposes over man that one turns to the world. What a mass of empty straw is threshed with these categories without finding any genuine wheat!
In comparison with what we have said here, the entire problematic concerning the life of the counsels that is discussed endlessly today is almost always secondary. If this were acknowledged and the validity of the primary principle admitted, then all the proposals for reform would be useful and salutary; but if one failed to understand the secondary importance of reforms, destructive forces would push their way into the Church’s precious core, so that her innermost fruitfulness in God’s work of grace would be struck. Instead of something that goes beyond what human power can achieve (what woman could give birth to a Son of God by her own power?), we would be left with a merely human, finite, problematical, and fragile power. Instead of a disposition to give oneself to God and allow oneself to be used by him for the world, we would find a turning to the world according to one’s own criteria and discretion. Such an approach would of course believe it corresponded to God’s intentions with the world, but it would not originate from the divine endeavor but rather from a place one had chosen oneself, that is, from one’s own self. The true, illimitably fruitful strength of the Church would be abandoned and exchanged for short-winded individual actions, which often enough remain without success, thanks to the meager influence of politically and economically active Christians—and how many of these have professional qualifications in addition? For every Christian, whether he is a layman or a priest or lives in the life of the counsels, solidarity with the world is a natural task. Even the “purely contemplative Order” is no exception to this: rather, through the absence of special apostolic works, it allows the fundamental Marian structure of Christian readiness (which we set out above) to emerge into view in its purity. It may be true that earlier centuries did not think in a sufficiently biblical manner here and remained stuck within a philosophical-religious antithesis between God (as absolute) and the world (as relative); but we can supply the missing element today in such a way that the first starting point is not simply superseded. Even in Christian terms, “the gift of self to the absolute”, “the absolute gift of self” (that is, the abandoning of a will of one’s own that would lay down conditions for God), remains the presupposition for fruitfulness in the world, not out of man’s capacities, but by the grace of the absolute God, who in his ultimate commitment to the world makes use of those who hold themselves in readiness for him. The reformed Carmel has understood perfectly well that such an offer to the living God means, on the one hand, following Christ in his Cross and abandonment and guarantees, on the other hand, in the most profound sense a fruitfulness in Church and world, although naturally the one who hands himself over will not be allowed to see on earth the fruits of his self-gift.
4. Distinguishing the Forms of Life
In relation to what has been said here, all questions about distinguishing between different forms of life in the counsels and about the concrete manner in which the counsels find expression in the conduct of life are completely secondary, no matter how difficult and complex they may be. The primary point is a gift of one’s life as a totality, naturally after mature consideration and testing; but “temporary vows” contain a reservation that contradicts the fundamental act described above and that is therefore inadmissible. One who says that he cannot guarantee today what his decision will be in later years is confusing the abandonment of himself to God with an active, limited decision that the subject has to carry through out of his own strength; the same reasoning would compel us to speak of a “temporary baptism”, a “temporary faith”, and man would give a totally incommensurate response, indeed no response at all, to God’s eschatological decision in favor of him. All the psychological objections must retreat here behind the clear theological demand. The vocational narratives of the Gospels speak an unmistakable language.
We have seen that the fundamental act that constitutes the life of the counsels is christologically determined; precisely for this reason, this act as such is higher than, and embraces, the tensions between turning to God and turning to the world, between contemplation and action, between acting and suffering. It is true that the Son’s act is turned to God the Father in its fundamental dimension, but the Son knows that this is a Father who is resolved upon the reconciliation of the world and consequently upon the sending of the Son. But it is not yet established, when the Son looks up expectantly to the Father, how he will send the Son or how he will determine the individual phases of his life when the Son is sent; this will be revealed only when the Father makes his will known. This will be disclosed in such a way that some main articulations are clear to the Son once and for all, while the concrete directions to be executed are given only in each particular “hour” and situation. On the one hand, the fundamental readiness of the Son to do the Father’s will must become incarnate anew in each limited empirical situation, in order to prove that it is an unlimited transcendental readiness; on the other hand, the individual act of execution may not for one moment be detached from this unlimited readiness and lay claim to a complete meaning in itself, since it has meaning only as evidence of the perpetual living presence of the continuous unlimited readiness.
If we wish to translate this into the Christian life of the counsels, then we see what norm must be heeded in the concrete shaping of the individual counsels. This norm will always be the same in all the different forms of the life of the counsels—from the cloistered contemplative monastery via the active orders and congregations to the secular institutes—namely, readiness for total and unconditional availability.
In the case of virginity, there can be no question about the unity of the norm in all concrete instances, especially when we look to the undivided bodily readiness of Christ to distribute himself in the Eucharist and to the equally undivided bodily readiness of Mary to become the fruitful womb for the Holy Spirit’s work. In matters of poverty, the correct ordering—which can be regulated in quite varied ways in the different groups—must always be found in reflection on the christological norm: being content with what one is given, something that does not belong to oneself and must be used in keeping with the will of God. This means that one will always aim at a credible testimony to the fact that God himself became poor in order to make us rich (2 Cor 8:9): the Father became poor because he deprived himself of his only wealth, the Son, in order to bestow him on us; the Son became poor, because he has nowhere to lay his head other than the will of the Father, which expropriates him; the Spirit is poor, because he is the Spirit of the expropriated love of Father and Son, and his work consists in leading men’s hearts from within (Rom 8:15 f., 26) into the work of God’s self-expropriation (Jn 16:13 f.). This is why the truth of Christian poverty depends on the truth of the readiness to (ever new) expropriation, which is primarily a letting oneself be expropriated, and on the truth (which is recognizable and credible to the world) of the lived testimony to this interior attitude.
The reference back to the norm becomes hardest in the case of obedience. The Son looks continuously, ever anew to the Father in order to see the light of his will; many individual rays seem to unite in order to form the simple light: a total knowledge by the Son of the Father’s basic attitude, an experience of life that both lies behind him and leads him onward, the directives of the Father’s law, the prayers of the pious, the predictions of the prophets, but also the situation in which he finds himself and the men led to him by the Father (Jn 6:44), from whose pressure he must nevertheless often extricate himself, since the comprehensive plan takes priority over demands made by the immediate situation, even when this situation would apparently promise individual successes. It is the Holy Spirit who binds these multiple rays into a unity, who “remains [hovering] above him” (see Jn 1:32), continuing his role in the dispensation of salvation, the role he adopted at the Incarnation: since the Spirit “actively” carried out the Father’s initiative through his overshadowing of Mary, while the Son “passively” allowed himself to be made incarnate (incarnatus est, not: incarnavit se). “The Spirit of the Lord rests on the one promised” (Is 11:2): in the Old Covenant he is always a Spirit who comes from above, guiding and inspiring, in sharp contradistinction to the false prophets’ “own spirit” (Ezek 13:3). One of the ways in which it becomes clear that Jesus “follows” this Spirit and is “driven” by him (Lk 4:1, and so forth) is that, although the Spirit is granted to him in fullness (Jn 3:34); nevertheless, he does not have the Spirit at his disposal until he has accomplished his obedient work (Jn 7:39); only then, after he has been raised up, is he explicitly given the authority to have the Spirit at his disposal (Acts 2:33; cf. Rom 1:4).
The believer’s readiness in the life of the counsels to join the Sonin a total dependence on the will of the Father will consequently become concrete likewise as obedience to the Spirit who leads and drives him; it is the Spirit who mediates in the incarnate Son the immediacy to the Father at each individual moment and at the same time gathers together the scattered elements that go to make up the forming of decisions. But the driving Holy Spirit, whose “law” (Rom 8:2) the individual believer is to accomplish in obedience, is never bestowed on him otherwise than in the comprehensive bosom of the Church; only “together with all the saints” (Eph 3:18); it is not as an isolated individual that he is assured of that immediacy to the Father’s will mediated by the Spirit, and this aspect of the Church that embraces him on all sides is made concrete for him in the rule, which is both spiritual and ecclesial (“approved”), and in the superior of the community, who embodies his incorporation into the Church’s fellowship. This mode of participation in the immediacy of the Holy Spirit is the indispensable guarantee that the individual, who always remains a sinner (that is, inclined to put his own will in the place of God’s will), does not confuse his own spirit with God’s Spirit or simply equate his own spirit with the true spirit of the Church (“having this at his disposal”), perhaps fancying that he knows this spirit better than the Church’s official representatives. Even occasionally necessary “protests” against certain forms and utterances of the Church can never take place prescinding from the common spirit of the Church, but only in an always ultimately obedient (if also full of tension) accord with the spirit of the Church, which is always also a hierarchically ordered Church. All this had to be said, or at least hinted at briefly, if we are to begin to see the rich variety of the forms of obedience in the life of the counsels.
At one end—that of the relatively “pure contemplation”—there is the total renunciation of any shaping of one’s own life, in order to submit completely to the direction of a guide endowed with the Spirit, a “spiritual father” (abba); here, the abiding transcendent readiness for God is continually made visible in a straightforward way. Where the tasks that the Christian must accomplish in the world are more concrete, the integration becomes more complex: between the demands of the undertaken work, the will of the superior (who allows the comprehensive spirit of the community and of its rule, and ultimately of the Church, to become concrete) and the will of God in the Holy Spirit, which brings everything to unity. No matter how the elements are integrated, the following points will hold true in every case:
1. In the life of the counsels, the choice of a secular profession and the decision of whether to remain in or change it can only be a function and expression of the original (christological) readiness for whatever is God’s will. This means that those decisions cannot take place through one’s own initiative or independently of the ecclesial authority, which of course must pay heed here to the possible immediate directive of the Spirit to the individual (in his distribution of the charisms as he wills: 1 Cor 12:11). In the superior’s and subordinate’s common obedience to the Spirit, God’s will can be discerned in such a way that the member does not lose his character as a member of the comprehensive totality and of its representation.
2. This will become clear for everyone (including those in the secular institutes) on condition that the urgency of the individual tasks in the world does not eclipse the fundamental christological form of obedience: the individual task receives its particular Christian fruitfulness—precisely in the life of the counsels—by remaining, both as a whole and in the individual instance (at every moment), an expression of absolute availability. No task ever becomes the Christian’s private possession. At any point in time, he could be called away in death; likewise, at any point he could be redirected by God, This does not mean that the will of an individual superior is directly identical with God’s will, but it does at any rate mean that, when a new assessment is made, the interest and the good of the Church, as well as that of the community, including the superior’s insight into what is spiritually good for the member, can take on decisive weight. If the original total availability is an act of believing love, and if the ecclesial integration takes place within the same selfless Christian love, then we have a guarantee that the following of Christ in his obedience to the Father through the Holy Spirit can succeed without disturbance and distortion.
3. The integration of obedience, as it is lived out concretely, into the all-embracing obedience of availability can take place variously at different levels, but this does not permit us to arrange the various forms within a hierarchy. Obedience in Carmel or in the Society of Jesus is not objectively “more perfect” than that in a secular institute, if the latter is understood in theologically correct terms and not watered down. It does not matter whether the rules provide that the individual details of daily work be laid down by the superior, or whether the superior possesses full authority to transfer a member without any great discussion from one position of responsibility to another, or whether a responsibility accepted in obedience has so much weight of its own that the superior (at least as an individual person), in assigning it, binds himself more profoundly as well and is therefore compelled to test his own concrete obedience to the Holy Spirit at a deeper level and to take this into consideration—the entire act of mediation always remains an actualization of the working of the Holy Spirit as the “rule” that the decreeing Father lays down for the Son who complies and for all those who wish to take on the forma Christi as the sole form of their life in the life of the counsels.
Since what is always involved here is the rule of the Spirit who was breathed out upon the Church at Easter and Pentecost, we stand a great distance from the Old Testament law. Rather, in the counsels of Christ we are not servants but sons; indeed, it is precisely by entering into his sovereignly free readiness for the Father that we are genuinely freed for the freedom of Christ and to become children of God. In the midst of our turning to the world, when we take on burdensome responsibility in the world, we are ultimately free in a free availability to God; we are not in thrall or subject to any worldly powers. Precisely in this way, we are able to commit ourselves to our task in a responsibility that is doubly fruitful: at the visible level, by attempting to carry out our task in Christian love for God and our neighbor, but more profoundly by making ourselves available—habitually and at every moment—to God in our task, in an ultimate act of surrender, together with Christ: how, when, where, and for as long as God wills.
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Publisher:Saint John Publications
Translators:Brian McNeil, David Schindler
The Laity and the Life of the Counsels. The Church’s Mission in the World. A Communio Book. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003 (Reprinted with the kind permission of Ignatius Press)
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