Today, November 21, is the feast of the Presentation of Mary. It is also “Pro Orantibus” Day – a day set aside, since the time of Pope Pius XII, to honor, support and pray for those whose vocation is to pray for the Church and the world. The focus on this day is mainly on cloistered orders of religious women and contemplative orders of religious men. It also includes hermits, who are called to separate themselves from the world in order to live lives of prayer and penance for the sake of all.
In recent decades, we have seen a renewed interest in contemplative prayer, solitude and silence. Monasteries attract a steady stream of visitors – those on retreat as well as the curious. There has been a greater interest in the hermit life in the Church in the last sixty years or so. The movie Into Great Silence, featuring the Carthusian monks of La Grande Chartreuse, attracted more critical and popular attention than anyone would have thought.
On the other hand, people in the West – and especially in this nation – prize action. We both complain about and pride ourselves in how busy we are. We measure ourselves, and others, by what they do and what their doing achieves. We feel sorry for those who cannot “do” (those we call dis-abled), but feel little pity for those who will not “do” (those we call lazy).
People in our culture, when faced with the presence of monks, nuns and hermits, feel torn about it. On the one hand, they find this countercultural life oddly compelling. These religious seem to be pointing to a reality that other people have lost, but would like to recover. On the other, secular people may wonder why these religious don’t “do” more than they appear to be doing. Given all the genuine needs that are out there, how can anyone justify a life in a cloister or hermitage? Aren’t such religious simply lazy?
There are many ways to understand this. Let us begin with the human body. Our bodies are composed of millions of cells. Each cell carries on – in some form or another – some functions that the whole body does – such as taking in oxygen and nourishment, and expelling carbon dioxide and waste products. At the same time, each cell is part of a tissue or organ, in which the cells cooperate and specialize in a specific function for the sake of the whole body – lungs for breathing, a heart for the flowing of blood, and so forth. The health and life of the body depend on each cell and each organ performing its role for the body as a whole.
The Church is the Body of Christ, as St. Paul reminds us. It has many parts, but is one Body. A diocese, as a local Church, is the local representation of the Body of Christ. As such, it needs its members to fulfill all the roles needed for the spiritual health of the entire Body.
Each one of us is a “cell” in that Body of Christ. Now every one of us has an active and a contemplative side. The active side is simple enough – it’s what we do, the commitments we honor, the ways we show our love and care to family, friend, and community. It’s the work that not only pays our bills but also helps our communities to function. It’s where faith works itself out in loving service. But, each of us has a contemplative side. We are all temples of the Holy Spirit. We each have a “cloister”, or holy of holies, within us. It’s the point where God meets our heart and soul. The place where we are still and know that God is God. It’s the center which keeps all that we do focused on God’s will and the love we have learned in Christ. Without returning to this “cloister” every day, our activity can easily become scattered and unfocused. We become more vulnerable to distractions and temptations. We need both an active and a contemplative side to be spiritually healthy.
In the same way, a diocese, as the local representation of the Body of Christ, has an active and a contemplative side. We need people in the diocese who do the works of mercy, who put themselves on the line for justice, for human life in all its stages, for the poor, for those who have yet to hear the Good News, and many others. We need people who care for creation and encourage others to do so. We need people who work with our young. We need diocesan priests, sisters and others who devote themselves to active ministries in many ways. And so on.
However, we also need contemplatives. They become signposts for us all. They point to the Lord who is the source of all we do and all we are. They remind us that we cannot live on bread or action alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. They remind us of what really matters in any and every Christian life. God is at the center, or we will be lost.
Just as a healthy body needs all its organs to function well, so a healthy diocese needs both active and contemplative people for it to function well spiritually. A diocese that welcomes and support its contemplative orders and hermits will also be a diocese that engages in more fruitful ministries of all kinds. The prayers of contemplatives will give encouragement to those who toil in the vineyard of the Lord, whether the toilers know it or not. In the same way, the devotion of those who toil in the vineyard encourages those who live contemplative lives. We need one another. We need one another’s gifts. Neither life is “better” than the other. We as a diocese are better when we have both, love both, and encourage both – in our personal lives and in the life of the diocese.
So, say a prayer today in thanksgiving for those who pray for you, and all of us. If you are one of the contemplatives, keep on praying for those who are in the vineyard working. Each side feeds the other, and both sides feed the Church.