To live the life of the apostles
Who wishes to tread the canonical path must first and foremost want fully to accept the Gospel. This acceptance, this “reversal” in the manner of living and thinking, manifests itself by passing from the kind of life lived according to the needs of the world, to the kind of life which takes into account the aims which God sets for the world. Those who embark on the apostolic life must give up personal possessions and seek the brotherly life, but, unlike monks, they do not withdraw from the world. They feel that they have been sent there and their only wish is that of living as they preach to others and they try to find the means of doing so.
The form of our life takes strong inspiration from that led by the early Church, united around the Apostles and which the Lord himself ushered in with the fellowship of the Apostles and other disciples.
“They persevered in following the teachings of the Apostles, the brotherly communion, the breaking of the bread and prayer. Fear seized each of them and the Apostles wrought many prodigies and miracles. All those who believed were together and had everything in common. They sold their properties and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves, each receiving according to his needs. Each of them was assiduous in his attendance at the Temple, they broke bread in houses and took their food with joy and in simplicity of heart, praising God and finding grace in the eyes of the whole people. And the Lord added to the Church those who had been saved every day” (Acts, 2,42-47).
Augustine gave the following testimony:
“My thought was to live in a monastery with the brethren. Having learned of my plan and my wish, the venerable bishop Valerius of blessed memory, gave me a garden in which the monastery now stands. I accordingly began gathering those “brethren who had taken vows”, men similar to myself, who, like myself, had nothing and who had adopted a line of conduct similar to mine. As for myself, I had sold my poor piece of land and gave the proceeds to the poor. Those who wished to live in my company had to do likewise, this being a condition of communal life and what was common to us was an immensely rich domain, namely, God Himself” (Sermon 355).
Evangelical counsels are the three means which our profession calls on us to accept, in order to live perfect charity. In faith and in love, we perceive that voice of the Father which calls on us to devote ourselves, wholeheartedly and as celibates, to God and to man and to embrace voluntary poverty, in order to follow Christ. For in taking our vows, we undertake to follow the three evangelical counsels, it being our vocation and our duty to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to the service of God and of men. In order to remain faithful to this vocation, we must ceaselessly follow Christ, as we are taught by the Gospel to do.
By our vow to live without possessions of our own and to place in common all our possessions, we place ourselves at the service of all those to whom we are united by the same profession. Everything that has been placed in common must be distributed, to each according to his needs.
“This is how we live; nobody is allowed to possess anything; there may be some who transgress this rule, but nobody has the right to have any private possessions; to fail to obey this rule is to transgress it”. (Augustine, Sermons 355 and 356)
In a society which is rapidly and completely changing into a large marketplace, such an undertaking can open a space exempt of payment, open onto other realities and recall the need of a “universal destiny of possessions”.
That which we possess in common is also placed at the disposal of the poor. The spirit of Christ incites us to feel solidarity with the poor and the hungry. In the spirit of St. Norbert, our love of our neighbour manifests itself principally in the hospitality and in the welcome we give to the poor.
Poverty, freely chosen, because of the teaching of the Gospel and the spirit of service, also manifests itself in the lifestyle, the services given to society, as well as in the prudent administration of the common property. Nevertheless, a life which is led truly in common is not limited simply to placing in common material possession, but, in the words of the Premonstratensian Adam Scot in the XIIIth century, “you have offered and given yourself to the Church of God in all that you are, in all that you know and in all that you are able to do”.
In this way, we wish to bear witness, as did Christ, that all that a man has and indeed all that he is, has been given to him to place at the service of others to help them attain that happiness for which they were destined. Thus we try to show that it is necessary to hold the Kingdom of God, already ushered in by Christ, as precious beyond all created things.
One of the features of our vocation is to manifest the presence, in this world already, of the treasures of the Kingdom of God and the possibility of the common pursuit of our design for living. It is with this aim, that we embrace the life of celibacy which enables us to devote ourselves entirely to God and to others. Through fraternal love and friendship, which manifest themselves in our communal life and also in our care for other men, our celibacy is able to assume that human countenance which allows us to show the love of God for men and to achieve our human happiness.
The vow of chastity concerns the central facts of our humanity, namely, corporeity, sexuality, emotive relationships. It cannot be positively assumed otherwise than by subsuming it under charity. Asceticism, which is required in order to discover the riches hidden in our being, and integrity of the heart in which it must grow, our chastity is fruitful when it creates loving relationships characterised by fraternal equality.
Our communities seek an environment in which each brother can reach fulfilment and work on perfecting his personality. Nevertheless, we do not forget that life in consecrated celibacy necessarily involves bearing the cross and enduring trials, mortification and control of the heart.
It is not we who are going toward God, but God who, through Jesus Christ, comes to us. It behoves us to become flesh, with all our passions, our wounds and our appetites. Each of the brethren gives himself to the community as a person whose history was shaped by love, received and given, but also by the wounds of love rejected or withdrawn. To grow in the love of Christ, given unremittingly, takes a great deal of time, a lifetime, lived at the pace of a God of patience. As man is neither angel nor beast, his desire is not clear to him to the point of showing him what really is in his heart.
Nevertheless, friendship calls upon us to look at the other without seeking to possess him. Desire must therefore be stilled and taught to consider others and the world without seeking to devour them. It is not a question of subduing passion, of becoming “stunted old bachelors”, but of opening ourselves up to our deepest desires and to God’s limitless goodness. Our desire must become a stranger to violence, in order to become a sacrament of a presence, of a dedicated life, which manifests the love of God.
Our community in which “a superior is obeyed like a father” (Rule), is part of the mystery of the obedience of Christ; according to Him, His nourishment consisted in accomplishing the will of his Father “in order gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John. 11,52). It therefore behoves us, one and all, in submission to the spirit of Christ, to seek to learn the will of the Father and, through obedience, to place our own will at the service of God and of our brethren, in order that the unity, for which Christ sacrificed Himself, might grow within our community. In the light of the word of God and the magisterium of the Church, the divine will manifests itself to us through the inner impulse of grace and spiritual perception, but also through the dialogue, the demands of the communal life, the orders of superiors, the example of other brethren, the duties of our work and lastly, the signs of the times and the events of our own life.
The vow of obedience may appear shocking in an epoch which values individual freedom above all else.
The word obedience comes from “obaudire”, to listen. Obedience is not submission, but listening, naturally to the superior, but also to a brother, who represents a voice of God within the community. A major place of obedience is the community chapter, which presupposes an openness of the spirit and the capacity to listen, which make it possible to move toward unanimity, but also toward the responsibility of each which entails being able to respond to what has been heard. Obedience is a Eucharistic act of untrammelled freedom “this is my body, this is my life, I give them to you”. This gift is honoured in the sacrifices required of the brethren, when they must abandon a well-loved or a fulfilling task, in favour of another, perhaps less satisfying, or when the community must abandon an old task, even if it is still meaningful, for a novelty whose usefulness still remains to be proved. The religious are people who are not planning a career. This is a kind of freedom.
The brethren are free to express their desires and their difficulties, their aptitudes and their limitations, to their superiors. In matters which concern the whole community, the brethren give their views to the superiors and to the rest of the brethren, particularly at community chapters, but, in the majority of cases, the authority to determine and to order what must be done belongs, in the last resort, to the superiors. Obedience makes it possible to take an active part in accomplishing the community’s mission.
In the exercise of their service of authority, the superiors listen to the other religious with attention and goodwill. It behoves them to provide for the needs of the latter in such a way as to establish that mutual trust which is so important to the creation of a real community. They must also stimulate the creative spirit of each and join collegially with all the rest, in finding effective means of accomplishing the objectives which the community has set for itself.
“Obey the superior like
May he take pleasure, not in exercising authority, but in serving by charity”
The founding and inspirational charter of the canons regular is found in the description of the primitive Church that is given to us by Saint Luke: “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (Ac.4,32). No matter if such a state was or was not concretely and perfectly obtained in the original Church: its interest for the canonical community is to furnish a dynamic model, a goal to be reached. It is thus that Augustine understood it, at the beginning of his Rule.
Throughout history, the canonical houses have understood, in this call to communion, the ultimate meaning of their vocation: be one body and one soul. The Second Council of the Vatican defined the Catholic church as a communion of churches, realised by the Eucharist: one loaf is one body; the Church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the Church in the apostolic link ensured by the communion of Bishops. What unites the churches is that which is common to them, what is essentially shared: the body of Christ. He makes it impossible for any Christian community whatsoever to live in autarchy. Moreover, the presence of laymen around the altar or in the choir with the canons means that the priests are not dispensers of communion but its ministers; priests do not produce the Eucharist, they serve the sacramental realisation of it. In a canonical community, both the Liturgy of the Hours as the Eucharist must be celebrated in such a way as to make the faithful feel at home. The people of God must be able, at any moment, to join the canonical liturgy in exercising its ministry by praising and celebrating God.
The body of the Church is nothing other than the Eucharistic body, realised daily, not only during the Mass, but all day long, in the brotherly sacrament. The brother is a sanctuary and this experienced dimension orients the complete life of the canonical community toward the unavoidable requirement of the truth. Daily communal life becomes an echo of the sacrament of the altar. The grains of wheat, ground to make the Eucharistic bread, provide a meaningful image of the fraternal life that the canons regular must lead together.
This oblation manifests itself fully during the canonical profession which is enacted at the Church altar where the brother dedicates himself: profession is a Eucharistic sacrifice, a baptismal plunge in the death and the resurrection of Christ. “This sacred bread reminds you how much you must love the unity. Was the bread made from a single grain? Is it not composed of a great number of grains of wheat? But before entering into the composition of this bread, they were separate. It is the water that united them after they had been ground”.
The daily Eucharist is thus the source and the high point of the day and the Liturgical Hours became an extension of this return to the centre. In canonical communities, communal life and the placing in common of property, like the coming together around the Eucharistic table. intend to bear tangible witness, in the eyes of the world, to the possibility of attaining the body of Christ.