The Year of Consecrated Life, which began on November 21, casts the spotlight on religious vocations, such as the calls to be a sister, brother, nun, monk, or priest. Consecration is the setting aside of persons (or objects) exclusively for God and divine service. The word is derived from the Latin for “to make sacred.” The thought occurred to me that the Blessed Virgin Mary was the first consecrated Christian. Her vocation as Mother of God aligns with religious vocations today.
Religious perceive a call, a tugging at the heart, a conviction to dedicate themselves entirely to God, to live in a way quite different from the vast majority of people. They may spend years discerning whether or not their perceived call is real. Mary’s call was undeniable. An archangel delivered the message from God that she was chosen to spend her life as a virgin devoted to the Son of God. Some religious are called as children. A friend of mine said she knew that she was to be a sister in the first grade. There is a legend about Mary found in an apocryphal Gospel (the Protoevangelium of James) that recounts that her parents took her to the temple when she was three years old to dedicate her to God, and charmingly Mary danced up the stairs.
Most religious make vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in order to better imitate the poor, chaste, and obedient Jesus. They live poverty by owning things in common. When I entered, this was ingrained in us by the custom of referring to things as “our” book, “our” veil, and “our” car. (Some novices would comically slip and say things like “Our knee hurts.”) Mary lived poorly. She wasn’t destitute, but as a first-century villager, she didn’t have much, otherwise she wouldn’t have given birth in a stable or cave. She probably gave away the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the magi brought (if they really did). Religious are celibate, a strange thing to be in our sex-saturated society. Mary’s engagement to Joseph the carpenter blossomed into a relationship of platonic love. The Holy Spirit’s action that brought about the conception of Jesus in Mary left her a virgin, a miracle which a poet compared to sunlight streaming through a window without changing the windowpane. The Catholic Church teaches that Mary remained a virgin her whole life. Religious vow obedience in which they promise to seek out and follow God’s will in all matters, guided by the needs of their community and the voice of God within them. When Mary learned of God’s plan for her, she obeyed God instantly and wholeheartedly, responding, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” She always heard the word of God and kept it.
Religious are free to deepen their relationship with God in prayer, personal and communal. In my community every day we celebrate the Eucharist, pray the Liturgy of the Hours, meditate for an hour, pray the rosary, and read from a spiritual book. We make a holy hour before First Fridays and come together for faith sharing once a month. We make a mini-retreat each month and a week-long one each year. Mary prayed in the Nazareth synagogue and traveled to Jerusalem for the Jewish feasts. She probably knew psalms, the Jewish prayers, by heart. Luke’s Gospel recounts that after finding the lost Jesus in the Temple, Mary pondered these things in her heart. No doubt, she was pondering, or meditating on God and his works all her life.
Religious strive to be channels of Christ’s love for the world and have an exceptional love for the poor on the bottom and the margins of society. Despite being pregnant with Jesus, Mary made a long, perilous journey to aid her elderly relative Elizabeth who was also pregnant. Later at the wedding at Cana, it was Mary who rescued the bride and groom and their parents when the wine ran out by jump-starting Jesus’ ministry.
As religious, we work to spread the Good News and God’s kingdom of peace and justice. Mary, who was the first to hear the Good News, brought into the world the Savior, who is the Prince of Peace and the Teacher of Justice and Love. As Blessed Teresa of Calcutta succinctly said, “No Mary. No Jesus.” Someone pointed out that besides asking WWJD we could also ask WWMD (What would Mary do?)
Is there a consecrated man or woman who has drawn you closer to God? How?