The built-in tensions in apostolic vocations

The built-in tensions in apostolic vocations

By Br. John D. Hamilton C.F.X.

The story of Martha and Mary hints at how the tension between “doing” and “being” has been with Christians for a very long time.

WHENEVER a teacher of mine, Father Adrian van Kaam, CSSp. would speak of the active or mixed religious life, he would use the term “the experiment that is active religious life.” From the first time I heard this, I was fascinated, if at first a bit troubled. What did he mean by this?

I think he was referring to the inherent tensions among those of us called to live this life, especially in the past 50 or so years. To maintain oneself in transcendent presence as an individual, and even more so as a group, while at the same time being fully engaged in service to a world whose needs always outstrip our responses, is a very difficult balance.

In its earliest manifestations the religious life had as a core constituent a literal element of fuga mundi or flight from the world. In order not to be swept up in the pre-, if not anti-transcendent activity that would lead one to become forgetful of God, some people began to separate themselves so they could remember and thus remain in communion with the Divine, with the transcendent dimension of reality. The gatherings of those so committed created what Father Adrian van Kaam, CSSp calls “centers of value radiation” that kept alive the value of transcendence in times and cultures that threatened it with extinction.

Inevitably the call, the impulse of the Spirit’s compassion for the world, moved women and men of singular love and vision to desire to manifest this transcendent love through acts of concrete service to the world and to society. Yet, work and activity are both our means of mediating the creative love of God for the world and ways by which we are prone to forget God’s presence. There is work that flows from the spirit and from the heart, work that manifests vocation, and there is work that comes from the ego as an agent of the unconscious, that is motivated out of our fears and compulsions. The monastic day is designed, at least in part, to discipline our propensity to forgetful or compulsive functioning. When the bell rings, the monks are to stop at whatever point they have reached in their project or work. They are to stop and go to prayer and pick up the work when it is time for it again, realizing that the tasks will always be there.

The monk’s schedule is a help, but all of us in religious life can readily forget who we really are and how our work can make us victims of functionalism. Humankind has always tended to be forgetful of the dimension of spirit, and with Freud’s anthropology, which saw ego as the ultimate source of human maturity and freedom, our forgetfulness became canonized. Our secular age (even in its religious manifestations) lives out a repression of our spiritual or transcendent dimension. Note how even religious formation programs tend to be based on non-spiritual anthropologies.

“Transcendent functioning” in Scripture

This tension is a central topic in the Gospel of John. Jesus is constantly, in the view of many teachers of the law, acting or working in violation of the Sabbath. In Chapter 5 we have the familiar story of the cure of the man at the pool of Bethsaida. Jesus tells the man to pick up his mat and to walk, so now both the man and Jesus are violating the strictures of the Sabbath. Jesus explains, however, that he is not violating the Sabbath because: “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (5, 17). But it is the Sabbath. Is Jesus saying that God does not rest on the Sabbath? Or is he redefining something about work and leisure, which in our pre-transcendent human experience are always opposed? In verse 19, the Gospel writer quotes Jesus as saying: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.”

The purpose of the Sabbath is to detach from the all-consuming world of work in order to remember our communion with a God who is at once Rest and Work. As the Dutch mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck says, (as quoted in the book Mysticism)“God according to the Persons is Eternal Work, but according to the Essence and Its perpetual stillness God is Eternal Rest.”

Jesus is not in violation of the Sabbath because he remains in communion with God, even as he works, and so is keeping the Sabbath rest. This is what van Kaam calls transcendent functioning. St. John of the Cross in his Precautions advises: “Do nothing except in obedience.” It is not work in itself that is a contradiction to the transcendent or spiritual dimension of our life form, but it is rather our unconscious propensity to lose ourselves, to forget God in the midst of our activities.

Meister Eckhart, a medieval Dominican monk and mystic, lived during a time when the norm was to understand oneself in relationship to God. Above is the door to the Protestant Erfurt Church in Germany inscribed with Eckhart’s words: The light shines in the darkness; and the darkness has not overcome it.

In his “Sermon 86” on the story of Martha and Mary, Meister Eckhart offers a most striking interpretation. Eckhart says that when Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to get up and help, it is because Martha fears that Mary will “remain stuck” in the pleasant feeling of sitting with Jesus and not progress toward the integration of human life that can, in Eckhart’s words, “be within and without, to grasp and to be embraced, to see and to be what is seen, to hold and to be held.”

Most in religious life know that the formation required to live out a call to service in such a way that one remains within, even while going without, is continual and life-long. Human work and activity is inherently centrifugal. The needs we witness, the anxieties we experience, the unconscious compulsions that influence us all lead us to lose our deeper sense of transcendent self-presence when we are busy and active. While this is always the case, let us consider some cultural forces that make it even more so today. It is not only the inherent human tension we’ve been considering that has brought active/mixed religious life close to extinction in the West, but rather some very specific historical and cultural influences.

How the culture is distant from God

While the need may be obvious for there to be centers that radiate endangered cultural values (and religious life is meant to be such a center), the inherent difficulty in creating and maintaining them may be less obvious. One obvious difficulty in maintaining endangered or repressed values is that all members of a culture are formed by that culture and its values. If, as we can quite readily recognize, we live in a culture that represses the sacred, that is profoundly secular, then all of us are products of this environment. Secularization permeates the lives of all of us, not only those who are potential candidates, but those of us who live religious life as well.

Even our understanding of religious belief and religious practice has become less transcendent and more secular over time. And in our particular life form, our understanding of our identity and significance has become less and less transcendent. This is not a new phenomenon. I would suggest that back some decades, at the very point the active life seemed to be at its height, it had already greatly lost its transcendent grounding. We began to structure our lives not around the appraisal of our call in light of the unique and distinctive gifts (charisms) of those called but rather around efficiency and utility. Even now we are prone to think at times that the problem we have is the lack of “corporate ministries.”

Types of secularism

In his extraordinary study, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes three types of secularism. There is the political sense, whereby public spaces and discourse do not refer to God or any particular religious belief, unlike the Middle Ages where the church and its teachings and the state were co-extensive. The second is the falling off of religious belief and practice, which is especially evident in Europe and the United States. The third, however, is the most pertinent to our considerations. Taylor says this third type focuses on “the conditions of belief.” The strikingly different condition of belief in this secular age is “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, un-problematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”

In our culture we all recognize that unbelief is an option, unlike in much of Muslim society. Most of us who are older and who entered religious life some decades ago were formed in subcultures where belief was taken for granted. But for most of us, this has changed over the course of our life formation. We do not see ourselves or live in the same way, individually, as groups, as cultures, when we can no longer take for granted God’s existence—and thus certainly not the interpretation of God of a single way of living out a tradition.

There is, in fact, a profound truth in the fear of Western secularism that exists in fundamentalisms of all sorts. The nature of one’s religious consciousness can never be the same once one acknowledges the option both of unbelief and of a belief that is different from one’s tribe or subgroup. Once consciousness has changed, in this way, it is impossible to return to the earlier state of limited consciousness, except through violence and coercion (and then it will be only behavioral).

A Christian in our time cannot have come to be aware of Ghandi or the Dalai Lama and truly believe that all non-Christians are lost. To seek refuge in a nostalgic and sentimental connection to the past is a refusal to deal with the new and present reality. An awareness of “exclusive language” offers an interesting example. When I now write or speak, it is almost impossible for me not to become aware, whenever I encounter the third person singular pronoun, of the fact that what I am saying includes the female and male of our species, with all the added diversity of meaning, understanding, and experience that involves. I become immediately aware that as a male my perspective is extremely partial and limited. I can no longer live in the comforting illusion that my perspective on the world is universal or absolute. In the religious realm we could say that once my consciousness includes the possibilities of believing differently or not believing, I become aware of the limitation and partiality of my own belief.

Karl Rahner famously said: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” The vowed life takes it shape, its practices, its modes of formation from our tradition, but the Mystery to which it witnesses transcends all we can ever know or say of it. It is the Spirit’s passion and compassion for the world that stirred our foundresses and founders and that continues to stir us in ways, to quote St. Augustine, ever ancient and ever new. It is that passion and compassion of the Spirit to which we are obedient.

This falling off in belief in God and the practice of religion, which is Taylor’s second type of secularism, is a symptom of a development in Western thought over the past centuries that has brought with it some significantly dire consequences. Increasingly in Western culture, the individual and our personal thoughts and experiences have become the center of our worlds. Although it is trite, it is fair to say that as a result of this turn inward there is in our consciousness a deep and profound sense of alienation, of being lost.

The writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide some time ago, described this sense of being lost as “a real American type of sadness.” We experience a profound disconnection from the world and often find ourselves caught up in incessant rumination that seems to get us nowhere. We experience lives of introspection, which is very different from meditative or transcendent reflection. Our self-consciousness is markedly different from the mindset of those who lived within a taken-for-granted belief in God. The student of world religions, Huston Smith, in his introduction to the Paulist Press edition of Meister Eckhart’s sermons and treatises speaks of the “cramped inferior world” we live in because that world “has been stripped of the very possibility of housing things worthier in ourselves.” We have gotten here, according to Smith, who taught for many years at MIT, because of the mistake we make when we totalize the scientific method, another aspect of our cultural consciousness.

When we mistakenly apply the scientific method to all realms of apprehension and knowledge, we restrict the world to only those things over which we have power. Thus, we begin to recognize as real only “what appears through this restrictive viewfinder.” What would help us out of this predicament, says Smith, “is not arguments but vision.” This is, for Smith, the significance of Eckhart today.

We sense that he (this God-intoxicated man) knows so vividly what he is talking about that we experience through his words an onrush of the Real. Like prisoners, we had been straining at our bars, hoping for a sliver of light. He spins us around and shows us that the door behind us is wide open. (xii)

Opening our small self up to God

The value that our cramped inferior world desperately needs is the vision, the passion, and compassion, of God-intoxicated persons, persons who have become so by re-discovering what is their real relationship to the world and to the Mystery of God. These people do not think their way into faith, but rather receive faith from their field of formation, through opening to God, to life, to the world as small but significant participants in it, rather than as centers of the universe.

James L. Kugel, professor emeritus of Hebrew literature at Harvard, authored a book called In the Valley of the Shadow. Kugel wrote this book out of his experience some 10 years ago of being diagnosed with a cancer that was treatable but not curable. He was told that if he responded to treatment well, he could live another two or three years. Kugel was led to write by the experience he had after being given his diagnosis. He describes it this way on the second page of his book:

The background music suddenly stopped. It had always been there, the music of daily life that’s constantly going, the music of infinite time and possibilities; and now suddenly it was gone, replaced by nothing, just silence. There you are, one little person, sitting in the late-summer sun, with only a few things left to do.

Our ordinary consciousness is about magnifying ourselves, our work, our significance, our responsibilities, our vocations, etc. Confronted as he is at this moment with his own mortality, Kugel suddenly discovers himself in a silence in which he feels very small. He goes on to consider that for much of human history the individual person experienced her or himself in this way.  As we say in Psalm 8: “When we consider the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon, and the stars which you have created, who are we that you should keep us in mind?”

To be small is not to be insignificant. It is, however, to realize as Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly say in their book All Things Shining that “the genuinely confident agent does not manufacture confidence, but receives it from the circumstances.” Living with confidence (with faith) is not the result of personal achievement, much less of some kind of spiritual or intellectual superiority; it is rather a mode of presence to the world, to God and to oneself that recognizes one’s own smallness but that is also receptive to the light (the shining) of the world one inhabits.

James Kugel notes that somehow a God that was once seen as the unfathomable Other has come in modern and post-modern times to take up residence within our individual consciousness and experience. As a result, we do not discover what we care for—we decide it. We do not learn and follow our direction, we determine it.  We do not, in an experience of smallness, stand in awe of the heavens and earth; we take it upon ourselves to master them. The vowed life stands at every turn as a counter to these pre-reflective attitudes of pride and autarchy that are part of the ordinary consciousness of all of us.

An antidote: waiting in joyful hope

Many years ago while studying spirituality, I was fortunate enough to engage in formative counseling with an extraordinary person. The steadfast presence of this person provided for me an environment in which I could begin to raise to consciousness and expression many of the hopes and fears, desires, disappointments, joys, and griefs that I had spent those first 32 or 33 years of my life evading. More than anything this person said, although there was wisdom in what he would say, I began to experience in his steadfastness a level of faith I had never before known. It was the kind of confidence (faith) of the presence and working of Divine love, even in those aspects of life that seem most frightening or irredeemable.

The poet R. M. Rilke wrote: “Await the birth hour of a new clarity, keeping holy all that befalls, even disappointment, even desertion.” At the level of ego, of the functional dimension of our lives, we run from the unpleasant, from that which frightens us and is beyond our control. But at the level of spirit, of transcendence, we are able to “wait in joyful hope.” As Americans and Westerners we are not very good at such waiting. Before the difficult and the unmanageable we engage in fight or flight—we fight the mystery or we dissociate from it. What if instead of trying to manage and master our circumstances, we rather waited to be taught by them?

At first glance, this may seem like a call to passivity. But, in fact, it is precisely the opposite. It is the kind of rest that Ruysbroeck speaks of, the rest that is creative work in God. It is deep presence, attention and willingness. One of the results of the loss of transcendence in our modern consciousness is the diminishment in our lived understand of will. Our capacity for transcendent willing has become almost totally lost to us. Will has become for us exclusively the managing of executive will—it is what we execute and how we manage from our ego or functional dimension. It is what we do out of our own views and compulsions. But as spirit we have a deeper kind of willing (one that is not will-full or will-less). We have the capacity to discover what we care for in the world, to receive the call that is uniquely ours from the circumstances, and to uniquely and willingly respond to that call. But this requires the development of a skill, the formation to become a more finely tuned instrument of, in St. Francis’ terms, God’s peace—of God’s will. (“I do only what I see the Father doing.”)

Moving toward shared discernment

Father van Kaam used to say that if we look for those orders and congregations that have endured through the ages we find one basic commonality: they each have embedded in their lived identity a great respect for the unique call of each member. As a friend and colleague recently said to me, “It is very difficult to trust that a shared direction will come out of such a respect for the uniqueness of each member.” It is particularly difficult for active communities. I know that my own formation, for example, was in part designed to encourage conformity and discourage uniqueness. Practicing the ongoing appraisal of a community’s direction through serious shared discernment that takes into account the unique life call of each member is not a very efficient way to manage institutions and to expand corporate influence. Again we encounter the tension between the demands of our works and the time, space, and humility necessary for transcendent presence and appraisal, for increasingly becoming servants of our Divine direction.

The foundresses and founders of our communities, although living in a very different consciousness, did not experience a contradiction between their call to participate in the compassion and passion of the Spirit for the world and the religious life form. Some did, of course, and their communities were somewhat forced into the contradiction by the canonical injunction to become religious communities. But many did not. They did, however, recognize the difficulty. The founder of my own community, Theodore James Ryken, was constantly speaking and writing to the brothers that they must first of all remember their call to be religious, even as they were to emulate Francis Xavier in their willingness to go anywhere they were needed. Our founder fully recognized that his brothers’ dedication to and love of work could quite readily erode the heart of their vocation. In her rule for the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa in article 37 enjoined the following:

The Sister shall spend one day in every week, one week in every month, one month in every year, one year in every six years in the Motherhouse, where in contemplation and penance together with solitude she can gather in the spiritual strength, which she might have used up in the service of the poor. When these sisters are at home, the others will take their place in the Mission field. (Mother Teresa in Come Be My Light, p. 345)

Our founders and foundresses fully realized that forgetfulness, especially forgetfulness in the midst of work, is a basic human disposition. When a religious community becomes merely a service organization, it loses its core identity. Inevitably our work and our efforts become willful and effortful. It is only in rest, silence, solitude, and contemplation that we can remain mindful of who we are and of Whose we are, and ultimately of Whose work we are doing.


Brother John D. Hamilton, CFX  is vicar general of the Xaverian Brothers.  He holds advanced degrees in literature from Wesleyan University and formative spirituality from Duquesne University. For many years he has taught courses in formative spirituality and done formation counseling.


This article has no comments or are under review. Be the first to leave a comment.

Please Log-in to comment this article

Fall Institute ...
Orientation Program, Behavioral Assessment 1 and 2 offered this year. Register ...  More
Ordinations increase again ...
The 2017 USCCB/CARA Ordination Class Report states the number of ordinands ...  More
Sister Sharon Dillon interviewed ...
In an in-depth interview with the website Catholic Profiles, the NRVC ...  More
July newsletter ...
Our publications win awards; new vocation ambassadors are talking up religious ...  More
National Catholic Youth Conference ...
In collaboration with NFCYM, NRVC invites you to be part of ...  More
HORIZON Spring 2017 ...
Vow of poverty | Church teaching on vocation | Intercultural communities ...  More
NRVC Member Area


July 2017

NRVC Office Closed

July 3-4

NRVC Summer Institute

July 10-25

Member Area Meetings

No NRVC Member Area Meetings in July



Renew your NRVC membership