Wednesday, 1 June 2011

A People Set Apart

My last post, in which I wrote about the religious habit being a sign that I'm set apart to God, prompted the following question from a reader:

What does it mean to be set apart to God? I'm not trying to be rude, or mean, or anything negative, but help me understand. Being set apart to God doesn't make you any more special than everyone else, does it? I mean, everyone is special in God's eyes, so it couldn't be that. But then what does it mean to be "set apart"?

That's a good question, deserving of a thorough answer. And let me begin by quoting a better theologian than me. I providentially came across this relevant passage from Pope Benedict's latest book, 'Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week':

The process of consecration, "sanctification", includes two apparently opposed, but in reality deeply conjoined, aspects. On the one hand, "consecrating" as "sanctifying" means setting apart from the rest of reality that pertains to man's ordinary everyday life. Something that is consecrated is raised into a new sphere that is no longer under human control. But this setting apart also includes the essential dynamic of "existing for". Precisely because it is entirely given over to God, this reality is now there for the world, for men, it speaks for them and exists for their healing. We may also say: setting apart and mission form a single whole. (p.86)

This describes very well the way in which consecration is a 'setting apart'. And the following words of St. Peter supplement those of his current successor, by making it clear that this applies to all Christians, not just the members of religious orders:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him Who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light. (1 Peter 2:9)

It is baptism that consecrates the Christian to God, that raises him or her into a new sphere no longer under human control. So all the baptised are 'set apart', and this poses a bit of a puzzle with regard to 'consecrated religious' like myself. In what way are we more set apart?

I find it very helpful to reflect on how consecration into a religious order is not a sacrament; rather, the Church teaches that such consecration is rooted in and flows out of baptismal consecration. It is no more than an expression of our baptism – but it is a special expression. The way I see it is that religious consecration expresses more visibly and makes more obvious those things which are true for every Christian.

This is how I came to understand the place of the religious vows – poverty, celibacy, and obedience. All Christians should see God as their only treasure, and place all that they have and are at His disposal, relying on Him to provide for them. But the religious vow of poverty makes this inner attitude more obvious and immediate. All Christians should love God above and before all others. But the vow of celibacy makes the primacy of this relationship more obvious. And all Christians should accept God as their Lord, following his will in all things, finding their freedom in Him. But the vow of obedience brings the obedience we owe God into greater relief, by trusting that His will can be revealed through members of His Church.

These inner attitudes, whether expressed through religious vows or not, are aspects of Christian consecration – our 'setting apart' to God. The role of the religious brother or sister is to display this consecration more openly. Hence it is fitting that many religious wear a habit. The Christian's baptismal consecration always ought to be visible, even if only through the way he or she lives. So those whose gift is to be all the more visible will often wear something to make their consecration as obvious as can be.

To summarize, I see it in terms of the Sermon on the Mount. All Christians should be both 'the salt of the earth and the light of the world'(Matt 5:13-14). But the role of the laity lays more emphasis on being the salt, on being that subtle, unseen presence which gives flavour to everything else, which is often noticed only by its absence. Whereas for religious the emphasis is on being the light of the world, the city on a hill-top that cannot be hidden.

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