There are two lady friends of mine, good friends whom I’ve known for many years: Maura and Marina. Both were accountants, with good jobs and a nice lifestyle; great party goers and very popular. Then one day Marina announced to us all that she was going to leave everything and enter the Poor Clare convent, in my home-town. The Poor Clares are an order of contemplative sisters, which means they dedicate their lives to prayer. They don’t leave the convent, except for things like visits to the doctor, or to vote. Otherwise they spend the rest of their lives in the convent praying for all of us. People from all over the city and beyond continually go into them asking them to pray for different intentions. About two years later, my friend Maura did the same thing. This meant that they would give up their job and salary, their independence and nice lifestyle and also the chance to get married and have children. Marina’s family were very upset when she decided to do this, even though they were a very religious family themselves. In spite of their faith they found it very hard to accept. It is an extraordinary calling and one of great sacrifice.
Six year later, Marina made her final profession, taking the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Two years after that, Maura, my other friend, did the same thing. They will spend the rest of their lives in that convent praying and interceding for people, helping us by the sacrifice of their lives.
Every time a man is ordained to the priesthood, he also dedicates his life to God and to service of his people. He gives up the chance to be married and have children.
It’s not only Religious people who do this, many other friends of mine who are married have also changed the direction of their lives and begun to live more closely to God, trying to give time each day to prayer and to living out the faith that they believe in. They continue to work just as before, but they have begun to make a conscious effort to live by the Gospel they believe in and this happens all the time.
Why did my two friends decide to leave everything and spend the rest of their lives in a convent? Many people consider it is a total waste of a life. The Church says it is the highest calling that God can give to anyone, but what makes someone want to do this, or to become a priest, or to really try to live out their faith?
The answer is that they have found the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price that Jesus talks about. They have recognized that it is worth everything and so they have given everything for it. It is what Jesus often calls ‘The kingdom of heaven’. In other words it is the discovery, or realization that God is real and that what Jesus has told us about God, is true. It is as if this suddenly clicks into place and they can see it and it makes sense. They realize that God isn’t just an optional extra, but that God is at the center and we are a part of his world. We are the optional extra. We are the ones who would not be here except that God created us. God is at the center of everything and our life only makes sense in relation to him and in relation to what Jesus told us about him. Apart from God, our life makes absolutely no sense. To come to know this is worth everything, because it is the truth.
Just because someone finds this treasure, as Jesus calls it, doesn’t mean that they have to become a priest or Religious. Most people are not called to be priests or Religious, but to continue on as normal in society, working, having families and giving witness to the reality of God by the way they live. That’s what most of us are called to, but the fact that some people are prepared to live a life dedicated to God, shows the value of what they believe in, of what we believe in. It testifies to the fact that what we believe in has a greater and more lasting value than anything we can know in this world. It’s a sign that we believe there is more to come and that it’s worth waiting for, suffering for and making sacrifices for. That is also one of the ideas of celibacy, or the vow of chastity. People decided to give up the possibility of marriage, because they believe in the world to come. It is a sign of our faith in the next world, because that is how we will be in the next world.
God created us so that the most natural thing for us to do is to get married and what could be greater than what God has designed? But God has also called some to live in a particular way, to encourage and remind others that there is more to this life than meets the eye.
Often when I’m finding it tough going and wondering why I’m a priest or what it’s all about, I think of my two friends in the Poor Clares and their witness makes me say yes, it is worth the effort.
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field,
which a person finds and hides again,
and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.