|Poor Clare Convent, Galway, Ireland.|
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 hometown. The Poor Clares are an order of contemplative sisters, which means they dedicate their lives to prayer. They never 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. See their website www.poorclares.ie They also have a convent here in Fort Myers, which was on Fort Myers Beach, although I think they had to move because of the hurricane. People from all over the city and beyond continually go into them asking them to pray for different intentions. About two years after Marina entered, 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 after she entered, Marina made her final profession, taking the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Two years after that, my other friend Maura 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 the service of his people. He gives up the chance to be married and have children. Giving up the possibility of getting married, is not because being celibate is better, rather it is making the sacrifice of something that is good, for a different calling.
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? The desire to get married and have children is a very strong one, which was also there for them and me and others who have done the same. But the best way to explain it is to say that the desire to dedicate their lives/my life to God was stronger. If God is calling someone to priesthood, or religious life, it is hard to resist. When I felt called initially at the age of 19 it was too much for me, so I put it off. But three years later it came back again. God is persistent. In St. John’s Gospel God says, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit’ (John 15:16).
Many people consider life in a contemplative convent or monastery, a total waste of a life, but the Church considers it the highest calling that God can give to anyone. I remember talking to a nurse about the Poor Clares and she said, ‘What they do is great, but if they would just come out and do something.’ She could not see any value in a life dedicated to faith and apart from faith, it does seem like a waste of time. But when you bring faith into it, it changes everything. They can do more through prayer than they could ever do in society. Jesus tells us that the power of faith can move mountains, suspend the laws of nature.
People sometimes see a priest as being a kind of religious social worker. Do-gooders, who believe in God. Part of our work is helping others, but the most important part of my work is celebrating the mass, bringing Jesus to people in the Eucharist, healing people through confession and helping people find spiritual purpose through explaining the Scriptures. There is no social work that I can do which is more important than this. It is often a temptation for a priest to get so busy with helping people in their practical needs, that we forget what we are really called to. Bringing Jesus to people is more important than anything else I could do and that is the main thing that I am called to.
What makes someone want to give up everything for God, 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 what God offers us 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 that it is more important than anything else, but also that God is calling them to give their lives to it completely. 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 no sense. To come to know this is worth everything, because it is the truth and it is the meaning of our life.
Just because someone finds this treasure doesn’t mean that they have to become a priest or Religious. Most people are not called to Religious life, but to continue 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 after this life 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 decide to give up the possibility of marriage, because they believe in the world to come and that is how we will be in the next world. Jesus said, ‘In the resurrection, people will neither marry, nor be given in marriage. Rather, they will be like the angels’ (Matt 22:30).
Sometimes people have told me that they find the idea that they will not be married in heaven, sad. It doesn’t mean that you won’t be with your spouse, it just means that it will be different. Love in heaven is totally pure and we can be with all the people we love, but the primary purpose of marriage is to have children. That no longer happens in heaven.
God created us so that the most natural thing for us 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 helps me to keep going. 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.