The true meaning of life

CNS photo: Rupak De Chowdhuri, Reuters CNS photo: Rupak De Chowdhuri, Reuters

Consecrated religious women and men show us how to surrender to God’s love

 To live means to be desired and loved by God, moment after moment.” Those were the opening lines of a document about consecrated religious life celebrated in the Great Jubilee year of 2000. They have always stuck with me.

Of all the ways one might define human life, that brief and startling statement says everything. I wonder what kind of definition each of us would write were we asked to define “to live.” I have a suspicion that many of us would begin, “To live means that I …” Our definitions would continue with a list of things that “I” would accomplish, achieve, feel, think, know, do.

But the true definition does not begin with anything “I” set as a goal for myself. Instead, it begins with recognizing that the only reason I am alive is that I am “desired and loved by God.” By desiring and loving me, God brought me into being and sustains me. I am neither the source nor the goal of my own life. I am one who is desired and loved by God, moment after moment, and therefore I am alive. My existence is evidence that God exists!

The upside-down logic of the Gospel
For most of us, taking that definition seriously means letting a revolution happen in our hearts. If the reason I am alive is that I am a desire of God, the beloved of God, a thought of God, an object of God’s favor, then nourishing a relationship with God brings me even more to life. Making myself the center, the point of it all, only lessens me. The self-centered priest or bishop draws no one to the Lord. The self-centered husband or wife quickly sours a marriage. The self-centered religious could never live in community.

It is the revolutionary irony of the Gospel that in forgetting myself I find myself, that in surrendering myself to God as his instrument I come alive. That upside-down logic is at the core of the beatitudes, and it is emphasized by all four Gospels as a key to Jesus’ teaching: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?” (Luke 9:24-25)
It is also the logic of St. Paul, when he writes, “woe to me if I do not preach [the gospel]! … when I preach, I offer the gospel free of charge.” (1 Corinthians 9:16-18)

This year, Pope Francis has asked us to celebrate a Year of Consecrated Life. Essentially, consecrated sisters, brothers and priests are seeking to live, moment by moment, as persons desired and loved by God. They are hoping to be so alive in God that they become icons of his desire and love for everyone they meet, to become, as St. Paul wrote, “all things to all,” so that the Gospel may be preached and many may be loved with the Lord’s love and brought to him with gentle compassion.

The consecrated women and men of our archdiocese live in community and in solitude. They operate health and prenatal clinics, they evangelize our immigrant population, they teach in our schools, they witness Catholic teaching to our Legislature, they raise animals and crops, they spend their days in prayer. Undergirding every activity is unremitting attention to the lifeline that is God’s love and desire for them. They would die without it.

Leaping into God’s arms
Perhaps many years ago they left homes, careers, jobs, friends and loved ones in order to let a revolution take shape in their hearts. Seeking to find out what it means “to live,” they took a courageous leap into God’s arms — for our sakes!

One obstacle to serious consideration of a religious vocation for some today is that they begin their discernment by asking, “Should ‘I’ do this?” In other words, some approach a vocation as they would a career change, when, in fact, it has much more to do with one’s willingness to leap into God’s arms. It has to do with surrendering oneself to the truth — even though I do not fully understand it — that no matter what I have already accomplished, the reason I am living is because I am desired and loved by God. Discerning a vocation is a progressive willingness to give myself to that truth, to be defined by God’s desire and love for me, to want to become an image of God’s love and desire for everyone. In this age of “self-fulfillment,” that is no easy task.

Am I afraid of falling? God will catch me. Am I too weak? Yes, but God is strong. Will I miss my former life? Probably, but I will gain something more. Will I abandon what I have built up? No, I will give it to God. Will I limit my future choices? Most definitely yes, but in giving myself to God I will gain everything.

Please join me in offering thanks to the religious women and men in our archdiocese, especially those celebrating special anniversaries this year. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

I have often thought of some beautiful words of St. John of the Cross when describing religious life. He wrote in “The Spiritual Canticle”:

If, then, I am no longer
Seen or found on the common,
You will say that I am lost;
That, stricken by love,
I lost myself, and was found.

Your friend in Christ,
Archbishop Sartain

Northwest Catholic - June 2015

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain

Send your prayer intentions to Archbishop Sartain’s Prayer List, Archdiocese of Seattle, 710 Ninth Ave., Seattle, WA 98104.