Sessions 8

HUMILITY AND THE ELECTIVE STATE
Constitutions 484-548
(Rule of Life 87-131)

 

 Summary

Our life will be perfect when we do all things according to the light of reason

God is our Creator and Saviour, we depend entirely from Him: hence our first and absolute obligation is to seek and cultivate the friendship of God. The choice of contemplative life has also been recommended by JESUS as “the better part”.

Members of the Institute may found themselves in two states, the first “elective”, or chosen, dedicated to contemplation and divine worship, the second devoted to action for love of our neighbour if and when God’s will requires it.

The contemplative life chosen by us requires loving care for holy solitude, a withdrawal from people as far as possible, and a restraint from travelling or going out of the house.

Time is most precious in the eyes of God therefore every moment will be spent either in prayer or in work: “Ora et Labora”.

Prayers need not be too many, but there must be “the unbroken hour of meditation”, the canonical hours, the Eucharist, and private prayers.

No corporal austerities are generally prescribed, but each one will take up humbly that cross which the fatherly providence of God gives him.

Poverty is the abandoning of all possessions in order to follow Christ. In their hearts, all members will imitate the poverty of Christ completely, even if they may be permitted by Superiors to retain the external possession of their goods for a time.

Poverty in the Institute is subject to obedience; in spirit, all members embrace evangelical poverty wholeheartedly, in practice, they will profess that degree of poverty which has been established for them by Fr. General.

As far as the use of things is concerned, everything is to be regarded as common; no one may use anything unless he has received it from a superior.

There should be nothing superfluous, nothing unbecoming the poor of Christ in our houses: “Enough here for one so soon to die”; all members must love poverty as the firm bulwark of religious life. Presbyters and Fr. General make a special vow to safeguard poverty in every respect.

The vow of chastity is to be understood in the sense of the Church’s law prohibiting marriage to those ordained. Members must endeavour to “imitate angelic purity in the cleanliness of body and mind”.

Humility and obedience perfection the contemplative man in spirit and will. Members of the Institute must remember that they belong to “the Church learning”, not to the “Church teaching”. They come together to remedy their own weaknesses and vices, with the help of God and of each other.

They should always assume in favour of others, acting with great modesty and sincere and free humility. The state we choose is lowly and humble, a life hidden with Christ in God. Ambition is forbidden, and among members there should be “a holy parity”.

They will obey and honour Superiors as though they are JESUS, knowing that it is through them that they know the will of God: “Obedience has always been described by the Fathers as the safest and royal road”.

It is God’s will that charity towards our own souls and towards our neighbour should be exercised in an orderly manner; wisdom is to be united to charity so that we may discern the true order of charity, the order more pleasing to God.  Religious obedience has the approval of the Church, and the very words of JESUS can be applied to religious superiors: “He who hears you, hears Me”.

All should study to observe holy obedience which is full of the will of God. Members must keep before their eyes God, our Creator for whose sake they give obedience to a human being. Holy obedience must be perfect in the outward action, in the will, and in the understanding.

Great care and charity should be shown to our sick brethren, especially those who are about to die. They must be accompanied to their LORD by prayers, loving assistance; and Holy Mass should be offered for them by all the priests of the Institute.

This charity which we show towards our sick and dead brethren must be a strong bond uniting extern and intern religious, and sons and ascribed, with the whole Society.

 

1- The Elective State

Members of the Institute may find themselves successively in two different states, the first – the elective state – dedicated to contemplation and divine worship, the second – the active state – dedicated to works of charity for our neighbours.

The elective state comes logically first, it is “chosen” for its own sake and for the sake of doing the will of God, and not our own, in the works of charity that will be presented to us “as time goes by”. We choose the elective state for at least two reasons:

  1. The light of reason, which is the truth that enlightens our minds, makes it clear that God, the author and the perfecter of all things, is to be sought at all times as the absolute Good and the sole end of all things. The contemplative life allows us to dedicate all our thoughts, desires, and energy in seeking union with God.
  2. Our LORD Himself recommended the contemplative life, not only by giving us His own example of 30 years of hidden life in Nazareth, but also by saying to Martha, “One thing is needful; Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her” (Lk 10, 42).

 

In his booklet, “Rosminian Spirituality and Biblical Theology”, Fr. Deidun rightly warns against the mistake made by some who believe that the Institute is essentially contemplative and that it undertakes works of charity only because driven by circumstances. He quotes passages from Fr. Founder’s writings that appear to confirm such “traditional” belief: “The Institute is radically contemplative, dedicated to a life that is quiet and private” (Letter to Mons. Grasser, Nov. 1831); and yet, only four months later, Fr. Founder writes to Don P. Bruni, “Our society is not so much a society of quiet retirement, as it might appear, but of action and sacrifice for charity… It is true that there are periods of retirement, meditations and many other aids… but after that we are soldiers of Christ and very often we have to march with rifles on our shoulders, dispersed far and wide in the field of the Lord” (Epist. Ascetico 1, 509).

The theological reason for the “elective” state, according to Fr. Deidun, is Fr. Founder’s Principles of Passivity and of Indifference, which are based on the biblical theology of the New Covenant. Fr. Founder discovered both principles by living them first, making them his two rules of conduct; he then made them the foundation of the Maxims, and of the Constitutions. They are his essential charism, firmly rooted in biblical theology: “It is certain that these principles express the charism of Antonio Rosmini and the essential nature of the Institute of Charity” (Deidun, p.14).

Both principles are based on the theology of the New Covenant, which we have already seen, and are explained in all their theological implications in Fr. Founder’s Supernatural Anthropology and Introduction to the Gospel of St. John. Fundamental for a proper understanding is the Rosminian distinction between “natural” and “supernatural”, “natural” denoting all that man is and does in virtue of his own faculties, and “supernatural” what he begins to be and do when God – through the character and grace of Baptism – becomes the inner source of his activity. “Natural” man can do absolutely nothing for his own salvation and perfection; he is utterly impotent: “Without Me you cannot do anything” and “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him”. Acknowledgement of one’s impotence, the basis of true humility, forces one to direct all attention and trust in God: God in us can accomplish the greatest things: “I can do all things in Him who gives me strength”; “Without Me you are impotent; with Me you will bear much fruit: you will perform the same works as I do myself, and greater ones still”.

The contemplative state, therefore, is a time when we take stock of our incapability of doing by ourselves any good whatsoever and allow God to act fully in us, knowing that with Him we can do any thing. We are at rest, at peace, working earnestly, driven by His grace, on the purification of our soul so as to become more and more pleasing to God, and prepared at the same time to spring into action for love of our neighbour if, when, and where God wants us to engage in the active life. We immerse ourselves in contemplative life as if we are going to die in it; but, at the same time, we remain completely open and ready to follow the will of God in the active life as soon as the Lord indicates it to us through obedience: this is what Fr. Deidun calls “Explosive passivity”!

For Reflection

“I had for a long time been practising the principle of passivity, prompted by the awareness of my own unqualified impotence and by the lesson of experience. For every time I had undertaken some project like, for example, the Society of Friends, it was always an absolute failure. God permitted this so that I might take a look at myself, put aside my native pride and come to know my impotence. When, subsequently, I reflected upon my passive conduct, I recognised expressly how right and necessary was the principle of passivity which, unbeknown to myself, had been my guide” (Diary of Charity, 1821).

Failures and disappointments can often be the source of great good for ourselves and for
others, if seen in the light of God. Formators could use the example of Fr. Founder to encourage candidates who have experienced failures, to read in them God’s loving plan.

 

2- Piety and the Interior Life

The Benedictine Motto, “Ora et Labora”, expresses the essential activities of the contemplative life. Holy solitude must be filled in particular with an intense life of prayer. Chapter 10 of Section 9 of the Constitutions deals in a special way with prayer in the elective state (C758-768) and it begins with an important paragraph:

The mystic union of that Society, by which JESUS has brought together for the sake of their salvation all those who believe in Him, is such that a secret and truly divine plan enables each to share in the merits of all who are united to the Head. Hence there is no work of piety towards God which cannot be rightly numbered amongst works of charity towards our neighbour” (C578).

The reality of the mystical body of Christ means that the prayers that rise to God from places of contemplation benefit all the members of the body. The Church has always valued contemplative Orders as “power-houses” for the whole world through their constant and faithful prayers. In the elective state our members can dedicate themselves more readily to prayer bringing graces and blessings to the Institute and to the whole of humanity. The example of St. Therese of Lisieux, a contemplative nun, doctor of the Church and patron saint of missionaries, should be sufficient to reassure people in the contemplative life that their life of intense prayer is valued as greatly beneficial to all.

In the Introduction to the Gospel of St. John Fr. Founder goes as far as to write, “Christianity is first and foremost piety”, since the essence of Christianity consists in the union and incorporation of the human creature with God; and in this consists also the principle of piety – which is first of all and fundamentally the experience and feeling of Christ. In the Five Wounds, Fr. Founder claimed that Christianity spread rapidly and peacefully throughout the world not because it was based on a philosophy or on preaching only; it converted the whole world because of the power of Christian worship and the communication of the power of Christ Himself through the Sacraments.

In Baptism we receive the character and sanctifying grace, the Word of God in our soul through the power of the Spirit whereby we become in Christ the “image of God”. By the impression of the Word on our soul we become a new creature, we are raised to the supernatural level with a new intellect, a new will, and a new fundamental feeling that allow us to perceive the action of God in us. Of all these new supernatural principles God is both the cause and the effect: God operates in us and His actions terminate in God. Our human intellect, will, feeling are taken up and raised to new supernatural heights by the action of God in our soul, an action which Fr. Founder calls “deitriniform”.

 Christianity is based therefore on a supernatural feeling that originates from direct communion with Christ:

Experiential mystical theology is concerned with actual communication with God, an interior revelation, the effect of His real action on man, made up of feelings and perceptions which make God known directly through experience, immediately, by means of a communication of His own substance made in us. This experience tells the man of God that a single such perception is of greater value than all the words, the disputes, the Schools, and the libraries of the world. His knowledge of God is in the nature of a fact, a positive cognition – something complete, satisfying and operative” (Intro, p193).

This is the reason for the priority of the contemplative or elective state in the Institute, “the diligent preserving of holy solitude in which, as far as human frailty allows, we attend to God intensively and without interruption” (C488). This is the reason for the priority of prayer in the Institute. It is interesting to note that the first duty and responsibility of Fr. General is “uninterrupted prayer”; the general government of the Institute must take second place to this.

The priority of prayer must go together with a constant effort to purify oneself from all vices and sinful longings. The Common Rules also remind us that “the chief and most solid work of piety consists in striving by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ to carry out more perfectly day by day all that is required of us by our state or grade, so as to join our lives ever more closely to God our Lord” (no.11). If piety is intimate union with Christ, then anything that brings about this union is an act of piety: prayer, meditation, purification of our soul, doing perfectly the will of God through the duties that obedience has given us.

Fr. Founder stresses the need for a full understanding of prayers, especially the liturgical prayers of the Church. In the Five Wounds he laments the poor participation of both lay people and priests in worship due to lack of understanding of words and rituals: “It is necessary that the people understand what is said and done in the holy sacrifice, in the administration of the sacraments, and in all church services. The separation between people and clergy at worship through lack of comprehension is the first of those gaping wounds dripping with blood in the mystical Body of JESUS Christ” (Five Wounds, p.12).

The eternal Lord, who is pure intelligence, sets no value on mere “sound and fury”. What He looks for is the worship of our rational faculties and the affections of our heart: our “rationale obsequium”. And so He can take no pleasure in prayers and invocations that are merely so in outward form, a mere husk, that altogether lack soul and life, that are dead. Such prayers, far from sending up an agreeable odour of incense, rather smell to heaven like the putrid stench of a corpse” (Rosmini, Conferenze sui Doveri Ecclesiastici, p.48).

Fr. Founder is for simplicity in prayer. He does not recommend lengthy, complicated formulas and devotions; rather, he thinks our souls can find their total rest in the great liturgical acts of worship of the Church and in the simple, spontaneous personal prayers like the Rosary – with its repetition of the Our Father and the Hail Mary - and devotional aspirations or “ejaculatory prayers” which are brief, and intense, prayers for the needs of the Church, of all our neighbours, of the Institute, and of our own personal needs (see the nine Pater/Hail Mary/Glory Be)..

The liturgy is “the great school of the Christian people”, which, in the finest periods of the Church’s history, taught the faithful through words and rituals, mainly in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and the other Sacraments: “Liturgical prayer, which is the prayer of the Church, and has a precise foundation in theology, must always remain fundamental and have first place. Through Baptism the Christian becomes a living member of the Church, and at the same time becomes a sharer in her liturgical power, in the priesthood proper to the faithful” (Valle, Christian Piety, p.21).

For Reflection

The Liturgy is the act of worship of the entire Church; it is therefore, the exclusive responsibility of the Church to define and promulgate the Rites that she finds consonant with her long liturgical and theological tradition. Members of the Institute of Charity, with their professed love and obedience to the Church, should be the first to obey all liturgical directives provided by the Congregation for Divine Worship.

Do Formators feel that the Liturgy is given sufficient importance, time, preparation in all its dimensions during the years of formation?

 

The Eucharist, the supreme expression of Christ’s love, “justice at its most perfect”, is at the centre of piety and it should always be at the centre of community life, the source from which all good things come. What is typically “Rosminian” is the stress on the “blessing” of bread and wine, which represent all things in the universe and the universe itself. Mass, therefore, is seen as a cosmic event even from this angle.

It will be a special point of devotion to see that the blessing of the Eucharistic bread be extended to everything the Christian uses in this world. In this way, all things will be considered consecrated to divine worship, and God, who is honoured in all things, will cherish and bless those who adore Him in spirit and in truth” (C497).

Fr. Founder says that our Institute could be called the “Institute of Blessing”, because, through the Eucharist, we desire “all persons and things to be blessed”. This blessing of everything in the universe through the daily Eucharist should provide a solid foundation for a theology of ecological issues, very important today given the strong emphasis on the environment and all related problems.

Devotion to the Precious Blood of JESUS remained constant in the life of Fr. Founder, since the time he received from Magdalen of Canossa a booklet of meditations and prayers to the Precious Blood. The booklet was on the cabinet beside his bed at the moment of his death on the Feast of the Precious Blood.

In the Constitutions, Fr. Founder recommends the “offering of our blood” in union with the Blood of JESUS our Redeemer, saying that “it is an act of piety for which we shall have a special love” (C762). This offering should be made frequently, during Mass, “with humility, fear, and trembling”, especially by presbyters and major superiors, but also by all other members of the Institute.

For Reflection

Fr. Rosmini’s devotion to Mary, especially Our Lady of Sorrows, is well documented. He was looking forward to writing a special book on Mary in his Supernatural Anthropology. Writing to Fr. Paolo Barola, he says, “The last book of a work I am at present engaged on will deal with our blessed Lady. Oh, what a consolation it will be to me if by my labour I succeed in arriving that far! I rejoice to think of it. Pray for me to our dear Mother that she may obtain this favour for me and give me light to write worthily of her” (Ep. Comp. V, p.173).

His faith lead him to believe that it was a sign of Providence his being born on 24th March: “God, when He granted me the grace of being born on the vigil of the feast of our Lady’s Annunciation, showed that He meant to give her as Mother and Protectress, and this I have always experienced”.

Fr. Founder recited daily the Rosary, which, after Mass, he considered his most pressing duty of the day. In difficult times, he looked up to Mary for help and protection: “I have a complete faith after God in our beloved Mother and Leader – Mary; and I entrust to her also this whole business, and remain entirely tranquil in myself. The whole Institute is her child; let us leave our Mother to act. Meanwhile I can tell you that she every day grants me new favours and new consolations” (Ep. Asc. II, p.474).

For a more comprehensive treatment of Fr. Founder’s writings and devotion to Mary see the booklet, “Christian Piety and the Interior Life” (A. Valle, translated by J. Morris, pp.88-111).

 

After the teaching on prayer, Fr. Founder deals with the three vows giving particular emphasis to the vow of poverty and to “the humility of the elective state”. The vow of chastity is, as usual, dealt with very briefly, and the vow of obedience is explained in greater depth.

 

Poverty: “mother” and “firm bulwark

Evangelical poverty, for Fr. Founder, demands the perfect renunciation of all that he possesses in order to follow Christ: “Behold, we have left all things and have followed you” (Mt.19,27). Members of the Institute must embrace wholeheartedly this “unrestricted poverty”, must be truly poor and ready at all times to go out begging for their food. All our Houses should welcome visitors with the cry, “Enough here for one so soon to die!” (C515).

However, poverty in the Institute is subject to obedience, and it will be Superiors who will decide the degree of poverty for individuals and communities. Moreover, “the person who follows Christ with his whole heart, and by an act of will abandons all his possessions, may still retain for a time his worldly substance as far as his external and civil dominion is concerned” (C503). This external retention is permitted until one takes the Coadjutor’s vows that make him “fully integrated” into the Society; it is a retention that may prove useful if one has to withdraw from religious life altogether.

There is another characteristic in the vow of poverty that appeared new, and even revolutionary, in Fr. Founder’s time. In the Institute of Charity, neither the religious Society nor the community exercises legal ownership. This is done by individual religious, in their capacity as citizens with civil rights. This was contrary to the current usage of religious Institutes approved by the Church: they had juridical rights over their properties whereas all their members, by taking the vow of property, had to divest themselves totally of their legal capacity for ownership. Fr. Founder had to battle firmly with the Roman Congregation to persuade them of both the full religious validity and the civil wisdom of the characteristic of the vow of poverty in our Institute. These are some of the exchanges, starting with the Roman Congregation’s objections:

Leaving the individual with ownership annuls the most characteristic and essential part of the vow, that is real abdication of ownership. Furthermore, this concept of poverty was opposed to the gospel teaching and to the sacred Canons of the Council of Trent which prescribed that religious abdicate all ownership”.

Fr. Founder clarified his views in his many letters to Card. Castracane, and especially to Fr. Setti, his procurator in Rome, who were dealing with the approval of the Constitutions:

The external and legal renunciation of ownership is not necessary to constitute the substance of the religious state… Unfortunately we ourselves have seen religious orders destroyed at the hands of civil governments and vows no longer recognised by law… Given the present circumstances and the ubiquity of false teaching, the goods of a religious institute are considered as public property by almost all governments of the world. This is why governments feel authorised to lay hold of them” (see Valle, pp. 104-106).

It is only fair to add that Fr. Founder’s new revolutionary understanding of the vow of poverty was soon adopted by many other new religious Congregations, and even by the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars in Rome.

Apart from the civil, external rights over properties, Fr. Founder was very demanding on the exercise of evangelical poverty. He also envisaged, for example, a special House where full poverty would be exercised by the members of the community, living “solely on alms begged of the faithful for love of JESUS Christ” (C505). He wanted community houses to reflect the interior poverty of the brethren, with nothing superfluous, nothing unbecoming the poor of Christ: “All members must love poverty as the firm bulwark of religious life” (C515).

The enemy of mankind tries to weaken this refuge and stronghold which the Lord our God has urged us to use against the devil and the other enemies of perfection” (C516): to safeguard the Institute against possible decline and corruption in keeping true poverty Fr. Founder ruled that every presbyter will profess the additional vow against laxity in poverty.

The fifth of the Five Wounds deals precisely with poverty within the Church, and by extension in the Institute: “The profession of poverty was for long the glory of the priestly ministry; the majority of men called to the priesthood abandoned their possessions or gave them away to the poor… The outstretched hands of the poor, of widows, lepers, slaves, pilgrims and the destitute became vaults where the Church could deposit her treasures without fear of theft”.

The early Church was poor, but free. Her evangelical poverty was safeguarded by seven maxims which regulated the acquisition, administration and use of material goods. Fr. Rosmini explains these ancient maxims with a passionate plea that the Church of his time, the Church of our time, (and the Institute), may embrace them once again if she is to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

  1. The first requirement was that all offerings to the Church had to be “spontaneous”.
  1. The second maxim protecting the Church from corruption was that goods should be possessed, administered and dispensed in common.
  1. The third, precious maxim was that the clergy should use church goods only for the strict needs of their maintenance; the remainder was to be applied to pious works, especially in alms for the poor.
  1. The fourth requirement governing Church goods and safeguarding the integrity of the clergy was that ecclesiastical wealth used for pious, charitable purposes, should also be assigned to fixed, determined works to prevent arbitrariness and self-interest from interfering with the management of the goods.
  1. The fifth requirement safeguarding the Church from the danger of riches was “a generous spirit, prompt to give, slow to receive”.
  1. The sixth requirement compelled the Church to make public the administration of all her possessions.
  1. The seventh and last requirement is that the Church should administer her goods watchfully and carefully.

 

See The Five Wounds of the Church, pp. 133-156

The Humility of the Elective State

Humility is said to be “the foundation of the whole life chosen by us” (C521). We belong to the Church learning, not to the Church teaching. The immediate aim of our coming together is to be in a safe place, separated as far as possible from the tumult and dangers of this world, where we may become holy together by constant purification of our own vices and defects, with the powerful help of God’s grace.

This humility is expressed both by our withdrawal from the world and by the way we deal with one another, always prepared to give way to others, always presuming in favour of others until the opposite is known. Our tone should be that of brothers and friends, not teachers; our speech should be sensible and sincere, avoiding rashness, pomposity, ignorance and any show of vanity.

The state that we love and choose is lowly and humble, a life hidden with Christ in God; the member in our way of life is a person directed to his own interior life, weeping over himself, grounded in the bitterness of penitence. Nothing is more contrary to this state than ambition for posts of honour… There should be a holy parity amongst all members” (C525).

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