My sister is a Discalced Carmelite nun. For more than 30 years she has remained within the walls of a cloistered monastery living an austere and joyous life of prayer, sacrifice and community life centered on Jesus Christ and in imitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Everyone asks me why. Why does she live such a life of penance, shut away from the world? There are several answers: she and her community are making reparation for sins, and they are engaged in prayer, petition and thanksgiving to make up for so many who ignore and insult God.
But my favorite answer is “She’s in love.”
She fell in love and married Christ and, like any ardent bride, she places her Beloved above all else. Some wives follow their husbands around the world. She follows her Bridegroom on a different journey, into the recesses of contemplative prayer where she finds Love.
I once heard a priest describe the nuns’ vocation as an “incarceration of love” and the phrase cut a hard groove in my mind. To incarcerate means to imprison. How does captivity jibe with intimacy? To what extent do we have to sacrifice independence to commit to love?
I have another sister, a dedicated wife and mother of three. She has a plaque in her kitchen that says, “Having children is like being pecked to death by ducks.” Okay, a little strong, but I think most mothers can relate. Most of us know that children can bring a whole new meaning to the Gospel message of dying to oneself. Both of my sisters, in very divergent ways, are acknowledging the challenges of love.
One of the hardest things in the world to do is to love. Once we love, willingly or unwillingly, we begin to give up ourselves in pieces to another. The pieces leave vulnerable spaces. The spaces grow apace, and over time we become an amalgam of our loved ones with our original selves relegated to a core. Even the core begins to shrink.
That’s a lot to sacrifice and yet human beings seek love intuitively through friendship, romantic love, motherhood and fatherhood. The desire, the emotions come easily to most of us, but the required sacrifice does not. It’s no wonder our world, our culture, our families are filled with damaged relationships brought about by unrequited love, love that falls short of what it is intended to do.
According to Christ, love requires an incarceration of our hearts and our independence. We must be willing to donate ourselves in a continuous mode of captivity if we seek to truly love because love won’t accept anything short of it. If you need proof, just look at the marital statistics, or rather the divorce statistics. Try being married and not continually giving of yourself, in larger and larger pieces, and you will fail. Try raising children and holding onto your personal agenda. Try caring for an elderly parent yet maintaining your own independence. It doesn’t work. Love requires that we transform ourselves into organs of giving.
Now try to fulfill love’s demands without prayer, without seeking grace, and again you will fail. We can not love without sacrifice and we can not sacrifice without the love of Christ. Love is a superhuman feat and it requires supernatural graces.
Think of the greatest examples of unconditional love and you will find they are propelled by grace. Our Lady was incarcerated all of Her life for love of God. Her “Fiat,” a beautiful example of love, was made possible by the grace of Her humility or “captivity.” Christ walked the earth in a captivity of love for humankind. It was a burning sacrificial love that kept Him preaching, traveling, suffering and dying on the cross when a more “independent” type of love would have fled. He is incarcerated still, both humanly and divinely, in the tabernacles of the world.
Spending our lives loving is what we are called to do. How we love counts, but why we love is the keystone to the edifice. We love because Christ loves us, and we love others the way He loves us: in a willing incarceration of love. To lasso this high ideal and rein it into our every day existence is the greatest challenge we can face. For most of us, it’s the work of a lifetime.
For information on the Discalced Carmelites, visit www.CarmelitesofRochester.org.