This past May 31st I had the great joy of being consecrated eternally to God in the rite of solemn profession. Simple words, but an awesome statement—to be “consecrated eternally” is to have surrendered one’s life to God not only in the here and now, but even beyond our world of time and space, forever. But what is “consecration” really—what does such an action imply? And, more practically, why would one choose to do such a thing with one’s life? Over the years of monastic formation leading up to this culminating moment, I have come to some answers to these questions which I thought might be worth sharing.
A beautiful passage in volume II of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent work Jesus of Nazareth addresses the question of Jesus’ threefold consecration, revealed in the High Priestly Prayer of chapter 17 of St. John’s Gospel. It is not difficult to see how these words describing Jesus’ consecration could also apply to the act of monastic consecration. Pope Benedict writes: “Something that is consecrated is raised into a new sphere that is no longer under human control. But this setting apart also includes the essential dynamic of ‘existing for’. Precisely because it is entirely given over to God, this reality is now there for the world, for men, it speaks for them and exists for their healing…Jesus belongs entirely to God, and that is what makes Him entirely ‘for all.’” When a woman is consecrated to God in monastic profession, she is set apart, she lives only for God and is “no longer under human control”—primarily her own human control! But if God asks some individuals to belong to Him in this way, it is in order that they may be present to the world in a radical and unique manner. To be free for God necessarily entails being free for all of His children, whom we are to carry in our hearts.
A consecration that mirrors that of Jesus, however, must be cruciform. Still addressing the consecration Jesus speaks of at the Last Supper, the Pope writes, “...[to consecrate] means ‘to make holy’ in the sense of ‘to consecrate for the sacrifice’…to quote St. John Chrysostom, ‘I sanctify myself—I present myself as a sacrifice.’” On the day of monastic consecration, a nun presents herself also as “sacrifice”. It is no mere coincidence that the rite of solemn profession is placed during Mass at the Offertory. Liturgically, the meaning is clear: as the bread and wine are brought forward to become the Body and Blood of the Christ of Calvary, this woman brings herself, her literal body and blood, to offer them to the Father with the Son. This offering is not morbid or morose; it is made in the freedom and joy of a lover who cries, “grant me to become a sacrifice to God while there is still an altar at hand.” (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans). As another text would have it, “I long to offer myself to You for a freewill offering, and to remain forever Yours. Lord, in the sincerity of my heart, I offer myself to You today to serve forever, for obedience and for a sacrifice of unending praise.” (Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ). This may be a tall order, but it is hardly a gloomy one!
If the death of Christ on Calvary resulted in the sanctification of the world, then the small life and death of a nun in a monastery can, by the grace of God, become a channel of grace through which His redemption flows. The Pope writes: “…The disciples are to be drawn into Jesus’ sanctification; they too are included in this reappropriation into God’s sphere and the ensuing mission for the world.” Consecration, then, is twofold. It exists, firstly, for the glory of God; Jesus spoke of the purpose of His death, saying “…so that the world may know that I love the Father.” (Jn. 14:31). As St. Teresa of Avila put it, “O my Lord, of all the millions of people you have created, shouldn’t just a few of them give their complete attention to You? “
And as with the Offering on the Cross, the offering of a life in a monastic community is made “for the sake of my brethren.”(Romans 9:3). As Benedictine contemplatives, we give our lives with a certain freedom of purpose. The important thing is not exactly who benefits from our offering; God decides that part. The important thing is that our gift of self (joined as it is to the supreme gift of Jesus’ Self) will be used by God for the salvation of His people.
On May 31st I also—with my profession sister and with my community—presented myself as a sacrifice, I gave myself over to God and became entirely His. “I am Thine and Thou art mine, by the eternal rights which Thou hast acquired over me”, St. Gertrude exclaims in her Spiritual Exercises. But if I am a sacrifice, I am a sacrifice “of praise”, not because God demands it but because He invites me, and I desire to respond. As Sr. Lioba and I sang on the day of our profession, “And now I follow with all my heart: I fear you, and I seek to see your face: Lord, do not disappoint me: but treat me according to your kindness and the multitude of Your mercies.” (Daniel 3:41). These words, first recorded in the context of a martyrdom, are here applied to the relatively hum-drum martyrdom of monastic life. But such a life can still, by God’s grace, bring glory to His Name and change the face of the earth. It is a consecration worthy of eternity.
Written by Sr. Maria Gertrude, OSB
For pictures from their Solemn Profession Click Here