by Therese Ivers, JCL
One of our readers put in a request that we discuss the vocation of religious brothers. As a result, I would like to share a few thoughts on the vocation to religious brotherhood.
“Are we visiting the monkeys?” My brother asked this when he was about three years old. He was not talking about going to the zoo. Rather, he was referring to our practice of occasionally going to visit a local abbey on Sunday. This particular abbey has special significance for me. It was where I made a retreat before making my First Communion. It was also where I met “Brother Beekeeper”.
“Brother Beekeeper” was a monk who kept the abbey beehives. No doubt he did much more around the abbey, but I knew him as a super nice monk who showed us what he did with bees. I was writing an essay on beekeeping when I was about 11 years old, and since my neighborhood lacked bee hives, I went to the abbey because I remembered luscious honeycomb being served there for Sunday brunch they’d serve the abbot’s guests. There, this wonderful monk showed us the hives. We donned beekeeping outfits (much too big for my brother and I!) and we had a hands-on experience with beekeeping. We even extracted honey and learned that propolis (gunk bees glue to the entrance of their hives) was good for cuts. Brother Beekeeper even gave my family some honey we extracted and some of that propolis to take home as a souvenir of our trip.
Yes, monks were great in my books. One of the easiest place to find them is in an abbey. Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed that people become quite possessive of “their” monks when they live in a community blessed with a strong presence of monks. It is quite touching to hear in different parts of the United States about “The Abbey”, which means the local abbey. That goes for some of the more “monastic” brothers/monks.
With respect to more active brothers, I have only occasionally bumped into them in my travels around the U.S. They are scarce, with women religious outnumbering them oftentimes at a ratio greater than 10:1. One of my canon law classmates in Rome was a religious brother. He is a member of the Missionaries of Charity that Bl. Mother Teresa founded. He would come into class in his grey and light blue clothing and he was an asset to our class. My family has ties to some religious brothers in that some of us were educated by religious brothers in academic institutions run by them.
In some respects, I think that many Catholics tend to categorize men’s vocations into the priesthood and married states. There is an attitude that I have frequently encountered that if a man has a vocation, he should become a priest and not a brother. Somehow brothers are seen as “not as good as priests” or “wanna-be-priests” that didn’t make it. This is not the case at all! A brother is one called by God to live in community, taking the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. His role is that of intercessory prayer before God and of service to His people. Some brothers are more contemplative, and others are more active. This is a lofty vocation which God calls some men to live. This is a particular and important role in our Church. Sadly, many are not aware of this call because if they think of vocation at all, they think in terms of the priesthood or married life.
So, who are religious brothers? Primarily, religious brothers are men who are assiduously devoted to prayer and contemplation. They are disciples of Christ. Their first duty is personal holiness and to give witness to the joy of living for Christ with their prayer and penance. Then, they may devote themselves to an apostolate in the abundance of their prayer life. You will see brothers such as my classmate working with the poorest of the poor. You will find others hard at work in their monasteries plowing fields or doing work to maintain themselves. The common thread in their lives is that they are men dedicated to the hard but sublime task of taking up the yoke of Christ, both for the good of their own souls and that of the rest of us.