October Retreat - by Fr. Eric Boulle, OMI

Preached on 9th October 2004


"Evangelical Counsels"

(The retreat started with evening prayer on Friday 8th October followed by a brief talk with distribution of materials for reflection from the scriptures and the constitution and rules. The next morning Saturday 9th October we had our main talk at 09: 00 hours. The retreat talk started with a reading from Philippians 3:7-15. The following is the abridged version of the talk we had.)

Introduction to the evangelical counsels:Sometimes we tend to look on the vows as a sort of canonical requirement in order to become a religious. This is a very negative and inferior way of looking upon the vows and the religious life. The nature and purpose of our vows do not derive from canonical regulations, but from the very heart of the gospel - from the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Gift from the Father for the pursuit of holiness - free choice on our part.
When the early hermits and desert fathers left the "world" it was not simply to "flee from the world", but to pursue holiness , that is to live more fully the life and values of the Gospel. Our Constitutions echo this very well: "Our mission requires that, in a radical way, we follow Jesus who was chaste and poor and who redeemed mankind by his obedience. That is why through a gift of the Father, we choose the way of the evangelical counsels." (C 12) Secondly, this desire to follow Jesus is a gift from the Father. It is a grace. We did not merit or deserve it. Thirdly, we choose the way of evangelical counsels. It is not forced upon us. We freely, willingly, and knowingly choose to answer the call.

Let us compare our vows of religion to a flower. The roots are the foundation of the plant. The stem is the life-line from the roots to the bloom. The flower is the end product.

Obedience, then is symbolized by the roots. Now the roots are the foundation of the plant. They are the source from which the plant receives its nourishment, moisture, strength and life. The roots draw life from the earth, and send it into every cell of the plant. If the roots don't do their work, the whole plant dies. If the roots are cut off from the plant, the plant dies. So it is with obedience. Obedience gives life, meaning, growth and maturity to the religious life. The best example of what I am trying to say is found in Jesus' own comparison of the vine and the branches. (John chapter 15). That parable defies explanation. Its true meaning can only be appreciated by constant meditation and reflection.

Poverty is the stemof the plant. Now the stem is the life-line from the roots to the bloom. There can be no flower, no end-product without the stem. It is the stem that carries the nourishment and life-giving sap from the roots to every single branch and leaf, and finally to the flower. Poverty is the stem of the religious life. It is the vehicle which brings life to the bloom. It is the catalystbetween obedience and chastity. If you break the stem, there will be no flower. The plant may die. If we nullify poverty, chastity dies, because poverty is the necessary ingredient, strengthening the will and disciplining the body so that it can live chastely. If we pamper the body and give in to its whims and comforts and desires, chastity will wither and die. Chastity cannot survive on lack of discipline; nor can the religious life in general.

Chastity is the flower - the final bloom. . It is the end-product of the plant - its beauty. It shows what the plant is for, its nature and its purpose. The healthier the roots and the stronger the stem, the more beautiful the flower. In the case of chastity, it takes on the beauty of Christ, to become immersed in him, and with him in the life of the Kingdom, where there is no giving and taking in marriage (Mt 22:30). As we said above, the vow of poverty is the stem. If you break the stem, the plant dies. There will be no flower. If you nullify or negate poverty, chastity will die. Chastity cannot survive without discipline. Poverty helps to provide that form of self-discipline necessary to sustain chastity.

St Eugene's words on Obedience (1818)St Eugene states that the vow of obedience is the most important of the vows because it is based on the obedience of Christ by which he redeemed the world. (We were, then, referred to the following passages of gospels: Jn 4:34; 5:30; 6:38-40; 17:4; 19:30; Mt 26:39.) Philippians 2:8 also states that Christ became obedient unto death, even death on the cross. C24 also reminds us of this.

In order to obey we have to listen attentively for the Father's voice. "Listening" requires submission on our part; switching off our own selfish will; praying and contemplating continuously. Secondly, by our vow of obedience we plunge ourselves into something infinitely greater than our little selves, and that is the plan of salvation. We willingly and voluntarily submit our wills to the will of God, especially as that will is reflected in the will of the Superior and the Community.

We are signs and witnesses of a new world.

C25 adds a most important dimension to our vow of obedience. It tells us that by challenging the spirit of domination in the world, we stand as a sign of that new world wherein persons recognize their close interdependence. In other words, by our vow of obedience we are to be a visible sign, a sacrament, to the world in which we work and live - a sign of a new world. If ever our world needed that sign, it is today.

Fr Allan Moss

(After this, Fr. Eric went ahead to talk about an article that Fr. Allan Moss, the Provincial of Natal Province, wrote for the chapter. The major question that he asks us is, 'how effective was our missionary endeavor? He went into details of the article, which calls for Oblates to be witnesses by our lifestyle.)

The people today, need to see a prophet in their midst, a light that shines in the dark, with which they can identify. It is not just a doctrine they need but Christ-like commitment. Incarnation means a total self-giving, incarnating as an alter Christus into the life of the people. It involves self-denial in order to be Christ to the world. People need to see the face of Christ in the face of the missionary. The questions Fr. Moss poses, in his article, are extremely pertinent, and we have to answer them at the risk of being looked upon as actors and hypocrites.
1.     How effective was our missionary endeavour? If we think it was not effective, what are we doing about it?
2.     Are we, as Oblates, involved in the suffering of our people: violence, war, famine and AIDS?
3.     What kind of witness do we give by our life style? Can many of our parishioners, or family or friends, afford to travel as much as we do, within the country and overseas?
4.     Do our people see a prophet or a light in their midst with whom they can identify?
5.     Do our people see Christ in us, in our eyes, in our touch?
6.     Do we remember that we are not our own - not here for ourselves - but for others?


(To conclude, Fr Eric referred us to Paul's words in Phil 3:7-15.)
In these words St Paul sums up beautifully and profoundly the call to the religious life. They give a deep meaning and purpose to our vows - they are like a Pentecostal breath of fresh air. For us they capture the heart of the matter.

Name of Christ: Like Paul, those called to the religious life, must be convinced that Jesus Christ is the source, beginning and end of their being, their life, and their future. Like Paul, religious are to be soaked in the love of Jesus Christ, drenched through and through with him, permeated with his presence. They must be totally absorbed in Christ, and (again to use Paul's words) rooted in him. As we mentioned just now, our vow of obedience helps us to be rooted in Christ.

Our vows, particularly that of Poverty, is a self-emptying - a getting rid of our material baggage, in all its forms. By that I mean the baggage we carry around with us, not just in suitcases, but in our minds and hearts: our dependence on material possessions, on wealth, power, authority, our anxieties and hurts, etc.

Modern Technology:

More than ever before, modern technology has penetrated into almost every aspect of our lives. Some of it is good, some useful, some necessary. What part does it play in my life? That is the question we are to ask ourselves. Can I do without it for a time? Does it control my life? Would I be able to live my religious life without most of what it offers?

Spirit of the Vows:

We must remember that the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, - important and necessary as they are - are really only the boundaries or parameters within which we live our religious life. The vows, as such, do not really change us intrinsically. It is the spirit of the vows that we are to practise and interiorize and personalize.
We are not to let past mistakes haunt us and prevent us from moving forward. We are to look ahead, not backwards, and keep running forward. And so we must always keep our final end or goal in view. And that goal must determine the kind of life we live. If I am running the 100 metres or the 220 metres or whatever race, I cannot run and at the same time carry my baggage with me. Well, we joined the religious life in order to follow Christ more fully. The more I empty myself of self, the lighter will I be to run after Christ, to follow him to the finish.
What kind of faith do I have? Is it a faith that can move mountains, or a faith which makes me get out of the boat and walk on the waters towards Christ, and then fails me just as I am approaching him? How deep is my faith? Does it permeate my life?
And so Paul concludes, "I strain ahead for what is still to come." Like him, my dear brothers, we too " are racing for the finish, for the prize to which God calls us upwards to receive in Christ Jesus." (Vs. 14)

<Reported on and abridged by Bro. John Y. Mvula, OMI.


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