Stranger: “What order do you belong to?”
IVE Monk: “The Institute of the Incarnate Word, a missionary order founded in Argentina around 30 years ago.”
Stranger: “So you’re missionaries? But aren’t you a monk?”
IVE Monk: “Yeah, so?”
The vast majority of people who understand what a missionary is and what a monk is have a very difficult time understanding how one person can be both. The classical image of a missionary such as St. Francis Xavier baptizing pagans in Asia until his arm grows tired seems to be at odds with guys in white robs living on the top of a hill.
For lack of time, a quick answer that we sometimes give is to point at St. Therese of the Child Jesus, the contemplative co-patron of the missions. If she’s the co-patron, obviously contemplatives have something to do with missionary work.
If one considers only the exterior manifestations of contemplative life, they would be correct in asserting it does not contribute to the mission of the active apostolate. But the exterior work of the mission is not what it is all about. In reality, the active and contemplative life are simply different means of achieving the same goals of glorifying God, saving our own soul and that of our neighbor.
Historically, following the fall of Rome, the great work of the conversion of the barbarians, and consequently the foundation of Christendom, was primarily carried out by monks. Even secular historians admit the importance of the Benedictines in the missionary fields; but no less important, although not as well appreciated, is the work of Irish monks. Abandoning their homeland in a movement known as Green Martyrdom, many Celtic monks spread out over the British Isles and Northern Europe to teach and evangelize. These establishments would prove fundamental in the work of evangelizing both the ordinary people in the countryside as well as the barbarian leaders.
In modern times, the contributions of monks to evangelization are no less great but often less obvious. We could look at the testimony given by contemplatives simply by their way of life which has been likened to a living martyrdom. This same way of life is a reminder to the world that it is not the end, but rather Christ Himself. The monk renounces all and points to the End. However, now we will just consider the most commonly recognized contribution of the contemplative life to the work of evangelizing: prayer.
As a preface of sorts, it should be noted that the recognition of the importance of prayer is intrinsically dependent on one’s faith. To understand the need for prayer in evangelization, we must recall that “it is God who sends workers into His harvest when He is asked to do so (cf. Matt. 9:38), God who opens the minds of non-Christians to hear the Gospel (cf. Acts 16:14), and God who fructifies the word of salvation in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor. 3:7).” The primacy of God in the mission in turn requires the primacy of prayer in the mission. As a result, the missionary does not need to be present physically in the mission to contribute to the fruits of that mission. All the members of our little religious family might have only a single destino, but our work does not need to be limited to that singular location. It is in this way that the members of the monastic branch can contribute to the IVE’s mission.
The superabundance of Biblical verses concerning intercessory prayer could itself constitute a book. Rather than quote verses to infinity, just consider the words of St. James which are particularly powerful, “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” (James 5:16b) The Apostle goes on to enumerate the power of Elijah’s prayer which first prevented rain for more than three years and then opened them up again.
Writing during the Protestant Reformation, St. Teresa exhorted her sisters “to live in such a way that our prayers may be of avail to help these servants of God [preachers and religious attempting to quench the flames of heresy].” Despite their complete withdrawal from the world, the vocation of Carmelites to this day remains that of praying for the salvation of souls. Writing in no uncertain terms, St. Teresa reminds her sisters:
Intercessory prayer is a grace whose effects we will only appreciate in heaven. As St. Therese of the Child Jesus said in the months leading up to her death:
“In heaven, we’ll know who prayed for us. Very often, without knowing it, the graces and lights that we receive are due to a hidden soul, for God wills that saints communicate grace to each other through prayer with great love, with a love much greater than that of a family, and even the most perfect family on earth. How often have I thought that I may owe all the graces I’ve received to the prayer of a person who begged them from God for me, and whom I shall know only in Heaven. In heaven we shall not meet with indifferent glances, because all the elect will discover that they owe each other the graces that merited the crown for them.”
Although the contemplative has left the world behind, his concern for it does not decrease. On the contrary, he is more and more concerned about the universal Church and the salvation of souls. Through his union with God, the contemplative is used by God just as any other member of the Church to fulfill a mission. The contemplative maintains his membership in the body of Christ inside the monastery just as those outside. United to the other members by charity, the monk seeks to secure his salvation as well as that of all mankind using the means made available to him by his vocation.
Holy Mother Church noted the importance of contemplative religious in evangelization in its Decree Ad Gentes: On the Mission activity of the Church. The document notes that contemplatives participate in the conversion of souls “by their prayers, sufferings, and works of penance.” On account of this, contemplative institutes are encouraged “to found houses in mission areas.”
Our Constitutions recognize this apostolic role of the contemplatives and contains several powerful passages concerning this role. It refers to them as “the keystones of the apostolic endeavor of our Institute.” The Directory of Spirituality likewise speaks even more forcefully in this regard. It reads:
May Mary, “who aided the beginnings of the church by her prayers,” intercede for these monks so that they might continue to efficaciously contribute to our Institute’s work of the inculturation of the Gospel “in every man, in all of man, and in all manifestations of man.”
To our religious family, you are daily in our prayers and we ask that you include us in yours,