Holy Spirit Province Saint-Esprit
Franciscans of CanadaFranciscains du Canada

Ordo Fratrum Minorum

The Meaning of (Religious) Life

The Meaning of (Religious) Life


What do you think the friar on the left is thinking? He seems to have figured it all out. I am not so sure about the others, though. Clearly, they are not there, yet. Fair enough, considering that they are on a pilgrimage, that they are a people on the way.

Seriously, though, this is a picture of some of my brothers while on their pilgrimage in the footsteps of the first Franciscans in what was then New France, would eventually become British North America, and is now known as Canada. On the left is Guylain Prince, a friar from Montreal who organized the whole thing, and the others are friars from the Western Canadian Province.

What started the process of bringing together the two Canadian provinces is that there are not enough of us to run two full-scale provincial administrations. Nevertheless, even when driven by necessity, a reorganization like this is always also an opportunity. Something new has to begin, and we get to choose what this is going to be. It is a moment with great potential—if we use it.

How do we use it, though, especially now that there are not many of us? It may seem as if there is very little that we can do with such a small group. However, we are not really about what we do but what we symbolize, and how well we symbolize it. The efficacy of a symbol is not in its size but in the way it stands out from the ordinary. A symbol must be seen, and it must be different enough to capture attention, and it must point to something important. Religious life is such a symbol. What religious life symbolizes is life finding its meaning entirely through relationship with God. What makes religious life meaningful is not what we do, but what we show: the human ability to turn to God and let all else be of lesser importance. If we come together, with nothing else on our minds than this, then we will succeed.

The transition point towards a new way of thinking, a modern way of thinking that saw in life only mechanisms for survival, rather than meaning, is found in Francis Bacon’s work. In his understanding, the search for teleology in nature, for final causes towards with natural processes are ordered, is “barren, and like a virgin consecrated to God, produces nothing.” Of course, this is a stab at religious life as much as at Aristotelian physics. If the propagation of life is all what life is about, then religious life is barren and produces nothing. These two things belong together: if life is only about survival, and if what happens in nature has no inherent purpose, then there is nothing to human life then staying alive. When there is no meaning in it that last beyond our death, then there is nothing that can be expressed by living life as religious life.

Life, as modern science understands it, is not sustainable, and nothing that science can see will give it lasting meaning. What science sees are processes that always end. Big bang cosmology has shown us not only that there is a beginning, but also that there is an end to the physical universe. Our universe did not only not always exist and will not exit forever. Life had a beginning, and it will have an end. It is not of the nature of created life to be sustainable in the material world as science understands it.

At the same time, we know that our lives have meaning. We already experience this in our lives right now. We experience it not only in our relationships, but also in the world that surrounds us, in all creation. Meaning in nature and meaning in personal relationships are different, but they are not unrelated, and they belong together. When we think about religious life, then we see this much more comprehensive understanding of life. In religious life, the struggle of staying alive is not futile but a process towards moving closer to God, the source of this life. Death becomes the end in an entirely different meaning of the word.

Being symbols for this understanding of life is our only function in the world. It produces nothing–except meaning in life, and the appreciation and affirmation of this meaning, which is love.