All Christian vocations entail a certain relinquishment – a letting-go of oneself. This action, which in human terms is often challenging, is part-and-parcel of the religious life. It is also typified in the life of sheep – that pasturing animal we have long been associated with in our faith.
We find our support, our sustenance, our work, our rest, the order of our lives, through acquiescing to the will of the Shepherd. He is the yardstick of our action and reactions. We trust Him, even when He leads us where we’d rather not go. We may not want to go out to pasture when He tells us to, or be led through those dangerous, testing landscapes which, for one reason or another, He leads us. But we trust Him, and the idea is that we respond to His voice. It is a voice we know and trust. We know that, in the great scheme of things, we are looked after, as the Shepherd cares for us with unwavering devotion.
We acquiesce, not because it is our only option, but because it brings us freedom. Yes, in the care of the Shepherd, our boundary walls are set and kept in good order, our food brought to us, our pasture land prepared well, our community developed and nurtured. And within that space, we can find freedom. Not the pseudo-freedom of limitless worldly expanse, where we can go where we want and do what we like, because such ‘freedom’ leaves us lost, caught in the thicket, open to so many possible roads that we end up on one that is no good for us.
It is at those times when we become lost, when we crave for a freedom that doesn’t really exist, that the Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in search of us, the one who was lost, and brings us back on His shoulders.
We are called to live together and to love one another, just as He loves us.
Monks and nuns will be drawn by the image of Christ the Good Shepherd because religious life is that very field wherein the sheep live. Yes, that place is set aside for us by the Shepherd, to nurture us, to bring us into true freedom.
We arrive at the walls of the monastery – that is, at the gate of the field – as individuals who were simply unfulfilled. Somewhere deep inside, we felt that life in all its glamour and endless options was not satisfying the core purpose of our being. We sensed that we were not designed for the place we lived in. And we were sheep without a shepherd, lost.
We opened the gate, and came into the presence of the Good Shepherd, the bringer of true freedom.
And whilst the world outside – the world that has never tasted or seeks to taste the kind of freedom on offer in monastic life – whilst the world laughs at us for being like submissive sheep – we can laugh and say: “Yes! We are sheep! We are the sheep of His pasture, who know His voice, and He knows us. And not one of us will be left uncared for.” We live a freedom which has been developed inside a firewall of pure grace, there to set us free.
Yet the people who tell us we are mad, who tell us we are not free because we live in a monastery – these are the ones who believe that being rich is good and being poor is bad, who have been captivated to a degree by the religion of commerce which tells us what to buy and when. The world we left to become monks – the world we used to call ‘free’: it is not free at all.
The storm of the human condition lives within each of us. And to some extent it follows us into the pasture land. We must fight with our desires and egos, our passions and failures, and lay it all at the feet of the Good Shepherd, who alone knows what to do.
This is the relinquishment we are called to make – the giving-up of ourselves in order to more truly become the selves He has designed us to be. This crucial action hinges on the acceptance that we are not in control, something that many people do not like to hear. The Good Shepherd is greater than us, and only in a full giving of ourselves – warts and all – shall we find the freedom of the Gospel inside us.
The Good Shepherd Himself was obedient unto death. He washed the feet of His disciples, exhorting them to be each other’s servants. So we see, from the perspective of the sheep, the posture that Christ is asking us to adopt in order to become truly free. It is the posture of humility.
The sheep of the pasture enjoy real contact with the Shepherd. He drives them, picks them up when they fall, shears them, and has daily physical contact. Like the relationship between parent and child, this contact is important in the nurturing process. It transmits love to a degree beyond what words might offer. It is the same for us, who come to Mass to receive Christ in the form of the wafer and the wine. We forget, perhaps, that we have physical contact with Him in the Eucharistic form, that He is always there for us, to guide and sustain, to feed us and give us strength for the journey.
So we pray this Sunday, and especially as we receive the Most Holy Eucharist, for vocations to religious life and the priesthood. We pray for a keener desire from the young men and women of our country to approach that pasture and become the sheep of the Good Shepherd.
We pray for those who are themselves the representatives of Christ in ministerial form, that they too shall have the courage to accept the vocations, to nurture them as Christ nurtures them, and to never cease being humble sheep themselves.