Friday, November 03, 2006

The Vocation of Lay Brother

Today is the memorial of St. Martin de Porres, a wonderful mystic from Lima, Peru. He was of mixed blood, born of a Spanish father and a negro mother. He entered the Dominican order as a familiar, not having the status of a professed religious, although I believe he became a lay brother later.

He is known as a patron of peace and justice. His ministry to the poor who came to the monastery, as well as his medical knowledge caused him to be very popular amongst Lima's lower class. He is often shown in art with little domestic animals, with whom he enjoyed a special relationship and understanding, perhaps much like our father Adam.

All of his attributes, portrayed in art or literature, exist to illustrate for us his remarkable holiness and union with God. He wasn't a la-ti-da romantic, rather a penitent whose penances are rather repulsive to read about for the modern anglo mind. Gifted in prayer he was known for miraculous occurrences, such as levitation and bi-location. All the while exercising himself in his duties with the simplest practicality and devotion.

What we see in him is a humble soul exalted by God, given the immense grace of union with God in charity. This is what devotional paintings attempt to convey, his participation in the very life of God with the peace and joy, and reconciliation with nature Divine Grace effects in the purified soul.

After Vatican II, the status of lay brother in most monasteries and religious orders changed, there remained little distinction between choir religious and lay religious, most became brothers of more or less equal status, save for those in Holy Orders. Brothers enjoyed a new prestige and ministry, especially in the mendicant orders. Many pursued higher education if they did not already have it. They were more likely to teach or have some form of apostolate.

Unfortunately, the vocation of the simple lay brother, who was responsible for the more menial tasks of the monasteries, more or less fell by the wayside. I know brothers who insist that the idea of the lay brother as a servant in the community is insulting to their status as a religious. As a result, some monasteries hire people to do the menial work, including the cooking and cleaning. This may also be due to a lack of vocations. Although one wonders if the lack of vocations might also be the result of discouraging this humble vocation.

The vocation of lay brother is a lofty vocation in the Church, with many, many saints to attest to the beauty of a life of humility, hidden with Christ in God. Their lives were marked by many mystical graces and lofty prayer, as well as miracles, while they served the more contemplative brothers and fathers of the community. Perhaps some of the orders will reinstate this vocation one day.


  1. Terry: Interesting commentary on the lay brotherhood. I bet if that office was reinstated, the monasteries may be surprised at the numbers willing to fill that position as opposed to choir brotherhood.

    I believe nuns used to have lay sisters too but I could be wrong about that.

  2. About lay sisters: Yes. All the great Orders of nuns had them, and some of the modern congregations too. There were great saints among the converses or lay sisters. I am thinking of Blessed Mary of Jesus Crucified (Carmelite), Blessed Fortunata Viti (O.S.B.), Saint Faustina, Josefa Menendez (R.S.C.J.)and a multitude of others.

  3. Don Marco5:47 PM

    It is said that while great Père Lacordaire, O.P. preached from the pulpit, hidden beneath the pulpit stairs was a humble lay brother praying the rosary for him . . . and for his hearers.

    There are any number of holy lay brothers in the mendicant Orders.

    The Trappist lay brother, Frère Marie–Gabriel of the Abbey of Chambarand in France lived in extraordinary intimacy with the Blessed Virgin.

    Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez, S.J. and Blessed André Bessette, C.S.C. were both lay brothers.


Please comment with charity and avoid ad hominem attacks. I exercise the right to delete comments I find inappropriate. If you use your real name there is a better chance your comment will stay put.