Sunday, February 20, 2011

What is the yoke of Christ?


Come to Me,
all of you who are weary
and find life burdensome;
I will refresh you.
Take My yoke on your shoulders
and learn from Me,
for I am gentle and humble of Heart.
You shall find rest
because My yoke is easy
and My burden light.
-- Matthew 11:28-30

Judging by the statistics recorded by the host of this site, a good number of people stumble upon my blog while searching the web with the keywords “what is the yoke of Christ?”

Good question.

It can be a confusing term. Yokes aren’t used much in the modern world. It is a wooden harness used to guide oxen or other draft animals while plowing fields. The yoke still exists in some developing countries and within more traditional cultures, but by and large it has been replaced by tractors or other mechanized equipment.

Used as a verb, “yoke” means to join or to unite. In a figurative sense—used frequently in the Old Testament—it can mean something more severe: to subjugate, or force into labor or bondage, as with a beast of burden, or worse, a slave.

Jesus, drawing on this same image, which would have been well-known in his time, gives it a deeper meaning—obedience under the law of freedom, or Love (see passage above from Matthew), and as we know, God is Love. St. Paul also uses the term in the New Testament, telling the Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

So, why did I choose to title this blog “The Yoke of Christ”?

It’s a long story, but about eight years ago while living in the Toledo, Ohio, area and working as a newspaper editor, I experienced an intense spiritual reawakening or conversion. I reached a point in my life where I knew I must give myself to God, without knowing why or what for. So I did. Now, I’m a Benedictine monk, and as St. Anthony of the Desert famously said, “Each day I begin again.”

When I sincerely called out for God’s help for the very first time at the age of 37, my heart began whispering to me in ways I had never heard before. “Come to Me” is what I kept hearing within, over and over. Accompanying this strange beckoning was a sudden and intense desire to read Scripture, which I had never done before. The words sang to me, and when I first read the passage from Matthew at the top of this post, my heart began to burn with an indescribable love of God. So, step by step, at times striding and at others stumbling, I began to follow and heed those words: “Come to Me.”

Several more years of transformation and discernment followed before I entered the monastery. Then, in January 2008, as I prepared to make my first vows of obedience, stability, and fidelity to the monastic way of life at Saint Meinrad Archabbey, my retreat director pointed something out to me. His observation provided new depth, meaning, and purpose to those words echoing in my heart.

Take a look at the illustration of the yoked oxen at the top of this post. Where do you see Christ? My problem was—and still is sometimes—that I was viewing Christ as the driver of the oxen under the yoke. That’s a terribly distorted view of obedience.

The Latin root of the word “obedience” means “listen.” So, to obey is to listen. As you know, the heart of any healthy relationship is listening. Obedience is a relationship in which those involved genuinely listen and respond to one another in love. It is listening and love in action. It is more about our relationship with God and one another than it is about simply following commands.

Put another way, obedience to God is true freedom.

However, I suspect that is not the way most of us think about obedience. It is certainly not the way I thought about it prior to making first vows in 2008. My retreat director then asked me to reconsider how a yoke is used in the agricultural tradition. Vaguely, my idea was a burdensome harness thrown over the shoulders of one poor beast.

Wrong. Rather, as The American Heritage Dictionary defines it, a yoke is a crossbar with two U-shaped pieces that encircle the necks of a pair of oxen, mules, or other draft animals working in a team (emphasis added).

This altered dramatically my image of obedience. Now, I picture God the Father gently guiding his team, plowing and sowing the Spirit’s seed-ground of the Church so all in the world may reap the harvest of Life.

And working with me (us) under the yoke (or cross) is Christ Himself. He works with us all, encourages us, and promises us joy beyond all knowing for those who “Take My yoke on your shoulders and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. You shall find rest because My yoke is easy and My burden light.”

So then, what precisely is the yoke of Christ for us? It is the vehicle of grace on the path of life by which we progressively and obediently come to know, love, and serve God. It means being a disciple of Christ, being true to one’s vocation in life—which may be lived out in many different ways.

For me, it is the monastic way of life. So in a sense, the Benedictine habit and cuculla I put on every day symbolizes the yoke of Christ. To paraphrase the words of Archabbot Justin Du Vall at my Solemn Profession Mass, it symbolizes the right mind of obedience through which I return to Christ.

This yoke, this right mind of obedience under the law of freedom, this Love, is symbolized in different ways for those living out other vocations. It may be a wedding ring, or a clerical collar, or it may be something less visible but no less demanding—such as an illness, loneliness, or other difficult circumstances.

Whatever it is, it means working in tandem with Christ for the love of God. And this is something only a life of faith can bestow. As Jesus said many times, “Your faith has saved you.” This most be our hope, no matter how weary we might be, no matter how burdensome life may be. The yoke of Christ is easy, his burden light. In him we find rest.

*******
Although it is difficult to give to one who asks, it is even more so to allow one to take what belongs to you, without asking it back. I should have said that this seems difficult, for the yoke of the Lord is sweet and light. When one accepts it, one feels its sweetness immediately, and cries out with the Psalmist: “I have run the way of your commandments when you enlarged my heart” [Psalm 118:32]. It is only charity that can expand my heart. O Jesus, since this sweet flame consumes it, I run with joy in the way of your NEW commandment. I want to run in it until that blessed day when, joining the virginal procession, I shall be able to follow you in the heavenly courts, singing your NEW canticle, which must be Love.
—St. Thérèse of Lisieux

16 comments:

Tulle said...

Dear Brother Francis.

This post was just what I needed to read today, thank you.
I am experiencing a very difficult time at present... I could call it an existential crisis. Your words here have been a great help to see things in a different light, and I am so glad to have your blog to turn to, when I need words of wisdom to nurture my soul.

Tulle.

Br. Francis de Sales Wagner said...

Thank you, Tulle.

The Holy Spirit moves where He wills.

I will keep you in prayer.

PAX
Br. Francis

david said...

Shalom Brother and thank you. Your post is accurate and true. The Word of God is our hope. May the Lord continue to bless you with His riches and His abundance. Thank you so very much for your discipling and encouragement.
In His Love, David

drewdeal said...

I truly appreciate this accurate depiction of the yoke being shared with Christ vs him being the driver of the team standing behind. It clears up my understanding perfectly, as I have known in my spirit that that Lord is truly by my side in the labor of the Word.

I am reworking my Christ Gate site and came upon this post with much appreciation.

Angela Davidson said...

WOW! I feel so enlightened by your breakdown of this passage. I am currently in Bible Study Fellowship studying the book of Matthew. One of the questions pertained to this passage which I had no idea what the word yoke meant. Thank God for internet and you where we can learn more.
So how are you in this monastic life? Do you really feel this is what God wants for your life? What about the passage where He talks about not hiding the light but letting it shine(sorry for the paraphrasing)? Anyway, thank you so much for sharing God's wisdom. Peace and Blessings to you!

Sue Forwith said...

Angela,
I too am in BSF and ended up here too! Wonder if we are in the same location!
I was very curious as to how oxen are trained to use the yoke and found this site interesting. Below is the site's summary. Interesting how similar we are to oxen and God to the master. However I too believe that Jesus wants us to yoke ourselves to Him and "...learn from me". Awesome!

http://www.prairieoxdrovers.com/training.html

Training Oxen - A Point Form Guide
A. Base for Training
1. Respect gained through meeting your oxen's needs which are food, rest, water, shelter, social contact, and safety
2. Leadership quickly and firmly established
B. Rules of Training
1. Train regularly
2. Maintain control of both your oxen and yourself
3. Be firm. Insist on obedience
4. Be patient and understanding
5. Be consistent in everything you ask
C. Training Schedule
1. Teach animals to lead
2. Begin training with the yoke (or harness)
3. Teach Whoa (Stop), Giddup (Go), and Easy (Slow down)
4. Teach Gee (Turn right), Haw (Turn left), and Back (move in reverse)
5. Begin to pull loads
6. Teach Step In (step toward a pole/chain), and Step Out (step away from a pole/chain)
7. Teach Head Up (lift heads when in yoke), and Come Boss (Come in from pasture)
8. Use lead ropes as little as possible, until you can remove them altogether
9. Work on giving animals a variety of tasks in a variety of environments
10. End each work period when things are going well

William Vaughan said...

Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy laden [in worldly futility and religious striving], and I will give you rest. Take My yoke [My priestly vocation to Father] upon you and learn from Me [the Model/Priest], for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls [Home in Father's Altar]. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light (Mt 11:28- 29).

Your only hope of true rest is embracing the vocational "yoke" of the Priest-Son. Augustine wrote, "Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee."

Br. Francis de Sales Wagner said...

Thank you, all. Haven't posted here in a while, but this particular entry still generates interest. God's Word is living and active!

Angela -- yes, I really feel this is the life God has chosen for me. The path included seven years of discernment before I made solemn vows three years ago. Believe me, at first I tried to talk God out of it! (Never works, by the way). As for not hiding the light and letting it shine -- you found the blog, didn't you?

By the way, my new blog (since the fall of 2011) is pathoflifeblog.blogspot.com. Come on over if you like!

PAX
Br. Francis

Colleen Yvonne Mae said...

Thank you Br. Francis. This was most helpful..."it is the vehicle of grace on the path of life...being true to one's vocation in life." Is this to mean that the easier yoke is that path of life that feels most easy to us? I'd imagine not exactly, but curious your thoughts if you might elaborate more. I have visited your new blog site as well. Thank you again.

Br. Francis de Sales Wagner said...

Hi, Colleen,

No, I wouldn't say that the right path in life is always the easiest. Often, it can seem quite difficult--especially at first.

Each of us knows, deep down in our hearts, what is right in a given situation, because this sense was planted there by God, in whose image we are crafted. But it is not always easy. It involves a choice, a decision, that goes beyond mere feelings.

That being said, one who is truly following God's path of life for herself or himself should, generally speaking, experience a certain peace and joy regarding that path -- which in turn provides the strength to do what often seems difficult.

In my experience, when I've felt God's strong "tug" in a certain direction, the path initially seems to be anything but easy. So, I am tempted to stop, or to turn away, or to hesitate. But once I make a genuine commitment to embark on that path, I invariably find it widening and leveling out. And despite the fact that there will always be "rough patches" here and there, I discover wonderful things along the way that I never would have experienced had I taken the "easy way" instead.

Does that make sense?

St. Benedict, whose Rule for monks we follow, has a wonderful passage worth meditating on:

"Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love."

Follow your expanding heart!

PAX
Br. Francis

Randy Ibanez said...

I just want to share my experience with Jesus. I am a guy from the Philippines and now an OFW in Taiwan. I went here to work and earn money to support my family. I am married with 4 children.
Last June 21 of this year, I experience anxiety due to a sickness and I was very afraid thinking that I will go crazy and will not be able to recognize my family again. Thats when I started praying hard to Him. I tell all the people I know to pray for me to overcome it and be healed. I pray hard and I surrender everything to God. I know God always listen and answer our prayers. And miracles do happen. Now the anxiety is gone and in the process of putting myself back again. To continue my mission here in abroad for my families future and to help others as well. Thank you Jesus.
I just got in your blog when I search the net for "The Yoke of Christ" meaning. Now with a deeper understanding, I will no longer be afraid because I know now that the road may not be easy,but if taken with Him,everything will be alright.
Thank you for reading and God bless us all.

Br. Francis de Sales Wagner said...

Thanks, Randy.

As Jesus told his disciples before he ascended to heaven: "I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).

That is true for each of us no matter what trials we may have to endure from time to time.

May God continue to bless, protect, and strengthen you and your family.

PAX
Br. Francis

C. R. Rice said...

Obedience to God is the freedom, as Dominion before Christ was the yoke of the Master of Earth. Christ broke the bonds of said yoke, claiming Love. Now, as Judge, He offers us His yoke, and our understanding comes with obedience. (Listening to the Comforter). I love what you have wrote. May we ever increase, Amen.

Danny Mispelblom said...

You said that “Come to Me” is what you kept hearing within, over and over and later on you decided to enter the monastery. Have you ever thought of interpreting the voice differently? I personally interpret the voice as a commandment or request to follow Him into the world, instead of entering a monastery. I believe that in a monastery one doesn't need a yoke. It's the world with all its difficulties, tribulations and afflictions in which I need Jesus' yoke on my shoulders. It's not my aim to offend you.

Br. Francis de Sales Wagner said...

Hi Danny,

That is a fair question. Simply put, I never interpreted the words "Come to Me" as a commandment to enter the monastery. To me, it was an invitation to follow Christ, period, which I had not been doing up to that point in my life. It was a call first to conversion, and then to discipleship. And that very same call applies to each one of us. Jesus invites us to follow him, to take his yoke.

It was only much later, after several years of much deeper and continually unfolding prayer, thought, and discernment involving spiritual directors, family members, friends, and other considerations, that I eventually discerned the SPECIFIC call become a monk. Christ calls us all to follow him, as he did his very first disciples. However, each is called along his or her own path. As St. Paul says, as the Body of Christ, though we have many parts, we are One Body.

As I said, that discernment process took several years, and it was a complex one that involved many different aspects. Chief among them was the deep desire to live the monastic life once I was exposed to it, learned about it, and experienced it on a trial basis. Very early on in the process, I did discern other possible vocations--some involving religious life, and some involving life in the "world." So, my ultimate choice (or, really, God's choice for me) was not instantly clear to me. Discernment is a process. "Come to me" was only the initial call to conversion and discipleship. The discernment in terms of vocation unfolded much differently.

I hope that answers your question. And by the way, I would not assume that the monastery is without the "yoke" of difficulties, tribulations, and afflictions. Quite the contrary. I have lived both in the world, and in the monastery, and I can assure you that neither is easy. The cross awaits the faithful Christian disciple wherever he/she goes. There is no escaping it. Again, as St. Paul says, if we hope to share in Christ's resurrection, we also have to share in his sufferings.

So, we each live out our specific vocational call differently. But we are ALL called to follow Christ as disciples.

PAX
Br. Francis

Danny Mispelblom said...

Fair answer. Thank you, Brother Francis.