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?”
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 The yoke still exists in some developing countries and within more traditional cultures, but by and large it has been replaced by tractors or other mechanized equipment.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