Monday, April 28, 2008

A "State of the Union" for Religious Life - A Contemplative Nun Weighs In on the Issue

I am privileged to participate in a number of Internet List-servs which focus on the history of religious life and issues of interest to Catholic religious. Recently our cyber conversation has focused on the cover story of the April 6th issue of OUR SUNDAY VISITOR. The article, written by Ann Carey, was entitled "Disorder Among the Orders." I first saw this issue at the time it was hitting the homes of subscribers and the news stands at the back of parish churches. I picked it up at St. Mary's, a large, historic and very active Redemporist parish in Annapolis, MD. Oddly enough, I was there serving in my new capacity as vocation/formation director for our small community of contemplative nuns. As intended by the editors, my eyes were immediately drawn to the cover image - a photo of two traditionally dressed sisters walking down a path away from the viewer. Across the photo was splashed in large print the words "TURNING THEIR BACKS." The cover was eye-catching and, at least in my case, a bit stomach turning.

I have commented on the Internet discussion lists that I think religious get a bit myopic by virtue of our professionalism when examining such reportage. While I was galled by the misleading and opinion driven content of the piece, I was far more disturbed by the message being communicated to the faithful laity in such bold words and image. We tend to dissect this inflammatory writing from the insider's point of view, entirely rational, historically accurate with statistics to support our positions. The laity come at this from a totally different direction and experience.

It is a rather odd coincidence that that only a few weeks before the appearance of Carey's "state of the union" pronouncement regarding religious life I had written and presented my own "state of the union" message to a group of lay people gathered at our monastery. Regular readers of this blog will remember reports of our Lenten Contemplative Studies Series, three Monday night lectures on contemplative topics followed by prayer with our community.

Here is the entire text of the last of those lectures - my attempt to bring our lay friends up to date and give them a perspective concerning the current state of religious life. It was meant to give historical context, be reassuring and also to offer a bit of a challenge.

“To Pray Always” – Monastic Life into the 21st Century

After the London Times published his obituary, Mark Twain quipped to a lecture audience, “The report of my death was greatly exaggerated.

Tonight I would like to assure you that reports of the death of monasticism, indeed the death of religious life, have been greatly exaggerated. Both are alive and well, though diminished in number. Indeed, if the record of history and culture is predictive and if, as a result, artistic imagination keeps bringing monastic images to our cultural radar screen, they will never die.

Before proceeding, I want to say that this talk contains a lot more personal opinion than the others. Therefore please feel free to take what you want and leave the rest. I will also say that my opinions are not necessarily those of the management.

Across the wide spectrum of religious experience, throughout the ages and in our time there is evidence of a universal call to withdrawal – some sort of remove to silence and solitude. Native Americans on the ‘vision quest’, Muslim Sufi mystics we call whirling dervishes, Buddhist monks, Jewish Kabbalists, Hindu sannyasis, Orthodox Jews observing the Sabbath, as well as Christian nuns and monks all express this impulse by going apart. In the terms of Jungian psychology this human propensity is referred to as the monk-archetype, a contemplative dimension that is inborn, in every human being. In response to this innate dimension some seem to instinctively recognize the value of silence and solitude not only for personal well-being but for the well-being of their society. I did not see the recent public television documentary on the human brain, but my father did. He mentioned that researchers have found that a period of silence has a scientifically demonstrable beneficial effect on the brain. Perhaps this is the measurable physiological effect that some among us merely intuit.

Expressions of the tendency to withdraw in an effort to be more aware of, or commune with, the transcendent, mysterious other, or the numinous, pre-date Christianity by at least 600 years; appearing first in Hinduism and then Buddhism. In Jewish and Christian tradition, Elijah and Elisha are examples of hermits who inspired the Essenes in 1st and 2nd century BC Israel. There has been much speculation concerning the possible influence of this monastic sect on the lives of both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.

Christian monasticism was born in the deserts of Egypt in the 3rd century AD. Hermits began to attract others gradually forming groups which developed into cenobitic or communal monastic life. By the 4th century there were Celtic hermits who were soon followed in the 5th and 6th centuries by full-fledged monasteries in what we call the British Isles and Ireland. This was also the case in Gaul, which is present-day France.

Although other seminal rules for monastic life preceded it, the Rule of St. Benedict, written in the 6th century was and continues to be most influential in terms of monastic spirituality and practice.

Any one who has studied European History or the History of Western Civilization or read Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization, knows how monasteries are credited with preserving classical knowledge while the Roman Empire collapsed and ravaging hordes invaded Europe during what is called the Dark Ages. Later, the 11th and 12th centuries were the monastic golden age in which an upswing in population and comparative peace allowed for monastic reform movements to thrive. By the 13th century which saw the rise of mendicant orders like the Franciscans, there were already hundreds of Benedictine and Carthusian monasteries in present day France and Germany.

However, if we hop, skip and jump a few hundred years to early modern Europe we come to a time when monasticism in western Europe was dealt an almost lethal blow. The Protestant Reformation of the late 15th and early 16th centuries had made things difficult enough. But during the French Revolution which began in 1789 and in the years that followed ALL but a handful of monasteries in France were closed, occupied or destroyed. At the time, with surviving monks and nuns seeking asylum in foreign countries or simply going home there seemed little hope for the future. Later political upheaval in most of the European countries often made monastic life difficult, if not impossible.

By the turn of the 20th century the pendulum began to swing the other way. And in our country it followed a particularly high arc. The great immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had brought millions of Catholics into the United States. Many elements combined to energize the swing. The local church was a natural focus for ethnic Catholic people. Religious and priest from their home countries were imported to minister to them. By the 1930s and 40s these groups, after surviving the Great Depression were treading the path of upward social mobility. Ethnic and religious prejudices still made the path arduous in the general culture but the Church provided a sure and respected avenue in which to move up the social ladder. It was a rare Catholic mother or father who would not support a religious vocation cropping up in their family.

Scholars of the history of women have also touched upon a factor in this mix which may have been, if not a stated motivation, than perhaps at least an unconscious one for many young women entering religious life. Although women had been granted the vote in 1921, generally speaking, their vocational choice remained exceedingly narrow. That narrowness prevailed well into the 1960s, the period of my own college education. It was considered acceptable that if a woman had to work or if she exhibited some intellectual ability meriting education beyond high school her choices were limited to teaching, nursing, social work, maybe pharmacy or advanced training in a secretarial school. For the middle class, it was understood that this work would end with marriage and children. Furthermore, it was understood that leadership in these fields would remain in the hands of men.

Considering those societal norms, it is almost startling to see how vowed Catholic religious women, as early as the 19th century, in the name of charity and service to the poor and needy, functioned in positions generally forbidden to lay women in the same time period. Beginning with the sisters whose service as nurses during the civil war was highly coveted by doctors; to those who engineered networks of missions in large congregations across the country if not the globe; to those to headed hospitals, colleges, and boards of directors; to those who were able to sit down with bankers and negotiate huge loans for building funds in the midst of the Depression; these women found outlet for their natural abilities as leaders and organizers which could not have be exercised outside of Catholic religious life.

With such leadership and example combined with the influence of the burgeoning Catholic school system and the general feeling that to be a priest or sister was a move up both in this world and in your hope for the next, it is no wonder that the numbers of those entering seminaries and novitiates swelled to an unprecedented high.

Some of us look back to that time with a nostalgic longing, a longing for a time of such affirmation and certainty. However, my friends, we have to remember that this was, in reality, just a blip on the radar screen, a brief moment in the history of religious life and a moment that was far from perfect in every detail.

In 1960, our own sisters moved into their newly built monastery here at Mt. St. Alphonsus. In its size alone, 45,000 square feet, was reflected the expectation of large numbers seeking entrance into the community. It could hold up to forty-three nuns, included a handsome chapel and insured both the enclosure and accommodations for women flocking to the monastery. However, that very period was the cusp of great change in society and the Church. The Second Vatican Council “opened windows” and declared “the universal call to holiness.” The Feminist Movement began to open up previously unheard of opportunities for women. At the same time, the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War Movements raised consciences in matters concerning justice and peace. Many factors contributed to a shrinking of the ranks in all religious communities. Women left religious life because they had to re-examine what they had considered a call in the light of a new societal, cultural and spiritual reality. This community itself remained small, never filling a huge building which could not meet the needs of an eventually aging community and was costly to maintain. Through the generosity of the Redemptorists, the community moved into this new home in 2001.

And where is contemplative monastic life today? What is the status of this life and religious life in general? We are alive and well. The invitation of the Second Vatican Council, (1962 to 1965) to revisit or, in some cases such as ours, to discover for the first time the original inspiration of the founder, was life-giving. The invitation to apply modern educational and psychological principles to the rule of life and the invitation to become more educated in the faith, to become ever more steeped in the Paschal Mystery of the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and his Word, have brought religious to places they had never gone before to serve the poor and most abandoned. They have brought men and women into the silence and solitude of the monastery where the focus is clear, where the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience can be lived faithfully in an atmosphere which honors the dignity, maturity and gifts of the individual. Apostolic active religious are doing wonders everywhere in a manner and with a quality of such generous and sacrificial faithfulness that gives glory to God and honors the inspiration of their founders.

Unfortunately, and perhaps it is the fault of that Catholic nostalgia I referred to earlier, the general culture seems a bit schizophrenic in its attitude toward religious. On one hand, there is the play Nunsense (at which I laugh as raucously as anyone), the movie Sister Act which is and unbeatable mix of nuns and rock and roll tunes, and all manner of nun kitsch – boxing nuns, nuns having fun calendars, nun dolls, nun candles, and knick-knacks of all kinds. Out of genuine regard we want sisters or nuns to be there, to be on duty because of their generosity, their faith, their intelligence and their expertise but, at the same time, we think we have the right to tell them what they should be wearing, where they should live, and who we think they should be serving.

On the other hand, and in a very hopeful development, we admired the block-buster, Academy Award winning, Dead Man Walking. Although she dared to minister to a condemned murderer, although she wore a lay woman’s clothing, we loved how Susan Sarandon portrayed Sr. Helen Prejean. In spite of the distastefulness of it all Sarandon reminded us of the single minded dedication to the teachings of Jesus long admired in American religious women.

Last year a German documentary was shown at the Forum, an art movie theater in Manhattan. Titled Into Great Silence, the 240 minute film was a virtually silent record of the day to day life in the Carthusian monastery of the Grande Chartruese in the French Alps. The director, Philip Groning had first asked permission to make the film in 1984. But the Carthusians, the most austere Catholic order, responded that they were not ready. Sixteen years later they contacted Groning with the simple message, “Now we are ready.” The film took a jury price at the Sundance Film Festival and won best documentary at the European Film Awards. When it came to the Forum last year the lines went around the block and it was held over repeatedly. A.O. Scott, film critic for the New York Times wrote, “…You surrender to “Into Great Silence” as you would to a piece of music…but your sense of the world is nonetheless perceptibly altered…I hesitate, given the early date and the project’s modesty, to call “Into Great Silence” on of the best films of the year. I prefer to think of it as the antidote to all of the others.”

So even in the popular culture we find hope. We also find hope in the slowly increasing numbers of applications to communities and in the establishments of new communities of monastic life not only in the Catholic tradition but even among Protestant evangelicals. And in the third world religious life is blooming. While the same factors may be at play there that contributed to the serge here during the 40s and 50s, great work is being done and large congregations have become truly international. The current superior general of the Sisters of Notre Dame, a congregation well known in the United States, is a native of Kerala, India. She is responsible for 2,400 sisters ministering throughout the world.

Recently, in this country, there was a period when older women of a certain age predominated among candidates. One sister remarked that these women were about the age that all those who left in the 70s would have reached by this time. Perhaps the Spirit was filling in a vital gap. Unlike the active congregations contemplative orders never stopped accepting older women, an ancient precedent in the life.

To conclude this status report I would like to share some thought from the Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister. Her essay, Old Vision for a New Age, was published in one of the books listed in the bibliography, A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century – Where Do We God from Here? In considering Sr. Joan’s recommendations, we have to bear in mind that Sr. Joan is a monastic but not a contemplative. The difference may not be clear. The Benedictine congregation to which she belongs follows a monastic structure and is very dedicated to the monastic life of prayer. However, they are active religious, many with apostolates outside the monastery. The sisters behind Benedictine hospital are of this type. Yet Sr. Joan’s vision has validity even within the contemplative monastic setting. This is the job description she outlines:

1. Monastic communities must become centers of reflection on the faith, centers of conscience and centers of spiritual development.
2. The monastic community must be a center of public service and a model of interfaith interaction.
3. Monasticism must be a model of equality.

In the same book of essays, Robert Morneau, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, offers a more poetic description. In his view, monastic men and woman are to be models of maturity and holiness as they respond to the call to community, service and generosity.

Just as each part of the human body serves a unique purpose geared to its specific function; just as only skin cells can encapsulate our organs, just as only lung cells can absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide; just as only heart cells can form the muscles necessary to pump blood throughout the body; contemplative monastics fulfill a vital and distinct work in the Body of Christ. All religious, but particularly contemplative monastics reside at the outskirts. We live at the margin, on the edge. As contemplative monastics we live far away from the center of the action, form the centers of power. We are like those whose restricted pocketbooks put them in the last row of Yankee Stadium or the Metropolitan Opera. We may not be at the center but we sure do have a great view. That gives us a perspective on things, a view of the total reality that is not distorted by the corruption of influence and power. And we are told this freedom is the source of our prophetic wisdom. It is also said that to the extent that we can persevere in living alone together with charity and with mutual compassion for our wounded-ness, our humanity and our diversity we offer a model for peace in our world.

Trappist Abbot Francis Kline concluded his essay To What Holiness? Monasticism and the Church Today with these words:

“The Church makes no spiritual sense without this hidden gift of total surrender to Christ and constant conversion to him. It is the Church’s wedding garment which it only partially wears when it forgets the monastic way. The Church is not its complete spiritual self without this total abandon to the love of God, this total joy of freedom of the children of God, this total sacrifice which is held us as a single ray of light, made up of all the other rays of light, which is the mystery of the Church.

Thankless, rootless, without a home here, unknown or derided, thought foolish and meaningless, the monks and nuns look out on the eastern horizon for Christ the Bridegroom of the Church, in a world still too busy with itself, still too taken up with its own seriousness. The monks and the nuns keep the Church on its toes in vigilant waiting for the Savior. The monk and nuns hold aloft the light of the mystery of the Church, still in this world, but well on its way to full communion with the mysterious God. The light shines on, but in a fog where only the intently gazing can see it.”


ulrich said...

Thanks sister, excellent blog. I especially appreciate the pieces on monasticisma nd contemplation.

john (hermit) interdenominational group of 400 members on monastic subjects, contemplation, spirituality, etc

John (hermit)

Anonymous said...

Sister, liked your article, I'm a big fan of Sister Joan! I wonder how much participation by lay people will play in this? I know that my twice a year visits to a local monastery are a big part of my spiritual life.

Thanks for listening!