Friday, August 17, 2018

Wondering...

I have had the opportunity over the years to talk with many women who have come to religious life and have then left religious life for one reason or another. It is always a privilege to hear their stories and their perspectives. I think they as a group could be an important voice as we ponder the current challenges of Church and of religious life, and as we articulate our hopes for the future. I would like to share some reflections on the women who have left religious life in the past few decades that I have been blessed to know:
  1. They are women of incredible courage and commitment. They gave significant years of their lives out of a deep sense of faith. Then something happened that made life in their congregations an impossibility. And they had the courage to step out, to return to lay life, often with very little personal and emotional support. They are often alone as they struggle to rebuild their lives, and to make sense of the years they spent in religious life. It can take a decade or more for these women who have stepped out of these communities to make sense of their lives, to shift their self-identification as sisters and to heal the wounds they may have received.
  2. Too often they have often been deeply hurt by the congregations to whose life and mission they had committed themselves. Sometimes this results from an unfortunate clash of personalities and circumstances. Too often, it results from a pattern of abuse, carried out in the name of religion. The stories are often akin to something you might hear from a strange cult. Young women, come with the highest of ideals, to commit themselves to radical gospel living. They are gradually brought into the group and convinced to surrender outside ties and even their own sense of self worth, in order to follow the group. The community's focus shifts from God to a charismatic leader. This leader builds up an inner circle bound by fear and intimidation, and this inner circle then brings in recruits who are seeking to serve God selflessly. These new-comers too are inducted into the leader-cult. Often this is insidious, trading on good desires and a perceived special insight into the ills of church and society.
  3. There are also those who come to religious life with a fire in their eyes and are welcomed into community. Through the formation process, they deeply identify with the community and find themselves growing into God's dream for their life as a religious sister. Then gradually over time, the fire in their eyes goes out. This is too often because of the challenges of living the commitment of religious life, along with the inability of their community to support them in this path. Each person has to figure out their personal synthesis, through prayer, discernment and dedication. It is not easy, and some are unable to get the support needed to make this transition. 
  4. I would say that there are some who come to religious life, but who are not well screened. Communities are eager to have women join them, and sometimes this eagerness is allowed to outweigh prudent discernment. I love religious life and I can't imagine a better way to spend my life and energies. At the same time, I know that it requires certain basic gifts of nature and grace. I once heard that "we heal through our wholeness." While we are all broken in some ways, it is by taking responsibility for our own wholeness that we can offer the best service to God, in community and in mission. Also, as communities get smaller, the stability of those who come is more important. Having spent many years in various aspects of vocation and formation work over the years, I can't overemphasize the need for prudent caution along with a wild, open abandonment to the movement of the Spirit.
I wonder what these women are saying about religious life, as they move on in their life-journey. I wonder what they might tell those of us they left behind when they left religious life. I'm certainly open to the story of anyone who might be reading this.
I also know that there are many women who left religious life many decades ago and have experienced healing and have gone on to live grace-filled lives, enriched by the years they spent in formation.
Let us pray for the health and integrity of our communities, and for the deep and abiding good of those who come to religious life to join us on this grand adventure of spirituality, community and mission.
--Amy

Friday, July 27, 2018

Blessing and Challenge of Community


There is a lot of writing and reflection on community. Those of us in religious life spend a life-time learning, un-learning and re-learning how to live in community. More recently, I've been thinking about we welcome others into our communities. How do we invite them? How do we change when we invite others to join us? How do we create the conditions for others to thrive when they join our communities. Here are the ingredients that are particularly important to me at this time:

  • Conversion - unquestionably the most important part of any christian community is the commitment of each person to live the Gospel and to grow in a personal commitment to metanoia. This is the work and the gift of a life-time and we in religious life share this journey with others who are striving in the same way.
  • Maturity - along with spiritual growth, we make a commitment to live as adults in community. Sure, things get crazy. Sure, we make mistakes. Sure, we have to navigate what it means. And in the midst of this, each of us should be striving to live as mature persons, taking responsibility for our own lives and well-being, while supporting others in community. 
  • Acceptance and Respect - the first two elements focused inward, this one focuses outward. I have to love and respect each other person in my community. I have to believe in her journey of conversion and maturity and to support that journey. This is not a polly-anna belief, but a humble acknowledgement that we all struggle. I have to cut others the slack I would have them give to me. I have to give them the space to grow and change. 
  • Responsibility - everyone in the community has the responsibility for the community. Every one of us can make the community better or worse by our participation. In the best of communities, everyone wants to contribute because they believe others are giving as well. 
  • Commitment - this is the glue that binds us together. I can count on your commitment, you can count on mine. The commitment is respectful and realistic. And it knows when to go the extra mile for a sister or brother who needs us. Differences arise, conflicts come. If we all have the commitment to make the community work, we can get through almost anything. This is presuming the previous elements are also in place.
  • Conversion - I have to put this at the end as well. I always have to come back to my personal commitment to God, community and mission. I have to rely on God's creative love that brought me this far to continue to re-create that divine spirit within me and within my community.
Let us be hopeful and thankful for the gift of community.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Sister with... Sister for...


Image result for sisters

I was recently with a group of sisters reflecting on the gift of religious life as it is and it is unfolding among us. We had a rather well-known presenter had lots of things I resonated with, other things that I completely disagree with. We also had an opportunity to discuss what we heard and reflect it through our own experience. This conversation was really the best part of our gathering and the part that will continue to resonate with me.
I believe that we are called as religious women to be "sisters with" one another 
  • as we walk the spiritual journey over a life time.  
  • as we live together in community through the best of times and the worst of time
  • as we hear and respond to the cry of the poor and marginalized.
At the same time, we are called to be "sisters for" all the people of the world, for the community of faith, to those who need 
  • a prayer, 
  • a smile, 
  • an embrace.
I believe that vowed life in community enables us to be persons who can be sisters, to have a freedom and mutuality with and for each other, and with and for those we serve. It enables to be sisters, companions and friends.

  • I experience being sister in my family of origin. 
  • I experience being sister in my religious community. 
  • I experience being sister to the women with whom I live. 
  • I experience being sister to religious men and women that I serve in my ministry. 
  • I experience being sister to those sitting with me on the bus. 
  • I experience being sister in the ecovillage where I live. 
  • I experience being sister along side those with whom I march, protest and stand in solidarity.
It has been a gift to me to live into this reality.


Friday, June 29, 2018

Making Something New...


See I Am Making Something New: New Religious Institutes, Diocesan Hermits, Consecrated Virgins and New Forms of Consecrated Life

My latest book was released, and as anyone who has been through the process knows, it takes forever. However, this one took extra long, so despite the optimistic title: something new seems to be a wee bit stale by now. Nevertheless, I'm glad to have it out.
A few years ago, I organized a workshop for canon lawyers on these topics. This book is a further development of those materials.

See I Am Making Something New by Sister Amy Hereford, CSJ is a pastoral - canonical guidebook that explores the various ways in which the Life of the Spirit is stirring anew in the Church today in new religious institutes and societies, in diocesan hermits and consecrated virgins, in the new forms of consecrated life, and in the ecclesial movements that bring life and vitality to the Church today, and in fact, may also give rise to new institutes. The book is a guide for those discerning their vocation and their spiritual directors and a pastoral manual diocesan personnel. 

  • New Community (Canon 579): We may recognize five stages in the foundation of an institute. A single institute may spend several months, years or decades in each of the stages. The history of religious life testifies that the foundation of an institute is the work of a lifetime, and its progress is not counted in terms of members, or buildings but in terms of the treasures laid up in heaven. 
  • Hermits (Canon 603) flourished in the early Christian centuries, even before religious communities organized as we know them today. With the revision of the Code of Canon Law in 1983, this form of life came back into the practice of the church as a canonically approved vocation. The vocation is characterized by a "stricter separation from the world," and by silence and solitude. Canon 603 adds that the hermit professes the traditional three vows of poverty, celibate chastity and obedience.
  • Consecrated Virgins (Canon 604) - Many early Christian writers extol the beauty and power of the Christian virgin in a spousal relationship with Christ, just as the church is spouse of Christ. This allegorical theology held great power and meaning from the early Christian centuries. By the middle ages, the rite of consecration of virgins had been nearly completely incorporated into cloistered monastic life of nuns. In the early twentieth century, individuals and groups began to seek to restore this ancient form of consecration. The revised rite was promulgated in 1970, and it is best source of understanding the vocation of the consecrated virgin.
  • New Forms (Canon 605) - In recent decades, a new instinct for communion in consecrated life seeks to bring various groups together into a single religious institute, men and women, cleric and lay, married and single. Canon 605 provides the canonical opening for new forms of consecrated life, and most of these new forms manifest this instinct for inclusion. Some have sought formal approval as new institutes or new forms of consecrated life. 

God moves among us in holy creativity. This book explores they ways in which God is "making something new," in new religious institutes,in newly re-introduced individual forms of consecrated life, the diocesan hermit and the consecrated virgin, and in the new-forms of consecrated life. May we each have the wisdom and courage to live our vocation, and may we love and support each another as we follow our unique vocation, our unique path in the heart of God.
Available on Amazon and Kindle, you can check it out here.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Darkness and Solace


Image result for darkness and solaceThere are times when we in religious life question where we are, who we are becoming, whether it’s all worth it, whether it is still life-giving. I suspect the same happens in other forms of life-commitment. Sometimes the answer to these questions is gift and blessing, and a resounding yes to God, to community and to mission. At other times, we struggle to find the strength and courage, we struggle on amid questions and challenges, we experience our own weakness and the weakness of others with whom we share this life. In these dark moments, our sisters can walk with us, our sisters can sit with us in our dark places, peering out for glimmers of solace and hope. They can pray for us and they can support us. At times like these, we come to realize that while we are radically in community, we are also radically alone. Our presence in community is premised on our personal commitment to our God and the path that God has carved into the core of our being. As we come into community we love and support one another in this journey of the heart, the journey of our vocation. There is a give and take between personal journey and community journey. As we move through life, these two can enrich one another, they can also challenge one another.
In nature, plants grow and are nourished by their interactions with the climate and the ecosystem. Some species will thrive, despite occasional challenges and stresses. Others will not be able to make it in that particular ecosystem, in that micro-climate. For me, this is an image of vocation. God calls us by creating us in Love to be persons who thrive in the vocation we call religious life. The climate of the life, its vows, its ministry, its spirituality all conspire for our growth. The ecosystem, our sisters, our community, those with whom and for whom we serve, support and challenge us to become the best of God's dream for us. As we grow in our vocation, our roots sink deeper and deeper into the soil of God, community and mission. We grow more resilient to face the inevitable challenges that come.
The journey of vocation discernment and of initial formation is a time to find that place God has called us and to learn to "bloom where we are planted." Once we are permanently professed, we have a certain groundedness, yet life continues to unfold and challenge us. May we be a blessing to one another on this journey.
Peace,
Amy

Friday, June 1, 2018

NEW BOOK: Dogtown Ecovillage Green Book


I've collaborated on a book that explores various ways of living sustainably. We're calling it the Dogtown Ecovillage Green Book.
This book was conceived on Earth Day, 2018. Dogtown Ecovillage had a booth at the Earth Day Festival in Forest Park, St. Louis MO. This is one of the nation’s largest and longest-lasting Earth Day celebrations. Over the two days of the festival, ecovillagers took turns staffing our booth, sharing comaraderie and visiting other booths at the festival. In the booth we showcased several and group projects. DIY seed-starting pots, bee-hives, home-energy-audits, quail, vermicompost, an energy footprint quiz, coloring pages for the kids. We also fielded hundreds of questions on all of the above projects as well as questions about gardening, ecovillage life, composting, seed-saving. We had lots of requests for more information, something in writing and other types of follow-up. At that point, we realized that we have a lot of collective wisdom that we could share and that’s how this book came about. It’s written by ecovillagers and friends, and attempts to share our experience. Much of what we learned is from others, from books, from YouTube, from trial-and-error. We share it as the experience of trying to live green in our urban neighborhood ecovillage. Check it out on Amazon....

Friday, May 18, 2018

Gentleness and Strength


My ministry brings me into contact with many religious men and women from many different communities. It is a real privilege to get to know so many committed people. They do amazing works. Their hearts are so expansive. They have been ministers of Loving-Kindness for so long that they become echoes of the Heart of God.
Recently, I began working with a community that describes their charism as working in Gentleness and Strength. That is so lovely. I believe that their charism is a message for me at this time in my life. I am dealing with my aging parents. They are lovely people, and at the same time, they are dealing with their own diminishment and one with dementia. This community, with their charism of Gentleness and Strength is for me a reservoir that I can tap into as I help my parents and my family address the challenges of aging. 
This is an example of one of the key lessons I have learned: we are evangelized by those we serve. This community has asked for my assistance. At the same time, getting to know them I receive from them the gifts I need in another aspect of my life. And I'm sure that in working with my aging parents, I'm deepening the gentleness and strength that will help me to grow and to serve another in the circle of life, the circle of grace.