I want to continue a reflection on some work of Sandra Schneiders that I started some weeks back.
Two polesRadical constitution and historical context are two poles that Schneiders uses as the framework of a recent paper:
She proposes a historical grounding in the culture of the foundation, as read through the renewal narrative deeply influenced by 'the Council'.First, apostolic Religious Life is radically constituted by the lifelong total consecration of the Religious to God effected and expressed by perpetual Profession lived in community and mission. Second, and simultaneously, that life is intrinsically shaped by the historical context, including the charism of the founder, in which it is born and in which it is lived.1
While, I would agree there is continuity and discontinuity, I see them cutting in two directions. First, we may posit as Schneiders does chronological or vertical continuity with the deep story of religious life and a discontinuity as that life becomes culturally and historically rooted in a founding narrative. And second, as we strive to live religious life authentically today, we might also see chronological or vertical continuity with the story of the founding narrative read through the Vatican II renewal and a discontinuity as that life becomes culturally and historically rooted in the radical cultural shifts since that Council that impel us to engage our contemporary society as the world rushes headlong into the second axial age. This discontinuity will be guided, as was the founding moment, by deep immersion in the radical constitution of the life. In this process, we may want to loosen our grasp on the historical context of the founding charism and allow ourselves to engage in continuity with the “radical constitution” of the life. We ask not what our founding members did and said, but why they did it. Were they not seized by a passion for that radical constitution of the life so profound that they sought to implant its pristine freshness in their own time and place? A challenge in every community is to distinguish what the founding narrative did in its particular historical context from why it was done which points to the radical constitution of religious community in the early Christian centuries.These two features are correlative and determine both the continuity of Religious Life as it has been lived from the first century to the present, and also the discontinuity among various forms of the life that have arisen throughout that same period. This interaction between radical constitution and historical development has produced a variety of charismatically distinct forms of Religious life which are not just superficially but substantially different.
As we engage in this exercise I believe we will find a horizontal discontinuity / continuity dynamic between and among religious institutes living in our particular historical-cultural context. We are coming out of a world in which religious entered, lived and ministered almost exclusively in their own congregations; they lived in discontinuity with other religious in the same city, even in the same neighborhood, silo-ed in continuity with their own founding narrative. Inter-congregational ventures were the exception rather than the rule, and they were often limited to new ventures, and to new members. I believe that this horizontal discontinuity served its purpose in the age of mega-congregations dispersed geographically, maintaining the esprit-de-corps, forming bonds between members and ensuring the social cohesiveness of the group, while the group remained isolated from the wider community as well as from other religious.
Some of today's women religious in the minority cohort in religious life, age cohorts between 20 and 60 years of age, challenge this horizontal discontinuity. Participating in intercommunity formation programs and projects, they experience the richness of these collaborative efforts and ask the dominant cohort: Why is it that we form federations to collaborate with sisters from across the country, but we don't even know other sisters who live down the street?
1Sandra M. Schneiders, “The Radical Nature and Significance of Consecrated Life” (presented at the Theology of Consecrated Life: Identity and Significance of Apostolic Consecrated Life, Rome, February 8, 2011)..