Religious life in today's society can take stock of some important currents that may not be religiously motivated, but are certainly consonant with the Gospel values we seek to incarnate in society: intentional community, ecological awakening, calls for economic justice, solidarity with the poor and a shift in consciousness. Christians in general, and men and women religious in particular, in the best of their history, have always sought to be a leaven in society, helping shape movements animated by the spirit of the beatitudes: to be peacemakers, to be merciful and to work for justice. We can mine our tradition for insights and tools to help us in this, but we will also need to engage the real issues of today. History is a great teacher, but it cannot answer today's questions.
The question we are raising today is: What would it look like for religious life to take up the challenges issued by the occupy movement? Where do we find resonances with the occupy movement in our own traditions and the stories of our various religious communities?
Some may turn to the Second Vatican Council and its call to renewal for the answers to these questions. This is part of the answer. Vatican II called religious to renew their lives by returning to the founding words and works, by engaging the founding members and the founding story and asking how that story might be more authentically lived in today's time and place. This called for a re-imagination of the life in a new historical context, a task energetically undertaken by the religious of the day.
The renewal of the second half of the 20th century prepared us for a more fundamental re-invention of the life that will bring us into the middle of the 21st century. Historically, religious life has 're-invented' itself, every 500 years or so, with the new forms continuing to exist along-side the old.
In the early Christian centuries, hermits, virgins and pilgrims sought to embrace a life of deep personal commitment to prayer and gospel living, to the exclusion of any other primary life commitment. We have writings from these Fathers and Mothers of the desert heard the call to a more radical form of life.
By the 5th Century, this way of life found new expression in monastic communities. By this time experience had shown that individual wandering monks were sometimes unruly and disruptive. By gathering in communities, Christians found support and challenge for the living of their the radical commitment to prayer and gospel living. Benedict and Augustine wrote rules that survive to this day and continue to inspire followers.
In the Middle Ages, the life re-invented itself as some of the large and powerful monasteries found it difficult to maintain their fidelity to those founding ideals. The mendicants sought lives of poverty and simplicity. Franciscans and Dominicans are prime examples of this life form.
Then again in the 16th Century, the apostolic orders arose in response to the pressing needs of the church and of society. The Jesuits, the Sisters of St. Joseph and so many groups arose to carry out the mission of Jesus in the world around them.1 Each of these 're-inventions' arose because of changed circumstances and the need for a new response from religious.
I sometimes wonder if the radical shifts in religious life and in the culture of today aren't calling for yet another re-invention, a new form of the life which will not supplant the former, as each of the prior forms have continued to exist along-side the old.
--Join an Internet forum with younger women religious Monday, July 30 and Tuesday July 31, 7pm Central US Time.
1 Earlier groups had men and women, e.g. Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans. But there are fewer examples of men's and women's apostolic communities coming out of the same tradition as we saw with those earlier forms.