Sunday, July 8, 2012

Re-Imagining Nuns - III

The Mediating Category is the World

I'm continuing a reflection on a paper of Sandra Schneiders. In that paper, she proposed 'the world' as the mediating category to understand the dynamic at work in the Second Vatican Council and in the subsequent renewal of religious life.
We cannot trace, even briefly, the 2000 year history of the Church and its relation to the non-ecclesiastical reality in which it is embedded. But, essentially, the relationship between the Church and what it defined as the “world,” meaning everything other than its institutional self, was one of antagonism and increasing enmity.1
In the quasi-monastic apostolic communities, the repudiation took a symbolic form of cloister, dress and schedule: habit, and habitation, dress and address. A repudiation perhaps more symbolic than real as women took to the streets to meet the crushing needs of the day which were sadly unmet by the church, the state and the un-empowered laity. Many religious communities began as lay groups which were co-opted into religious communities by a variety of external pressures.2
I would suggest that the primary and pivotal originality of Vatican II was the paradigm shift in the Church’s self-understanding of its relationship to the world.3
The new 'world' space is indeed relevant since the former dualistic separation of the spiritual and temporal affairs belies the radical presence of God in all things. In today's consciousness, the world is not merely the field of evangelization, it is full of images of God and replete with the presence of God. The thinnest mist separates the “seen and unseen; / Lo, God's two worlds immense, / Of spirit and of sense.”4 The Christian's work is not to remake the world, but it is to sweep away the mist and let the presence of God shine through for themselves and for those around them.
In this new 'world' view, what is the place of world-repudiating religious? What is the place of habit and habitation in so far as they are the symbols of flight from the world? Quite quickly following Vatican II, religious life adapted to the new circumstances. Taking up the words and works of their founding narrative, in the years of renewal, religious discovered and renewed the charismatic elements of the life, discarding structures that didn't serve the newly-recovered story.
How could Religious, who had always seen themselves, and been seen by the Church -- precisely because of their separation from the world -- as the vanguard of the faithful, the “more illustrious portion of the flock of Christ,” if not the primary incarnation and instrument of the Church’s self-understanding as the antithesis of the world, re-conceptualize their vocation in terms of the Church’s new espousal of solidarity with the world without renouncing their very identity?5
This called for a radical re-imagination of the life in a new historical context, a task energetically undertaken by the religious of the day. In the course of their response, religious found themselves yielding ministerial roles to lay persons outside their communities. This was a trend that found its theological underpinnings in Vatican II's empowering of the laity for mission. But it also found practical impetus in the decreasing numbers of religious as women left religious life in those chaotic post-conciliar years and fewer women came to replace them. This left positions open in ministries that till that time were almost entirely staffed by religious. At the same time increasing numbers of lay persons were professionally prepared and seeking to serve along side their religious counterparts.
Apostolic religious life, had its birth in a particular historical context marked by profound social needs which could only be met by vowed religious. Among the Catholic laity, we are seeing an increasingly large, competent and committed group of men and women serving the needs of both Church and society. This development was called for by Vatican II, with it's renewed understanding of the universal call to holiness and to mission.6 This change in historical context raises the question of the ongoing place of specifically apostolic religious life in the church and the world of today.
Historically, religious life has 're-invented' itself, every 500 years or so, with the new forms continuing to exist along-side the old. Pilgrims, hermits and ascetics were the religious of the early Christian centuries. They were followed by the rise of monastics beginning in the 5th century. The middle ages saw the rise of the fresh insights of the mendicants which in turn was followed by the rise of the apostolic orders in the 15th century. There are many examples of each form of religious life.7
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.
For this task of re-invention, we can take inspiration from some 20th century visionaries such as Dorothy Day, Jean Vanier and Deitrich Bonhoeffer who all saw that the key to living radical Christian life in today's world is community.
The restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this....8
The radical nature of religious life is the incarnation of the beatitudes here and now. We do it after the pattern of our founders; we come together out of those distinctive heritages to discover anew the freshness of radical gospel rootedness, and the call of our charisms to be connected to our contemporary time and place.
--Sister Amy Hereford

2Lynn Jarrell, “The Legal and Historical Context of Religious Life for Women,” The Jurist 45 (1985): 419–437.
3Schneiders, “The Radical Nature and Significance of Consecrated Life.”
4 Francis Thompson, “Any Saint,” in The Works of Francis Thompson (London: Burns & Oates, 1913), lines 76-78.
5Schneiders, “The Radical Nature and Significance of Consecrated Life.”
6Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Lumen Gentium, AAS 57 (1965) 5-75, 1964; Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Apostolicam Actuositatem, AAS 58 (1966) 837-864, 1965.
7Examples of the various forms are: Monastics: Benedictines and Augustinians; Mendicants: Franciscans and Dominicans; Apostolic Religious: Jesuits and Sisters of St. Joseph (Due to complete cloister for women, there are fewer examples of mens and womens apostolic communities coming out of the same tradition):
8Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from a letter to Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer in A Testment to Freedom (p. 424)


  1. I love this line: "The Christian's work is not to remake the world, but it is to sweep away the mist and let the presence of God shine through for themselves and for those around them."

    We so much like to box things and people. It's then easier to think that we are in control. But the Divine Presence animates all that is and invites us to a life of discovery, not domestication.

  2. Yes, It's wonderful to follow this conversation. It seems that there is so much going on these days that could revitalize religious life - I would love to be there when it happens. Carli