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.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Ecovillage Living

I live in Dogtown Ecovillage - we are an urban community that is committed to building community and working for sustainability right here in my own neighborhood.
We each have our own home, mostly within a few blocks of each other. Close enough to walk to each other's houses for potlucks, parties, gatherings, spontaneous celebrations.
We gather for some more and less formal meetings each month when everyone on our list is invited -- over 100 people. Usually we have 12-18 people who join us for the monthly potluck. Some gather for a monthly coffee. Then we have group projects - gardens, sustainability projects, we've dreamed about several local business options: food coop, eco AirBnB, etc. We regularly share tools and rides and extra plants or harvests. I hear about play-dates for the kids and birthday parties. We share photos of our plants and the bugs we saw on them, the butterflies and birds we have spotted.
I invited the villagers in when we had a bumper crop of strawberries. We had lots of kids crawling over the patch - and ready reminders: pick the red ones, not the green ones.... All so much fun, so alive, so beautiful. I am most abundantly blessed.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Merger and Loss of Identity


A friend related being on a committee that is discussing merger of congregations into a single larger group. They had been at this conversation for decades, and this committee is another iteration of it. Each time they come to a decision point, they're told, "this is our last chance to make this decision - then it will be too late." So they decide not to merge, and a few years later, they have another round and again, people say, it is our last chance to make this decision - then it will be too late.... and on it goes. So this year again, at a general chapter, they decided not to merge, but to continue talking and see what emerges.


Some of the proposals have one governance structure, and each of the previous congregations would have an administrator in charge of housing, healthcare, cars, and the daily lives of the sisters in each of the traditional congregational centers. But the congregational identity would be no more. They have written a 50-60-70 year story together - or "80 for those who are strong". And they will no longer gather as a congregation, no longer come together to meet, greet, and catch-up, gather, pray and ponder together this life and mission they share, no longer write a common story. What a loss.

My friend had a dream which she shared.
Image result for booksIn the dream, I was being asked to move - no, I was being moved to a central community. The sisters said they would pack everything for me.
When I arrived, they had my clothing and personal items.
"Thanks," I said, still dazed from the move. "Where are my books?"
"Oh, don't worry," came the reply, "We have books here. You don't need your books, we got rid of them. Many were old and marked up, full of notes on scraps of paper and pictures and poems. Don't worry, we have books here."
"My prayer journals? The books I've prayed with for years? The poems I've written? The photos I've taken? The books given to me by the author, with a personal note? Did you save any of them? How do we get them back?"
"Don't worry, honey" came the answer, in a genuine attempt at comforting me, "We have books here."
She realized that in their conversation, they never talked about identity. They talked about a stronger central identity, but they never talked about local identity and about forums for the continued life and mission among those they have lived with all these years.

In my work with communities around the country, the most common reason that communities don't merge is because they want to retain their identity. They want to find a way to continue to live their mission together, realizing the need to collaborate for mutual support as the community ages and gets smaller.

They are looking for ways to keep their books, to continue to reverence the stories, the prayers, the poetry they have written together.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Yes AND


Someone recently sent me an article that said we should focus on changing policy, not on making small consumer choices, hoping that will make the difference. For me, I think it's a YES AND situation. 


Image result for andChange global policy affecting climate, poverty and justice.

Yes and....

1. Consume less, buy less, use less. 
2. Consume local, buy local, use local.
3. Consume organic/natural, buy organic/natural, use organic/natural.

AND
Talk to friends, neighbors, students, family about why you are doing it.

AND
Get churches, schools, government, companies, to make more sustainable choices.

AND 
Advocate and Vote for people and policies that are more sustainable, and support research to find best practices.

AND 
Join with others who are making a difference at any of these levels

AND
Make it a life-style!!!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Summer Sisters 2018

Once again this year, I would like to extend the invitation to join in building community with me here in St. Louis, for a period of time during the summer. It can be the experience you seek: Retreat. Sabbath Time. Vacation. R&R. Embodied Commitment to Sustainability. Emersion in an Urban Ecovillage. Nurturing body, spirit, the future of religious life.
We'll have to work around the house schedule which is a little crazy this year - but then when is life not crazy. Let's do what we can.
Here's a link to a prior invitation. If you're interested, drop me a line and we'll talk more.
ALSO - if any women discerning religious life would like to spend several weeks in a live-in experience, let me know and we will see what we can arrange for that too. We have several houses where you might be able to join us.
Amy
www.ahereford.org

Friday, February 9, 2018

Who Are We and Where Are We Going?

I was recently asked to respond on video to the questions:
What is the NEW that Women Religious are about today?
What is emerging in the world that Women Religious need to be about?
This gave me the opportunity to reflect on the gift that religious life has been to me, and continues to be to those who are called and to all those with whom and for whom they respond.


Sunday, February 4, 2018

How Do You Know?


Since I have been working in vocation ministry, people have asked on occasion: how do you know you are called? How do you know what you're called to? How do you know it is right for you? Really, how can anyone possibly know what God has in store for them?
It is an important question, but there is no easy answer. I would probably answer it differently every time. How do I know? How did I know when I was in my twenties and I entered religious life? How do I know it is still right for me?
I guess that the answer I would give today is that it's about

  • God, 
  • Community and 
  • Mission. 
Or, as we have come to say in our "CSJ world" i.e. our Sister of St. Joseph world, it's about
  • Community
  • Spirituality
  • Justice
So first off, it's about God or Spirituality. Do I have a relationship with God? Is God tugging at my heart for a deeper relationship? Do I find joy and peace when I am with my God in prayer? as well as when I am living out of that God-relationship in community and in mission? God is the center of our lives, and in religious life, we live out of that centrality. We are privileged to have a lifetime of spiritual growth and development. And this is a gift that grounds the rest of our life, and enables us to share spirituality with all those we meet. 
Second, it's about Community. Do I feel called to share my journey of spirituality and mission with other sisters or brothers who are committing to the same life journey? Do I have the skills to live in community? Can I share? trust? respect? love? Can I build community with all those God calls me to live with? Am I ready to do the work of community? - for a lifetime? There's no walking away when the times get touch, or someone gets on my nerves. We learn to love one another in our brokenness, and we love one another into wholeness. This wholeness does not mean that we never get on one another's nerves, it means that we have learned to reverence each other as gifts of God. We love and support each other in our differences, in our trials and in our joys.
Finally it's about Mission or Justice. We come together to see the world with God's eyes. To bring God's love in very concrete ways into our world. We do not bend the bruised reed or crush the smoldering wick. Instead we bring light into the dark places, hope to the despairing, joy to the sorrowful. We do this in concrete ways: by embracing the weak and the poor, by lifting up those that are bowed down, by bringing the healing, creative power of God to each person we meet and each place we inhabit.
I see my lay brothers and sisters doing the same, in their particular vocation. In religious life, we do this in community, shaped by our spirituality and the vows. I thank God for this gift.
Peace,
Amy


Saturday, January 6, 2018

New Questions...

The Five Best Questions A Job Candidate Can Ask ...Changes in vocation and formation ministry are raising new questions, particularly collaborative formation programs on the national or international scale. These programs may gather women or men from various parts of the country or the world. Candidates may be engaging in the formation program in a language and culture that are not their own. It is important to ask how this new reality may impact those we invite, and those who will be successful in our formation programs. Someone who struggles with language or culture may be unwilling or unable to enter or complete our formation programs. Are these men and women called to religious life? Are there communities where they can live and grow? Are we impoverished if we cannot accept them with the gifts they bring?
The same changes raise questions of cost and carbon-footprint. A few generations ago, candidates came by bus, and stayed in the formation community until they were ready to go out on mission. Now home visits are much more common and often involve air-travel. In a national or international formation program, our newer sisters and brothers become frequent fliers before final vows. The saying goes: “join the convent and see the world!” While travel and collaboration may be unprecedented gifts, can we also ask about the life-style we are modeling and about its impact on the environment?
Finally, this level of collaboration in formation has begun to raise questions about the ongoing accompaniment of candidates through the formation process. A new brother or sister who raises concerns at various points in the formation program may be given the benefit of the doubt. If these programs are in different places and even different countries, it is more difficult to get a clear picture of the candidate’s deepening sense of vocation and commitment, and to connect the dots regarding troublesome behaviors. In some recent cases, when a brother or sister settled down after final vows, the community got a first clear and consistent picture of them, only to realize that they should never have made vows and perhaps should be dismissed.
All this is not to say we should immediately pull back from collaborative programs, but simply to invite us to continued discernment as to the best ways to continue inviting women and men into religious life and the best ways of accompanying them in inquiry, discernment and formation.