Friday, August 17, 2018


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.