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Monasticism’s Future

Review by Mother Miriam

Finally, after 50 years, a Roman Catholic woman religious is evaluating the effects of the Second Vatican Council on religious life! Those of us who were in high school during the turbulent early 1970s watched Catholic teaching orders go from traditional habit to modified habit to street dress in a very short time. As a Sister of St. Joseph, Carondelet, and an attorney and canon lawyer trained at Louvain, Belgium, Sister Amy Hereford is well qualified to evaluate these changes and begin exploring how the next generation of apostolic religious orders will evolve.

Religious Life at the Crossroads
A School for Mystics and Prophets

By Amy Hereford, CSJ.
Orbis. Pp. 232. $20

Sister Amy riveted my attention with a graph to show how dissimilar the demographic curve for American religious is to the demographics of the general U.S. population. Roughly 60 percent of the general population is younger than 55, but this is true of only 3,000 (5%) out of 57,000 religious. The inevitable communal situation in nearly every order is that the dominant and aging “cohort,” as she calls it, is in leadership. These were the sisters energized to stay in religious life after the Council. Now that this older generation is aging, the very attraction that brought these few new members into community is slipping away. Younger sisters were attracted to the apostolic orders by the heroic witness of the immediate post-Vatican II sisters not only to gospel values, but also to a vast horizon of possibilities for an educated professional woman. Change to accommodate young religious is not happening, but rather the few young religious are committed to caring for the aging sisters.

Her purpose in writing this book is to encourage the “minority cohort” to discern the shape of religious life for the next generation: “Our task is to imagine the future of religious life in the next fifty years. We are committed to do honor to our heritage and make choices to adapt the life to the new reality in which we find ourselves” (p. xiv).

The remainder of her introduction works through a sociological model by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, based upon organizational lifecycles with the conviction that the hope for religious life will be in small, face-to-face communities. But where is the discernment of God’s will in this, and what has she learned from monastic history? Sociology is neither spirituality nor good theological reflection.

Sr. Amy tells the history of religious life in fewer than 40 pages, interpreting its development as an evolutionary story from the Mideast deserts to the monastery, the mendicants, and lastly the apostolic orders of the West. She observes briefly that eastern monasticism is still today a unified movement within Orthodoxy, although there are many monasteries and communities within the Orthodox Church. But there is no mention of the contemplative Carthusian and Carmelite orders, historically always few in numbers and disproportionately influential in spirituality.

As a Sister of St. Joseph, Carondelet, with a modified Jesuit Rule, she never quite sees beyond her apostolic order’s perspective. While she acknowledges that Benedictine monasticism and the mendicant orders exist today, she sees their place diminished within the sociological structure of the institutional church. Her assumption seems to be that new needs of God’s people and God’s call, revealed through the apostolic orders, show that the charism of the desert can never go back to its primitive roots. I find that shortsighted and in danger of limiting God’s work in the world, for the monastic witness is not a numbers game, or interested in “success” as contemporary American society defines it. The inspiration of the consecrated anonymous self-oblation to God of the contemplatives points to the continued efficacy of prayer and hunger for the divine.

As a good scholar passionately interested in her subject, Sr. Amy surveys the literature for alternative models of community and trends into new forms of religious community. These include Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s New Monasticism in his pre-World War II seminary in Germany, Brother Roger and Taizé, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, and Jean Vanier and L’Arche. She categorizes the common threads that she finds in these Protestant and ecumenical and non-monastic Roman Catholic communities under topics of spirituality, mission, and community — the very things she has been formed to see as a Sister of St. Joseph. There is nothing new here.

Her legal training shows in the crafting of her chapter on “Seeds of Newness.” She identifies these seeds as charism, community, connectivity, consciousness, and contemplation, and concludes that “charism will be important as we [the minority cohort] explore the future, which may see a convergence of all the riches” — seeds of newness in contemporary society and particularly in emerging religious life (p. 115). I am not convinced that she has said anything yet about the shape of future religious communities. Of course, charism is a key concept. God is the One who calls and gives the gift of religious life for his own purpose.

The last half of the book looks at how the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience could be seen as alternate economy, alternate politic, and alternate “relationality” that build consistently upon the marginality of religious life in its prophetic role for the Church. The most interesting chapter was Sr. Amy’s exploration of governance and formation in grassroots communities formed after 2000. She looks at Occupy Wall Street and Rutba House’s Twelve Marks of New Monasticism. If Religious Life at the Crossroads were my only reference, my impression of the Twelve Marks would be of a commonplace apostolic order’s rule. Sr. Amy refines the Twelve Marks into three topics of “Contemplative Dimension,” “Relationships in Community,” and “Community in Relation: Mission.”

While this may serve her thesis that the evangelical New Monastics are similar to the mission and lifestyle desires of the “minority cohort” in Roman Catholic apostolic orders, it loses the freshness of these young evangelicals feeling their way toward authentic and godly community. For instance, the original first mark, “Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire,” means a willingness of this group to live a gospel witness in the slums of America’s inner cities, just as Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors in first-century Judea.

The 12th mark is “Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.” The progression from a rejection of “Empire” to a disciplined contemplative life parallels the founding of many monastic communities and religious orders, including the Anglican Sisters of St. Mary in the mid-19th century, as they rediscovered God’s original calling of the Desert Fathers and Mothers to contemplative life and struggle against the wiles of Satan in this world. Sr. Amy reverses the order of these marks to give first place to contemplative prayer and last place to “relocation to abandoned places of Empire.” The reversal dilutes the power of the call and the spiritual journey of every person that the traditional Church strengthens by teaching purgation, illumination, and finally union with God.

Why would any devout Anglican read this book? I believe that the Benedictine spirituality embedded in the Book of Common Prayer gives us all a love of the “School of the Lord’s Service.” Further, the state of the religious life is a barometer of the Church’s health. Every religious order in the Episcopal Church today has struggled with the same issues of a top-heavy aging number of sisters or brothers. My constant prayer is that we will arrive at some of Sr. Amy’s hopeful conclusions of a “school of mystics and prophets” without the activist’s emphasis on sociology and the human side of the work of God. Sr. Amy’s great service has inspired me to read more about Rutba House and Shane Claiborne’s thought in New Monasticism. The title says it all: we are still reading the road signs before choosing the next fork.

Mother Miriam is superior of the Community of St. Mary in Albany, New York.

Image: Cluny Abbey by Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium (Cluny AbbeyUploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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