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The Hidden Lives of the Church’s Religious (Part Two)

By Mother Miriam, CSM

In the first installment of this essay, I considered the diminishment of religious life in the church, whether through declining vocations or through erasure of the religious distinctiveness.

Today the external witness of vowed religious — habits, cloister, the Opus Dei (the daily round of psalms, hymns, and collects recited in chapel)are the first things Christians notice about the monastics among them. But, of course, that is not the whole story of the charism and fruit of the religious life. In this second exploration of the hidden life of monastics, I consider the way in which the Old Testament’s prophetic witness regarding the Babylonian Captivity parallels our monastic vocation in the church today.

The Babylonian exile was a major crisis in the history of God’s people in Old Testament. And as Walter Brueggemann notes, the role of the prophets during this crisis was pastoral. God sent them “to help people enter into exile, to be in exile, and depart out of exile” (p. 1, italics original). Brueggemann would have us see the parallels between 587 B.C. Jerusalem and late modern America in terms of exile. Judah loses the Temple and the Holy City; today we are losing the certainty and concreteness of the Enlightenment’s hold on our 21st century Western culture (p. 6).

I can imagine the captive Israelites falling into three camps: those who bewail their fate, sicken and fall by the wayside; those who look around them, learn the new language, throw off the traces, and become Babylonian; and those who form a small inner community resolved to keep faith with the Lord wherever he leads. As our culture becomes increasingly post-Enlightenment, I can also see American Christians falling into the same categories.

This raises the question, then, of how we relate to the world and cultures around us. Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, innovatively clarified the Roman Catholic Church’s relation to the world. The document is quite clear that individual believers and dioceses are to engage the present day culture in a spirit of openness and commonality, “to shed on the whole world the radiance of the gospel message, and to unify under one Spirit all men of whatever nation, race, or culture” (no. 92).

Sandra Schneiders claims that this understanding of the Church’s mission to the world puts religious in a double bind in their own fidelity to the Church. Are they to be elite disciples, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, bringing the world to the Kingdom of Christ? In this case, they must abandon older notions of separation from the world. “Religious could only continue to be at the very heart of the modern Church if they made their own its commitment to being in, with, and for the world in solidarity with all people of good will, Christians, non-Christians, and even non-believers.” Schneiders’ question is a valid one, but her suggestion that religious and monastic life must change is, I think, misguided.

Turning from the Catholic Church to my own Anglican context, most Episcopalians are not even aware that the Episcopal Church has monastics and religious. But, generally speaking, they are keenly aware of and concerned with the plight of the homeless in our rich cities, the working rural poor in our rich farmlands, loss of life through abortions, assisted suicide, broken families, and sense some measure of conviction when they have more material blessings than their suffering brothers and sisters. Babylon is a symbol for where we the Church find ourselves. We are both at odds with, yet embedded within, the culture, and are called to reach the world in terms that it can understand.

In The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher attempts to clarify the plight of American society and the intergenerational conflicts of modern American culture by holding it up against the similar circumstances St. Benedict faced and the decisions he made in forming his Rule.

Dreher is right in calling us to consider what Benedict was called to do, but doesn’t go far enough. Yes, Benedict lived alone in his own cave for a time to hear the Word of God, but the result of his listening and prayer was to form community: set apart, yet a community within the community of the church. The danger of our post-Christian, technologically-dependent society is the illusion of individual human control of our environment and situation. Even when the myth of ever-improving progress of the Industrial Revolution collapsed under two World Wars and the dread of a nuclear apocalypse, we still hear the fascination with deeply flawed notions of progress, such as the idea that medical knowledge will allow people (or those who can afford it) to live far longer (and presumably, happier) than any of our ancestors. And yet we have vacillated between utopia and dystopia, from the jubilation of idolized youth to the depression of geriatric abandonment, always looking for a way to avoid pain.

Rather than the swinging pendulum back and forth between human extremes, Benedict rooted his community in covenant relationship with God. Hence the fourth vow, stabilitas, stability, rootedness, life in one place under obedience and celibacy, a penitential state. At its best within a faithful, praying community, the religious is slowly transformed into the one true image of God, Jesus Christ, and walks the royal road of the Cross one step at a time behind the Master. This type of Christian community built the medieval European economy and led to the rise of a prosperous middle class, neither destitute nor privileged rich. On the same pilgrimage, we can neither accept a communist answer which culminates in a totalitarian state-controlled life nor a capitalistic industrial oligarchy which also culminates in totalitarian human rule.

Benedictine stability serves as an important prophetic witness to our postmodern situation, which parallels both Benedict’s own context of declining, hedonistic Rome in the 6th century and the exilic context of Israel during the Babylonian captivity. The Benedictine commitment to stabilitas, a refinement of the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers, stood in patient contrast to the dissolution of the Roman Empire around them, which inevitably collapsed.

We can find resolution to the conundrum Vatican II bequeathed the vowed religious — separation from the world or solidarity with it — through a deeper understanding of God’s word spoken through the prophets. These were persons compelled to utter the word God gave them. They did not volunteer to be prophets. They did not want to be his prophets. Jeremiah cried, “Ah Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jer 1:6). Ezekiel had no choice either. He was overwhelmed by the holiness and glory of the Lord God (Ezek 1:1-3:27). Instead, God chose them. This is the first sign I see when Christian women coming knocking on our convent door. They have had no choice but to knock. However, that is only the first step for both the prophet and the religious.

We commonly think of the prophet as one who predicts the future, but Scripture gives us a different picture. The prophet is bound to God’s will and delivers God’s message in a variety of ways. The prophets invite God’s people to consider their current situation in light of their relationship with God. Jeremiah’s prophetic role involved the articulation of his own grief over Jerusalem and the temple’s destruction, as well as God’s grief over Israel’s infidelity and idolatry. We have sinned, and this exile is our own making. We are in Babylon, and we grieve in contrition. Religious in cloisters are symbolic exiles through the physical “set-apartness” of the cloister, the habit, and the Opus Dei. Their very existence invites all Christians to consider this condition of exile and how to live in and through it.

However, if we stop here, we are in danger of embracing a simplistic sense of contrition, as personal sorrow over sins, or a Pelagian conviction that we must fix the world, instead of becoming a new creation. Ezekiel adds an indispensable reminder of the holiness of God here. He prophesies a new heart and spirit for the people, but “It is not for your sake that I will act, says the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel” (Ezek. 36:32). Transformation by the Spirit of God is for God’s sake, for in it we see God’s mercy and justice expressed. God’s holiness is more than the love of the Creator for his creation. It is also both the profound moral fiber of the Ten Commandments and Beatitudes and the glory of the Lord in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:3-6). God’s holiness is just, not to be gainsaid, but it is also merciful in profound life-transforming love. Religious dedicate their lives in covenant to God alone and, thus, witness to that mysterious, all-consuming glory and holiness of God.

And yet, the visions of Jeremiah and Ezekiel are still incomplete without Isaiah’s poetry of hope. “Comfort, comfort ye, my people…” (Isa 40-54) is a beautiful, extended poem of remembering the good care of God for his people. Brueggemann suggests that the metaphor of exile may be a useful description of the conflict between gospel values and American consumer capitalism. The dominant Christendom position drains us of energy, whereas “honestly facing exile as our real situation generates energy for imaginative and faithful living” (p. 93). The gift of faith for the religious is just this “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Our lives, then, become a parable of the dispositions needed by all Christians in our exilic state.

Having dug under the surface of a mature monastic calling, it is time to return to the scene outside the cloister where monastics and vowed religious meet ordinary Christians. As I noted in part one, sometimes people express a nostalgia; they miss seeing nuns in full habit on the street. Here, though, we have considered a witness beyond mere nostalgia, how the sight of a mature professed nun should strike a chord with other Christians, as it reminds them, in an intensified way, of their own vocation and calling. Just like the story of God’s command to Ezekiel build a model of the siege works of Jerusalem, or to lay bound and helpless on his side at as a sign of God’s punishment to the House of Israel and Judah (Ezek. 4:1-8), vowed religious live their Rule despite its discontinuity with ordinary life and work, because it is its very oddness that gives it its universal witness.

When I am sitting at a festival and people come to speak with me, or when one of my sisters is shopping and strangers strike up conversations, our presence witnesses to the implied pains of loss and exile, as well as encourages fellow Christians to persevere in their personal journey to Christ. Thinking theologically about our monastic identity in the world means allowing the Spirit to move ever more deeply in our hearts and the hearts of others, redeeming and healing so that the words of Second Isaiah may be fulfilled: “Comfort, comfort ye, my people; speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isa. 40:1-2). While the world vacillates in its desires and anxieties, the stable bond to God alone lies at the heart of a monastic vocation and grows into a mature monastic witness,, even today.

Mother Miriam, CSM is the ninth Mother Superior of the Eastern Province of the Community of Saint Mary.

Although dated now, the video The Hidden Life offers insight into how this is lived by the Sisters of St. Mary in Greenwich, NY.


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