Liminal Within Liminal

It is indeed true that - as Ted Schmidt notes in his article praising the recent "Message to Our Bishops" from the Canadian Religious Conference - this document is "a brave but faithful initiative." The "Message" is, in fact, so faithful, so careful - even to the edge of placating - that it made me wonder about the true nature of fidelity in a hierarchical Church that has steadfastly refused for decade after decade to dialogue with, or show respect for any thinking other than its own fixed positions. How long must we try to interact with an institutional paradigm that won't - not can't - change? And isn't continuing such an effort nothing but what we have come to know as "codependence," which Michael Crosby, OFM (1991) has already written about? 

The real charism: not for Church

While recently researching the lives of several foundresses of women's religious congregations, I was struck by a thought that shocked me at the time: these women did not begin their communities for the Church. The communities were founded originally out of a profound personal relationship with God experienced by the foundresses whose visions took form in service to the poor and the sick; in education and social service, but they were not, first and foremost, intended for service to the Church. On the contrary, many if not most foundresses were so in conflict with the hierarchical Church that some were actually excommunicated, others openly persecuted, their orders suppressed, and others spent a lifetime of conflict with clergy on all rungs of the hierarchical ladder. In one case I found that Margaret Cusack, foundress of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, had her name removed by the Vatican as foundress of her order because she was so publicly in support of the women's suffragette movement in England.

Has anything changed, really? And will it, with this new and careful initiative of the Canadian Religious Conference? Will the Bishops really take this message to Benedict XVI on their ad limina visits and discuss it with any real purpose and energy? Is it really the best use of our power for good to continue asking for dialogue with an authority who consistently refuses to respond and who continues to use a punishing approach to anyone who differs? If we are to be effective in the ways that our foundresses were and meant us to be, must we not claim our own inner authority and take it back from those who would limit and diminish us at every turn?

Losing Energy for Service

Energy is not unlimited. Much of the energy of individual religious and communities continues to drain away in the pursuit of an unrealistic expectation that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church will suddenly or even eventually transform itself into an open, listening, dialogic and collegial body. This is even less probable than it was twenty years ago. Nancy Sylvester's work on "impasse" highlights the current condition of the relationship between vowed religious and the Roman Church. In less public attempts, individual religious women especially, as well as a few Congregations, keep on pouring energy into how they might continue their profound spiritual commitments and needed services while ensuring that they don't offend whomever the current Bishop happens to be. I cannot help but notice how much creative energy that such an effort drains, as duplicity has to do. How limiting and destructive it has been for those who try and try, with so little return, and no reciprocity.

Such efforts make no difference because that old paradigm to which the hierarchy belongs is finished and cannot be recovered. The hierarchical authority, I would posit, is now incapable of sufficient change as a body to even comprehend the language of those whose faithful intention and request for dialogue keeps on repeating itself.  And the effort to keep expecting that Church to hear and respond might actually be a betrayal of the original purpose - those fiery charisms - which birthed the Congregations in the first place.

Loss of the Liminal

In its prophetic dimension, religious life has lost its liminal quality, and might not get it back, at least in our lifetime. We have been co-opted by Church and society, and - while many good works and even some prophetic efforts continue - in general we are as far from those fierce, single-focused visions of the foundresses as we will ever be. The old paradigm of religious life - harshly imposed upon those foundresses, was - "despite its strong emphasis on prayer and devotion...strongly based on the observance of externalized rules, laws and expectations...essentially a masculine model in which performance is all important," while the new paradigm "is far more organic and seeks to honor the paradoxical process of evolution as everything goes through the cycle of birth-death-rebirth."  (O'Murchu, 2005) Between those two statements lies a planet of difference, perhaps a difference we might not fully comprehend in our lifetime.

As with all paradigm shifts, the new begins among the old, growing like small shoots hidden among the taller, dying plants. Such is also true in religious life. For some decades now, those who see the folly of continuing to attempt dialogue with hierarchy, and who choose to follow the organic path of trusting what grows from within, no matter how it appears from without, who quietly attune to the essence of religious life rather than the outer show of it, have been among us. They are the ones who carry forward the new paradigm: that religious Congregations were not founded for the Church, but for people, and that they were founded by God working through women strong enough to be faithful to their vision despite of, not because of - the institutional Church. They are the ones willing to let the outer forms die away so that the essence may be revealed, and - in time -  become clothed with a form more passionate than the present one for the service of the poor, the sick and all who are neglected on the margins of societies.

Organic Approach as Liminal Within "Liminal"

Life continually renews itself. We human beings do not renew it. We are not in charge of it and we do not control it. Only very small and limited vision causes us to dwell in this illusion. With or without us, life goes on, finding ways we can never dream of to manifest and celebrate itself. The difference between the old paradigm and the new is precisely clear in this poem by A.R. Ammons:

Don't establish the
the squares, triangles
of preconceived
and then
life into them, trimming
off left-over edges,
ending potential:
let centers
self-justifying motions!


The old story of domination, control and all-encompassing materialism has been developing, as Margaret Wheatley(2005) says, for three hundred years. She further notes that "before a new era can come into form, there must be a new story.  Our old stories have become "not only exhausted, but exhausting: as they fail to produce the results we want, we just repeat them with greater desperation, plummeting ourselves into cynicism and despair as we lock into these cycles of failure."

If canonical religious are the "prophetic," the "liminal" - as they are so often told they are -  and as they truly are according to the original visions of foundresses, then those members who are faithful to the inner unfolding of life as it is, not life as we should make it be, are the liminal within the liminal. They are present to the soul of religious life, which does not die, but does change its form, as God who created this organic, abundant universe intends. I suggest that it is time to begin a new story, and let go of repeating the old.


Ammons, A.R. (1965) Tape for the Turn of the Year. New York: Norton Press.

Crosby, M. (1991) The Dysfunctional Church:Addiction and Codependancy in the Family of Catholicism.  Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press.

O'Murchu, D. (2005) Consecrated Religious Life: the Changing Paradigms. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

Sylvester, N.  (2004) Crucible for Change: Engaging Impasse Though Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. San Antonio: Sorjuana Press

Wheatley, M. (2005) Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.