“A very brief history of religious life” can be seen by dwelling with these four images. You need not read the essay at all.

Still, the present state of women’s religious life, by its variety of expression, its complexity, and its intense flowering/fading of ministries, invites a reflection worthy of its layered nature. In the forty-four years since Vatican II, women’s vowed religious communities – more than any group in the Roman Catholic Church – whole-heartedly into the renewal called for by that Council. In our present day, when a focus on “renewal” has fallen off, when women’s status in the Church cannot even be discussed in a public setting, and when many of the profound changes encouraged by Vatican Council II are being undermined by assumption and ignorance, this reflection offers the beginning of a question, as well as a way into the complexity of what is happening as Congregational numbers – and thus energy – diminishes, as property must be sold, and as endings begin to loom for many groups of religious women.

          It is my belief that the energy of “renewal” has been leaving our language because renewal was a concept, and as such it took us as far as it could. Where renewal carried us was a very long, long way – over forty years’ worth of deliberate change. But being a concept, it could only take change so far, in exactly the same way as the mind alone has finite comprehension. Where we are now, and where renewal has carried us, is to the lintel of transformation. Transformation is not a choice, but a surrendering; not a decision, but an acceptance, not of the mind, but of the heart and of the soul. Transformation happens in personal and communal encounters with the Divine who is beckoning but not commanding. For we do not have to cross the lintel. God mandates nothing. But the invitation – ah! Once it is heard echoing in the soul, how is refusal possible?

          This article will examine the progression of women’s vowed religious life from the flame of first founding to the present time. It will then conclude with thoughts on how the present and the future are issuing invitations to those of us living religious life in these times.

                                               Founding Energy: Original Fire

          The first moment of every religious community was a moment of fire. It was if a single match were struck in someone’s heart, then burned a fire strong enough to sustain a vision that spread for decades and centuries. That matchstick flame seemed to jump into other hearts that similarly ignited and burned with it against staggering odds. In my book Original Fire: The Hidden Heart of Religious Women (BookSurge Press, 2009) I highlight the lives of several foundresses who stayed faithful to their vision through opposition by Church, family and governments, dire poverty, illness and disease, and  there are countless others whom I could not include in an article of this length.

          What we are invited to embrace in our age is not only to know and admire the fire that kept those foundresses fierce in their commitment, but to experience that fire ourselves.  Otherwise we will keep repeating what those women did in their world, rather than ask “how would they be and –from that being - what would they do in our time?” Despite asking that very question, but only from a mind level, many Congregations continue to focus more in the past than in the present, protective of history rather than being inspired by it to act according to this day’s needs and expanded awareness.

           Another quality that today quenches the original fire is the emphasis on security and safety. This, more than any other preoccupation, robs vibrant, committed women of their creativity and their mature, unique soul-work. If the first response given to a new venture is “let’s see if we can afford it or not”, then the new idea is generally doomed. This question has a place, but not in first response. Recently I was working with a group of leaders who consciously decided to make their first response to any new proposal in the form of two questions: “What if? Why not?” Even after making a decision to do this, it is difficult for them to respond with awareness rather than with their automatic pattern, but they are determined to change at least that impulse.

          Like every other financially-dependant organization, religious communities of women are suffering from the current global economic recession. But not all are making it their main focus; some are actually seeing in it a call to deeper values, a road of return to more deliberate simplicity and spiritual purpose. While some are showing reactions of panic, echoing similar reaction in society, and communicating this panic to members, other leaders are calling their sisters to dwelling peacefully in the larger spiritual reality of connection with the Divine and the unstable world that such a recession brings before us. It is indeed a stark reminder that most of our foundresses fought financial restraints also, and still kept their vision alive and dynamic. I believe that this capacity came from as deep a commitment to contemplative practice as to service in the world, and that the second flowed from the first. But the first was non-negotiable.

          How can we now, in the spiraling ambience of our present world, encounter our own original fire, as vowed women singly and in community?

                                                              Before Vatican II

          It’s a common tale in the telling of stories about how religious communities developed that soon after the founder or foundress’ death, structure became of paramount concern. It is a natural reaction, and no doubt those members who had not been part of the founding (and even some who were) desperately wanted to hold on to the original vision. Some of the stories are funny, as in the one told about what happened six months after the death of Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy. In one of the convents, the superior had wooden boxes made for the shorter members of the community to stand on during prayers, so that everyone would be the same height! The square symbol(above) was queen in that house, but Catherine McAuley, as far from that mindset as anyone could be, was either laughing or turning in her grave. As for Francis of Asissi, one of the most famous of saints – even while he was still alive, his brothers wanted to throw him out of the community because he wasn’t conforming to the rules they made.

          It’s good for us to tell these stories because they remind us of that tendency in organizations to solidify, hold on, make rules and make members fit, rather than allow the vision to carry us, call us to change, and evolve in an organic rather than in a solid way.  They also remind us of how easy it is to extinguish, rather than contain the fire from which most religious communities emerged. Another detrimental effect of this tendency is that it tends to attract members of like mind, not the women of fire, but of safe structures.                                                                                                               

           Religious life prior to Vatican Council II was very definitely in that “square” category: clear structure, fit in or leave, ask no questions, conform to what “always” was. When I entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1964 at the age of seventeen, we were told that we would be following the same horarium fifty years from now. The very next year, the Council ended, and everything changed at once. At least in an exterior way.

          A second way in which predictable, squarish reality was dominant in religious life prior to Vatican II was in the practice of authority. Hierarchy was as much a reality in women’s communities as in the Church itself, with similar layers of top-down decision-making and powerful women making unilateral decisions on behalf of everyone else. Many were giants in their time, both in vision and in appropriate use of power. Without that kind of authority, the whole renewal effort might not have taken off as well as it did.

How can we now re-examine our pre-Vatican II history in a loving light that frees our eyes to see with compassion and honor for all who laid down the path for us?

                                                                   Since Vatican II

          The chaos and disintegration in vowed religious communities that ensued within a few years of the ending of Vatican Council II began a process that manifests today in fewer numbers, loss of institutions, and such profound diminishments in formerly powerful Congregations of religious women on every level that many – especially older sisters – are lost and confused. “What happened? We did our best with what the Church asked of us. Is it really true that we might not be able to go on? Why aren’t young women coming to us?” and other similar questions abound in silent and whispered conversations.

          The image appearing for this period in history is one of arrows going off in many different directions, some crossing each other, some not, some close to another, others isolated. There is, however, an empty space in the center, and I believe that this empty space – a place of deep presence, has been holding us all along, holding us together while externally we wandered – or – better – explored beyond our former limitations.

          Carolyn Myss, a well-known spiritual teacher and writer today, states frequently that the dispersal of religious women and priests leaving their communities in the years after the Council was one of the most important reasons for the return of ordinary people to spirituality in daily life. Those leaving did not give up their spiritual orientation, but brought it with them into the world, thus “leavening” the world in a spiritual way. But what of those of us who stayed within the communities during this chaotic period? How have we been leavening the world? Certainly by our continued good ministries, but – deeper than that – we have done so by our expansive explorations into formerly forbidden territory of soul and spirit, and by our willingness to realize, in the words given us by Adrienne Rich,(Love Poem XIII, 1978) that “the maps they gave us were out of date by years.” When many of us proceeded into unmapped territory, in multiple directions, we were moving steadily towards where we find ourselves now: at that lintel of transformation.

          We cannot explain why, despite our best efforts, so few young women are joining traditional religious communities. This situation is similar to praying for a very particular intention: if our intention isn’t granted, we must believe that there is a larger reality moving, one beyond our understanding and comprehension. Such is the work of God. A similar faith is asked of us when all we do for a purpose we clearly articulate comes to no desired result. When things don’t turn out the way we think they should, then faith asks of us a leap and a trust that God is bringing about that larger reality, beyond what we can see. And really – isn’t that who we say we are?

              Therein, then, lies the hope that is also present in those arrows, in that open space. External forms, by their very nature, must disintegrate, will disintegrate no matter how caring or careful human beings act. The very disintegration of those particular forms freed up an energy – very exciting in the early years after the Council – of possibility, of spiritual revival, of a new way of life. Those of us who were very young at that time felt the longing for it, and even the presence of it in many ways. But very few other segments of Church life kept pace with that of religious women’s renewal enthusiasm, and in a relatively short time, we found ourselves defending, pushing, and eventually being labeled as troublemakers to more traditional ways of doing things. Not only was this true in a general way inside Church structures, but the energy of renewal itself severely divided religious communities. Many could not tolerate the ambivalence of the falling apart, and left their Congregations. Others found ways to pursue their own healing, renewal and education while remaining loosely associated, even on the fringes of Congregational life, but members they nevertheless remained. Today, many different worldviews are found within a single religious Congregation.

          We are now at another crucial moment and it is a moment of allowing or resisting transformation.  Disintegration is, after all, not the end of a story but the beginning of a new chapter in the unfolding one, as caterpillars teach us every year. We are really no different. God in disguise as Earth has been teaching us all along.

How can we now open our inner eyes to surrender and see the truth of this moment in a faithful, communal way?

                                                                Now and Future

         Our present and our future are here represented as a Circle. This shape teaches us about how we can be present now and move into an unknown future in the way that the transformative path demands; i.e., by holding any material goods and plans loosely. We are now long acquainted with the unexpected, and each encounter strengthens our knowing that depending on external structures of any kind needs second claim on our time and energy. The gift of this knowing is that it brings us closer to the heart of what matters in the drama of human life. We are called to contemplation in a committed way in the madness of our materialistic, fearful and violent world, and from that contemplative presence our action unfolds: justice, peace, cosmic awareness, earth matters, spiritual teaching – and community.

          The Circle has no hierarchy and values each one equally. It can hold conflict, pain, diversity, even the negative and blaming nature of the shadows of human existence.  It witnesses to a different set of values, and even though many religious Congregations have been speaking “circular authority” for several years now, it is yet to be truly practiced. The powers that keep us in the old ways are beyond telling; they have dug deep into our collective unconscious, and we have become identified with them to an untold degree. The Circle breaks open those old ways – and like the years of disintegration, will temporarily pull apart almost everything we think we know – but only so that a deeper knowing can be experienced and released into the world. Personal commitment to contemplation is a foundation, but a communal commitment to contemplation is larger in its influence than the sum of its individual members.

          In the human cycle of living and dying, we know that with the increase of years comes physical diminishment. But we also know and have known for a long time, that as the body decreases, the wisdom of the soul increases. Wisdom, age and grace are meant to walk hand in hand. Might this not also be true for aging religious communities? As we can “do” fewer works, how can we offer our spiritually experienced presence as a contribution to our rapidly transforming world?

 How can we allow a Circle process to invite us into more cohesive contemplation and action?

                                          Conclusion: Already Living a New Form

          It is important to name the moment, however we describe it, in order to find ground that is real, and not just from the past. I close with a recent quote from Sandra Schneiders, IHM, a well known scholar on the history and meaning of religious life. On February 28, 2009, Sandra was quoted as follows in the National Catholic Reporter, commenting on the Vatican’s recent announcement of an investigation into religious life in the United States:

          “In my work on the renewal of Religious Life over the last eight years I
            have come to the conclusion that Congregations like ours [the kind            represented                

by LCWR] have in fact birthed a new form of Religious Life. We are really  no longer
           ‘Congregations dedicated to the works of the Apostolate’, - that is, monastic
           communities whose members “go out” to do institutionalized works basically
           assigned by the hierarchy as an extension of their agendas, e.g., in Catholic
           schools and hospitals, etc., we are ministerial religious. Ministry is integral to
           our identity and vocation. It arises from our baptism, specified by profession,
           discerned within our Congregational leadership, and effected according to the
           charism of our Congregation, not by delegation from the hierarchy. We are
           not monastics at home. We are not extensions of the clergy abroad. Our whole
           life is affected by our ministerial identity; searching out the places (often on
           the margins of Church and society) where the need for the Gospel is greatest;
           living in ways that are conducive to our ministry; preaching the Gospel freely as
           Jesus commissioned his itinerant full-time companions to do. Our community life
           and ministries are corporate but not “common life” in the sense of everyone in the
           same place at the same time doing the same thing.”

          Sandra names the smallest beginning of a new reality: we are already living a new form of religious life. There is no going back. In the language of the Great Shifts in our world, shifts that are bringing together spirituality and science, shifts that are globalizing all manner of relationship, including with the planet, we are either part of the Great Turning, or we are part of the Great Turning Back.

Thanks to the work of Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Myss, Sandra Schneiders, IHM and Christina Baldwin, for her work on Circle process.