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Religious Life

Lives of commitment behind the quaint image


Lay people sometimes speak of religious life as a medieval sort of self-denial, or as the dwindling legacy of Catholicism’s golden years. Yet there are priests and nuns all over the world who are engaged in life-giving vocations, and every day they quietly deepen their commitment.

They just don’t make the evening news.

Br. Steve Erspamer

Steve Erspamer wasn’t drawn as a child to the mystery of the liturgy; he wasn’t even wild about Mass. But in high school, his Latin teacher was a young Marianist brother, an antiwar activist passionate about peace and justice. “He’s since left,” grinned Erspamer. “But at the time, he asked me if I’d ever thought about being a brother. I thought it was sort of funny. I went home and told my mom, and she said, ‘Forget it, you’d be home in two days!’

“The idea kept coming back to me,” he said. “I wanted to do something good, something more than just get a car, get married and have my little life.”

By his 17th birthday, he was dead serious about entering the Society of Mary. His parents were appalled. “This was 1968, right after Vatican II, and so many people were leaving,” he explained. “Before, religious life was very structured, and as long as you performed the tasks and followed the timetable, you could be as cuckoo as anything and you just sort of fit in. After the council, there was more emphasis on personal responsibility, and more dialogue. It opened the door to a lot of questions. Many people left, and some of them seemed lost, and my parents didn’t want that to happen to me.”

He won their reluctant permission on the proviso that he not study art -- his impractical love -- for the first year. But he spent that year in the Marianist house in San Antonio, a contemporary version of a medieval monastery. The place dazzled him. “Every time you turned a corner you saw a painting, sculpture or tapestry,” he recalled. The chapel had a brick floor and a larger than life-sized corpus of welded steel hanging free from the ceiling. I hadn’t yet consciously put art and faith together, but when I saw this place, and heard the music they composed -- this was a place where faith was alive. Not cranking stuff out of a hymnbook but creating it new.”

He went on to the novitiate in Galesville, Wis., where he prayed, reflected, learned about the order and did backbreaking manual labor on their farm. He loved it. Of the 12 who entered with him, four finished the year, and after temporary vows, only two remained. “Every time somebody left, I thought, ‘What do they know that I don’t? Why am I here?’ ” he recalled. “But I always just felt I was in the right place.” He took a deep breath. “The reason you enter always turns out different from the reason you stay. Your understanding of love deepens.”

He worked in the Marianist art studios for eight years, then went to their new mission in India. “People were sleeping in the streets amid piles of trash and cows, and I remember looking out the taxi window thinking, ‘This was such a mistake,’” he said. “But it was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.”

He returned to India five years ago to design a chapel for a hostel for orphans. “There’s a big domed forecourt open to the air,” he said, “and oil lamps instead of candles, and the altar’s on the floor. Mary’s shown wearing a sari, and the baby Jesus is standing in her lap with his hands outstretched, henna designs on the palms.”

When he returned, he enrolled in Boston University’s master’s program in ceramics, ruthlessly competitive and relentlessly secular. “Artists aren’t too tied into religion; many find it too confining,” he remarked. “But the rules are about things I’d probably do anyway. To me they don’t seem constricting, they seem like the least I can do.”

Soon Erspamer was showing in galleries around the country, but something was missing. He spent six months working on a one-person show and decided to slip in some subdued religious imagery. It turned out wonderfully well, but the gallery owner rejected every piece, saying no one would buy it. Furious, Erspamer threw the huge urns and plates in the Dumpster and decided to start doing what he wanted to do.

He got a job designing a new church in Texas: the layout, the stained-glass windows, the frescoes. Job after job followed, all through word of mouth. He studied liturgical design at the Catholic Theological Union and began educating parishes about the rich symbolism lost with Vatican II. “We started replacing statues with potted plants, and like any revolution, the cleansing went a little too far. There was a break in the ability to decipher symbolic language, and now there’s a whole generation that has no idea what anything means. They don’t look at art as a springboard for meditation, they look at it as pretty wallpaper. I keep telling parishes, ‘This art is supposed to speak to your soul. Every time you see this, it should invite you to come back and pray and discover.’ ”

Erspamer works in the Emil Frei stained-glass studio, up a hill and back in the woods, wearing a gray sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up and a denim apron. At the end of the day, he goes to the South St. Louis flat where he lives alone, after an exhausting stretch as superior of his community.

Actually, he’s not alone; Hampton, his 13-year-old Airedale, is “the perfect contemplative companion: He doesn’t talk, and he’s always happy.”

Religious life is the only life Erspamer can imagine for himself. “It feeds my soul,” he said quietly. “They say art imitates life -- well the cycle of prayer, and the psalms, all that gets filtered back into my work. People think religious life is like the movies, you never talk, or it’s somehow inhuman, when the opposite is true: You are paying attention to what is most deeply human.”

Sr. Kathy Madden

A picture of Kathy Madden, taken shortly after she learned to walk, shows her bending to kiss the cross of her aunt.

Congregation of Notre Dame Sr. Kathryn Madden has been seeking God ever since.

“My spirit was formed in the beauty and mystery that characterized the church before Vatican II,” she said, remembering how close she felt to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and how immanent God’s presence seemed.

The social justice and liberation theology she learned later fired a different passion in her. And in 20 years of teaching on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, she’s learned they’re not mutually exclusive.

Her inspiration for religious life was the sisters of the Congregation de Notre Dame, a Montreal-based order founded in the 17th century by St. Marguerite Bourgeoys. They taught at her junior high, St. Jude the Apostle in South Holland, Ill., and she liked the femininity of their charism -- the way they strove to imitate the impulsive generosity of Mary’s journey to Elizabeth -- as well as their lively passion for teaching.

She entered the congregation as soon as she’d paid off her college loans, and waited eagerly to go wherever she was sent. One day she heard a sister talking about Red Cloud Indian School, and ached to go there. She didn’t dare hope -- until an older sister reminded her that “God does not inspire these desires in us for no reason.”

For the next 20 years, Madden taught Montessori preschool through the primary grades at Red Cloud, weaving Lakota culture and language into the curriculum. She became director of the Montessori school, earned a master’s in Christian spirituality, made herself part of the Lakota community, the parish community and her own religious community.

Recently she lived with sisters of four other communities, and she thinks “this kind of lived collaboration will be an important dimension of religious life in the future.” She also sees a continued movement toward more diverse forms of ministry and living situations, and it doesn’t dismay her in the least; she delights in “the challenge of finding our common ground more in ways of being, rather than doing.”

The Notre Dame sisters have a new focus, for example, on fostering the art of conversation, because mutual sharing -- like Mary’s visit to Elizabeth -- has the power to change us, and bring us peace.

Madden sees her vocation as “witnessing to a life beyond this one” and attempting to make both big and small choices out of the context of her relationship with God. “The gift of these past 20 years,” she added softly, “convinces me that, as religious, God calls us to the place where our own gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

Still, nuns are a mystery to the Lakota children, whose culture places the highest value on motherhood. Madden’s students fingered her silver cross in bewilderment, wondering what could be more important than a family of one’s own. “This ‘for God’ dimension of our life is perhaps the least understood, in a church where one surely does not need to be a priest or religious to serve,” she remarked. “I am certain that if I had married, I could have been just as fine a teacher, but I would not have been as free to live a life of prayer and presence, unencumbered in my devotion. And that I will always cherish.”

Listening to a little girl ask, “God, why did you blow your own house away?” after a devastating tornado, Madden thought about the many times the Lakota have had to rebuild lives swept by tragedy, poverty and despair. “I have often felt that my presence as a praying person was the most important contribution I could offer,” she mused, “in the face of so many complex realities beyond my control.”

She spoke of “the beautiful but costly intimacy of religious life,” recalling how, as a little girl in the Chicago suburbs, she wanted to marry a farmer. She married God instead, and on her runs through the hills behind the Jesuits’ Holy Rosary mission, she fell in love daily with the sacredness of sky and endless prairie, sunrises and clear, cold starry nights. Le paha akan Wakantanka epazo wacin ye, she mutters breathlessly when she runs: “On this hill I want to point to God.”

Fr. Tony Pogorelc

At the age of 4, Tony Pogorelc watched the Franciscan pastor of their tiny, Slovenian Milwaukee parish enact the liturgy and announced that he, too, was going to be a priest.

“Either it was an early bid to get a job in the limelight, or I saw my soul there,” he grinned. At 19, he joined the order of his high school teachers, the Marianists, and found himself caught up in “the great experimental period in the church.” He hit one challenge after the next: community life, and the negotiation that requires; a hierarchical system, having others very much in the mix about the decisions of his life, seeing the flaws of superiors he’d viewed in awe.

Now he is a formation director himself, at The Catholic University of America. “I tell the seminarians it’s important to experience some disillusionment with the church before you make any commitment,” he said gravely. “People need to come to terms with what their expectations were,” he said. “It’s planting your feet on the ground and seeing the wonderful aspects but also the struggles and limitations, and saying, ‘I can embrace both.’ ”

In the attitudes many Catholics have toward clergy, and many religious have toward their superiors, Pogorelc said he sees “the same dynamic that operates with parents. As a child, you think they are flawless. And then you realize they have clay feet. Some people say OK and live with it, and others nurse a terrible disappointment all their lives.

“Trying to be an adult participating in any group is difficult,” he pointed out, “because you want so badly to be connected to the group, but you also want to say what you see and think. That’s a very adult thing to do, and do well. In a sense, that’s the prophetic dimension of the church. There’s always been a tension between the hierarchy and the poetic, prophetic voices who, by the way they live, really challenge the status quo.”

As a young Marianist brother, Pogorelc faced his own challenges on mission in East St. Louis, which seemed like “a church version of the television show ‘M*A*S*H.’”

There he met diocesan priests for the first time, and he watched as they had to close parishes and navigate fierce racism. He already knew he wanted to be ordained a priest; now the seeds were planted to choose diocesan priesthood, which seemed somehow freer, better suited to his temperament.

Next, he went to Kathmandu, Nepal, for a year. “If people had told me I’d be bathing with a cup and bucket!” he exclaimed. “So many things we Westerners define as necessities really aren’t.”

Stripped of comforts as well as illusions, he next enrolled at the Toronto School of Theology. There, the doubts invaded. Did he want to continue on this path? Did he really want to live a life of celibacy? One simple answer: “I really did want to be a priest.”

Now a diocesan priest associated with the Priests of St. Sulpice, who specialize in the education of seminarians, Pogorelc holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Purdue University and teaches at Washington, D.C.’s Catholic University and its theological college. “I’m amazed at the number of seminarians who are converts to Catholicism and the number whose parents were divorced,” he said. “I was the tail end of something, produced in a Catholic culture that was waning. In the boom of religious vocations, there was a real esprit de corps: People used to enter in groups, drawn to the excitement of being a part of this larger world. Today, the motives are more individual; I don’t think there are strong social forces pushing people into religious life anymore.”

Still, as formation adviser he works closely with the seminarians, and he’s impressed by what he sees. “A lot of these men really want to serve,” he said. “Some are former lawyers or businessmen. All are interested in the growth and persistence of the institutional church, and that makes them unique. Younger people aren’t interested in institutions in general, these days. But Catholicism has a well-developed sense of the common good, and people are beginning to see it as a way of restoring value and dignity to human life.

“People at a distance might look at religious life today and say, ‘Isn’t that quaint?’ But lay people who get closer see that the struggles of the spiritual life are universal. It’s just another way of trying to grow in holiness. People plant themselves in different situations to do that. But the issues are the same.”

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@riverfronttimes.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003