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Lent Series Liminal Space

Religious life has been ‘totally co-opted’


“I am afraid that we Friars Minor have become more a curiosity than significant.”
-- Fr.Giacomo Bini, Franciscan minister general

I guess some people could make a case that church does not need to be liminal, that sacraments are fine as they are, that men need to build towers, and that Lent can be understood in other ways than liminal space. But it is hard for me to see how religious life can have any justification or any future unless it is, in fact, some kind of “anti-structure” that is challenging and also comforting the larger structure of society and church.

Structure is always threatened by anti-structure. We are all threatened by what we cannot control. So it is easier to dismiss us or trivialize us -- or more commonly, co-opt us. We men religious at least have been quite ready to be co-opted both by church and by society. As a result, our calling power, our raison d’être, our very attractiveness is largely gone.

A few young men come every year, get a great education and usually leave after a few years, grateful for the experience. They like us, but they don’t tend to take us seriously. In my opinion, they know that they can often live a life more on the edge outside of religious life. We are not liminal anymore, we are just a stop on the pony express. That is why the larger society finds us, as our Franciscan general says, curious more than significant.

But what about the next generation? Who will maintain the pony express station for the next group? It has now become a question of sustainability, like the ecosystem itself. Most of my generation of religious are still basking in the immense hard work, good investments and good name of those who built religious life in America over the last 150 years.

Many of us, myself included, have also become very soft, very comfortable and very individualistic. It is almost impossible not to in North America or Europe, especially when you are a part of a large and old institution. We are no longer on the edge, or even in the middle of most things, except by courageous individual choice. Corporately, we are totally co-opted, part of the system, enjoying its benefits too much to critique or comfort either church or society. I must say, however, that some communities of women seem to be amazing exceptions to this. We men got ordained for the most part, just what Benedict and Francis and many of the brother communities avoided. They knew, as many of the women religious know, that the monk, the friar, the nun and the hermit could only thrive on the edge.

Religious life still seems to have strong viability in some countries, such as India, where the religious tend to share the common plight. There is no way to flee it. They are liminal by reason of their solidarity with society and by their ability to invest that shared poverty with spiritual meaning, service and joy. We in the First World don’t corporately share the lot of the marginalized, and so we cannot invest it with spiritual meaning and joy. The advantage is that we often do bring critical perspective, needed education, important contacts and the inner self-confidence that middle-class success has given us. That is not bad, and probably why most major founders were themselves not poor, but from their contemporary middle class or higher.

The impossible question, therefore, becomes: How do you take advantage of all the opportunities so that you can minister to others, and not become a casualty of the system? How do you spend 12 years behind books, seeking advancement, in trendy conversation groups -- and then go back to the farm? Or even know how to talk to the farmer?

Let me offer one possible way out of this. I was struck in many parts of Asia by the vitality of Buddhist religious life. They clearly have maintained their liminality much more than we have. In Burma, Thailand and Nepal there are still begging monks, much loved by the people, whereas we Franciscans gave up mendicancy almost immediately.

But one very common and very different pattern is that such religious life for Buddhists is normally not forever. It is a period of formation, a necessary spiritual training offered to any and all in some places. It might even be called an initiation. Of course, some always stay on to keep training the next generation in the ways of wisdom. This keeps the focus and goal very clear.

I am convinced that is what is happening in the various accounts of the “sending of the disciples” (Luke 9:1-6, Matthew 10:1-42, and Mark 6:1-13). We have written volumes to try to explain -- or explain away -- how, if, when and where Jesus could possibly have meant any of these instructions: “No shoes, no purse, stay overnight anywhere, greet no one on the way, drive out your devils and come back and tell me about it!” What is this all for?

Well, it is absolutely clear initiation teaching. It was never meant for an entire lifetime. It was training camp, boot camp, necessary and crucial liminality. I am convinced, especially when I see a high percentage of religious sour and give up in the second half of life, that this form of life is best lived as an initiation, for a period of good years until you get the major points down. Then go on with life, married or whatever, but with freedom and radiance that can be leaven, salt and light to the world.

Once we can see that religious life is about initiation, then we can rediscover deliberate and concentrated formation programs, and find the elders who are quite willing to do it, because now the goal and purpose is clear. Right now, most of us do not have a clue how or what to do in formation. We all avoid it like the plague. And what is happening right now is such a charade. I know religious life candidates who live in a total welfare state: cars, free education, three hots and a cot, 100 channel TV and plenty of time to watch it, little responsibility, generous weekly allowances, almost no ministry to others, time for trips to the mall, frequent flights to other places and home -- and all paid for by others!

This is a nice deal, but it has almost nothing to do with anything liminal, much less the way of Jesus or initiation into anything but American upper middle-class lifestyle. As the laity keep saying, “If this is poverty, then I would love to see chastity.” The irony is that such candidates themselves will not finally respect such a system, because they finally know that it stands for little except its own self-preservation.

In the meantime, seminarians will enjoy the free lunch. But they will not be initiated men. If they do perhaps stay, I hope they are not your parish ministers, because you will not get much service out of them, as we are seeing in many of those ordained in the last few years.

I do not blame the candidates, I do not even blame the lack of elders, but I blame the system that has not raised up elders. I blame the system that has given men ascribed status, fancy uniforms and titles (just what the immature male falls for) before they have done any of life’s homework. Thank God, I do not speak of a large percentage of male religious who have grown up, met God and taken their vocation and their ministry seriously. They are sustaining the whole thing.

But I have talked to too many provincials and personnel committees around the world to doubt that my critical assessment is true. We inside all know it is true, but until we are allowed to say that the emperor has no clothes, nothing is going to change. Maybe we like naked emperors and immature priests. Then we don’t have to feel ashamed about our own lack of growth.

Let me end with a note of hope. A couple years ago, there was a knock on my door here in Albuquerque. A young man, named Thomas Neitzke, introduced himself as a Jesuit novice from Minnesota. I invited him in, and he told me his story. How nice when a Jesuit comes begging from a Franciscan! He had been sent by his novice master, along with his fellow novices, on a 30-day pilgrimage. He was able to pick some far-away city, and was given $30 and a one-way bus ticket. He was not to return for 30 days, and he was to survive, learn, beg, improvise, trust, stay in shelters, ask for hospitality and meet God in new ways. This is liminal space, this is Ignatius taken seriously, this is Jesus taken seriously. This is more Franciscan than the Franciscans. This is classic initiation procedure, and no matter what Tom does with his life now (he has made final vows in the Society of Jesus), he will be a wise man. And he has a very wise and courageous novice master. This is a religious life that deserves to last -- and will last. It is not a curiosity. It is significant.

Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, a popular retreat master, speaker and writer, is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque. This article is the sixth in a series.

National Catholic Reporter, March 8, 2002