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Religious Life

That was then ... What now?

When the Second Vatican Council called for renewal, no one took the call as seriously as religious sisters. Around the world, they gathered in big and small groups to look back at their roots. They examined their own lives against the background of the charisms of their foundresses and the histories that had shaped their congregations. More clearly than other groups the nuns saw a church in transition. What they saw in turn precipitated further changes. Many left and returned to lay life. Many who stayed were dispirited by the slow movement of church reform.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister's 1995 book, The Fire in These Ashes: A Spirituality of Contemporary Religious Life (Sheed & Ward, 178 pages, $14.95), started a new flame burning, energized and stirred new hope in religious life, whatever it may turn out to be. The following excerpt, published with permission, is typical of the book's mixture of realism and optimism.


The keeping of the coals

For the last 30 or more years, ever since the very advent of Vatican II, the lifestyle of religious congregations and their role in society have been analyzed to the point of paralysis. For the religious involved, this chancy, exciting, wearying, ambiguous period has become the greatest asceticism of all, harder than hairshirts, more demanding than conformity, more difficult than rituals and disciplines.

"Time," Tennessee Williams' character Tom comments in "The Glass Menagerie," "is the longest distance between two places." For religious who thought that the renewal of religious life would be a task, not a lifestyle, that has without doubt become a hard truth. It has been years of change, decades of adjustment, whole lifetimes of uncertainty, ambiguity, conflict and confusions.

For those coming to religious life now, the task is to rebuild religious life for decades to come out of the flimsiest of traditions perhaps, but for the generation that came to religious life before or during Vatican II, the task was to dismantle a system heavy with the accretions of the ages.

Suddenly, after years of cloistered routine and immutable custom, religious life became a kind of social experiment, an exercise in organizational tinkering and social insertion. The renewal of religious life took on all the character of an archaeological dig. Layer after layer of its theology, its history, its institutional forms, its organizational impulses, its psychological effects were laid bare one after another in order to expose for general view its workings, its impulses, its social, emotional, and personal ramifications.

Every element, every assumption, every custom, every jot and tittle of the rule, no matter how long-standing and sacrosanct, became refreshingly suspect, tiringly suspect. Here was a social scouring of immense proportions, one of the most total in social history, perhaps.

While anthropologists who claimed professional interest in subcultures sat, for the most part, idly by, an entire way of life turned on its axis a full 360 degrees. Cataclysmic in proportion, but almost invisible in its long-term effects, change became the norm for groups that had changed almost not at all, some of them, for hundreds of years. The academic exercise of renewal took on a life of its own. It became for many, in fact, the raison d'etre of community life itself. The purpose of religious life became to renew religious life.

And all the while that happened institutionally, individual religious became more and more alienated from the life itself. Renewal simply did not stem the outgoing tide of membership. Many left to marry or to devote themselves to professions where the service continued unabated and the stress of life in cultural transition did not pervade. Few entered. Those who stayed found themselves staying for far different reasons and greatly different goals, many of them blurred at best, from the ones that had brought them to religious life in the first place.

Now the question became whether or not anything at all would remain of a lifestyle once generally considered permanently unchangeable, commonly considered superior. Worse, the real concern became whether or not there was any compelling reason for religious life to exist at all.

What could a religious do, for instance, that any layperson could not now do as well? What was the purpose of celibacy, the virtue of poverty, the value of an obedience that could be as psychologically deleterious as it was organizationally efficient? Why would a person live in groups of strangers with little but faith for comfort, even given all the changes for the better where human values -- personal development and social quality -- were concerned? If it was not a "higher" vocation, a guaranteed passage to eternal life, a place of social privilege and public respect, a measure of goodness and a moment of innocence crystallized, why do it? In fact, do what?

Past and future became the time warps of religious life. What had brought it to this point and where it was going consumed the organizational agenda of group after group. The present took on the character of a crucible between what had been and what was coming.

At the same time, for individuals in every community, for those for whom the organizational agenda took on the flesh and blood of everyday life, the present ceased to have much of a character, a value, a respectable quality of its own. What had been and what would be, not what was actually going on in each of us spiritually, through us spiritually, consumed us all.

Yet, all the time, dailiness felt more and more sterile, more and more unimportant, more and more uninspired, except perhaps as a kind of holding place over life. Life became a scientific study of a permanently faded past or a series of strategies geared at shaping the future. Everything counted in the spiritual hopper but the now, everything was grist for the spiritual mill but the now. Now was lost time, waiting time, hard time.

One kind of religious life had gone and another kind of religious life, everybody promised, was coming. Someday. Few, if any, said anything about the nature, value, energy and life quality of religious life now. The present itself, it seemed, had little value, little character, little quality, little of the spiritual life.

Clearly, the question of whether or not religious life has made a valuable contribution to church and society in the past is passe. History gives clear confirmation of that. The role religious orders and congregations have played in the development and preservation of art, learning, architecture, social development and church life in ages past reaches the levels of the incalculable.

Indeed, we stand on valiant shoulders. Foundresses and founders battled for their vision, even against the church, until church and state alike called them blessed. Congregations built empires of social service agencies. Individual members in every congregation rose to civic prominence in generation after generation. Clearly, to question the past value of religious life is, at this stage, almost boring.

Surely, too, the consuming question for religious life in our day must be more than what shape religious life shall take in years to come. Frankly, who cares? That we must live and think in such a way that we make the future possible is one thing. That we should abandon a consciousness of the energizing quality of the present in order to live in the far-off-but-not-here is entirely another. To prepare for the future is one thing; to forfeit or forget or forgo the power and purpose of the present is entirely another. What religious need to know at this period in history is whether or not religious life has any value now, is good now, is worth living now, is holy-making now, is beautiful now.

The question of present value is a much more difficult one than whether the past was good and the future is possible. The question is whether or not there is purpose in the present. And if so, what is its purpose? Can religious life be revived? Should religious life be revived? Is there any fire left in these ashes?


The Irish have a word for it. Grieshog, Gaelic speakers tell us, is the process of burying warm coals in ashes at night in order to preserve the fire for the cold morning to come. Instead of cleaning out the cold hearth, people preserved yesterday's glowing coals under beds of ash overnight in order to have fast-starting new fire the next day. The process is an extremely important one. Otherwise, if the coals go out, a whole new fire must be built and lit when morning comes, an exercise that takes precious time and slows the more important work of the new day.

The primary concern, then, was that the fire from yesterday not be permitted to burn out completely at the end of the day. On the contrary, coals hidden from sight under heaps of ash through the long, dark night were tended carefully so that the fire could leap to life again at first light. The old fire did not die; it kept its heat in order to be prepared to light the new one.

It is a holy process, this preservation of purpose, of energy, of warmth and light in darkness. What we call death and end and loss in our lives, as one thing turns into another, may, in these terms, be better understood as grieshog, as the preservation of the coals, as refusing to go cold. Our responsibility, both new and older members of us, may simply be to stay religious till the day we die so that religious life may live long after we do.

"Time is the substance from which I am made," Jorge Luis Borges writes. "Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire" (Labyrinths: A New Refutation of Time). I am, in other words, what is to become. What is going on around me is going on within me now and will or will not happen because of me. I am both the vehicle and the substance of the future. What I am now, religious life will be in the future. There is no future without me because the future is within me.

The thought sobers a person to the center of the soul. Religious life will not die in the future unless it is dead in religious already. Each and every religious alive today is its carrier. Each of us is its life. I myself am whatever good it is. When people ask about the state of religious life, they are asking about me. What will religious life look like in the future? The answer is an easy one.

To get a glimpse of the coming religious life, all a religious has to do is to look in a reflecting pool: Is there energy of heart shining out of the eyes there? Is there a pounding commitment to a wild and unruly gospel there? Is the spiritual life aglow there? Is there risk there? Is there unflagging commitment, undying intensity, unequivocal determination to be what I say I am? Or has the old glow gone dull? Is life now simply a matter of enduring the days and going through the motions? Or is religious life in a brand new arc demanding more discipline from me and giving more life through me than ever?

Too much surrender

If religious life suffers from anything in the present, it may well be from too much surrender to demise and too little realization of what it means to maintain the coals, to fan a fire. Resignation reigns now where recklessness should be.

The notion that religious life is dead has become commonplace. For too many, perhaps, it has also become an operational motto, a given, one of the facts of a life gone sour in midstream. The temptation then is to make our highest aspiration simply the intention to live life out rather than to live it to the fullest with all the certainty and depth that we lived it in the form before this one. And what about the women and men -- newer members of religious communities, few, yes, but stalwart nevertheless -- who come looking for spiritual fire among us and are getting damped by the weight of the self-fulfilling prophecies of pending demise? What is the responsibility of the fire-tenders to those who come to a fire but find that the fire has been allowed to go cold? Is the problem that there are fewer vocations or that there are fewer fires blazing high enough to yet be seen?

The truth is that the problem of change pales in the face of the problem of anomie. If religious life fails, it will not be because religious life changed. It will be because the religious of this period of history have lost a sense of the spirituality of the present and sold their souls instead either to the past or to the future. If religious life fails, it will be because we ourselves, our individual and corporate selves, lost a sense of the value of the present, the power of the present, the challenge of the present, the meaning of the present, the sanctity of the present.

Scripture, on the other hand, gives us a model that is quite the opposite. Jacob first works seven years for Leah, the bride he did not seek, and then, still driven by his original vision of life, works seven more for Rachel, the bride he sought in the first place but whose giving was delayed. In each case, Jacob works just as hard, with just as much fervor, with just as much care. In each case, the work is just as important. In each case, Jacob never stints, never quits, never withdraws his heart though each case is different. Jacob, clearly, is the patron saint of contemporary religious life.

Jacob teaches us continuance of spirit in a time of change. Jacob teaches us that reversals of our life plans are not nearly the obstacles to life we think they are. Through Jacob we come to see that we are not always capable of recognizing the value of where we find ourselves in life.

In Jacob we realize that reversals simply attune the heart to higher things again and make us listen for the original voice, for the first sound that moved our souls, for that moment of innocence when everything fell away between the soul and God and made life a dance over glass instead of an endurance test. If anything, Jacob teaches us most of all that it is not change that threatens religious life; it is stinting that desiccates the soul; it is stinting that wrings life out of life; it is stinting that turns us to hollow and shrivels us to dust.

Holding back on the promise is worse than breaking it. Once the fire goes out, once the coals go cold, once the stoking of the soul begins to stop, it is not the cold that kills, it is the inability to rekindle the flame that once we held within the breast and now have left to smother that damps the heart and confuses the mind, wearies the body and slays the soul.

But it is not a dying time for religious life. It is an important time for religious life, a time of great new birth in embryo, a time for total surrender and total involvement at the same time. This generation of religious will decide the birth of the next, aborted or stillborn, bright-minded or open-souled.

It is what is happening now in religious life that will measure its goodness, its holy tenacity, its depth of spirit for ages to come. And what is happening now is the task of a holy tenacity and indomitable zeal that enables the young to expect the impossible and the old to be willing to begin again.

A confusion of spirit

The real tragedy of the present state of religious life, then, is not that it is in turmoil. The real tragedy is that it suffers from a confusion of spirit. When religious life, we thought, looked most alive -- when religious robotization had reached the peak of the industrial model that spawned it, producing products at a great rate and organizing people by the thousands -- it was actually most dead. And did not know it. Questions had stopped; thinking had stopped; even personal spiritual development had been reduced to modes and exercises and formulas. The regular life had been substituted for the spiritual life.

At the same time, now, when religious life calmly and commonly declares itself dead, it may be more alive than it has been for generations. For the first time in decades, perhaps in centuries, religious life pulses with new energy and stands steeped in the greatest questions of the time.

Surely it is the religious of the church -- the ones who claim a consuming passion for God -- who will first ask the question the world wants answered. Where is God, in a world that flirts with magic and is inoculated against mystery by the seductions of science itself? What links the material to the spiritual and makes the spiritual material at the same time?

What makes for church? What defies the oppressive claims of gender? What determines age? What defines death? What measures life? What is authenticity and what is not? What makes for the spiritual purposefulness of a period without apparent purpose? What is religious life itself and what spirituality underlies it at a time when the questions are crucial but the coals are low and the ashes are growing cold?

The spirituality of religious life today is neither the spirituality of the cross nor the spirituality of the resurrection. The spirituality of our time is the spirituality of Holy Saturday: a spirituality of confusion and consternation, of ineffectiveness and powerlessness, of faith in darkness and the power of hope. It is a spirituality that carries on when carrying on seems most futile.

This is not a time for quitting simply because the past is past and the present is unclear. This is not a time for not beginning just because the journey is uncharted. In fact, what an older generation of religious promised a lifetime ago may only now be beginning to come to pass, to make its demands, to reveal its meaning. What a newer, younger generation of religious do now to create the next moment in religious history out of the dust of the old may only come to promise in years to come. But that's all right. The commitment basic to religious life has little or nothing to do with what religious do. Religious commitment is about why they do what they do.

The spirituality of productivity is over. Religious do not give their lives away because an institution runs hospitals, no matter how good those hospitals may be. They do not limit their own life options simply to multiply prayers for those whose life activities never end. They do not exist to provide a labor force for people who, if they did not have this one, would never notice. In a society where the once radical concerns of education, medical care and social services have gone mainstream, specific works cannot justify, explain or impel religious life.

What must drive religious life today is the spirituality of creation, where, for far too many, hope dies in darkness and smolders in ashes waiting for the dawn of that day when simply the right to ask the difficult questions themselves will be understood as an act of faith, a sign of fidelity to the God who calls to us from the other side of mystery.

Scripture defines a clear model of service and change, of change and new service where commitment alone bridges the gap between old certainties and new challenge. In Genesis, Jacob sets out to achieve one thing and finds himself faced with a new and different task. Jacob laid his life down for Rachel, and got Leah instead. It was not simply a private blow, a life challenge, a moment of struggle for Jacob. It was also, in the divine scheme of things, an act of personal faith that sowed the seeds of a whole new world for the Chosen People at large.

In this day, too, older religious know well the meaning of a life that begins in one thing but becomes another, and younger religious know what it is to have the burden of beginning again in the spirit of the first. What is important is that the relation between the two life tasks never be forgotten, never be misunderstood. Jacob made a promise and kept it through both its dimensions.

When Jacob was given the right to marry Rachel, the dream of his life, he also got contention and challenge far beyond his wildest notions of them. He got a second life.

Contemporary religious life has lived two lives, as well. The first was staid and standard, a good life with clear rules and certain rewards, a private exercise of personal virtues. The second life, on the other hand, is wild and unclear, makes demands on us we never dreamed possible, demands that everyone, young and old, begin again and, most of all, has a meaning far beyond the church alone, the Catholic ghetto and the struggle for personal salvation. This time religious life has meaning for the world at large.

Like Jacob laboring for Leah, it is time for us to begin again, this time to achieve the purpose we came for in the first place. The French proverb teaches, "Everything passes, everything perishes, everything palls." To have something leave us is not a sign of loss. It is only a sign that we are meant to go on to something else, to what, like Jacob, we set out to achieve from the very beginning.

But that will take a keeping of the coals.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 1997