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Prominent theologian rethinks religious life

By Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM
Paulist Press, 450 pages, $22.95


If the reader is looking for a feel-good, cheerleading rendition of the state of contemporary religious life, search elsewhere. If one wants a challenging, thought-provoking and detailed analysis of North American religious life, read this.

Women religious who lived the experience of the changes initiated by the Second Vatican Council are now reflecting on and exploring the meaning of these past 30 years. Immaculate Heart Sr. Sandra Schneiders outlines the purpose of the two-volume set as: “analyzing and rethinking religious life in two phases, the first global or general, and the second local or specific.”

In volume one, on the global phase, she focuses on the postmodern cultural experience, analyzing it through sociology, history, psychology and anthropology, but her primary lens is theological.

She situates religious life as a human phenomenon among the world’s religions, as an organic life form, and as a dweller in postmodernity. Drawing from the archetype of the monk and monasticism, Schneiders describes monasticism as “a unifying quest for the fullest possible realization of the true self in relation to reality conceived as a whole or as transcendent.” This quest for God, core to religious life, makes religious life “in its inner reality monastic.”

The second psychological archetype Schneiders describes is that of the virgin -- the celibate who is a challenge to the social order. With these two archetypes firmly in place and carefully detailed, Schneiders moves to an astute discussion of postmodern culture.

She explores religious life as a prophetic vocation, as passing through the spiritual transformation of the dark night, as an ecclesiastical reality and as charism. Schneiders maintains that consecrated celibacy is a constitutive principle of religious life, affording religious contemplative immediacy to God. The social marginality of the prophet and celibacy are the “coordinates of religious life.” The prophet participates in the divine pathos, proclaims lament, vision and hope, and suffers for justice’s sake.

If the current situation of North American religious life is seen as participating in and passing through the dark night, then there is reason for hope. “Ongoing fidelity and energy for mission, despite personal suffering and weariness, are among the signs John of the Cross gives that what is happening in the darkness is of God,” Schneiders says. “There seems to be some real evidence that interpreting the present crisis in religious life spiritually is not simply denial or wishful thinking.” It is a real longing for God.

Although the comparison with Carmelite spirituality is well reasoned, one might also wonder if there is another equally valid interpretation from other spiritual traditions, specifically apostolic ministerial traditions.

Schneiders also voices the concerns of feminists in the church and names what is denied: “Status in the church rises in direct proportion to one’s distance from the female and/or feminine.” She fearlessly describes the status of women in the church. Her objective analysis is devoid of anger or finger pointing; it is honest, accurate and hard-hitting.

The author also focuses on religious life as charism. Schneiders outlines three levels of charism: the charism of religious life itself (first level), the monastic or ministerial charism (second level), and the charism of individual congregations (third level). Her conclusion draws on Margaret Wheatley’s analysis of chaos theory. Schneiders maintains that religious life is organic, unpredictable and open. At the heart of the life is Jesus Christ, “calling and claiming some people in this unique and finally unexplainable way.”

One of the minor weaknesses of this altogether excellent work is its tendency to be a bit thin on historical sources. However, this pathfinding book has long been needed for its solid theological analysis of contemporary religious life. Schneiders pushes the best of theological analysis to new frontiers. One can only encourage readers to have the patience necessary to uncover all its riches. It will soon become the classic it deserves to be.

Adorer of the Blood of Christ Sr. Regina Siegfried teaches in the department of theological studies at St. Louis University. Her email address is siegfrr@slu.edu

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000