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Religious Life

Religious choose a life fraught with tension


Recently I sat through a re-screening of “Star Wars.” The auditorium was filled with young children and their attendant parents -- many of whom I suspect were original viewers of the movie. The same spectacular effects captivated a new generation, even as they made this mature woman cope with vertigo as small fighters flew their paths down canyons. Age has its impediments I find.

As an epic story of good vs. evil, with a great catch line (“May the Force be with you”), “Star Wars” posits some interesting perspectives: Listen to your inner voices, do not capitulate to evil, allow yourself to love rather than be drawn into the violence of hatred and work for good and the communion of the entire universe. As I watched the movie, I was again struck by how much the power of “the Force” -- the power of the mystical over the pragmatic -- still held its appeal, and the challenge of living out the purity of intent of the Jedi knight recalled a chivalry and morality that are often degraded in our world.

Overall, I thought, this is not a bad message in a world in which greed, violence, individualism or rank opportunism reflect the dark side of the human condition. We still need heroes, even small heroes, and if “Star Wars” is to be believed, the shape, size or gender of those heroes does not matter. Courage is nothing more than integrity in context, and the hero is one who holds firm to his/her values and ideals in the face of opposition.

In many ways, the movie offered me a chance to reflect on the meaning and purpose of religious life and the demand it makes upon its members to live out their prophetic calling with courageous integrity.

If religious life has a meaning in modern society, I believe its fundamental reality is to live out the ideals and values it contains. It is, however, a life that is lived in an increasing tension as attacks on its veracity continue. With the demise of habits, walls and buildings, which communicated a sense of mystery to those who stood outside them, many have experienced a sense of loss. Religious are no longer seen as “spiritual” heroes -- giving their lives to the enclosure, to the service of education, health or welfare. The demise of the “good sisters” and religious life in general is variously blamed on the Second Vatican Council, renewal, a loss of integrity among the members of congregations and victims of a pernicious “cult” of feminism. There is little doubt that women religious have come under increasing suspicion as being “dangerous” to the church, are even equated with a new breed of witchcraft -- as illustrated by the first chapter, “From Convent to Coven,” of Donna Streichen’s 1991 book, Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism.

The young don’t see it

Nor do our young see it as a way of life that calls forth heroism or demands courage. Perhaps that is because we live in a society that has defined its heroes in a physical sense, rather than in the philosophical meaning of the term. Fundamentally, however, religious life is a way of life that demands a huge amount of courage, for it is essentially concerned with living out the vocation of a prophet and thus is a call to live out the terrible tension of God’s infinite desire for humanity and humanity’s persistent unfaithfulness. It is a vocation not simply to speak, but also to be a prophetic word -- a word uttered from a heart seduced by God’s unreserved tenderness, and from a heart that has learned, and continues to learn, how to see with God’s eyes. It is a call given by God, which asks its recipient to feel the divine pathos and to respond by allowing oneself to be assimilated into it. It is a vocation that no one in her right mind would take upon herself, for it is a life guaranteed to bring its own suffering. To learn the necessary compassion of the prophet is to live through and with the passion of God. It is to be challenged to walk beyond one’s own preconceived boundaries into an infinity of helpless love. It goes against the grain, but in the end it is a life shaped by God’s desire to speak the words of love, compassion and integrity the world needs to hear.

Like Jeremiah, religious are called to embrace a vocation that is a cry of God’s heart to the world. The very public vows of religious men and women illustrate the life and its potential. Obedient, they wait on God’s word to fill their hearts and minds and move them to action; poor, they embrace the needs of others; chaste, they are to be lovers of humanity as God is the lover of humanity. Radically committed to a vocation to be “word” of the Word that is Jesus, religious and religious institutes follow Christ in accord with their particular charism. The courage necessary to live that life of following Christ remains the ability to live integrity in context -- to live the charism of a particular institute, embracing a life of witness to the overarching groan of love God has for all creation.

Solitary and communal

It is almost a redundancy to state that the living of such a life will create its own tensions. If religious life is to be lived with integrity, the religious vocation is one that of its nature is to speak the word of God in season and out of season. It is a life that must of necessity challenge the human systems of religion and culture, which can bend out of shape and thus undermine the essential vocation of all of humanity to be made one in the heart of God. It is a life vowed by public commitment to let my heart be seduced by God in order that I may be a word to the nations. It is both a solitary and communal vocation and is, I believe, the vocation of the few not of the many.

This is not to say that religious are “special.” They are not. They are simply human beings who have been drawn by their God into a relationship of service, a service that is uncompromisingly directed by the belief that God, in the words of Abraham Heschel, “is compassion not compromise; justice though not inclemency.” The purpose of the vocation is, in some ways, to be unbearably extremist, overwhelmed by the grandeur of the divine permeating through all things and enlivening all things. It is a life of proclamation -- a testimony to the overpowering desire God has for humanity. It is a vocation to intimacy with God, to being an emissary of God through word and deed and witness: It is a vocation to lay down a life that others might have life and have it to the full.

Historically, the world has never really loved its prophets, and it is small wonder that religious life and religious orders are often seen as subversive systems within structures. It is a life fraught with tension and one that others will attempt to constrain from assuming radical faithfulness to its fundamental mission. Small wonder too that few will embrace the call to live such a life of sympathy and communion with God and with God’s longing for humanity. Sharing God’s own compassion, religious men and woman are also called to an extreme sensitivity to human suffering and are challenged to break the barriers that cause it. It is a calling to live on the edge uncompromised, to embrace the utter intimacy and essential loneliness of the prophetic life, and there are relatively few who are prepared to live that loneliness and terrible beauty.

But, for all that, I believe the future of religious life is assured. God will continue to call unlikely heroes to be words of love, challenge and hope for the world. Ordinary men and women will continue to courageously embrace their call to live out the creative tension of God’s longing for peace, justice and love in the land, while standing against their own very human desires for success, privilege, harmony and/or acceptance.

If “Star Wars” and its Jedi knights were a product of a filmmaker’s imaginative quest for ultimate meaning, the fact is that religious life will always utter its own word about the creative longing and compassion of God for truth, justice and love in the very real world we inhabit.

Sr. Elizabeth A. West is a member of the Australian Province of the Little Company of Mary. She is the retreat director for the Overdale Retreat Centre in Harefield, Australia. Her e-mail address is ewest@lcm.org.au

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001