We began the morning singing our refrain (still in English), calling the roll, electing tellers, and appointing a parliamentarian.
Sister Christine Vladimiroff of Mount St. Benedict Monastery in Erie, PA gave the keynote presentation on the theme “Enflaming the Hope Within Us,” beginning with an exploration of the meaning of hope if it is to be anything more than a bland optimism that everything will turn out fine. She described hope as combining fidelity to our tradition, courage for present challenge, and risk for the future. Drawing on the stories of Job, Moses, and Jonah, she pointed to the dynamic of the Paschal Mystery: this hope goes into and through the darkest places; it is hope IN God, not hope FOR some particular outcome. Whereas we relied, in the past, on hope from our achievements, our current situations challenge us to rely on hope alone.
In a few brief paragraphs, she swept through the centuries of religious life, showing its different forms shaped by the context of history, with new forms springing up to meet new situations (the growth of medieval cities, the slums of the industrial revolution). This history shows a natural lifecycle for organizations; growth and stabilization for a long time, as the organization is in synch with the needs of its surrounding culture, and then an inevitable divergence between the now-stable organization and the social settings in which it is embedded. This divergence leads to a decline. Religious communities may become rigid; they may panic and lose track of their charism – or they may find a way to be active and resilient, seeking and cultivating a renewed vision grounded in the tradition but entirely new in its response to the future.
“Hope is not about better solutions, but about whether we ask the right questions. Hope is about asking new questions – and finding out if there are questions we are refusing to ask.”
Hope requires that we take time to bury the dead: to grieve and lament the events and ideas that truly were good and beautiful in the past. In the grieving, we also find the creative potential for our new future; we need to have awareness of the tension between our fidelity to our legacy and our vision for the future.
Sister Christine left us with some tough questions. If we are going to succeed and continue as religious communities, we need to have a visible answer to the question “Why choose religious life today? What distinguishes us from other options?” We need to make sense to 21st century Americans who aspire to community but have such a strong desire for independence, who want to have relationships of trust and interdependence but have been let down by breakdowns in family life and organizations, whose trust in institutions is at an all-time low. Our task as monastics in the next few decades will be to develop and hold that vision – making it attractive – or to follow the other religious orders who did not survive cultural transitions.
Where is the hope in this? In the visions that emerge – in the belief and and actions that draw us together – in the Paschal Mystery that is at the center of our spirituality.
Sister Christine gave us questions for personal reflection and several for discussion around our tables. The sisters from Taiwan raised the discrepancy between the type of life that some potential new members want and their way of life. We talked about the need to find practices that make sense for the 21st century – but which can be common practices and disciplines that shape our spiritual lives. While she looked at the dark reality of sharply declining numbers and aging communities squarely, Sister Christine nonetheless left us with a deeper sense of hope.
We heard two moving and important reports in the afternoon. First, Sister Michaela Hedican spoke of her experience on merging monasteries, drawing on her own community’s experience as she had presented it to the monks of Blue Cloud Abbey who will close their Abbey on August 5. There was not a dry eye as she described the grief of the community as it openly discussed its future – the lack of vocations for a long period of time, the growing gap in age between anyone who might come and the “youngest” member of the community – and the desire to merge while they still had energy and life to contribute. She described the immense pain some felt when they asked, “who would want us?” and the tremendous challenge of deciding where to go. The challenge to the receiving community was also immense: that no amount of hospitality would change the fact that every sister would have some bad days. On top of all of this, the difficulty of finding that the land and buildings – which all had assumed were “prime” and easy to sell – were not seen that way in the market, to the point of considering even a demolition donor. There have been two monasteries that closed in the last few years in our Federation; across the Federations there are others who are also facing those choices.
Sister Ephrem Hollerman described an inter-Federation project underway to preserve the archival and historical legacy of the site of the first Benedictines in America at St Marys Pennsylvania, where the community is small and also discerning its course. For nearly 100 years, materials were stored but not recorded; they do not have climate control or acid-free containers. The need for resources – the time and skills of a trained archivist, grants and funding to create proper archival spaces – is just one part of the picture.
At the end of the afternoon, Sister Glenna Smith, president of the Federation of St. Gertrude, described the process by which we will elect two members of the Federation Council; a preliminary surfacing of names resulted in the nomination of six sisters. They are asked to consult with their prioress to discern whether they are willing to remain in the election process, which continues on Thursday. Then the Chapter meeting ended for Evening Prayer.
- Pope presents St. Teresa of Avila as model for evangelization (catholicnewsagency.com)
- Blue Cloud Abbey monastery closing (rapidcityjournal.com)