The National Catholic Review

I have met many LAY Christians who put professional religious to shame by their dedication, their service and their heartfelt love of God. I have encountered many lifestyles that seem much more based on Gospel values than formalized vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Sometimes religious life feels like a spiritualized welfare state. We know that as the Book of Genesis states, “It is not good for man to be alone,” or woman for that matter. Yet there is a recurring desire for and rediscovery of this form of life. Why?

 

My perspective comes from my study of the rather universal phenomena of what has been called initiation (Adam’s Return, Crossroad, 2005). In centuries past, on almost all continents, there have been patterns of spiritual instruction and temporary intentional communities that we now refer to as initiation rites. Basically, these rites were “religion” before any of the great religions emerged. Initiation seems to have provided a necessary structure for the survival of society and a crucial element for the spiritual growth and awareness of the individual. Anything that emerged that universally, and that consistently, must have proceeded from the Holy Spirit, the collective unconscious, as well as from a practical need. I think the same is true for the continual recurrence of new forms of religious life.

My own conviction is that religious life is largely a form of initiation. Perhaps simply saying this will help those wiser than I to clarify its truer purpose and to focus the renewal of religious life. We all know that renewal is needed. Religious life is indeed serving as a creative lifestyle for many individuals, but I do not believe it is serving that function socially or corporately. It is no longer a leaven or a critical mass for the larger society, as it once was. That is the root of many of its problems today, even of the problem it has holding its members long-term. For a lifetime celibate commitment, we need to know that what we are doing is somehow socially significant in a way that cannot be had elsewhere.

Marching Orders

I would encourage you to reread the passages in the Gospels that are usually called “the instructions for the Twelve” (Matt 10, Luke 9:1-6, Mark 6:7-13) or, in Luke 10:1-17, for the “seventy-two.” Once I began studying the consistent and universal patterns of initiation, it became clear what is happening in these “sendings.” These were intense training courses, or “urban plunges,” as we called them back in the 1970’s, and were clearly not intended for a whole lifetime—as the entire history of church interpretation has made clear. Only Francis of Assisi and a few others even tried to take these instructions seriously as an ongoing lifestyle. But who of us in religious life has no spare tunic, no luggage or no shoes today? We stay at hotels and not “at whatever house we enter,” and we have credit cards in lieu of “no coppers in our purses.”

It is interesting that in each case the disciples were sent as groups of 12 or 72, or at least in pairs, not as individuals. Initiation was a classroom experience, which becomes even clearer when the disciples come back and report to Jesus, who then teaches them further (e.g., Luke 9:51-62). Jesus knows that we are socially contagious, and learn best in community and in “active learning” situations. Initiation in religious communities was always done in groups that became a spiritual brotherhood and sisterhood that were usually more significant than those formed by blood ties. It is no surprise that it took on a permanent or even institutional structure, summed up in what we called the novitiate experience, and eventually a vowed life.

Even more significant are the many and constant parallels between the founding documents of religious orders and these instructions. There is invariably some kind of training in: 1) simplicity, flexibility and mobility, which became known as the “vow of poverty”; 2) vulnerability and reliance upon others, which became community itself and perhaps the vow of obedience; 3) forgiveness and letting go of hurts, which was necessary for any continuity, health or stability for the group; 4) a sense of mission and service, which kept the group from becoming inbred and narcissistic; and 5) what we now call “walking meditation,” carrying prayer and peace on the road.

What a different form of evangelization we would have offered the world if Christian history had done Jesus’ initiation training! Instead we took much imperialistic and cultural “baggage” to our new worlds, and we are still paying the price for it.

Gospel People or Church People

Read the writings of almost any of the women and brother founders, which were not complicated by clerical concerns, and you will find these five points enunciated in one form or another. Those who are trying to gather, reform priests or train priests always have a different agenda from the founders, which makes it much harder to be a Gospel-based group than a church-based group. No wonder Benedict, Francis and John Baptist de La Salle formed brothers, monks or laymen instead of priests. It is a tension that we in clericalized orders have never really resolved.

It was probably inevitable that these communities of learners would assume ongoing structures. Religious life is a very creative spiritual lifestyle for many of us. It created a hothouse for spiritual life, deeper reflection and constant church reform for those who availed themselves. We in religious communities are often the “global positioning satellites” circling around a brittle and bound church and culture. I seriously wonder if the Catholic Church would have survived without the creativity, mission and service of religious life.

Still, I believe that religious life’s primary (but not exclusive) function is temporary for the individual, and should serve as a leavening critical mass for the culture. The Gospel is for all people, not just for specialized groups. We did neither history nor the church any favor by creating an elite subset, except insofar as it became contagious, as it sometimes did. We do need “yeast to be stirred in till the whole dough is leavened” (Luke 13:21). Jesus and Paul had good reason to prefer the metaphor of yeast and leaven.

Temporary Commitment, Lasting Fruit

But the insight that religious life serves primarily as an initiation structure is revealed by several constant factors. 1) A very, very small percentage of those who begin remain for their whole life. 2) Many, if not most, are quite grateful for their time in a formation program. 3) People seem to internalize many lifelong values during even a short period in a religious community, and they will tell you so. 4) Perhaps most controversially, I am convinced that a high percentage of monks, nuns, brothers and friars flourish for an early period and then are deadened, softened and compromised by what some have called “the noonday devil.” Religious life works for most as an excellent spirituality in the first half of life; in the second half it works for far fewer, but no less intensely.

I have met and know a great many religious who began in earnest, gave it their best for a while, but in the second half of life grew bored, lazy and largely self-absorbed. There was neither eros nor agape. Religious life served as a wonderful initiation but eventually became a holding tank and even led to regression. As one director of a treatment program said to me, “You take both self-reliance and sexuality away from them [men], and many end up very unhealthy and unhappy people.” Just as the welfare state produces passive and resentful people, if you take an ascribed spiritual status and then add to that an all-encompassing system of social security, you will often produce what even my father, St. Francis, called “Brother Drone”—people accustomed to being served rather than serving, who live with comfortable perks that make ongoing growth and challenge unlikely. Sometimes they become people who live at low levels of love and even of basic humanity.

Religious life for many of us was best as a period of intense internalization of values, self knowledge, practices, study and prayer. Once these were internalized, it lost much of its necessity, “color” and absolute importance. At the age of 63, it is now my home, a true gift, an access point for service, a protection from an amorphous and egocentric life, a rich history of memory, a tangent and a “lever and a place to stand,” as Archimedes said.

But understand this correctly, I could have left years ago. If I had left the Franciscan Order, I would still be a man, a Christian and a happy human being—forever grateful for St. Francis and his joyful brotherhood. The container served its purpose, but it was not the only bearer of the contents. The Franciscans initiated me quite well, despite some of their best attempts to the contrary, into almost everything that really matters. They held my feet to the fire long enough for the Gospel to become fire—and for my feet to become feet.

Richard Rohr, O.F.M., the author of many books on spirituality, including Everything Belongs, is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M.

Comments

Sister Rose Mary Hoge | 11/3/2006 - 10:12am
I am ashamed to hear Richard Rohr imply that the lives of persons in religious orders so decline in later years that the vocation of religious life should be temporary. As I looked at the many older sisters in our chapel this morning, I realized that each one was trying to remain as completely active as possible. No one was giving up here, living a soft life. Prayerfulness is clearly the first aim of each one present. Also, religious life is still important as a living sign of God's right to be loved above all things whether or not such life is viewed a leaven of society. Further, Jesus Christ is the pivotal point of all history and all being. Considerations of the development of the consciousness of humans may be of interest and importance, but God is not limited to our study of His apparent workings in this world.

Frederick C. Pratt | 10/28/2006 - 10:00am
Dear Editors,

Thank you for Richard Rohr's reflection on religious life. He captured my experience. As a young man who did leave the Order of Friars Minor (The Franciscans) almost four years ago, I do find myself to be a man, a Christian, and a happy human being -- forever grateful for Francis and the brotherhood he inspired. My formators, particularly my novice master (a friar with tremendous wisdom and insight in the ways of discipleship) helped me to discover and own the reality of who I am. A joyful son of God.

Pax et Bonum,

Frederick C. Pratt

Sr Anne Bartol, osc | 10/18/2006 - 7:02pm
Dear America Magazine,

As a religious, I was never more discouraged about the life than after reading your 10/16 issue. In particular, Richard Rohr’s words “I could have left years ago….I would still be a...Christian and a happy human being…” saddened me and epitomized a major affliction: the focus on what the life does for me. Perhaps if we look instead to Who has called us and how much God needs and treasures our efforts, which only we as religious can offer in an undivided way, then we would realize anew and communicate more clearly how precious and full of God’s great love and grace this calling is.

Timothy Good | 10/13/2006 - 9:27am
I have read with interest Fr. Richard Rohr's article on the current dynamics of religious life. To address one of his questions about the recurring desire and rediscovery of this life, the church is in the metamorphosis of change from a heirarchical institution to one that is being disseminated to the laity. Religious life is alive and well, not so much in the monastic sense, but in the domestic sense. Much of faith formation is not occuring within the confines of the greater church, but within the structure of the little church, the ecclesia domestica. It is the community into which we are initiated, literally, and then formed by the instances of everyday life. Parents, grandparents, children and the extended family are now (and always were) the sacramental presence of God within the little church. It is to this church that the call for religious life is speaking.

Many of us parents who are teaching our children about Gospel values are standing within the "liminal" space where we have one foot in the greater church and one foot in the domestic church. It is uncomfortable at times but we are doing the best we can. Those of us who are lay priests, prophets and kings would like to see more support from the greater church as to how we can continue to bring the Gospel of Christ to our family, friends, community, parish and occupations; help that was once provided by our beloved religious.

Perhaps the greater church has to realize that the most salient theology seems to come from the bottom up, as Fr. Rohr has spoken on. The ecclesia domestica not only needs to speak it's theophany but to bring it into the greater church to be absorbed and then given to all those who continue to struggle with the domestic life. We "religious" are looking forward to the time when lay dialogue will be listened to and change the greater chuch as it has in the past. Then a new revival can be accomplished and allow the work of Christ to be continued in an effective manner.

Louise Finn, C.N.D. | 2/26/2007 - 1:50pm
I always find the insights of Richard Rohr, O.F.M., excellent. “Religious You Will Always Have With You” (10/16) is no exception. I learned much from his well-articulated perspectives and resonated with some of them. I disagree, however, with one of his observations—or at least feel I should say that his experience has not been mine.

He states that he has met and known “a great many religious who...in the second half of life grew bored, lazy and largely self-absorbed.” This has not been my experience. Perhaps I am simply unable to follow Robert Burns’s advice to “see ourselves as others see us,” but I think not.

For almost 25 years I was missioned in Pine Ridge, S.D., then in Cameroon, Africa, at a distance from most of the sisters of my province, whom I would encounter only every few years. My first reaction (unspoken, to be sure) was usually “My, how she has aged!” But I invariably sensed another reality: a spiritual deepening, a vibrant awareness in each one—an awareness of God in our world and in others. These infrequent visits gave me a privileged position to see these sisters in a new light. In speaking with them and observing them at greater length, I never found them “bored, lazy or largely self-absorbed.” This has continued to be true.

All of us are aging, of course, so some are less active than previously. Some are infirm and visibly diminished—physically but not spiritually. They are alive with a quiet passion, encountering God in others, bringing God to the needs of our world. These women are true religious after God’s own heart!

My experiences are certainly less far-reaching than Father Rohr’s, but they are also valid, at least regarding my own congregation and my friends in other communities. They stretch back to my profession in 1949, grace-filled years of change and growth—sometimes unseen and unseeable, but very real.

Brian Halderman, S.M. | 2/26/2007 - 1:34pm
I read “Religious You Will Always Have With You,” by Richard Rohr, O.F.M., (10/16) with great interest. As a young religious I am constantly reading the writings of religious who have more experience than I for insight and wisdom on the vowed life. The article left me with unsettled feelings hard to describe. I am left wondering what I am to believe about the choice I have made to be a religious in the 21st century? Am I to see this step as only a stage of initiation or rather as a place for me to stand firm? I was left with more questions than answers.

While I agree that religious life is in need of renewal and clarification in our world, I also believe that young religious are bringing gifts to contribute to this renewal and clarification. If we believe that religious life has a purpose in our world today, which I believe it does, then we must have faith that the Spirit is bringing to religious life the necessary tools for rejuvenation.

I am convinced that religious life in the 21st century is more about who we are and less about what we do. As Father Rohr wrote, religious were seen as the leaven of the church for many years. We were the teachers, catechists, preachers and ministers to the faithful. Today much of this has changed, for we see an empowered laity that has taken its rightful place in ministry. So what we do is not as significant as it was years ago. Who we are is much more important in helping to clarify our future. Professing the evangelical counsels is a radical freedom from our complex power-hungry culture of individualism and materialism.

For those who are joining religious life much later in life than many of the older religious did, I think the reality is a bit different. Religious life for us is not a springboard of values and faith formation toward a future as a lay minister. Rather it is an entrance into a community of discipleship committed to a witness that our world so desperately needs. It is a resting place for our restless heart. Suggesting that religious life is simply initiation seems incomplete.

I entered the community at the age of 27 after seven years of discernment. While living the vowed life has not been the easiest, other life choices would have presented their own challenges. If I were to see this stage of my human development as merely initiation, I might as well throw in the towel. I think Christ lures me to a life deeply rooted in the Gospel, a life in which I am called to witness the radical freedom of the vowed life. Religious life is now my identity; it is my home; and it is the place from which I stand. I must see it as such and not simply as a stop along the way.

There is nothing that keeps me here in the vowed life more than my own commitment to it, but this is precisely the point. Young religious are making a deliberate and carefully discerned choice to join religious life today. We come with big ideas, restless hearts and experiences that would scandalize the older religious. Yet we are blessed to have a place within our faith community where we can find rest to be more than we imagined we could be. It is here in religious life that I hope to be challenged to grow in my life of Christ. It is here that I hope I can be a witness in our world of restless individuality and materialism.

In some ways our call as religious men and women gives us a rather simple and humble place to stand, feet firmly planted, like Mary at the foot of the cross. It is from this place that I think we will discover purpose for this life. It is from the Mount of Calvary that I have come to discover that my life as a religious is much more than initiation. It is an identity as one who is beloved.

Lucy Fuchs | 2/26/2007 - 1:48pm
“Religious You Will Always Have With You,” by Richard Rohr, O.F.M., (10/16) was one of the finest and most thoughtprovoking articles I have read on the subject of religious life in today’s world. The author has shown how religious life can be and often is an initiation to a fuller Christian life, which may well be lived outside the convent or monastery.

When I go to Pax Christi meetings and others, in which I find many dedicated persons trying to live a life according to the Gospels, I am not surprised to find that a large number of them are former religious. Each had his or her own reason for leaving, but the reason was rarely that they wanted a more comfortable and less demanding life. On the contrary, they have often chosen to live a difficult life of service.

But I also believe that the loss of members in religious life as well as the opening of opportunities to do the work formerly done by religious is the nudging of the Spirit. The old elitist concept of the “called” can now be changed to a call to all of us to be a part of the only kind of elite that Jesus spoke about, those who serve others.

Sister Rose Mary Hoge | 11/3/2006 - 10:12am
I am ashamed to hear Richard Rohr imply that the lives of persons in religious orders so decline in later years that the vocation of religious life should be temporary. As I looked at the many older sisters in our chapel this morning, I realized that each one was trying to remain as completely active as possible. No one was giving up here, living a soft life. Prayerfulness is clearly the first aim of each one present. Also, religious life is still important as a living sign of God's right to be loved above all things whether or not such life is viewed a leaven of society. Further, Jesus Christ is the pivotal point of all history and all being. Considerations of the development of the consciousness of humans may be of interest and importance, but God is not limited to our study of His apparent workings in this world.

Frederick C. Pratt | 10/28/2006 - 10:00am
Dear Editors,

Thank you for Richard Rohr's reflection on religious life. He captured my experience. As a young man who did leave the Order of Friars Minor (The Franciscans) almost four years ago, I do find myself to be a man, a Christian, and a happy human being -- forever grateful for Francis and the brotherhood he inspired. My formators, particularly my novice master (a friar with tremendous wisdom and insight in the ways of discipleship) helped me to discover and own the reality of who I am. A joyful son of God.

Pax et Bonum,

Frederick C. Pratt

Sr Anne Bartol, osc | 10/18/2006 - 7:02pm
Dear America Magazine,

As a religious, I was never more discouraged about the life than after reading your 10/16 issue. In particular, Richard Rohr’s words “I could have left years ago….I would still be a...Christian and a happy human being…” saddened me and epitomized a major affliction: the focus on what the life does for me. Perhaps if we look instead to Who has called us and how much God needs and treasures our efforts, which only we as religious can offer in an undivided way, then we would realize anew and communicate more clearly how precious and full of God’s great love and grace this calling is.

Timothy Good | 10/13/2006 - 9:27am
I have read with interest Fr. Richard Rohr's article on the current dynamics of religious life. To address one of his questions about the recurring desire and rediscovery of this life, the church is in the metamorphosis of change from a heirarchical institution to one that is being disseminated to the laity. Religious life is alive and well, not so much in the monastic sense, but in the domestic sense. Much of faith formation is not occuring within the confines of the greater church, but within the structure of the little church, the ecclesia domestica. It is the community into which we are initiated, literally, and then formed by the instances of everyday life. Parents, grandparents, children and the extended family are now (and always were) the sacramental presence of God within the little church. It is to this church that the call for religious life is speaking.

Many of us parents who are teaching our children about Gospel values are standing within the "liminal" space where we have one foot in the greater church and one foot in the domestic church. It is uncomfortable at times but we are doing the best we can. Those of us who are lay priests, prophets and kings would like to see more support from the greater church as to how we can continue to bring the Gospel of Christ to our family, friends, community, parish and occupations; help that was once provided by our beloved religious.

Perhaps the greater church has to realize that the most salient theology seems to come from the bottom up, as Fr. Rohr has spoken on. The ecclesia domestica not only needs to speak it's theophany but to bring it into the greater church to be absorbed and then given to all those who continue to struggle with the domestic life. We "religious" are looking forward to the time when lay dialogue will be listened to and change the greater chuch as it has in the past. Then a new revival can be accomplished and allow the work of Christ to be continued in an effective manner.