The lives of religious women were dramatically changed in the second half of the 20th century by several new factors: the call to renewal within religious communities from the Second Vatican Council, heightened awareness of the ecclesiological divides in the post-Vatican II church, increased feminist consciousness, expanded ecumenism and growing ecological interest. In 1955, when I entered the Sisters of Mercy, we lived an essentially cloistered community lifestyle. We did not drive cars. We lived in convents, to which we were annually assigned by the sister superior. We followed a uniform daily schedule within the community. We were in the convent by 6 p.m. each evening. We mingled with the laity only in conjunction with our ministry. We rarely visited family unless there was an illness or death. We wore the black garb of 19th-century Irish widows.
During my 48 years in community, we moved from that uniform pattern to a fluid, open and contemporary lifestyle. These external changes symbolized the much deeper change in theological understanding and spirituality occurring among us.
In the 1970’s, tension so mounted between women religious and church authorities that the authorities grew uncomfortable, unwilling or unable to deal with this changing environment. In one diocese where our sisters served, the monsignor vicar for religious regularly complained to the superiors of the women’s communities that he had seen sisters out of the convent after 6 p.m. (He had spotted them while cruising about in his Jaguar.) Even within our own convents, whether or not one could serve at Mass as lector, gift bearer or eucharistic minister depended on the whim of the particular clerical presider. In some instances these tensions led to dialogues that were intense and painful, yet fruitful. In others they fostered an alienation from ecclesial identity that gradually deepened to the point of seeming irrevocable. In the late 1980’s, for example, one sister in my congregation emphatically declared that she wanted the college that we sponsor to be publicly identified as “Mercy” but not “Catholic.”
The renewal mandated by Vatican II energized women religious with new zeal for mission and a desire to renew prayer and communal life. For the most part we conceived of this renewal within an essentially traditional ecclesial framework, seeking to adapt that core reality to contemporary times. But a minority simply could not find the energy to confront all the difficulties involved in revitalizing traditional forms of liturgical and communal prayer. They turned instead to emerging New Age spirituality. Here, they felt, women could create women’s prayer. This sounds more conscious and deliberate in writing than it was in actual experience: it was often as much a drifting as a choice. At times, truly beautiful prayers combining rich Christian tradition and contemporary New Age style grew out of our desire to be inclusive.
For some sisters New Age vocabulary came to be the only comfortable way of naming things. It fed their spiritual hunger without rousing the tensions that seemed inherent in ecclesial identity. They either severed emotional ties with the tradition or just let it gradually fall out of the picture. Most women religious, like the Sisters of Mercy, lived through this period with heroic amounts of forbearance, patience and accommodation to one another’s differences. Much was happening that was changing us, but we were not yet ready to focus on an evaluative analysis of these changes or what they augured for the future.
Now it is time for a dialogue between Catholic faith tradition and New Age thought within the context of how it affects us as religious congregations.
This dialogue has immediate relevance to sisters for several reasons: (1) the life, thought and vocabulary of women religious, especially in the United States, reveals the significant impact of New Age in the last few decades; (2) there are clear differences between Catholic thought and New Age thought that become easily blurred in the realm of spirituality and spiritual practice; (3) New Age influence is widespread in the contemporary world. Interestingly, one observes this same dialogue emerging in the broader church at the moment, as evidenced in the essay “Christ and/or Aquarius?” by Thomas Ryan, C.S.P., in America, (3/24). He comments on the Vatican document released on Feb. 3, 2003, under the title Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the “New Age.”
“New Age” is hard to define precisely. There is no organized New Age movement. Nor is there any single body of thought or “doctrine” or values universally understood to constitute New Age. Rather, there are multiple spiritual paths, avenues of thought, healing practices and life-journey attitudes loosely associated under the umbrella of New Age. Common to all of them is a spiritual quest, a search for meaning, but generally independent of organized religious traditions. New Age is not hostile to organized religion; it more often seems simply to be disinterested or disconnected from it. Nonetheless, among adherents of various faith traditions, including Christianity, are those who claim compatibility between their tradition and New Age thought and practices in ways that they experience as spiritually refreshing. This is what challenges women religious in America at the moment. The questions may be expressed as follows: Is the New Age phenomenon really, as some claim, a “shot in the arm” for our spiritual life? Or is it a major factor in our diminished clarity of identity and purpose, and thereby an unintended “shooting ourselves in the foot”? Can it possibly be both?
New Age seekers clearly intend to involve themselves in a spiritual quest, whether through meditation, centering, crystals, aroma therapy, channeling, T’ai Chi or other practices. They strive for deeper insight into the meaning of life. In the process, they often borrow or adapt from established faith traditions, especially the great spiritual masters and Eastern practices. All of this remains separate from any particular deity or creed. New Age, therefore, is not theological. Its measure of spiritual effectiveness is generally whether it makes one feel good about self and life—in harmony, especially with the natural world. It does not tackle the essential human question of suffering (except to avoid or overcome it) and places very little emphasis on social responsibility.
Catholic seekers also desire a spiritual quest, but instead see in it a journey grounded in God, who came among us in the person of Jesus. The quest for meaning is rooted in theological substance. Grace, God’s self-giving and our acceptance, is central to the transformational process. It is God who works in and through and with us. Because of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, the Christian spiritual journey is inauthentic without the component of social responsibility. Even among those Christians who live a totally cloistered life in contemplative religious orders, prayer for the needs of the church and world are a central reality. Of course, when Christian spirituality becomes sidetracked by fundamentalism or false dogmatism, it can distort “the truth that sets one free” into a rigid, boxed-in, moralistic spirituality, but that is not the essential nature of the Christian path.
While neither of these capsule summaries presents the full picture, they suggest where tension might arise between Catholic faith tradition and New Age thought in a community of women religious. Catholic identity is the essence of who we are, despite the difficulties of any particular moment in history. Even in the 19th-century days of our founding, serious conflict with clerical authorities did not deter women like Catherine McAuley from self-identification as women of the Catholic Church. Down through our community history, they professed public vows within the church; they sought canonical status for the legitimacy and protection that it affords; they connected their unique charism to the universal mission of the church; they rooted communal prayer in the church’s liturgical prayer. There is no doubt that they intended to ground their community/work in Catholic faith.
In this context members of religious communities need to explore some fundamental questions together. (1) Is faith in God made manifest in Jesus and articulated through the Catholic Church and its theological tradition still our core reality? (2) Do we define membership in community as emanating from vocation—a unique personal call from God validated through the authority of community and church? (3) Do we intend to continue as established institutes with members who profess vows in an ecclesial context? (4) If we arrive at totally diverse answers to these questions, can we live with that and retain our integrity as publicly identified Catholic communities? (5) How is the Catholic identity of women religious to be expressed in the 21st century?
These questions emerge from our experience of the last four decades. While the focus of ministry in serving people who are poor through education, health care and social services remained fairly constant, patterns of community life and prayer have changed radically since the 1950’s. Today we do drive cars, dress simply, work and pray and often play in collaboration with lay colleagues.
Something else changed dramatically, too. In 1955, I entered along with 25 other young women. Sister Pat and I, at age 20, were the class “elders.” The other 24 entrants were either 17 or 18, fresh out of high school. Today there is one novice in the regional community to which I belong; she is in her 50’s, the mother of two grown children. In the face of so much change, answering the above questions will assist in clarifying our contemporary identity, giving definitive shape to community structures and planning for the future. It will also clarify for potential new members who we are, what we do and why.
If we are unable or unwilling to review the last 40 years and to make decisions based on that analysis, then it is unlikely that any amount of future planning will matter. Ambiguity and loss of identity will doom us. That is exactly where New Age falls short. Lacking theological substance, it can neither ground nor sustain our transformation. It has “feel-good-now” potential, but will only be replaced by the next, new, now moment as it unfolds. That points up the urgency of this dialogue. Honest conversations need to occur at every level of membership, direct conversations that focus on where we have come from as well as on our concrete hopes and desires for the future. If not, we risk allowing ourselves to be drawn willy-nilly into courses of change we did not intend.
This is not a call to return to the past. The challenge toward the future is not in romantic or nostalgic idealization of either religious life or Catholicity. Rather, it is in the ability to integrate and articulate an identity grounded in authentic Catholic faith tradition. Speaking to a convocation of theologians and bishops at Loyola University in New Orleans in March 2003, Monika Hellwig addressed the need for Catholic institutions of higher learning to take very seriously their task of grounding students in the “Catholic intellectual community that understands its own tradition in some depth.” She noted the following: “The question that I think we need to reflect on and consider is whether our student bodies are sufficiently grounded in their own tradition to be genuinely ecumenical in their study rather than simply confused” (Origins, 4/20). This is the task that faces women religious today as well. Only true clarity about our core identity and an appreciation of the depth of our Catholic tradition can liberate us to incorporate elements from a variety of spiritual traditions and still be credible ecclesial communities.
A few weeks ago I was working with a group of Catholic lay women on a school reunion committee. In the midst of a conversation about a variety of church concerns, one woman asked me quite directly, “If you had your life to live over again, would you enter the convent?” It did not require even one minute of reflection to know that my answer is yes. Catholic sisterhoods have been an incredibly dynamic force for good in the life of the church, witnessing to the faith and providing leadership in education, health care and ever so many other fields. It has been the right life for me. Living the mission, the community and even the tensions of the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s energized my spirit. Now we face the ongoing challenge to revivify this tradition and pass it on to a new generation.
If we can meet this challenge, we will not only invigorate religious life; we will animate renewal of the whole church in its efforts to be Catholic in authentic ways.