The dimming of the 'vision splendid': religious life in distress

The dimming of the 'vision splendid': religious life in distress

Sr Mary Augustine Lane OP

Most religious today feel misunderstood - even stigmatised. The reasons for their feeling thus can be ranged on a wide spectrum.

At one end you have religious who feel uncomfortable - to say the least - with the old 'holy' stereotypes of religious life and who are doing all they can to push down pedestals, dispel halos and wall up the ivory towers. The general result of such efforts is the reduction of religious life to something virtually indistinguishable from secular life.

At the other end you have religious - a comparatively small and dwindling number - who stoutly refuse to wear a secularised image. They seek to defend their integrity by holding to more traditional values and lifestyles. Taking a 'last stand' for the classical forms of religious life these religious have few illusions as to their chances of "putting the toothpaste back into the tube" (to use a cliché much overworked in convent circles), although they trust, no doubt, that the grace of God could do it, given the right conditions.

Between these two groups one can locate, somewhere, the rather large number of religious who wish to avoid the excesses or stigmas of both. Sitting uneasily, and/ or unhappily, on the periphery of one or the other, or sliding into a gulf of neutrality between them, these religious do not appear to hold many certainties, nor to know where to find them.

Is this the description of a house divided against itself? It may be a mere thumbnail sketch of one aspect of a very wide-ranging and complex problem in the Church - according to the Holy Father, one of the greatest - but it is not a caricature. Religious life is, in far too many parts of the world, a grim study in disorientation, disunity and disintegration.

In all the years since Vatican II there have been circulating subtle but grave deceptions regarding the nature and role of the religious life. These are traceable to many different sources, but there is no doubt that religious themselves have both fallen for them and propagated them on such a scale that we now have what can only be termed a revolution.

The Vatican Council, to the "spirit" of which the various facets of this revolution are attributed, called for a return to the Church's unchanging teachings on religious life and for an adaptation to the needs of the modern world of the practical application of that teaching. That is all.

Apparently, unable to deal with all of this at once, many religious, exhibiting a short sightedness and superficiality unworthy of their calling, chose to concentrate on adapting the externals of their lifestyles, doing so with little reference to Church teaching and tradition. Guided by pop-psychology and, more recently, by anti-Church ideologies, many of us have restructured our lifestyles along secular lines and are now forging "new theologies" of religious life, chameleon-like theologies which serve not only to justify "where we are at", but to take us wherever we may choose to go in the future.

Predictable results

The results of all this are predictable. Religious life, in huge areas of the world is dying. And the last people to ask the needed questions as to why are, it would seem, the religious themselves. The word crisis is on everyone's lips, and while certain demagogues within religious life have been busy assuring everyone that this crisis contains the potential for rebirth and reflowering, the sheer duration of it is wearing many religious down to the point of vocational exhaustion.

There are various ways in which one might be inclined to respond to this spectacle of religious life in deathly decline.

1. With complete indifference. After all, if religious insist on going downstream to die, why should anyone stop them?

2. With indignation. Who is responsible for allowing things to reach such an appalling state?

3. With optimism, anticipating the rising of the Phoenix from the ashes.

4. With impatience and disillusionment. If religious cannot get their act together, then one wonders who can.

5. With deep sorrow for lost spiritual riches.

And the Church? What is its response? All of the above are merely natural human responses, but the Church responds according to what it sees, and it sees with the eyes of God.

Listen to any Pope addressing any religious. It is clear that he is talking to people who are the apple of his eye. His is the true vision; the true theology of religious life.

It is this supernatural vision that too many of us have lost in the midst of all the conflict, and in losing this we have lost our grip on reality; we have lost everything.

What is it that the Church sees that so many religious and those to whom they are meant to witness do not see?

1. It sees an incomparably beautiful, supernatural treasure which it guards with the jealousy of Divine Love.

2. It sees a self-donation as deep and as total and as amazing as martyrdom.

3. It sees the espousal of mere creatures to the All Holy Son of God.

4. It sees a life of perfect love and communion.

5. It sees the flowering of baptismal grace.

6. It sees a life in which Heaven is opened to show a 'preview' of the life to come.

7. It sees a shining and powerful witness to the absolute supremacy of God and to the eternity of His Kingdom.

Seeing this, what does the Church have to say? It tells religious what is essential to their life if they are to be faithful to this vision. It tells them that they must live lives of renunciation and asceticism and deep prayer. It tells them that they cannot do this unless they embrace a rule of life in common, distance themselves from the world, obey their superiors, live simply and dependently, wear a habit, observe silence and recollection and work for their living. It begs them to put their lives to work for the Kingdom, speaking to the world through strong witness and holy example; making good the damages of sin through reparation; building up Christ's Body through virtuous living.

There, in a nutshell, is the ideal. We religious have sinned against God, against the Church and against ourselves in lowering our sights to horizons that are too human.

If one wants an example of just how far we have managed to descend, the ABC production of Brides of Christ will do very well.

This is a classical secular-humanist portrayal of the secular-humanist mentality in the convent. It mocks the sacred by linking it with human foibles so that one begins to see a causal relationship. Tradition is caricatured; perennial values are reversed. We end up with a carefully engineered revolution in our thinking about religious sisters that parallels the revolution in the sisters' own thinking about themselves and their vocation.

What was once considered to be sinful for a religious sister is now seen as a noble choice for self-actualisation. It is now a matter of personal growth for a sister to have a love affair; a matter of virtue for her to distribute largesse to the needy in the form of artificial contraceptives; an act of enlightenment to deride the Pope and to dissent from Church doctrine.

Once, a sister's sights were trained on the next world. She was to be provided with an environment replete with symbols and rituals which spoke to her of eternity. Now a sister is required to plunge into the world stripped of all support systems - even that most basic of all symbols, the religious habit - and to do her bit to make this planet a little more habitable for everyone. The salvation of souls has given way to social liberation as the motivation of her life.

Of course, Brides of Christ does not bring us quite up to date, although some of its commentators have managed to fill up some of what is wanting. By this stage the avant garde religious are moving away from the Eucharist as the source of their life and are engaged in neo-pagan rituals which express liberation from the detested male-empowering hierarchical structures of the Church. This is about as far as one need go in documenting the decline in religious life.

Whatever has happened to the Church's wonderful vision of supernatural realities? What happens to religious life if it is cut adrift from these realities?

There are two popular errors in circulation at present. One is the idea that religious life is independent of Church structures. It takes no account of the truth which is that the religious life takes its existence from the Church, which has never ceased to exercise its prerogatives over it as protector, controller, guide and sanctifier.

The other error is that the Church does not really need religious life. This idea stems from the pervasive, influential and often warped concept of the post-Vatican II era of the "age of the laity."

The Church has been consistent in its understanding of the relative values of the religious and secular vocations, asserting strongly that it is always the 'age' of both. It sees them as distinct, complementary ways of life, providing between them the full witness to the meaning of the Christian life. One is there to sanctify the world; the other to transcend it. Pope Paul VI gave expression to this when he said to religious in 1964, "the more it is stressed that the role of the laity demands that they advance the Christian life in the world, so much the more it is necessary for those who have renounced the world to let their example radiantly shine forth."

Nor did the Vatican Council redress any past imbalance in the perceived 'elevation' of the religious life over the secular by lessening its praise for the former. Instead, it sought to restore the lay vocation to its true dignity, while continuing to call the religious life by its traditional superlatives.

Along with the objections that religious life needs to be either scaled down or phased out (and there are religious who hold these and they will tell you so without shame), there is a belief that there is really nothing for religious to do.

The Council is quite explicit in telling religious that their primary role in the Church is to pray, to do penance and to witness by their lives. It tells them - and the Popes seem never to tire of reminding them - that their being is more important, by far, than their doing. All of which shows that they are more needed than ever in a world obsessed by worldly achievement and little touched by prayer, penance and considerations of the next life.


Now, with all this said, we may return to the misunderstanding being experienced by religious. To what extent, and in what respects, do they have a right to be understood?

Most relevant to the consideration of such questions is the truth that religious life is a mystery. In human terms it is a mystery which is generally understood by only a very few; in divine terms it is a mystery fully understood by God, alone.

The Church, divine and human in its dimensions, is able to bridge and synthesise these two forms of mystery, and in no way does it bring the two together more powerfully and more explicitly than in the religious vocation. In order to understand our own vocation, we religious have no alternative but to listen to the Church. In order to make it understood we have no alternative but to witness to the mystery with lives obedient to the Church.

Since Vatican II much of what we have been 'about' has been done in order to make our life more relevant; our witness more meaningful. Many are the superficial and worldly standards that have been employed; many the false processes.

Some of us have tried to sell our birthright for acceptance by a secular society which can scarcely be bothered with us, and now find ourselves engaged in futile efforts to witness, not with our lives, since these no longer conform to their divine inspiration, but with our human convictions; our personalities, our 'creativity'; our powers of tongue and pen. The inner coherence of religious life; its power to regenerate and perpetuate itself; these are no longer maintained when religious try to explain themselves without reference to the vision and the terms of the Church.

Here, then, is a large scale loss of identity by religious - a very serious matter indeed. Religious, as such, are not entitled to an identity crisis, since, by their vows they have sunk their identity in the living God, relinquishing themselves to His providence and His will. As individuals, they have no identity apart from their sacred calling; as religious they have no identity apart from the Church.

Since we religious are in the business of witness it is, in a sense, important that our lives be intelligible, in the same way that the Gospel must be intelligible, but surely not at the price of dimming the "vision splendid." God has His ways of making authenticity 'sell', in spite of our petty efforts to be relevant. And, in the end, it is infinitely better to be misunderstood for what we truly are than to be 'understood' for what we most truly are not.

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