Yes, today is another snow day and a chance for me to share some of my reflections on Oprah's segment this week about the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. I do not usually have this much time to reflect and study what is being said about religious life but since I am snowed in for the third day this week, I did a little extra research and I am disappointed by what I am finding.
The way other sisters are responding to the portrayal of religious life on the Oprah show is very unfortunate. One quote from a comment on Sister Julie's blog over at www.anunslife.org was, "I feel a great sense of disappointment for myself and the hundreds of thousands of women religious within the U.S. whose lives are likewise dedicated to the spreading of the Gospel but cannot identify with the lifestyle of the Sisters portrayed on Oprah." I find this problematic because there are essential elements of religious life that transcend particular communities, apostolates, and cultures. If religious women are living religious life authentically, with the mind and heart of the Church, we should always be able to identify with the lifestyle of one another. Is my congregation exactly the same as these wonderful Dominican Sisters? Absolutely not! Do we have a lot in common? YES! This is one of the beauties of religious life.
Some of the issues which many religious women are labeling as contrary to their experience of religious life are habits, prayer, community, theology of religious life, and apostolates. In 1983, the Sacred Congregation for Religious and for Secular Institutes set forth The Essential Elements in the Church's Teaching on Religious Life which dealt with all of these issues.
First, habits. Some sisters seem to think that wearing a religious habit is an optional part of religious life and it is a disservice to those religious who do not wear a habit to present it as an essential. Simply put, this is incorrect. The Essential Elements have this to say about the religious habit, "The totality of religious consecration requires that the witness to the Gospel be given publicly by the whole of life....To ensure this public witness, religious willingly accept a pattern of life that is not permissive but largely laid down for them. They wear a religious garb that distinguishes them as consecrated persons." It is unacceptable to choose not to wear the religious garb that distinguishes us as consecrated persons.
The other habit issue was its description as a wedding dress. Personally, I do not think of my habit as my wedding dress. I think of my habit as a blessed sacramental which points to a reality outside of this world. That is that every person has been created for union with God, a union that most nearly mirrors marriage. God has called me to be a sign of this marriage, this covenant relationship that is the goal of all life. That is why I wear the habit. I hope that when people see me they see that relationship and think of the God who desperately loves them. The other reason I wear a habit is poverty. Clothing is expensive and it takes time and an investment of energy and self to choose appropriate and becoming clothing. My habit is simple, modest, and becoming. It speaks of my state of life and offers a unique gift to the world of solidarity with the poor and complete dedication of self to God and to the Church. I think that this is a view that most habit wearing religious can share.
Okay, next issue... Prayer. Again, from the Essential Elements, " The first and principal duty of religious is assiduous union with God in prayer. They participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice daily insofar as possible and approach the sacrament of penance frequently. The reading of Sacred Scripture, time for mental prayer, the worthy celebration of the liturgy of the hours according to the prescriptions of proper law, devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and a special time for annual retreat are all part of the prayer of religious. Prayer should be both individual and communitarian." In the Oprah segment, the sisters prayed communally in their own religious tradition. In my community, at night, we don't do a procession to the altar to begin Grand Silence. We don't chant the Office. We do faithfully pray the Office, using a Church approved translation, together in common and we do have silence at a certain time. Although there are differences between the two congregations we can certainly identify with each lifestyle. In my community we are required to pray the Stations of the Cross each day privately. Other communities don't do that, and that is okay. It is all a part of our religious family traditions. I am not a Dominican, but boy am I grateful for their gift to the Church! What is not okay is never going to Mass because of the "male hierarchy," failing to pray the liturgy of the hours because of it's "non-inclusive language," changing readings that are challenge the way some congregations have interpreted religious life. It absolutely is essential to pray in religious life in a certain way. There are options but some things are necessary to religious life.
Living in community has been an issue of contention for quite a while. Sister Julie, over at A Nun's Life, which is a blog that I enjoy frequenting although I do respectfully disagree with her viewpoint, says this about community, "There are also many ways to live in community, not just under one roof. Again, it’s not that one way of life is better or worse or more authentic or not — rather it’s that there is a diversity of ways to live religious life." Now contrast that statement with this one from Essential Elements, "Religious should live in their own religious house, observing a common life. They should not live alone without serious reason, and should not do so if there is a community of their institute reasonably near." It seems very clear to me that living in community is necessary for religious life. Is it difficult to live in community? YES! It is difficult because it requires a lot of patience, charity, and selflessness. I am in my twenties and I have a full-time ministry to which I am brand new! There is a sister in her eighties who does not. She needs someone to carry something upstairs for her, or to go dig her car out of the snow (I have been working on that one all morning.) Meanwhile, I had a whole plan for the day... well, the plan goes out the window because my Sister needs me. I need her. She supports me with her life, her wisdom, and her kindness. I can support her by my gift of time and self. This self-denial, and self-gift is part of the journey, at least for me, to holiness.
On Oprah, the Dominican sisters were having recreation when Lisa Ling arrived. They were playing games with one another and it was beautiful to see them spending time together and enjoying one another. In my community we do not have scheduled recreation because our apostolates sometimes require us to be over in the parish church preparing little ones for the sacraments, or teaching adults at night how to speak English. Does that mean we don't see one another and don't spend time together? No! It is simply another way that does fall withing the bounds of living community together. We plan to throw a convent party when it is a sisters birthday or feast day. When something happens to a sisters family, we gather to support and comfort her. When we have a snow day we go have a snowball fight and make hot chocolate to warm us up. We eat together, work together, pray together, and, of course, play together!
As far as theology of religious life goes, I could talk about this for years and not have it all verbalized but what I do know is that as religious we are bound to Christ in a spousal way. I prefer not to use the phrase Bride of Christ. I do not think it is inaccurate, and I never mind anyone else using it. However, it conjures up for me images of wedding dresses and fairy tales. Spouse of Christ, however, is what I consider myself. I am married to Jesus and I have responsibilities and duties to that spousal relationship. I am called to be chaste - to give myself completely to Him. I am called to be poor - choosing to live the same life as He did, even unto death. I am called to be obedient - always allowing Jesus, the Church, and my superiors to guide me and to go serve those who are most in need.
I do not wish to be "judgmental" in an uncharitable way of the sisters who I am positive have a love relationship with the Lord and are genuine in their beliefs in religious life. What I do wish to do is make a distinction between what is essential and necessary in religious life, and what is not. Some things are not a matter of the diversity of religious life, they are a matter of disobedience to the Church. All the faithful are called to obey the Church. The Church has made extremely clear what religious life is and what it is not. Things are getting quite heated with the Apostolic Visitation taking place and I just wish that once and for all sisters can make a decision. Are you a part of the Church or not? And if not, there is no judgment, but find a place where you can authentically live this style of life with integrity. If you want to be a part of the Church then come, let us be faithful, and let us build up the body of Christ instead of tear it down with our words and attitudes.
"O God of love! O Love of my life! When will I be all yours in deeds and not only in words? You can do it. Increase my confidence... I want to love you with all my strength. I want to obey you in everything you desire, without interest, without consolations, without reward. I want to serve you through love, only to give you pleasure, only to please your heart that is so passionately filled with love for me... My Jesus, make me entirely yours."