A Little Heresy of My Own

When Pope Francis declared this was to be a Year of Consecrated Life, we greeted his announcement with muted enthusiasm. We are very enthusiastic about monastic life here at Howton Grove and happy to share our vocation with others, but we are not so keen on some of the ways in which consecrated life in general is promoted or some of the attitudes that surround it. I have been trying for years to work out why and think I may have had a lightbulb moment, at least as regards women religious. I hope it won’t read like a grumble, because it’s not meant to be. I’m trying to articulate something I think matters, and if my viewpoint is a trifle heretical, I hope I’m being heretical in a good cause.

I have the feeling it’s become increasingly common in Europe, though possibly less so in the U.S.A. and other parts of the world, to regard women who live under religious vows with something akin to contempt. It as though the moment we put on the habit (or not), we ceased to be people with minds or feelings and became complete ninnies, neither demanding nor deserving the ordinary courtesies of life. As communities age or struggle to maintain their former apostolates, they are relegated  to the margins of the Church as so much dead weight. I’m sorry to say the Catholic clergy can be among the worst offenders in this respect; and I think that may be at the heart of my unease about the Year of Consecrated Life.

It is no good asking for prayers for vocations or spending money on promotional videos and the like if we don’t really believe it is worthwhile. If we think religious men and women — above all, women, since they cannot be priests — are essentially wasting their time; that there is nothing they can do or be that someone else can’t do or be better; that the accidentals of religious life matter more than the substance; that religious are wrong about the choices they have made or are deficient in their understanding of what the gospel asks; then, of course, I can’t see anyone being attracted to any form of consecrated life in the first place, still less persevering until death, and it is fundamentally wrong to pretend that religious life is a valid way of following Christ. But as someone who has experienced the joy of monastic life, and who has known people of genuine holiness who have become so precisely through the faithful living out of their vocation, I don’t want the nay-sayers to have it all their own way. It is because I believe in the value of consecrated life that I would like to see it flourish in the Church.

For consecrated life to flourish, several conditions need to be met, and religious themselves need to meet the challenge of changing times. Every week, I deal with a handful of vocation enquiries and I can see that, while there is still great generosity of spirit, the way in which people think about vocation has become increasingly secularised. For example, there is a kind of tick-list the community, rather than the candidate, is expected to meet. There is a presumption that discernment involves only the individual, not the accepting community. It would be easy to dismiss this as ‘unmonastic’ (as indeed it is), but I think that is unfair. A vocation isn’t an abstraction; it is enfleshed in an individual; and none of us, whatever our vocation in life, starts out knowing everything or being everything we are called to be. We need to expand our ideas about how people are drawn to religious life, and how we can best help them find their way. I must emphasize that this isn’t a numbers game. Just as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI foresaw a much smaller Church in years to come, I myself think the religious communities of the future will be smaller, too. I don’t think they will disappear, however, because, in the end, religious life is all about responding to God, and God does not cease to call people to himself.

My hope for this Year of Consecrated Life is that we’ll do more than just pray for vocations or run discernment days and the like. I hope we’ll think deeply about the nature of vocation and the place of consecrated life in the Church. I hope those of us who are religious will examine our own attitudes and accept that, ‘because we’ve always done x or y’ may no longer be a valid reason for continuing to do so — any more than changing for the sake of changing is valid. I hope those who aren’t religious will also examine their attitudes, for and against. If you lament the decline in numbers, ask yourself whether you would become a religious, or how you would feel if your son or daughter wanted to become a religious. If you think religious are a waste of space, go and meet some and see whether they justify that negativity. And if you are a Catholic priest, perhaps you could ban the phrase ‘the good sisters’ from your lips and just see religious as the people they are, fellow-toilers in the Vineyard.

Note: Throughout this post I’ve used ‘religious’ as short-hand for ‘members of a religious order or congregation’. I’ve written principally about women because I am one myself and because male religious are often priests as well, which gives them a different standing in the Church. I’d also like to emphasize that I’m lucky enough to count priests and monks among my friends. My remarks do not refer to them but to the kind of senior cleric who, at a lunch I attended, was overheard saying to the person taking him in, ‘Seat me anywhere, so long as it’s not next to one of the nuns’. For our sins, we were seated together. 🙂

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39 thoughts on “A Little Heresy of My Own”

  1. Amen – a well written expose on a poorly understood subject.
    I fully agree with you both as a man, diocesan priest, and religious ‘wannabee’ but for me it is too late due to health and age. I abhor all prejudice and ignorance in the Church no matter who the speaker may be = fruits of the unholy spirit and sin, not the way of the Holy Spirit.

  2. Thanks “good Sister” – a lot to think about here. Love your comment about being seated together with the senior cleric – perhaps that could teach him something.

  3. Sr Catherine I don’t have any useful comments on the religious life, but just wanted to offer you some encouragement. I value your comments and your prayers. Bless you. And I bet you politely, lovingly, and incisively showed that senior cleric how he was an idiot.

  4. I would be honoured to sit next to a nun at dinner. In fact when I see nuns in the street or supermarket, I have to resist the urge to run up to them and say “you women are amazing!” Because you are.

  5. I am interested in this because it chimes with my own experience as a woman and mother, and my sense that women are valued primarily as sexual objects and devalued when they cease to be sexual. For example, you can see women’s breasts used everywhere to advertise products, yet as soon as a woman breastfeeds a child in public it is often seen as disgusting or exhibitionist. Where breasts are sexual and for the male gaze, it seems acceptable; where breasts are being used nonsexually for the nourishment of a baby, suddenly it becomes unacceptable to many.

    The idea of contempt for women under religious vows not only rings a bell but seems to me to be related to this – the perception of a woman’s value as being measured only by their value TO MEN.

    The same applies to female newsreaders and presenters in the media – suddenly unemployed and less valuable once they are older, while men of an equivalent age continue to be valued.

  6. I certainly don’t see the monastic life in that way, but I am thrilled and delighted that you have grasped the bull by the horns at this time to comment. In my part of the Church there is a movement, an increased desire to return to monastic principles in new and exciting ways for the whole Church: going back to go forward. Religious cells will naturally develop as a consequence because as you say,
    in the end, religious life is all about responding to God, and God does not cease to call people to himself.
    The best is yet to come.

  7. Another excellent article from you which gives me much to reflect on. Certainly I have often, from the outside as it were, had rather the same impression of people undervaluing or oversimplifying women religious. I agree with Gabrielle’s points about women in secular life too.

    Personally, I am profoundly grateful for there being women among us who are called to devote their lives to prayer on behalf of us all. God knows we need you. Thank you.

  8. I am so sorry to hear that your tremendous undertaking has made you belittled by people who ought to know better. Know that there are many who understand that what you do makes you a phenomenal person (and community) and that most of us are too narrow to be able to do what you do. God bless you and all your ministry.

  9. There has been little said about the Year of Consecrated life and there is a feeling that it has nothing to do with the laity. Do you have anything to offer in the way of advice to those of us who have a different vocation such as parent, husband etc. who would like to be more involved in this year? Incidentally, I would be overjoyed if one of my children chose the religious life, the world needs prayerful witnesses, but many rarely see a nun in our Catholic schools and priests don’t seem to have the time to pop in and chat to pupils informally any more. Our children need this kind of contact if they are to have a chance of considering answering a call to the religious life.

  10. I’ve often wondered why Christian religious communities (of whatever denomination) don’t offer ‘fixed-term’ ordinations like some Buddhist traditions? There must be many who would like to experience religious life for a year or three, a sort of holy National Service.

  11. Oh what a wonderful wonderful post.
    I wish more than anything there was some way for me to be involved in monastic life.
    Your calling is wonderful.

  12. Sr. Catherine, I wonder if it is really the lack of education and true understanding that leads to the ‘tick the box’ mind set. I help during hay season at a Benedictine community here in Connecticut, and the number of new young volunteers helping or interning each year is a source of inspiration that the need and yearning is still very much out there.

    • I think there are many reasons, and I’d say the situation in the UK and the little bits of the USA I’ve seen is quite different. I’m certainly not denying the generosity of spirit (in fact, I said as much in my post), but I do think the approach has changed considerably during the past thirty years.

  13. Dear Digitalnun

    As a married Anglican priest I have for the past three years regularly taken small groups of people from the parish to experience a few days of the rhythm of the daily office, periods of silence and talks at a Religious community where I am an oblate. I very much value my contact with the sisters and enjoy their friendship and company (albeit mostly in silence). Through such a Religious community I have been encouraged to enter in time tested ways of praying and engagement with Holy Scripture.

    I share these thoughts as an encouragement to anyone who might feel drawn to ‘risk’ spending a few days at a Religious community to begin to explore for themselves.

    I commend you for your thoughts and welcome your blog.

    Thank you

    Steve

  14. Thank you for the truly inspiring article which really made me think. Yes, I have so often heard clerics refer to the ‘good sisters’ without stopping to realise the patronising tone of the expression. I feel that children and young adults need a ‘drip, drip’ input of experiences connected with the Religious Life in order to give them the opportunity to make an informed decision, with the help of the Holy Spirit, about a religious vocation.

  15. I think you can be sure that your words cause many of us to think differently about the women choosing to live a life of service. Our media driven world seems to prefer us to see groups rather than individuals, black and white rather than many individual colors. I so appreciate your thoughtful considered words that remind me that each of us is a unique person and brings unique gifts.

    thanks for sharing yours- hopefully your lunch companion will have absorbed some of that wisdom.

  16. I think of you and many other female religious as being like Hilda of Whitby: highly educated and courageous leaders of men and women, who seek to bring the truth of God to others. May God support you and all religious this year.

  17. Thank you for your thoughtful post. At the moment I am reading “Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis – Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church” from Peter Kwasniewski. And shortly after reading your post I read in that book about Pope Leo XIII’s letter “Testem Benevolentiae” from 1899 in which he prophetically warns against tendencies he saw developing in the Church of his time. Leo, writing to Cardinal Gibbons in Baltimore, calls them ‘Americanist’ tendencies. One of these errors was the exaltation of activity over contemplation. To quote Peter Kwasniewski: “Some people, says the pope, claim that so-called ‘natural’ virtues make a man ‘more ready to act and more strenuous in action’ than supernatural ones and that the modern age demands a more ‘active’ approach to life and sanctity than the predominantly contemplative and, as it were, receptive attitude of ages past. In keeping with these novel notions, a secluded life of prayer is felt to be an unproductive relic of the premodern past. Leo XIII expresses his concern that such views are contributing to the ever-lessening esteem for consecrated religious life.”
    It would appear that Leo’s concerns have gone unheeded in the last 115 years.
    Perhaps part of the problem is a loss of appreciation (or belief in) intercessory prayer, a failure of vision concerning the Church as a mystical body standing before God acknowledging the inherent brokenness of her members and trusting in the efficacy of prayer from some of those members for others. This in turn may stem from a very modern attitude of “I’m OK, you’re OK” – an unwillingness to see our own brokenness – which manifests itself, at least here in Germany, in the complete absence of the Confiteor in the parish Masses, and the politicalisation of the Intercessions to calls for social engineering (to be accomplished by someone else other than us).
    In line with Leo’s predictions, nuns are respected if they are social workers in a habit, but contemplative orders are seen as remnants of a long gone age.
    Thank you once again for your thoughtful posts and your intercessory prayers.
    PS: Testem Benevolentiae can be found at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Leo13/l13teste.htm

      • Perhaps in fairness I should clarify somewhat. The German Missal does have three variations for the Confiteor, which roughly are those of the English Missal. But in the 10 years or so that I have been attending Mass here in Germany I have, apart from once or twice, only ever experienced the 3rd form which, after a freely spoken introduction by the priest, calls upon Christ with an epithet, to which the faithful answer with a Kyrie/Christe eleison, which in turn then moves seamlessly into a song that replaces the Gloria.
        So the letter of the law may be observed, but an opportunity for a genuine acknowledgment of our sinfulness is passed over.

  18. I love Yogaprem’s idea of a Holy National Service!

    As a society increasingly focused on the active and expedient, we seem to have forgotten the value of those people who have the determination and integrity to live by their beliefs. In a wider sense, it doesn’t matter whether that’s a Buddhist spending a life in meditation and study to achieve enlightenment, or a Christian religious spending a life in intercessionary prayer for others: their example is both a sanction and a reminder of what is possible. That’s incredibly valuable, whether or not one shares the beliefs in question.

    It’s not without threat, though. The dedicated always make the mainstream uneasy. I do wonder if the contempt is a cover for fear. The busyness of the world is a wonderful distraction from what one might (be afraid to) hear if one stopped to listen.

  19. Have you heard of the Imagine Sisters movement in the US? It is a collaborative effort to encourage and support vocations among women. Ironically the orders seeing the largest growth are the more traditional ones. You might like to “check them out” http://www.imaginesisters.org you may also find interesting a TED talk about discernment entitled “Why nuns don’t have mid-life crises.” Not so sure that nuns or sisters don’t have mid-life crises but it is a catchy title.

    • Thank you, yes, I know about Imagine Sisters, with whom we have links, also the statistics about entry to various orders/congregations. The situation in Europe is a bit different, as I pointed out in my post. As a member of a traditional order myself (you can’t get much more traditional in the Western Church than the Benedictines!), I’m also aware that growth has to be sustained. Some of the communities that recruit high numbers also have high numbers leaving, even after profession. It is a very complex subject.

  20. Fellow-toiler Catherine, thank you once again. You certainly know how to pack a punch.

    Two things stand out, both of the derogatory points you raise, namely “good sisters” and the disgusting insult of “don’t sit me next to the nuns”. If a person utters such an insult they have no right to minister to God’s people through Holy Orders. I have no time for such caveman ignorance. I do not believe a person can, with all humility and acceptable frailty, minister in the name of Christ if they are so open in their contempt which they should be encouraged to purge, but certainly not while holding the high office of the care of souls.

    Which leads me to the main point. As long as men and women do not act and speak together as equals, as those derogatory examples in your blog show, there will be forever the open comment that men are superior in some shape or form. I believe that until there is recognition through thought, word and deed that men and women are equal in the eyes of God insofar that God does not create checklists of classes of people who may or may not possibly be called to a particular vocation and be examined, such crass arrogance will pervade and be ever present. This is neither honest nor fair. The Church of England tried to address the problem and has failed spectacularly in that regard. Until churches can recognise that gender is not per se a bar to calling, such evil and hurtful thoughts, words and actions will continue and we are all the poorer for it.

    • Well, yes and no . . . I think there is a lot of unthinking fear of women in the Catholic Church, especially among some of the clergy; but most women — lay or religious — long ago learned how to deal with it. The real question is, as you rightly indicate, should we have to ‘deal with it’? I don’t think we are going to change clerical attitudes overnight; but I’m pretty sure one or two clerical readers of my post have quietly examined their consciences and made a resolve never to say ‘the good sisters’ again. I wouldn’t mind betting they had never thought about it — and that is the crux of the problem. So much that we do is done without thinking. The Year of Consecrated Life is something we all need to think about as it does mean addressing some fundamental attitudes. Finally, Richard, you know I try never to comment on the way other Churches do things, so you’ll excuse my not taking up the challenge you offer me! 🙂

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