Of Sisters and Superheroes

“What about you? Do you have superheroes on your t-shirt?”

This question was posed to me by Ben, a friend’s energetic four-year-old son, after he had enthusiastically described the various Transformers on his shirt and their superpowers.

Ben's t-shirt

I explained that my t-shirt had the name of a community: the Sisters of the Humility of Mary , the congregation of women religious with whom I have been living and serving for the last year as a Partner in Mission.

Later that evening, after Ben was asleep in bed, I returned to his question and thought of the many sisters of various communities with whom I have worked, dined, prayed, celebrated, and otherwise shared life over this last year – and over my 34 years. Though they are not the superheroes Ben so admires, women religious possess unique gifts. Their abilities to continually adapt and renew themselves, to face challenges with calm and courage, and embody shared leadership are gifts much needed in today’s Church and world.

“The Second Vatican Council impacted religious life, as it did all Catholic life and the wider world, like a tsunami of the Spirit,” says Marie McCarthy, SP, in the LCWR Winter 2015 Occasional Papers. Marsha Allen, CSJ, the current LCWR president concurs: “It was like going from a horse and carriage to going to the moon all in one leap.” Vatican II led congregations to return to the core of their founders’ ideals, reflect on their charisms and history. Women’s religious communities did this work boldly; the changes it created were dramatic.

The stories I hear from Sisters who entered in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and early 60s reflect a reality that is most foreign to my current observations of religious life. The total change for many congregations of women religious in the wake of Vatican II can’t be overstated. From a strict horarium to a schedule which allows them to respond to the needs of those they serve. From a perspective of religious as being holier, “better than,” and set apart to an embrace of the universal call to holiness. From being assigned ministries by a superior without consultation to actively sharing in the discernment of how they are called to serve. From formal habits to simple, modest dress. From a suspicion of “particular friendships” to an emphasis on mutual relationships. And the list continues.

The external scaffolding of religious life fell away and left in its wake a deeper internalization of charism, a more contemplative mode of prayer, a complete reorganization of decision-making and leadership structures. Today’s golden jubilarians (those celebrating fifty years as sisters) have lived through monumental change. I know many Sisters who weathered those significant changes…and stayed. There is much hand-wringing about the number of women who left in the wake of Vatican II. Rarely is there an acknowledgment of the courage, resilience, and vision of the women who lived through the implementation of this renewal, watched many sisters leave, weathered the ecclesial and social tumult of the second half of the twentieth century…and chose to stay. Who continue to choose to stay. They trust that the Spirit is indeed alive and continuing to call them to this life.

Moreover, they trust that the Spirit is afoot as they look to the future. In the face of dramatically fewer women entering and staying, communities respond with thoughtful trust, pragmatic hope and an openness to the new. They seek to share their charisms with lay people and form partnerships. And they show a remarkable detachment in the face of further change. “Who knows what God is doing? Who knows what will evolve?” one IHM Monroe Sister asked, with bright eyes and an inquisitive smile. “All we can do is be faithful and trust God calls to us from the future.”

Beyond responding to monumental change since Vatican II, women’s religious congregations have also encountered serious challenges in recent years. Both the 2008 Apostolic Visitation headed by the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) and the 2012 imposition of the mandate by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) over the LCWR required congregations to corporately collaborate to respond in as Gospel women. (For an excellent study on how congregations responded to the Visitation, see The Power of Sisterhood.) In the face of both challenges, sisters in general and the LCWR in particular responded with integrity, calm, and courage, choosing to enter into respectful, honest dialogue that consistently resisted polarization. In the words of LCWR president IHM Sister Sharon Holland, they sought to “eliminate the kind of mentality of a ‘we/they,’…that there’s a ‘we.’ That we work through things.”

In a hierarchical church where (as Pope Francis pointed out in his Christmas address to the curia) clerics all too often fall into careerism and competition, women religious’ flattened approach to leadership and democratic process of decision-making provide a welcome and much-needed alternative. They embody a spirituality of contemplative leadership which is nourished by lives of corporate and personal prayer and informed by decades of accompaniment of and ministry with those on the margins.

This leadership is also born out of the risk of lifetime promise, the “all-in” nature of a perpetually vowed commitment to God in the context of community. These women have lived with each other, struggled with each other, cared for each other, disagreed with each other, and served with and for each other for decades. One sister may have another sister as a high school teacher or college professor, then later they work side-by-side together as peers in active ministry, and finally one serves as the other’s caregiver until she takes her last breath. Positions and roles change, the bonds of sisterhood remain. In the words of a Franciscan sister: “it doesn’t matter what our title is or was when we are sistering each other.”

In short, these women love each other, for life. The quality of that love and the depth of its commitment is breathtaking. During my year at the motherhouse, I witnessed small and large acts of loyal, generous love every day. More than once it has moved me to tears.

(I don’t mean to idealize; I’m not claiming sisters have it all figured out. For all my admiration of women religious, no group of human beings is perfect. No matter what high ideals of justice, peace, and love are espoused in a community’s mission statement, it doesn’t mean those ideals are lived out flawlessly – especially when someone has left their clothes in the washer of my laundry day, or has left their dirty dishes abandoned in the sink! Conflict still happens, personalities still clash and growing pains exist – sisters are still people!)

Religious women’s ability to continuously adapt to monumental change, respond to challenges with courage and equanimity, and model a spirituality of shared, collaborative leadership make women’s religious communities a valuable, powerful witness of Christian common life. In a Church rocked by division and scandal, in a nation wounded by partisan bickering and racial tension, in a world marked by divisions and inequality we need models of how to live together, respond to change with hope instead of fear, and listen deeply to one another and to the Spirit. Reflecting on my year as a “motherhouse millennial,” I believe that women religious can help show us the way forward in our Church and world.

Wendy L Wareham photography

Wendy L Wareham
photography

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She spent one year as a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania and recently relocated to her native Wisconsin. Her writing has appeared in appeared in various print and online publications and she is a contributor to Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table which will be published by Paulist Press later this year.

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Of Heaven, Handicaps and Haecceitas

“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:/

…myself it speaks and spells,/

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ

(from As Kingfishes Catch Fire)

Community living includes facing together the mystery of death: saying good-bye, memorializing, and grieving – a process I experienced several times in my years of community living with adults with disabilities. I recently attended the memorial service for “David,” a former community mate who had died unexpectedly. As I grieved his passing and reflected on his life, several well-meaning friends offered as a consolation that David is in heaven now, free from the disabilities which challenged him his whole life.

I certainly understand that the idea of a loved one who has struggled with a physical or intellectual disability being freed from that disability in the hereafter can be deeply consoling. Yet somehow as people expressed this sentiment, it did not sit comfortably in me. Our own deepest intuitions as well as the wisdom of our faith tradition tell us that we are more than our physical bodies; there is a spiritual element which somehow transcends death. It is important to err always on the side of humility in the face of life’s great mysteries, of which death is arguably the greatest, and not fall into simplistic thinking or biblical literalism.

I find myself engaging in that mystery in the face of David’s death. I can’t avoid wrestling with those questions we inevitably ask when a loved one dies: how does that person remain with us in some non-physical way? What are we saying in the creed when we claim to believe in the resurrection of the body? How do we understand eternal life? Given David’s disabilities, these questions take on an added dimension.

Heaven

In my ponderings, I invited into the conversation medieval Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus with his concept of haecceitas: the property that uniquely defines an object, its “being-ness,” “thisness” or “suchness.”  With Scotus, we claim to be created in God’s image and likeness; that we – and all created things – are unique, unrepeatable, one of a kind. My sense is that our haecceitas is not some perfect ideal, but includes all of our being: our quirks as well as our passions, our weaknesses as well as limitations, our handicaps (and we all have them – diagnosed or not!) as well as our strengths.

To love and be in community with another is to know something of that haecceitas – the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between. When I reflected on that unique “being-ness” of people with disabilities with whom I’ve shared life, their disabilities and how they deal with them are woven into that “being-ness.” Certainly, we are infinitely more than our limitations – whether they be a mental health diagnosis, an intellectual disability, a visual impairment or any of the myriad other challenges which come with this messy, beautiful experience of being human. And yet our limitations, how we respond to them, and how they shape us are undeniably a part of us, part of that unique haecceitas. The idea of eternal life is impoverished if we envision it simply as our own and others’ perfection, the attainment of all the ideals we could not fully reach in this life. The eschatological hope of God’s Kin-dom is certainly broader and more magnificent than simply our own limited vision of what our “perfect” self might be.

David’s haecceitas includes his radiant smile, his love of Top 40 music, his bright laughter, his distaste at getting his hands dirty, his concern for others, his love for sushi and aversion to salad, kindness to children, and boredom at the “long poems” I shared in community. It also includes the hesitancy with which he walked because of his vision impairment, and how that hesitancy would lead him to reach for my arm when we walked down a flight of stairs. It also includes the speech impediment that required patience from him and others which led him to learn American Sign Language and write carefully crafted notes to others to communicate his needs, wants, hopes, and gratitude. It also includes his hands which – though they appeared so fragile because of a problem with connective tissue – baked bread, created art, held a spoon to feed a community member unable of feeding herself, and performed countless other acts of creativity and service.

I celebrate and remember with warmth all these (and so many more!) elements of David’s haecceitas and trust that all of them are a part of his identity as God’s beloved. Though the challenges his disabilities created were undeniable, they are still pieces in the mosaic of this lovely, unique, never-to-be-repeated man. To imagine David in the great beyond – however it is imagined in our finite, human minds – without those mosaic pieces is, I believe, to do a disservice to his spirit and to diminish the greatness of his love-filled life.

I dare to believe that in the eyes of God all of us is beautiful – even those elements which limit and challenge us, those elements which we and others wish weren’t there. Somehow I find myself hoping that those elements are somehow included in that mysterious beatific vision. That in the fullness of time our shortcomings and frailties do not disappear but are held in that great, creating and re-creating Love and so made new (Rev 7:17).

I hold to this hope for David – and for all of us – in the paradoxical words of poet James Broughton in his poem Easter Exultet: “nothing perishes; nothing survives; everything transformed!”

photo credit: Wendy L. Wareham photography

 

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

Sensus Fidelium and the question of women’s leadership

The scene is familiar, one that has been recreated many times in parish social halls across the country: One wall is lined with a long table laden with cookies, cut vegetables and dip, cheese and crackers. The walls are decorated with banners from past parish missions and a crucifix adorned with a woven palm branch. The faint smell of oil from last Friday’s Lenten fish fry hangs in the air.

Parishioners from a three-parish cluster come in, are welcomed and encouraged to sign in at card tables by the door. They smile as they recognize the faces of friends across the hall. There are the requisite hugs and handshakes; people asked after each other’s family members, commented about sports, local politics, and the cold winter weather.

The pastoral associate called us to order, offered a brief opening prayer, and introduced the speaker, a representative of the diocesan office, who is to speak about Pope Francis and the New Evangelization. After a power point presentation highlighting themes from the apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” about being missionary disciples and some anecdotes about applying Francis’ words, we were given time for discussion at our tables. Each table was to discuss “what the church needs to leave behind” and “what the church needs to carry forward” and then share insights with the large group.

At our table the ten of us looked at each other expectantly. A metal chair squeaked when the woman beside me shifted her weight. Her husband beside her flipped through his copy of “The Joy of the Gospel.” The woman next to him took a bite of her cookie. We heard the murmur of conversations from neighboring tables.

“We’re going to need to give a report back soon,” someone said, frowning slightly.

“So,” I said, jumping into facilitator mode and pulling out a notebook and pen, “let’s start with the first question: what does the church need to leave behind?”

There was a thoughtful pause.

“Well,” ventured one woman, “what about the position of women in the church?”

Our formerly quiet and unengaged group of ten became instantly animated around this question and I jotted down notes as quickly as I could so as not to lose any threads of the conversation. Several people at the table remembered the post-Vatican II energy when it seemed to them women’s ordination to the diaconate and priesthood was a distinct possibility. One man spoke about examples from the New Testament of women in leadership roles in the early church. Someone else pointed out Pope Francis’ words in Evangelii Gaudium about a “more incisive female presence” in the church. I mentioned a recent article by Mary Ann Walsh, RSM in America magazine which gave concrete examples of ways women could assume more leadership in the church even without engaging the question of the ordination of women.

“So,” I said, “based on all I’ve heard, here’s a statement: ‘in order to move forward, the church needs to leave behind the exclusion of women from particular leadership and decision-making roles.’ Do we have consensus?”

“Yes,” came the resounding agreement.

The speaker re-convened us, thanked us for our work, and started with the tables in the back of the hall. The ideas shared ranged from big-picture and abstract to nuts-and-bolts practical. One table spokesperson spoke about the need to use personal invitations and not just rely on bulletin announcements to engage parishioners. Another recommended greater collaboration in several ministries among the clustered parishes. As ideas were shared, those gathered listened and occasionally nodded in agreement.

The speaker pointed to our table. I repeated our consensus statement: “in order to move forward, the church needs to leave behind the exclusion of women from particular leadership and decision-making roles.”

No sooner had the words been spoken than the room burst into sustained, hearty, and enthusiastic applause. One guy a few tables away even let out a cheer, pumping his fist in the air. I looked around the parish hall at the about 100 Catholics – mostly lay, but several deacons and priests – continued to clap.

holy-spirit-people-in-worship

When the applause finally subsided, the speaker smiled graciously, made no comment about my statement or the community’s response, and simply invited the next group to share. I sat down and someone at a neighboring table tapped me on the shoulder, grinned and gave me a thumbs up.

Please note that this took place in a rural, economically depressed part of Western Pennsylvania and not in some left-leaning urban area. This wasn’t a group of progressive, lefty millennials or hyper-educated academics. The parish hall that night was filled with women and men who are steel workers, teachers, nurses, small business owners, retirees who are committed to their parish family and Catholic faith. I wager most of the 100 people in attendance wouldn’t self-identify as feminists or activists for church reform. It was a room full of average American 21st century Catholics, responding out of their own experience.

As I reflected on that evening’s events, I began to look at them through the lens of sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) which Pope Francis defines in Evangelii Gaudium #119 as the “instinct of faith which helps them {the People of God} to discern what is truly of God”. It’s a tricky concept, described as an “intuition” about “the right way forward” for the church. It would be an abuse of the idea to say that it turns the church into a democracy which conflates majority opinion and doctrinal teaching. On the other hand, it is problematic to claim that sensus fidelium should never be invoked to contest or challenge the teachings of the Magesterium.

According to the document Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church by the International Theological Commission, “not only do they {the laity} have the right to be heard, but their reaction to what is proposed as belonging to the faith of the Apostles must be taken very seriously, because it is by the Church as a whole that the apostolic faith is borne in the power of the Spirit.”

The document goes on to speak of “new ways for the journey…as they are sensed by the people.” I was graced to witness and articulate something which was “sensed by the people” in the social hall that night. In our little corner of Western Pennsylvania, 100 Catholics spontaneously, unanimously, and enthusiastically spoke about the need for inclusion of women in leadership and decision-making roles in the church.

What are the “new ways for the journey” to which we are being called as the Pilgrim People of God around questions of women’s leadership?

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

Of Habits and Hobbits

“I was expecting, you know…hobbits.” My friend Valerie said this to me with surprise and perhaps a touch of disappointment after she spent time with Catholic Sisters.

Hobbits?” I asked, immediately imagining Bilbo Baggins and his ilk running through the chapel and dining hall of the motherhouse. “Wait, do you mean habits?”

She caught herself and realized that she had inadvertently confused the term for the traditional dress of women religious with the humanoid Middle-Earth residents of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. (In Valerie’s defense, she made this slip before her morning cup of coffee!)

This is one of many conversations I have had since moving in with a community of women religious. I’ve fielded questions from friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, taxi drivers, bank tellers, and near-strangers. Some questions are funny and off-the-wall – often related to portrayals of sisters in pop culture like the movie “Sister Act” or the reality TV show “The Sisterhood.” Other questions are poignant and thoughtful; they lead to great explorations of big topics like community, justice, feminism, spirituality, ministry, human sexuality, and everything in between.

One question I have been asked more than once is: “Do you live with real nuns?”

At first, the question was confusing. What did this mean? Do people think I live with “imposter” nuns? What would render a sister fake? I wondered. I’ve come to realize the question they are really posing is if I live with habited sisters. The Sisters of the Humility of Mary modified their dress in response to the Vatican II document Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis).  They moved to a simple blue suit without a veil. Now they wear contemporary dress with a ring and a medal as a sign of their vowed commitment and membership in the community.

There are women religious – from postulants to jubilarians – who are attracted to the habit and I don’t challenge their desire for distinctive dress. Some believe the habit gives a powerful, visible public witness to a sister’s identity as a consecrated woman in the world and opens the door to ministry. Others find that the habit separates women religious and leads people to put them on a pedestal which negatively impacts their ability to do ministry. Sister Susan Rose Francois’ Habits of Love or Sister Sophia Park’s Beyond Habits and No Habits (both on the Global Sisters Report website) explore the habit question. There are valid reasons for both sides of the habit argument and it’s not something I seek to hash out here.

What I do challenge is the idea that what women religious wear marks the authenticity of their identity as consecrated women. A nun or sister is not more or less committed, faithful, or prophetic based on her choice of dress. From the full habit to a simple pin or cross there are many ways that women religious today choose to externally present themselves. What dress will allow women to best serve the people they seek to serve? What will facilitate their ministries? What will communicate the message they seek to communicate about their way of being in the world? These are the questions that guide individual sisters and congregations. Especially during this Year of Consecrated Life, it seems more relevant than ever to stress that religious life is not a fashion statement.

As a keen observer of contemporary women’s religious life and a guest in many convents and motherhouses, I have concluded that what women religious wear is the least interesting thing about them. The sisters of Giving Voice, a national organization of younger women religious, echo this observation in their February 2010 letter in which they state “our clothing is the least significant part of our lives, yet receives so much attention.”

The preoccupation with the habit question seems to me an application of the ubiquitous sexist rule that what matters for men is the substance of what they do, whereas for women it is how we look while doing it. It’s clearly present in the entertainment industry where singers, actresses, and other performers are subjected to constant and intense scrutiny about their dress, weight, hair and makeup – just glance at the covers of the magazines in the checkout line. Commentators are more likely to focus on female politician’s pantsuit collection, hair accessories, and makeup than they are on her policies and ideas.

Is our hang-up with habits just a religious application of this same principle? If so, the response should be a strong, unequivocal emphasis on the full human dignity of all women whose identity is infinitely more than their physical appearance and wardrobe and whose gifts must be named and celebrated.

What women wear – whether we are nuns or world leaders, nurses or grandmothers, CEOs or gardeners – does not define us. I have been blessed to meet and develop relationships with women religious who have spent decades as teachers, spiritual directors, police chaplains, counselors, pastoral ministers, academics, artists, activists, administrators and more. Their fidelity to God, commitment to mission, and passion for service would make them “real” sisters in anyone’s book – whether they are wear a coif or a cardigan.

So if you come to the motherhouse where I live – or to many other motherhouses around the United States – expecting to see habits (or hobbits, for that matter!) you won’t find them. But if you come to find “real sisters” – that is, consecrated women striving to live lives of service and prayer in community, animated by their charism and vision of God’s kin-dom, committed to God and to one another – you will not be disappointed.

 

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary (real nuns!) at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

Of dinosaurs and discernment

“Every now and then it helps to step back and take the long view…”

Carnegie Natural History Museum (credit: http://www.carnegiemnh.org)

 

These are the opening lines of a reflection attributed to Salvadoran Archbishop (perhaps soon-to-be-saint) Oscar Romero. “The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision,” he goes on to say. What might it mean to take the long view?

Debbie Blue in her book Consider the Birds: a Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible, writes that “in 1973 a griffon vulture collided with an aircraft flying 37,900 feet.” That is over seven miles, the highest ever recorded altitude for a bird. Blue challenges us to find new ways of thinking about God as we reflect on creation – even or especially on those species considered less-than-majestic, like the vulture. Might even vultures – a species we normally consider unappealing if not downright ugly – reveal something of the Divine face to us in their ability to ride the air currents and take in all below them? Certainly if we seek to take the long view, the griffon vulture provides a powerful example from the natural world.

Another inspiration from the natural world came during a visit to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. It was a grey, cold December day, and I had a case of what I have come to term the “discernment blues.” I knew I needed a change in scenery and a break from wrestling with those big, thorny questions of call. So I drove to Pittsburgh and spent the day wandering among skeletons of tyrannosaurus rex, diplodocus, apatasauras, and many others. I walked through the Mesozoic era and learned about the slow evolution of various species long before mammals were part of the picture.

Throughout the exhibit, time is measured in mya (millions of years). The tour guide told us that dinosaurs walked the earth for 180 million years. In contrast, we human beings have been on the scene for 9 to 12 million. As the example of the griffin vulture invites me to “take the long view” in terms of space, reflecting on the Carnegie Museum’s dinosaurs invites me to “take the long view” in terms of time.

If all of world history could be condensed into twenty-four hours, homo sapiens sapiens (that’s us) would come on the scene at two seconds before midnight. To stretch even further back, dinosaurs only enter the world scene at 10:56 pm.   This serves as a humbling reminder that it is not all about us. That human beings – as beautiful and unique as we might be – aren’t, in fact, the focal point of life on this planet. That God’s creation starting with that initial flaring forth nearly 14 billion years ago is much vaster than I usually consider. This creation includes myriad species which came before us and – potentially – myriad others who will come after us. Human history is an eye blink of time if you start counting with the Big Bang. And, of course, the earth is one planet in one solar system in one galaxy out of an estimated 200 billion galaxies in this expanding universe.

You Are Here

(Credit: Pixshark.com)

 

Feeling small yet?

Beyond an invitation to humility, it’s also an invitation to awe and wonder – which as Catholics we name as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Awe and wonder at all that has come before us as well as that which may come in the future. Theologian John Haught speaks of “a universe still aborning” to describe the reality that nature is incomplete and subject to ongoing creativity.

I drove back to the motherhouse after my day contemplating dinosaurs with those big, thorny questions of call still alive within me. Yet somehow my time at the Carnegie did bring some consolation amid the discernment blues.

Geologian (no, that’s not a typo – it’s a combination of the words geologist and theologian!), scholar, teacher and Passionist priest Thomas Berry often repeated the phrase: “we are not a collection of objects, we are a communion of subjects.” I am only one of nearly seven billion human beings currently alive in the world. And human beings are only present in a tiny percentage of cosmic history. We are part of a communion of many, many subjects – past, present, and future. From quarks to quails, from amoeba to avaceratops, from vultures to vine maples – we humans are one strand in an enormous, complex, beautiful web of God’s creation.

Yet I as an individual and we as a species have a role to play with the Creator in the ongoing creation of this “universe still aborning.”   With humility, awe, and wonder we strive to “step back and take the long view.” We celebrate that we are simultaneously infinitely small and yet infinitely significant.

 

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

“What We Will Be Has Not Yet Been Revealed…”

new years resolutionIt is January – the month of resolutions. The glossy covers of magazines encourage the launching of self-improvement routines and offer advice on kicking bad habits and creating better ones. They promise that 2015 can be the best year ever as long as we have enough grit, determination, and self-control to make it so. After excess holiday eating and drinking, we resolve to be healthier. Or we rededicate ourselves to improving that relationship, finishing that degree, tackling that cleaning project, addressing that character flaw.

The assumption behind any resolution is that we are in control – in the words of William Ernest Henley’s Invictus, that I am “the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.” That’s an appealing idea to us first world, middle class North American folks. Whether it’s our health, finances, relationships, spiritual lives, or any other area – it’s nice to think that we can systematically set goals, achieve them, master our flaws, and maximize progress. That through a combination of smarts, willpower and planning we can both chart and then walk the road of growth in wholeness/holiness.

Underlying this mindset is a subtle, secular Pelagianism and that is challenged by these words which have been working on me in prayer: “…what we will be has not yet been revealed” (I John 3:2). John the Evangelist tells his readers (past and present) that we are children of God now, but we do not know what we will be in the fullness of time – or even (I would add) next year. Not only can we not get there by our own power – we cannot even know what we will look like.

An anecdote that Catholic journalist John L. Allen, Jr. shared recently about Pope Francis’ transformation that illustrates this idea and provides a healthy counterpoint to the prevailing New Year’s mindset.

Allen challenged us to do a google image search for “Jorge Mario Bergoglio not Pope Francis.” Try it, and you’ll see: in many of the photos he looks stern, awkward, unapproachable, and even downright dour. In his pre-pope days, close associates described him as “shy.”

Of course, this is a man whom we know now as the world’s most popular religious leader – admired by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, followed by 12 million on Twitter, more than comfortable in the media spotlight (did you see him on the cover of Rolling Stone?) voted as Esquire’s best-dressed man of the year. If you want visuals, do a google image search for “Pope Francis” and make a comparison.

So what happened? How did the shy, spotlight-dodging Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio become the charismatic, warm Pope Francis?

By the reports of those who have worked with him closely, Bergoglio underwent a significant change the night of his election. Allen reports that after receiving news of his election but before stepping out on the balcony of St. Peter’s for the “habemus papam” pronouncement, Bergoglio went into a chapel for a few moments of private prayer. A Vatican photographer who witnessed him stepping out chapel reported that his entire countenance and way of carrying himself had changed. There was a new vitality and radiance present – the vitality and radiance which have come to characterize his papacy.

“Jorge Bergoglio had a mystical experience on the night of his election – he went from being someone who was shy and avoided appearing in public to a ‘rock star,’” Allen says of the transformation of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

When Pope Francis was approached by prelates about this dramatic change, he acknowledged: “It’s true. I believe the Holy Spirit has changed me.”

Francis’ example encourages a generous dose of trust that change is at least as much about what we receive as what we create. Transformation has more to do with that old-school Catholic term “cooperation with grace” than with the masterminding and implementing of a detailed personal annual strategic plan.

Allen’s description of Bergoglio’s election night and the words of John’s epistle both point to the same humbling, counter-cultural truth: we are not, finally, the authors of our own transformation.

Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin’s encouragement to “above all, trust in the slow work of God” includes a line that you cannot know “today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.”

Indeed, what we will be has not been revealed. And we aren’t in the driver’s seat of how we will get there. So we write out our plans, set our goals, resolve to change…and then hold those resolutions with gentleness and humility, trusting that our transformation is held in hands immeasurably larger and seen with vision infinitely broader than our own.

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania where she will be facilitating a program on “The Spirituality of Pope Francis” in April.

 

Reality vs “Reality” of The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns

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The cast of “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns.” (image: http://www.mylifetime.com)

Though I rarely watch TV, as a millennial in a motherhouse, I couldn’t resist tuning in to the “docu-series” about young women discerning religious life.  The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns aired on the Lifetime Channel in November and December and followed five twentysomethings (Christie, Eseni, Claire, Francesca, and Stacey) to convents in New York, Illinois, and Kentucky.  The title was my first clue this show would be inaccurate since there is a  difference between the terms “nun” and “sister.”

An ominous voice over announces at the beginning of each of the six episodes: “At the end they’ll face a choice…follow their calling and become nuns or go home.” The (patently false) implication is that if someone decides not to enter religious community, she has “failed” at discernment.  This creates the tension needed to keep viewers tuning in; however, it misrepresents the discernment process.  Discernment is listening to that still small interior voice and, as Daughter of St. Paul Sister Rose Pacatte wrote in response to the show, is “individual, personal and private.” By its very nature discernment is internal and mysterious – between one’s soul and God.  Having such an intimate process filmed feels weirdly voyeuristic and even exploitative.  Discernment is not a competition and certainly not something that can fit neatly into a six week series.

 “The Sisterhood” delivers plenty of meltdowns, crying fits, and (to use the term employed by several of the girls) moments of “bugging out.”  One of the girls hyperventilated.  Another one stalked off announcing that she wanted to “punch somebody in they (sic) face.”  Conflicts are magnified with camera angles, background music, and intentionally scheduled commercial breaks.  To the surprise of the girls and the chagrin of the sisters, Eseni’s boyfriend is brought back by the producers in one episode to stir the drama pot even more.  During a commercial break, my viewing buddy – a Franciscan Sister of over fifty years – said, “Don’t you think this kind of melodramatic?”

Sister Lisa nailed it: “The Sisterhood” – like all reality TV – is about drama.  In contrast, religious life is about inclusion, generosity, service, welcome, and love.  Don’t get me wrong – those values aren’t lived out perfectly. Convent life is not free from tension or disagreement, but it is a far cry from the constant histrionics we see displayed on the show.

“The Sisterhood” overall has a feeling of being scripted and contrived.  The conversations about chastity take place as the girls and one professed sister are sitting around a pool in bathing suits, and another one happens out in a bar when two of the girls have rolled up the skirts of their “discernment habits.”   An exchange between an older professed sister and one of the girls about twerking feels obviously staged.  The handing over of the cell phones to the mother superior each time they arrive at a new convent is a fake stunt to create tension.  The argument that the girls need to “unplug” to be free from distractions and focus on God rings false when they are being followed around by a phalanx of cameras 24/7.

Some have expressed disappointment that the communities portrayed are conservative and habited.  The show offers a portrayal of Catholicism which is not representative of that practiced by most lay and religious US Catholics today.  For example, at the archives of the motherhouse in Chicago, a hair shirt and first class relic from the archives are presented in a sensationalized way.  Focusing on these more obscure elements of Catholic religious practice is pandering to a secular audience with things that seem exotic and unusual.  Then there is the overblown romantic language about marrying Jesus which makes the show seem like the bizarre religious analog of “The Bachelor.”  Those unfamiliar with Catholicism would walk away from the show with a definitely pre-Vatican II understanding of our rich and varied faith tradition – not entirely false, but far from the whole truth of contemporary Catholic religious identity in the US.

Beyond this, my larger concern is the portrayal of the girls’ service.  From serving in a Chicago soup kitchen to cleaning up the yard of a home bound woman in rural Kentucky to praying bedside with a woman in a hospice, the girls participate in service challenges at each convent.    The girls appear to be thrown into the service experiences without training before or processing afterwards.

Apostolic acts of service are at the heart of religious life. They are opportunities to meet God in human beings who are poor and vulnerable, and therein to find our own poverty and vulnerability.  These experiences challenge us, stretch us, grow us, and convert us.  Great care must be taken to protect the dignity of those being served and not objectify them – something that is virtually impossible when accompanied by a camera crew. When the girls were on the Chicago streets handing out bag lunches to people who are homeless, the goal was not to have genuine and respectful interactions of mutuality but rather to “win” the challenge of handing out their bags the fastest.

I found myself wondering:  How must the woman with a disability who had her trailer cleaned by the girls feel when they describe how bad her house smelled?  Did the family members of the woman in hospice with whom the girls prayed the rosary give their consent for their mother, grandmother, aunt, to be filmed in her hospital bed in final days?  Why are the adults with intellectual disabilities described as “kids” by one of the professed sisters?  The treatment of the people served in the show is insensitive at best and ethically seriously questionable at worst.

Furthermore, the girls gave details about their pasts that seem more appropriate for sharing in confidence with a spiritual director than with an entire viewing audience. Though I’m a member of the over-sharing Facebook generation – marked by constant self-disclosure through a variety of media – but on-camera disclosures about experiences of sexual assault or struggles with a serious eating disorder cross the line and make me wonder if the girls felt exploited.  In the producers’ defense, this level of deep sharing on camera is the norm for reality TV, so it fits well within the genre.

More than once over the six episodes professed sisters would sternly say to a camera operator, “Don’t film this!” before having a conversation with one of the girls.  I found myself cheering from my armchair that the sisters had the sensitivity to hold the girls’ deep sharing with protection in at least some cases.  Many times the girls speak about – and are shown on camera – having panic or anxiety attacks. It’s another case of inappropriate painful-to-watch over-sharing. It also makes me question how they would fare in the psychological testing required before entering religious community.

Overall, “The Sisterhood” disappoints – not a surprise since I have fairly low standards of network TV.  However, the value of the program is that it has provided much material for conversations among women religious and discerners.  As religious congregations seek to be relevant to and reach out to my generation, we can thank “The Sisterhood” for giving them something against which they can push back.  Lively conversations on social media as well as in mainstream and religious media have been spurred on. While far from presenting the reality of religious life and the discernment experience, we can be grateful for the conversations sparked about vows, service, community, faith, vocation, and discernment.

In the words of my friend Eilis, a candidate with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary: “Overall, it’s not a  realistic portrayal of the discernment process…I think the best part is following the live tweets by other sisters/communities/A Nun’s Life Ministry. People are sharing their own stories and reactions. So, in that way, the show is ‘succeeding’ because it’s bringing religious together and showing others that we exist. If some discerner googles “The Sisterhood,” she might come across these tweets and/or blogs, realize the show isn’t completely realistic, and also realize that there are still people entering religious life.”

For me as a “motherhouse millennial,” “The Sisterhood” and its commentators leave me intrigued by the unorthodox approaches religious communities are taking to engage with young adults through pop culture and social media – and also very grateful that the convent where I live is camera-free!

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(image: Annmarie Sanders, IHM – http://www.lcwr.org)

 

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.