“It kind of makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?” The sweet voice of a radio producer said to me over the phone as our pre-interview conversation came to a close. A woman about my age, she was referring to part of my vocation story. It made perfect sense to her that my sense of call would increase as I neared the end of my undergraduate studies. “After all,” she said, “what could be more appealing to a college senior than a structured way of life, the promise of stability in the midst of a major life transition?”
Her words hung in the air. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. In my many considerations of my call to religious life, the prospect of stability and structure hadn’t occurred to me. As I sat with her observation, however, I had to pause to consider if, even subconsciously, this had been part of my consideration of religious life.
From the outside, it can seem like religious life offers a life free from the seismic shifts of everyday living in the world today. With its staid structures and style of forming new members, how could it not offer a sense of stability and continuity to those who come to it? Surely, the convent must be a safe haven from the ills of the world, a place one can enter to escape, an escape from hard life decisions and transitions – that’s what my reporter friend seemed to be saying.
In reality, though, religious life and the formation of young women religious is a mirror of our times. The indecision in our world and ongoing need for dialogue is not left at the doors of religious congregations. Conversations in congregations revolve around how to be prophetic in our world today and how to bring about change in a world torn by inequality, prejudice and violence. At the same time, though, these congregational conversations also focus on the realities of life – membership numbers, retirement funds, shifting demographics.
As a newer member, I find being a part of these conversations can be both invigorating and cumbersome. The call for new vision clearly echoes with courage and zeal; yet the response to that call can feel reserved, with a sense of hesitation and fear.
What is new is often scary. Setting out into the unknown requires paths never before traversed and means never before considered. Our instinct can be to return to what’s familiar, but in a time when everything is shifting, it is new ways based in keen discernment of the Spirit and the essence of truth in tradition that will lead us into the future.
There is no guarantee of stability in that. As a newer member, that can be a hard truth to grapple with. We are in an age of instability. Perhaps as a newer member I feel that instability more than others or, at least, I feel the need to actively name it as such.
My entire religious formation as a sister has been about learning to live in the unevenness of this life. As circumstances shift, so must I. These lessons have come in both theory and practice.
Over the last two and a half years, I have lived in five different places. That’s five different local communities, five rounds of packing up and moving, five chances to find myself without a place to truly call home. I have faced changes in community and shifts in formation program and personnel. I have had to learn to be flexible and also learned my own resilience in the face of adversity. My faith has been strengthened, and I’ve had to own my call. And, I don’t believe I am alone.
Newer members of religious congregations didn’t come to religious life with the expectation that everything would be alright. Our hope is in Jesus, and our intimate relationship with that hope draws us to a life rooted in Gospel living as women religious. That is why we came and that is why we stay. Living the life we feel called to requires holding firm to this hope.
Instability draws us into relationship with our God and with others. For as much as the world shifts, God still remains. In fact, it is in the instability of our age that relationship is able to flourish, not only with the Divine but among members, no matter our ages or years in religious life. There is a unity found in instability, support uncovered by the very act of mutual upheaval. To have someone else with you on the journey is a stabilizing force. For it is in the throes of change that solid bonds are forged.
Navigating the paradigm shifts of our time is no easy business for anyone living religious life today. For more seasoned members, this shift means adapting to a new way of thinking and adopting a new way of living. Some do and some don’t.
For newer members, navigating the paradigm shift means trusting a structure that is actively changing. This is no small task; it is an act of faith.
Perhaps there is no better explanation for why someone would come to religious life (and stay) than just that: faith. Call necessitates faith, and faith hedges on hope. In the face of instability, faith is the path ever ancient, ever new. It asks us to believe and calls us to persevere.
For as much as society imagines being a sister as a process dictated by stringent structures, rules and systems, religious life today is in flux. Variation in the number of new members entering congregations has necessitated new programs of formation. This shift is not something new; it has taken place over the last 30 or more years. In many ways my experience echoes that of women nearly double my age; women who were in the initial stages of formation as sisters when I was in diapers.
Instability continues as change takes place. In the midst of it all, there needs to be consideration given to what will sustain and form our future as women religious. As we strive to reform the world around us, we are also reforming ourselves. This is a process of change in which the voices, needs and desires of newer members must be taken into consideration.
As I have been told over and over in my formation, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” For all the goodwill behind that statement, I tend not to believe it. As we navigate an age of instability not only in religious life but in the entire world, it might be helpful to remember that the paths we follow in faith help us to live in hope of our destination. We travel these paths together with our God and in so doing, realize that it is not crooked lines that God makes straight, but our idea of what is straight that God sets right. So that by the time we reach the end in faith and hope we might simply hear, “It kind of makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?”
[Colleen Gibson, SSJ, is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.]