A reflection on religious vocation: The wine is ready, but the wineskin is not

In visions of the dark night
I have dreamed of joy departed −
But a waking dream of life and light
Hath left me broken-hearted.
Ah! what is not a dream by day
To him whose eyes are cast
On things around him with a ray
Turned back upon the past?
That holy dream − that holy dream,
While all the world were chiding,
Hath cheered me as a lovely beam
A lonely spirit guiding.
What though that light, thro’ storm and night,
So trembled from afar −
What could there be more purely bright
In Truth’s day-star?        

-  “A Dream” by Edgar Allan Poe

These days, we often hear that there is a crisis in the vocation of women religious in the United States. We have few new members, and the average age of present members is above 70. Some scholars explain that the great number of entrants during the baby boomer era was quite unusual, and that the current numbers are more in the norm, reflecting the history of religious life itself. Others explain the religious vocation crisis in relation to the feminist movement, which gave women many more opportunities to practice service and leadership roles. In this argument, the religious women of the 19th and 20th centuries enjoyed more professional careers and leadership positions, as compared to other women. Women religious are indeed considered forerunners of feminism. While these explanations are all plausible, I still wonder if the crisis of religious life is in fact equivalent to the decrease in new members and, further, if so, whether vocations have really decreased.

Since the Second Vatican Council, women religious in the U.S. have endeavored to change their communities from a structure that is hierarchical, authoritative and coercive to one that is egalitarian, mutual and dialogical. I believe the fundamental steering engine of this evolution was the spirit of Vatican II. Because there are no clergy in the women’s communities, this transformation of structure was easier than for men’s religious communities.

Now, 50 years have passed. Through this decentralized power and authority, women religious have chosen invisibility. By giving up certain visibility, including that offered by habits, which had often provided privilege and security, women religious have walked into the world, sharing the same presence with the general population. Many sisters have been with the poor and for the poor, working selflessly for justice and peace. I believe that they are among the most faithful, spiritual and wisdom-filled women in the church. Women religious in the U.S. are highly sensitive to the issues of social justice in the context of global concerns, such as trafficking and immigration reform. My own vocation emerged from an attraction to nuns who fought for justice in a prayerful and joyful way.

However, the pioneering generation is aging, and women religious feel the oncoming dark night. Without many new members, many women religious are disappointed and even embarrassed. What is wrong with the vocation of women religious? What is the future of our religious life?

Many say that the religious vocation is dying because there are so few new members. If we go just by numbers, then perhaps those critics are right. However, I disagree. I believe that vocation should not be judged merely by quantity. The Bible clearly reflects God’s dislike of statistics and census. King David experienced God’s anger when he counted soldiers. Why was the census such a sin against God? It reflected Israel’s desire to control, quantify and measure the work of God. The vast work of God cannot be quantified, increased nor decreased.

As such, vocation itself cannot be diminished. Religious vocation is a gift from God, and God always calls, faithfully and constantly. The crisis of religious life is not a decrease in vocation. Rather, the crisis of religious life is that we do not know how to receive God’s gift. In other words, we do not have the wineskin to hold God’s precious wine; we have no vessels to receive.

In order to prepare for this endeavor, we must understand our current world because the world is where God calls people. Today, we live in a globalized setting, in which national borders are porous and many people are on the move. The experience of dislocation in the resulting multi-cultural society is one of our global human symptoms. As a consequence, many people manage two or more cultures; however, they often feel that they really belong to neither/no specific culture. The situation of being in-between leads them to feel lost and invisible. For those people, it is not easy to find religious communities that understand their hybrid cultural identities.

I would offer that one of the main characteristics of religious communities in the U.S. is the “American style.” Of course, in this case, the American style means Western, educated, middle-class, white culture. Religious women must refrain from distilling the religious life and Gospel value only from the American culture. Rather, in an open spirit, women religious in the U.S. should look at their communities in terms of a multi-cultural reality and cross-cultural living.

Amid this reality is where we must find those who have a call for vocation, our hidden treasures. But this search requires us to dream a holy dream, in the midst of the dark night, in which we find a trembling light among the people of the world. Because the gift of religious vocation is hidden in the hearts of people, like a star in the sky, we must dream a holy dream. Only in such dreams can we construct new wineskin to hold the call to vocation among the people.

If women religious can, by this light, create an inner space to hold cultural differences and foster others, transformation can and will occur.

[Sophia Park, SNJM, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Holy Names University. She authored a book, A Hermeneutic on Dislocation as Experience: Creating a Hybrid Identity, Constructing a Borderland (Peter Lang: New York, 2012) and has written numerous articles and chapters in books, focusing on biblical spirituality, cross-cultural spiritual direction and religious life from a global feminist perspective. Her main interest is how to empower the marginalized in this global society.]

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