Pentecost has always captivated my imagination. Images prevail of disciples waiting in fear, trepidation and hope, when suddenly tongues of fire appeared over their heads — the dramatic coming of the Spirit. This is the mystery of God dwelling among us for all time, revealed. From Pentecost, we receive the gift of the Spirit and a heart vision that enables us to see more deeply.
This year as we approach the feast of Pentecost, I am drawn to ponder a connection between the present reality of religious life and the early disciples locked away in the "upper room." They were confused and shaken by the loss of Jesus. What was it like for them when all they had known was taken from them? What happened when their "way" was no longer clear? Did they freak out? Were they incredibly unsure about where to go next? Were they too sad to consider the ramifications of this great loss? Did some move right into planning, trying to figure out what they needed to do and who needed to do it? Did some sit together quietly praying, sharing, listening and waiting? Was it an empty waiting or one pregnant with peace and the belief that something new was about to emerge?
This was a space of "no longer but not yet." They had no idea what was coming; all they knew was that they surely couldn't go back to the way things were. Nothing would ever be the same again. This was most certainly an unsettling time, frightening perhaps, maybe even terrifying. They had no way of knowing if or how Jesus would continue to guide them, lead them and be present to them. Maybe they felt alone, bereft, without direction.
Perhaps because I am doing vocation and formation ministry or maybe because people are just curious, lately I find myself being asked more frequently, "So what do you think about the future of religious life?" I have to admit — the question unsettles me. I can't really answer it. I am not at all an authority. I haven't read all that there is to be read. I haven't done much significant research. And truthfully, I have only been living this life for 12 years — what do I know?
However, who among us knows the future of anything? The truest answer to this question is that I am not sure what religious life will look like in the future. When I look around now, I realize that we, like those first disciples, are at a critical time in our history. Things are changing; loss and grief are surely present. There is a letting go, getting smaller, heart-wrenching divesting of institutions and properties that were once central to our missions and part of the very fabric of our congregations. At times, this can be confusing, unsettling, and just plain sad.
Possibly we, too, as women religious are gathered in an "upper room" of sorts — that space of no longer and not yet. Conceivably we, like the disciples, are a little fearful about what is to come, mourning what has been and is no longer — unsure about exactly how to proceed. However, we have an advantage. We know something from that early story of our faith that those first disciples couldn't have known — the Spirit was coming. Their adventure, though changing for sure, was just beginning. In that upper room on Pentecost, the Spirit, descending suddenly, rested upon each of them, and God's presence was known in a new way, so that Jesus' work might continue. The disciples' call was to perceive and act in accordance with the Spirit. In my deepest being, I believe that is true for us as women religious too.
We must sharpen our heart vision, believe that God is really present, everywhere, at every moment, waiting to be discovered. We are called to see deeply the signs of the times and respond boldly to the needs of today with the same whole-heartedness as our founders. Through God's grace and our faithful commitment to our life of prayer, ministry and community, the future of religious life is being formed and shaped by the choices that I — that we — make in our everyday ordinary life. Will we love that future?
Ours, then, is to be faithful to the present, to a life of prayer lived intentionally, deeply, meaningfully. We are called to live our lives authentically now so that we will be able to recognize the call of Christ present in our midst and be free enough to respond readily from the inner most fullness of our life in the Spirit. In order to do this, we must consecrate time in prayer — carve out, hollow out, empty out, the stuff of ourselves so that we can be filled to the point of overflowing with God — ready always to meet another from that space. We are called to keep nothing for ourselves, remembering that in our pledge to follow Jesus poor, chaste and obedient, we, too, are called to lay down our lives in a sacrifice of love, shaped by our vows, which frees us so that our vision becomes clearer and action more possible.
This is no easy task in the midst of today's reality. However, we are born from great strength and courage — from founders whose hearts burned with the fire of the Spirit, not afraid to take risks, sell all and cast their lot for a deep love of God and neighbor. What inspiration to revisit as we consider anew the call for us!
For me, then, the "future" question doesn't press as heavily on my heart as does the question, "Who are we called to be as women religious in the 21st century?" I am much more focused on the present and wanting to live this beautiful life that I have professed as faithfully as possible — trusting that God will lead us into the future. Our only response is attentiveness to the Spirit at work!
We must continue to consciously enter that upper room, that space of sacred patient waiting, and pray for the coming of the Spirit in our time. There, we can listen ever more deeply to our God, drinking of the well of wisdom found only in contemplation. Continued reflection on our life experiences will sharpen our capacity to see God in our midst, begging us to notice and respond in ever more creative ways. It is essential that we hear one another; for each member, when listening deeply from within, has much wisdom to offer. Then, from that place of contemplation, we are called to respond daringly — to act courageously, in ways that correspond to the ever-emerging needs of our day. Now is the time to live into our future! See I am doing something new, do you not perceive it?
[Michelle Lesher is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia currently serving in vocation and formation ministry. Formerly, she was a college campus minister and a high school theology teacher. She is passionate about young adult faith formation.]