One Saturday last October, I sat perched on a corner of a makeshift sales counter talking to customers about my convent’s cashmere goat micro-farm. A couple of us help the Cashmere Goat Association at the New York Sheep and Wool Festival. It felt a bit offbeat from our sisters’ usual quiet prayer routine. All sorts of people would come up to me and want to talk, usually not about goats and wool, but about why a nun in habit would be present at such an event.
Some recognized our particular habit and asked specific questions connecting our world to theirs. Others remembered sisters from their youth in various nostalgic circumstances. This led me to reflect: is the church even aware of what it has lost with the diminishment and increasing invisibility of its religious on the street? And, on the other hand, why have so many religious communities determined that the distinctive separation of religious men and women from the laity is a problem to be erased?
The order to which I belong, the Community of Saint Mary, was founded as part of the Catholic revival in the old Protestant Episcopal Church of post-Civil War America when New York City had the greatest need for social work among the poor and most vulnerable, desperate for basic human resources. After one hundred and fifty years, the American government has filled and regulated the process of providing those needs, and many religious orders founded for that purpose are dwindling.
One of the signs of a healthy religious order is its survival — and perhaps even thriving — beyond the lifetime of its founder and its initial charism. The fourth-century desert fathers and mothers fled the city for the Egyptian desert in order to re-create pure Christian community. St. Benedict did the same in the sixth century, but in his eremitical retreat from the corruption of decadent, declining Roman civilization, he was led by grace to see the more challenging way of perfection in community life under vows of stability, conversion of manners, and obedience. The Carthusians added a charism of silence and solitude to their vowed life. All these developments were enacted and symbolized through monastic enclosure, the liturgy of the hours, and the distinctive habit of each order to express the charism bestowed by Holy Spirit and point to the humble, holy, yet glorious human “dance” with our triune God.
Sandra Schneiders, IHM, claims that “religious have always understood their life as a kind of intensification of the general Christian commitment.” Vatican II challenged religious of every order to see their vowed commitment, not so much as the “elite” of the Church leading and witnessing to the Church’s vision as the New Jerusalem beyond the world, but as servants of God bringing the world into God’s kingdom. The question remains: how is God calling religious to do that?
In the last several decades, the Episcopal Church has followed the Roman Catholic Church in a similar evolution of understanding its identity as church. Since adopting the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Episcopal Church’s emphasis on the Baptismal Covenant implies that all baptized Christians are called to witness to the world and declare our solidarity with the world redeemed by our Lord Jesus Christ. Since this is the vocation of all baptized Christians, what makes a “religious” or “monastic” vocation any different from every other member of the Church?
Or, put more bluntly, what good are vowed religious in the Church?
What meaning remains today in the customs of a thousand years of faithful vowed commitment of hermits, cenobites, and tertiaries?
Why would anyone want to live as a celibate in a community under a vow of obedience? When we think in these terms, when we no longer see religious charisms in the light of the gospel distilled in the Beatitudes, we must wonder to what extent secular consumeristic capitalism has influenced our theology.
Even in the world people ask what fascinates a particular person. What motivates any of us to do anything? Is it not love adorned with faith and hope? For the artist, what Christians call the theological virtues (I Cor 13:13) manifest the aesthetic qualities of life around them. For the intellectual, the theological virtues deepen our reach for the sublime. For the religious, it is falling in love with God and God’s creation, the fascination with the Creator who is beyond finite persons or things.
Back to thinking about the habit, in our community we made a conscious decision that the habit was an important witness both to ourselves, to the Church, and to the world, a tool to silently initiate a conversation with a stranger that might re-introduce the beneficial thought of some Christians being totally bonded to Christ and the kingdom of God. The habit is a striking symbol of that total bond, a yearning of the heart for God alone. Most of us religious, by nature, are introverts and contemplatives. Words do not come naturally, but once the dialogue is initiated, we are free to share our joy. Symbols and liturgy can sometimes speak more clearly and lovingly than St. James’s sly rudder, the tongue (James 3:4-5).
Our order’s habit comes from the last vestiges of Victorian widows’ garb, and its symbolism of “being dead to sin, and alive in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11) remains an inspiration to us to live in simplicity, depending upon God to fulfill our true needs, grounded upon God’s love alone, and focused upon God’s will alone as it is expressed in Scripture, our bishop, our community superior, and only lastly in our own inspiration from the Holy Spirit.
When I am sitting at a festival and people come to speak with me, or when one of my sisters is shopping and strangers strike up conversations, I am praying that our presence will alleviate some of their expressed pain of loss, or encourage our fellow Christians to persevere in their personal journey to Christ. Perhaps it will even strengthen their own witness and prayer, urging our Lord to shorten the time of his return, and bringing others to the Kingdom of God. Without my habit, I could be just another international spy, hiding in plain sight in a festival booth, while I wait for the secret hand sign to begin Armageddon. But, praise God, that is not what I am called to be!
In the next installment, I will consider the lives of religious as an example of prophetic witness.
Mother Miriam, CSM is the ninth Mother Superior of the Eastern Province of the Community of Saint Mary.