#59 Living into a New Consciousness


Facing Reality – Claiming Leadership – Restoring Sanity By Margaret J. Wheatley

Adapted Excerpts #3 from the Précis

by Helene O’Sullivan, MM

The Compelling Call of Identity

We humans use identity to organize our actions and beliefs to give meaning to our lives. We, like all living beings, live in networks of relations, we need to stay alert to what is going on in our environment, what might require us to adapt and change.  Amid all the information available in our environment, which identity filters do you use? Are you dedicated to a role, to a cause, an ethic, a nation, an ethnicity or to popularity? What identity gives meaning to your life? 

While celebrity culture offers an escape from reality, there are two potent examples today of how identity can be a compelling dynamic for sacrifice and service. This dynamic appears in the early stages of a new civilization when invaders band together to subvert and conquer a deca-dent culture. Today we see this in the rise of terrorist groups around the world. And it is also true of activists ~ those living inside the decadence of this culture, who are willing to sacrifice and work to restore moral virtues, such as justice, equality and compassion.

Terrorists and social activities are not alike in reference to their intention or methods.  However, what they illustrate in very differ-ent ways, is the power of identity to mobilize people into purposeful actions, fore-going self-promotion and self-protection. As leaders, it is important for us to take note of the incredible power of identity.

There is an unavoidable consequence when people from the margins organize. The burden of change and the restoration of national values get placed on them. If you want equal rights, it is your job to fight for them. If you demand equal pay, convince us. If you want to be included at the table, prove yourself. The very values that defined who we wanted to be as a nation are no longer defended by the nation. Instead, those who are marginalized must speak loud enough to get our attention. And when they finally do get our attention, more often than not we blame them for raising the issue. Anger intensi-fies on both sides, polarization increases, and any ideal of national identity is trampled beyond recognition. Such civil divisions are predictable in a declining civilization. Instead of uniting in common cause to protect the nation from real threats, we take ourselves down by ever more hateful exchanges.

Whatever Happened to Ethics?

We now live in the “post-truth era.” Oxford Dictionary selected ‘Post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year, based on the contentious elections in America and the U.K.  Post-truth is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion that appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Contradictions and false-hoods do not matter anymore; neither does evidence. When we try to hold people accountable for their lies, they just brush us off.  This has become possible because the only thing that is important is your approval rating at this present moment. Of course, it is fine to change positions if it gets you what you want. It does not matter what you said, because the smart politician gives people what they need to hear from their leader now.

Ethics are rules for how to live together~ to bind together individuals in trustworthy relationships so we can stay together through the vicissitudes of life.  Ethics are designed to serve us in community; they have no relevance to individuals who live in isolation or self-absorption, where there is no concern for others. Without ethics, there is no social coherence, no community resilience. Worrying about how others see you is very different from worrying about how others ARE doing.

Without ethical standards, what is the meaning of personal integrity?  Communities with a code of ethics can make decisions, discern actions, and hold one another accountable. In organizations, shared values reduce ambiguity, guide people in setting direction and goals, and hold people together and moving in the same direction. A culture that says “we can be whomever we please” forfeits these capacities. We are left groundless on the shifting sands of changing identities. There is no communal ground to stand on. So nobody stands for anything.

Claiming Leadership

“We are faithful; therefore we are not afraid.” I have worked with women religious  for more than twenty-five years.  Shortly after the publication of Leadership and the New Science in 1992, a colleague gave me great advice. He said that if I was interested in organizations that worked from a strong sense of values, as I had written about, then I should be working with the military and nuns. At the time it seemed an outrageous mix, but it was absolutely true.

In 2009, the Vatican began an investigation of US Women Religious.  All 400 institutes of U.S. Sisters were investigated by Vatican representatives.

A 2nd investigation was begun in 2012 and it was aimed at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Acting on information gleaned from a first investigation, the Vatican exerted its patriarchal power in demanding the LCWR come into compliance with the doctrines of the Catholic Church. The LCWR focuses their leadership on the world’s most pressing needs. The Vatican doctrinal assessment, with the Mandate for Implementation, seriously questioned the Sisters’ explorations of new cosmology, homosexuality, Christ in the world, and their choice of some of the speakers at these assemblies.

I had developed deep relationships with several of the LCWR members. It was pure privilege to be in the background walking with them as they undertook a three-year journey with patriarchal abuse, a journey that ended well because of many influences, including the atmosphere created by Pope Francis of inclusion and dialogue and their own reliance on contemplation and prayer as they sought direction. LCWR’s journey was the steadiest and most enlightened embodiment of leading from integrity that I ever witnessed.   I can only describe their 3-year journey as a walk in ever-deepening faith. The Sisters were well prepared for this. A few years prior, in another difficult situation, one of them had responded to a challenge by voicing what now became their mantra: “We are faithful; therefore we are not afraid.” Each time they encountered opposition, it was their faith that supported them, and so it deepened and, in contemplation, showed them the way forward.

Leading with Integrity

LCWR’s journey into increased faith-based integrity is a long and complex tale, filled with examples of extraordinary, grace-filled leadership.

Here are just a few things I witnessed:

  • Immediately, they created principles for how to move through this. They would seek to be in respectful, open dialogue; they would never violate or compromise their integrity. They would act with respect, stay open to learning, seek to develop relationships of trust, and not succumb to the inherent disrespect and aggression of the demands coming at them.
  • At the beginning, they knew they had to define the nature of this struggle: they were working on behalf of all women and men, not just sisters, who suffer from institutional abuse of power. They believed the “God of the Future” had called them to this work on behalf of oppressed people everywhere, especially women.
  • They relied on their tradition and experience with contemplative practices. No decisions were made in haste. Prayer and contemplation were trusted to discern right action.
  • They had confidence in their professional skills: consensus building; canon law; theology; church history; women’s rights.
  • They educated themselves, and their members, to the complexities of trends and dynamics that had coalesced in the Mandate. They brought in a diverse group of experts~ historians, theologians, civil and canon law~ to help them discern how best to respond. Regional meetings explored all of these possibilities in deep conversation and contemplation, so that when the members gathered for their assembly, they knew what was at stake and could offer their full support to the presidency to engage in negotiations.
  • They never retreated into isolation but used the participative, consensus-building processes many sisters use. The leaders continue to receive expressions of deep gratitude for what they accomplished and the contemplative approach they used.
  • Their highly participative structures enabled them to slow down the process. They could make no decisions on their own; everything had to be brought to regular meetings of the national board and the annual assembly. Time was an ally, even more so after the change of popes.
  • At the end of three years (it was to be a five-year process), the presence of Pope Francis, and the building of increased understanding through communication, served to bring everything to resolution. Agreements were reached that maintained the autonomy of LCWR. The fruits of working in respectful dialogue with all those involved resulted in LCWR’s full participation in determining the final agreement.

LCWR turned its full attention back to serving the cries of the world.  Even during this period, LCWR continued its mission and service, developing its Call for 2015 to 2022. Here is how it begins:

Standing on the rich history of our past and the communion present among us, we, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, commit ourselves to seeking God who beckons to us from a future abundant in grace, full of challenge, and rich in possibility…. Affirming LCWR’s mission and setting direction for the coming years, we embrace our time as holy, our leadership as gift, and our challenges as blessings.

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For Private Circulation Only ~ April 2019

These adapted excerpts #3 are from Sr. Helene O’Sullivan’s Précis of Who Do we Choose to Be? by Margaret J. Wheatley,  2017, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, CA. 

Maryknoll Contemplative Community

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