#38 Living into a New Consciousness

Religious Life in the 21st Century:

The Prospect for Refounding


Helene O’Sullivan, MM, has done a précis

of Diarmuid O’Murchu’s insightful book, and we continue

to share just a few excerpts from Chapter 2.


Chapter 2. The Parable and the Paradigm

Two words create the title and focus for this chapter: parable and paradigm. Scripture scholar C. H. Dodd suggested that each parable unfolds through a triune process of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. In the story of the sheepdog in #37, one can readily see all three dimensions at work, the reorientation being the most daunting of all.



The story defies rational explanation. How did the dog “know” what to do? As I raise this question, I can feel in my inner being that I am actually doing something inappropriate. What I need to do is to sit with John (the sheep farmer) in a kind of contemplative stillness while he narrates his experience. The more I can listen deeply to his story, the more I am likely to discern what the creative Spirit was up to in that inspiring, parabolic experience.


The truth of parable—and my primary influence is that of gospel parable—shifts the focus from the rational to the trans-rational, from reason to intuition and imagination, from the useful convention to creative possibility. My historical overview is intertwined with the disturbing wisdom of parable as I seek to uncover and unravel subverted wisdom that I suggest will be immensely useful for the rediscovery (refounding) of Religious Life. I believe that this refounding is likely to transpire in the latter half of the 21st  century. This futuristic claim is itself based on my parabolic understanding of history.


Shifting the Paradigm

The second concept I frequently adopt throughout the text is that of paradigm shifts from the germinal work of Thomas Kuhn:

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From Isolated parts operating autonomously Toward The whole is greater than the sum of the parts;  From Emphasis on separation/ differences Toward Emphasis on integration/ commonalities; From Objectivity and the rational Toward Subjectivity, imagination and intuition; From Focus on external expertise Toward Focus on inner wisdom and resilience;

From  Clarity  on  power and  control              Toward Emphasis on trust and empowerment; From Desire to standardize        Toward Appreciation of diversity; From Judge by the quality of the product Toward Discern deeper meaning in process; From Top down Toward Bottom up.



I am outlining an evolutionary movement from one set of namings, largely endorsed by the dominant culture, toward an emerging set of values often viewed suspiciously as posing a threat to what many consider to be the one and only enduring truth.



Paradigms represent a strong background force for the way human cultures work; they can be thought of as the unwritten rules of society. Theologian Hans Küng applies Kuhn’s theory of paradigm change to the entire history of Christian thought and theology. He identifies six historical “macro models”:

1.   The Apocalyptic paradigm of primitive Christianity,

2.   The Hellenistic paradigm of the patristic period,

3.   The Medieval Roman Catholic paradigm,

4.   The Protestant (Reformation) paradigm,

5.   The Modern Enlightenment paradigm, and

6.   The emerging Ecumenical paradigm of more recent times.



Contrary to the widespread assumption that religious truths remain fixed and unchanged, Küng highlights cultural influences that consistently affect Christian faith, requiring a religious and intellectual flexibility if theology is to develop in a wholesome, organic, and evolutionary way.



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The Notion of Refounding

In the closing decades of the 20th century, Religious Life entered a period of decline characterized by a drop in the number of entrants (vocations), an increasing age profile, and a diminished presence in several traditional apostolates. While numbers rose significantly in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, the overall pattern was, and continues to be, a downward one.


One attempt at a fresh narrative arose in the closing decades of the 20th  century, pioneered by priest-anthropologist Gerald A. Arbuckle. It aroused an enthusiastic response, particularly from leaders of Religious Orders and Con-gregations in the West. For a range of reasons, the euphoria dissipated rather quick-ly, and the refounding appears not to have taken off.  Arbuckle himself elaborates on the complexities involved in the refounding process:

Ø the need for a coherent founding vision in the first place and how best to retrieve it in our contemporary situation;

Ø Our human reluctance to engage with chaos, disintegration, and grieving;

Ø our inability (or unwillingness) to discern what is authentically new (reading the signs of the times);

Ø the lack of courageous risk-taking to accommodate the new in a novel way.


For Arbuckle, the choice is urgent: re-found or die out! Whereas Arbuckle is dealing primarily with individual Orders and Congregations, my purview is Religious Life as a global spiritual movement with a distinctive historical narrative. The reader needs to keep in mind the focus of research is different for each of us. While Arbuckle seeks to challenge individual Congregations toward the possibility of refounding, I am striving to discern how the Holy Spirit is reweaving the story of the vowed life amid the global decline and disintegration of the late 20th century and early 21st century, along with the historical likelihood of a large-scale revitalization in the second half of the 21st century.


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Discerning the Archetype

I view the Religious Life as a powerful, enduring, cultural phenomenon, consistently morphing into novel expression in response to the ever-new needs of our changing and evolving world. There may be cultural adjustments, but the underlying values, the ecclesial sense of mission, and the standard behaviors (for example, the three vows) remain essentially the same. This is how the church down through the ages has also viewed the vowed life.


In fact, the more the institutional church sought to control Religious Life, the more it seemed to morph into diverse growth and movement in response to the novel needs of various times and places. However, despite this complexity and diversity, there is, and continues to be, an enduring underlying vision, which, I suggest, is subtle, mystical, alluring, and transformative for person and culture alike. In recent times it has been named the monastic archetype. It needs to be highlighted as the launching pad for every attempt at recapturing the meaning of Religious Life, including the refounding vision being reviewed in the present work.


I offer a brief overview of the meaning of archetypes, a term derived from two Greek words: arche, “first,” and tupos, “type or form.” Archetypes have been adopted by both anthropology and psychology to name and explain those sublime energetic forces that transcend our rational and commonsense modes of understanding. All archetypal truth is spiritual in nature, often transcending the doctrines and structures of the formal religions. In Christian language we consider the Holy Spirit of God to be the energizing source and sustaining power of all creativity, embodied foundationally in archetypal values.


For Raimundo Panikkar, the monastic arche-type represents the polarity between being something difficult and strange while also being a vocation for every human being.


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Being a monastic, therefore, is not an isolated human experience but rather an intensification of the human wholeness to which every person aspires.   By monastic, I understand that person who aspires to reach the ultimate goal of life with all his/her being by renouncing all that is not necessary to it, i.e., by concentrating on this one single and unique goal.  Precisely this single-mindedness or rather the exclusivity of the goal that shuns all subordinate though legitimate goals, distinguishes the monastic way from other spiritual endeavors. The thesis I am defending is that the monastic is the expression of an archetype which is a constitutive dimension of human life. This archetype is a unique quality of each and every person, which at once needs and shuns institutionalization.


Monastic Researcher Douglas Christie broadens our understanding of the monastic archetype, grounding it afresh in the web of universal life, a reconstituted relation with all creation.  Now, we must face what might well be the single biggest challenge of the archetype under consideration: it does not belong exclusively to vowed members!


We are dealing with an enduring foundational value system that touches the deep truth of every human being, and as already indicated, one that cannot be integrated apart from a meaningful relationship with the surrounding web of life. This new integrated spiritual horizon was revisioned afresh in the closing decades of the 20th century and continues to flourish in the 21st century under the rubric of the new monasticism. It constitutes a diverse group of people—single, married, and lay—all yearning for the deeper integration referred to above, all, in one way or another, lured by the power of the archetype I am describing. Endorsing this evolving archetypal under-standing, scholar of the new monasticism Sr. Bernadette Flanagan often cites the phrase of the Camaldose monk Emanuela Bargelini, “Monasticism is not a container, it is an energy.”


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The refounding of Religious Life, being explored in this book, is not, therefore, a renewal process or task of revitalization exclusive to Religious. In a world of growing interconnectedness we cannot deal with any one phenomenon in isolation.


Religious Life is not some divinely bestowed gift for the select few (the “consecrated” life); that understanding belongs to the old paradigm.  In the new understanding—reawakening the archetype—the vowed life must be revisioned so that we see it unfolding, interdependently interwoven with all the other spiritual callings of our age. And that new spiritual horizon includes the whole creation in its planetary and cosmic dimensions.


In addition, the enveloping spirituality will be integral rather than dualistic. It will focus on the celebration of commonalities rather than the juxtaposition of differences. It will seek to transcend the long-established distinction between the monastic and the apostolic and to undo the dualistic split between contemplation and action. The monastic archetype seeks to outgrow all that divides, challenging us to recreate anew the oneness—the at-one-ness—that heals what for too long has divided humans among themselves and alienated us from the living earth.


Study Questions

1.  How have you experienced Religious Life as being in the triune process of orientation-disorientation-reorientation?

2. Are you seeing Religious Life today as shifting from rational, logical, and linear to imaginative, intuitive and systematically complex?

3. What new horizons does this chapter open up for the meaning of Religious Life today?