#41 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 Chapters 8 and 9.

Chapter 8. Revisioning the Vows in a Refounding Model

The vows have long been understood as the canonically sanctioned guidelines for upright and responsible behavior among Religious. In the post–Vatican II era, living the vows in Catholic Religious Life shifted significantly toward a focus on community life rather than individual holiness. How we relate to one another in community—in terms of human relationships (celibacy), sharing material resources (poverty), and the exercise of mutual co-responsibility (obedience)—became the new focus.

In our day, the vowed life is returning to earth. Earth life itself is being revisioned thanks to the breakthroughs in cosmology and quantum physics. Interconnectedness is an indisputable fact of our twenty-first-century culture. From within this enlarged context the vows need to be revisioned afresh as a set of values that in liminal terms compel us to engage more authentically with the evolutionary break-throughs of our time. All the vows now take on global significance, inviting Religious of the twenty-first century into modes of engagement for which most of us are ill-prepared.

Value Radiation

Spiritan priest and psychologist Adrian Van Kaam described the witness of Religious Life as that of “value radiation.” Our primary function is to radiate key values for the surrounding culture. All people yearn for a value-imbued and value-inspired way of living. We are always desiring a deeper connection with the empowering grace of that pervasive mysterious presence.

Religious are called to prophetic thresholds where we engage more deeply with the people’s values, incarnate them in more inspiring and empowering ways, and live them out more overtly and passionately.

Celibacy ~ The Vow of Relatedness

Religious are called to embrace deeply the values of love. In archetypal terms, we are called to be an iconic emblem forever remind-ing our world that all life is programmed for relationality, an evolutionary imperative initially born out of the womb of Holy Mystery itself.

For the twenty-first century particularly, the liminal horizon of vowed relatedness will need to engage with the following critical issues around the integration of key values:

The expansive horizon: Cosmic and plane-tary dimensions must be embraced. Planet and person are each energized by the same energy infused by the creative Spirit of God.

The eco-feminist horizon: For much of Christendom we undermined the sacredness of the human body, resorting to the dualistic splitting of soul versus body, matter versus spirit, emotion versus rationality.

The economic/political horizon: Everything has become a bartering tool in the hands of exploitative and marauding corporations. Human trafficking for sex has become a multinational business.

Religious petrification: All the major world religions prize the soul above the body and project ultimate fulfillment for the soul rather than for the whole person.

The human body: Education on the meaning of our embodied existence and spiritual befriending of embodied growth and development has become one of the most urgent liminal needs of the 21st century.

The psycho-sexual dimension: We must come to terms with the fact that sexuality is the energizing source of all authentic relationality, not merely a biological function for human procreation.

How to witness to psychosexual growth in a generic, empowering way is one of the most daunting issues of the 21st century.

Study Guide: Has your celibate relatedness grown through liminality in the six dimensions explored in this chapter?

Chapter 9. Vows for

Mutual Empowerment

The Vow for Mutual Sustainability (Poverty)

Religious Life has long been associated with the challenge to live simply. As an Order or Congregation grows and expands, Religious universally do not seem to notice the subtle move to more comfortable living and, from prioritizing justice for the poor and marginalized. Today, we are faced with a double imperative:

(1) How to be authentically in solidarity with the poor and oppressed; and

(2) How to challenge and change those forces of oppression that frequently condemn the poor to poverty in the first place and keep them trapped there. We need to bring about systemic changes (political, economic, social) largely unknown in previous times. Poverty is an evil, not to be embraced but to be gotten rid of at every level.

What Religious are called to model

in the prophetic liminal context

is a more ecological and economic sustainability, challenging all people

to a more responsible use of the goods

of God’s creation.

Mutual Sustainability and

Seeing Creation as Gift

Revisioning the vow for mutual sustainability needs to begin with the created world. All around us is gift, not mere commodity. We need to cultivate or seek out communal networks to unmask, confront and challenge the destructive forces that prevail today particularly in the economic and political domains to overcome exploitation, violence and injustice. The quality of networking I have in mind is that employed by agencies like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. 

The Vow for Mutual Collaboration (Obedience)

Obedience, as mutual collaboration, denotes a group committed to reflective discernment on alternative ways to empower new life among all who are downtrodden, marginalized, and disenfranchised. Two key notions underpin this understanding: discernment and empowerment. In liminal terms the group’s primary obedience is to God, and God’s will for our world now—in terms of how a particular charism can serve the contemporary needs of the world.

This requires a primary allegiance to solitude, prayer, study, reflection, dialogue, and social analysis—and those in formal leadership carry a primary responsibility to ensure that the group remains faithful to this primary undertaking.

The end goal is unambiguously clear: the promotion and grounding of the Reign of God-Companionship of Empowerment, not merely in the church but throughout the whole of God’s creation. One definition/description of the prophetic dimension worth keeping in mind here is that of speaking truth to power.

Authority and Obedience

The words authority and obedience have often been used interchangeably, with little attention to their specific meanings.

The word obedience is derived from the Latin ob-audiere, which means “to listen attentively.” Adrian Van Kaam writes:

“Obedience in the widest sense is the total openness of the whole person to the

meaning of all events in their life situation.”

He elaborates:

“Obedience is, therefore, the willingness

to listen to reality as the place of revelation

of possibilities that one might bring to life. Disobedience disconnects me from that flow.”

Vows for the Future

In seeking first the new Reign of God ~ Companionship of Empowerment, Religious for the twenty-first century will need a multidisciplinary understanding of how all our values are intertwined in one complex matrix. We cannot hope to witness to empowering and enduring freedom, internally or externally, without appropriating this multidisciplinary way of engaging with life.

I conclude these reflections with some suggestions for embracing a nonviolent approach:

First, in the case of the vow for relatedness, how do we outgrow the functional and competitive drive that sustains and exploits so much of our human relating, not merely within the human realm, but with the entire web of life?

Second, how do we honor the call to mutual sustainability through more conscious choices to safeguard and advance the essential giftedness of all God’s creation? How do we use our “blessings” to ensure that those deprived of the good gifts of creation can also begin to experience the meaning of justice, equality, and gospel empowerment?

Third, and perhaps most daunting of all, in a world enmeshed in patriarchal domination, how can we begin to speak truth to power, religiously, politically, and economically?

What is preventing our members—and our various levels of leadership—from putting into place the resources for discernment needed for the mutual engagement in the new Reign of God ~ the Companionship of Empowerment?

When are we going to take seriously the liminal challenge to model afresh for our troubled world nonviolent structures to evoke and sustain justice for all organic life? Without that fresh awakening we cannot hope to be creatively involved in the refounding challenges that face us as we move deeper into the twenty-first century.

Study Guide: What inner resonance is there for you with the vow for mutual sustainability as the deeper meaning of the traditional vow of poverty? If you consider the vow of obedience as a vow for mutual collaboration, how might this phrase describe your way of living right now? This Chapter 9 contains many questions. Which are of particular significance for you at this time?