franciscan - September 2001
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2001
Religious Life for a new Millennium
By Gemma Simmonds IBVM
Prophesying the future has rarely been so popular a pastime than since the dawning of the second millennium. In all walks of life and areas of society, people are taking stock of established patterns of living and asking how they might develop in a different and uncertain future.
Prophecy is supposedly the stock in trade of Religious, so we should be the first to be enjoying its exercise. But for many it proves too daunting or threatening a task. Our future, at least in the developed world, appears more precarious than it has ever been. Religious life no longer has the self-confidence and strength of the years when religious institutions abounded and its members were honoured and valued, even if generally misunderstood. Even within our own faith communities, many of us have become an obscure and ageing group, dwindling on the edges of a church which is itself in crisis. It is a situation which raises major questions of meaning and significance both outside Religious life and, even more unnervingly, from within.
We may no longer feel secure that we have a future at all. As we become threatened, so we become more defensive and dogmatic, closing ranks against newcomers and those within the community who question or challenge. This is all a familiar pattern. Groups which feel threatened often resort to scapegoating. We blame contemporary society for the lack of vocations: it is so materialistic, so lacking in values, so afraid of commitment; the list of crimes grows long. We try the occasional make-over to give ourselves a new look: a new apostolate, a community in a more ideologically-sound area, a new form of praying. These can in themselves be good for us, opening up new possibilities and freshening the air within our communities. But if they are driven by an underlying anxiety or an undermining lack of belief in who and what we are, they will only serve to shake more radically our capacity to believe in the value of this way of living.
I have been to one talk or conference after another, read one book after another in the past fifteen years, each assuring me that if I could only become more prophetic, more liminal, more radical, I would truly be living Religious life as it was meant to be. I even give such talks myself occasionally! But I am reminded of the definition of a martyr which I once heard. A martyr is someone who lives with a saint… A martyr may also in that sense be someone who lives with a professional prophet. It seems to me that one of the important characteristics of a prophetic life is that it isn't self-conscious. Many of us will be familiar with that sinking feeling that comes at meetings when the self-appointed prophet yet again mounts his/her hobby-horse, and clobbers the community over the head for not being radical enough, signing the right petitions, living on the right housing estate, drinking the right coffee, and so on. This sort of prophecy can be well-meant but deeply demoralizing.
I think that the prophetic quality of our life is much more about a way of being present to ourselves, to one another and to God which is redolent of faith and hope and love. This is not a new insight, but it is one in which it can become hard to believe after years of living the apparent banality of the call to everyday holiness. Spirituality can so easily become a thing, a product which we are supposed to market successfully to a world alienated by religion but hungry for meaning and spiritual experience. But I am reminded of the words in one of the prefaces of the Mass: ‘You have no need of our praise, yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift. Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness, but makes us grow in your grace…’
A life lived in the radical awareness that absolutely everything is gift, even the desire for God, will reveal its prophetic element as its implications are lived out daily. Saint Augustine wrote that the heart of Christian life is ‘to be exercised by desire’, and who should know this better than the patron saint of desire who had the honesty to pray ‘Lord, give me chastity, but not yet’? We live in a society awash with advertising whose purpose is to titillate desires we didn't know we had and offer their fulfilment in a breathtaking variety of largely vacuous products. The stimulation of false hungers and the satisfying of them with what can only provoke more hunger is the addictive dynamic on which much of the commercial world is built. No wonder the world looks on uncomprehendingly as Religious seek to be exercised by the desire for the one thing necessary. And we ourselves live in the midst of a world driven by consumerism, so we are inevitably tainted by it, and in subtle ways it infiltrates the consecrated life. We value ourselves by how hard and how long we work, and how many apostolic works we can amass. If people can't see the point of our way of life, at least let them see the point of our works! We can easily develop a capitalist sense that more is always better, and that we must be able to see results, increased productivity, ever-greater efficiency.
Even our attitude to spirituality and the sacraments can become the mentality of the consumer product, so that
we feel sure that if only we went on that retreat, read that book, did that course, it would all come clear. When
outside observers question or challenge our existence, the temptation to workaholism is strong, and the boundaries
necessary for contemplative stillness and solitude, for the focus within our apostolic work, get eroded. But we
are all called to be contemplatives, to be mystics as well as prophets.
A life exercised by desire is inevitably a life of hunger and of frustration, since it is of its very nature that the desire for God can never be assuaged. But if we pray for anything, I think we should pray to be people of passionate, unrelenting desire. But this is hard to talk about. Ironically it is often most hard to talk about it within our own communities, where we live too closely with one another to risk that level of self-revelation. The haunting fear that we have no true desire for God, and that this will be discovered by others more committed, more focused than ourselves can lead us into an habitual discourse that is devoid of significance and inspiration. But discernment, which is supposedly the major tool of a life of prophetic witness to the Spirit, can only work if it is based on the sharing of our personal contemplative experience, and its expression in daily reality, in order to find the way, individually and corporately, to God's greater glory. We struggle daily, in the spiritual life, to distinguish between the good and the better. How can we do this if we do not experience within ourselves that painful hunger for the fugitive God?
Our world seems to teeter on the brink of a chasm of futility, of lack of meaning and purpose. Perhaps that is the truly prophetic quality of the consecrated life for the third millennium: that we allow ourselves, in our own minds and bodies and hearts, as individuals and as groups, to hold ourselves in the experience of that very contemporary fear of this emptiness. If, as individuals and communities, we are haunted by a fear of our own futility, perhaps this is where we will most radically experience our poverty, our chastity and our obedience to the Spirit who, as always, speaks with the voice of our time. f
Gemma Simmonds entered the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1974. She has worked in education, in university and prison chaplaincy and in Religious formation. She is currently chaplain of Heythrop College, University of London and novice director of the IBVM English province.
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