A. The recent activity on the part of the Vatican with regard to American women religious is just another dismal chapter in a rather long, sad story, now extending almost 50 years. After 4 years of “study” and investigation, the Vatican issued a document accusing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious of numerous “grave” breaches of doctrine and practice–sounds serious! This group represents about 80% of American Catholic sisters. What happens next, no one knows, but it sure doesn’t bode well for the sisters. What the Vatican’s male authoritarian spirit has done to these sisters over the years is truly wrong, but what these sisters have done to themselves is also unfortunate.
A few facts and some history: With Vatican II there was this call for a renewal of religious life, and our American sisters took to this with a great deal of zeal and energy. This is a complex history with many sides to it, I am sure, and so I will not go into it here in this brief note. Suffice it to say that for all the good things that they did or tried to do, some of their choices were not the wisest, and perhaps their vision got clouded because of the battle with male authoritarian structures. At times this battle seemed to become an end in itself. I still recall the IHMs in Los Angeles and their battle with Cardinal McIntyre(a true dinosaur of a cardinal by the way!)over the wearing of the habit, among other things. This became symbolic of a whole relationship with church authority, and in the course of things they left formal Catholic religious life as a group. Now of course so many other sisters stayed and fought and compromised and adjusted, but truly there was a great change in American religious life for women by the mid 1970s. And the changes were very uneven and often neglecting the real contemplative heart of all religious life. In fact the activism of the ’70s and ’80s was marked by a strong suspicion of “inner spirituality.” I remember very well in my first year at the most progressive seminary in the US and fresh out of the monastery’s environment, being confronted by a modern progressive nun about the validity of “my way of life.” I was taken aback that anyone, much less a nun, would question the validity of contemplative life–it was like she had questioned my breathing!!
But I also recall the four American women religious who were brutally murdered in El Salvador about 1980—I still think of them. Their kind of work for the poor, which was not just a “hand-out of charity” but a challenge to the power of the wealthy, would have been almost inconceivable before Vatican II. In a sense they were also challenging the Church about where it stood in this regard. When they said that the Gospel does not present “neutrality” as an option, they were labelled as “marxists” and you know what they do to those kind of folk…. Anyway, even with this kind of heroic stance and the heroic efforts of so many other sisters in various ministries, no young women were attracted to this life. That is an undeniable fact. What was wrong/what is wrong? It seems that one has only two possible choices: either you can say that the whole culture is so godless, anti-religious, so pervasively enticing with self-fullfillment dynamics that the example and voices of religious life become impossible to see or hear. The secularization of society is so thorough that the religious dimension of life itself becomes almost invisible. Considering our situation today this is a very plausible explanation given some adjustments. However, the other explanatory choice may be that there is something missing in that religious life, that it no longer addresses the heart of the young person who seeks to transcend their stagnant secular self. This is not a pleasant alternative to ponder for the sisters concerned but it is there as a possibility. Maybe it is some combination of both. In any case, consider this: in 1975 there were 135,000 sisters in the American Catholic community. Already many had left after Vatican II, so this seemed like a new foundation for a new beginning. However, in 2011 there were only 56,000 sisters. A huge drop. And this is the most staggering statistic: there are today more sisters over the age of 90 than under the age of 60! Surely this is not what “renewal” was suppose to lead to!
Now some might say that what’s keeping people from coming to these groups is precisely that they are so much under the thumb of male authoritarianism. Again, partly true, but that doesn’t explain why some traditional groups are doing so much better number wise than these so-called more progressive, more renewed groups. It was often said in the ’60s that religious groups had to change in order to attract young people. Well, they changed, and young people stayed away in even larger numbers! Conservative Catholics point to this as a “sign from Heaven.” I can’t speak for other countries, but one does hear about the flourishing of vocations in Third World countries, and these tend to be very traditional kinds of situations. There may be a whole lot of complex reasons for this phenomenon, but suffice it to say that here in the US sisters’ groups that favor such things as habits and traditional communal structures and living together are attracting more young people. These are superficial things on their own, but I think what they really seek in all this is that somehow their lives are oriented toward something “beyond” their social existence. The symbolization and ritual expression of that “beyond” is needed at the beginning especially and yearned for in the heart even in a very inarticulate way. Thus a group that may actually be regressive and reactionary in its ecclesiology and theology and its authority structures and maybe even neurotic in its lived experience, still will find people drifting into it’s circle because it offers some sense of a life that is oriented “toward the beyond.” And guess what, every human heart has that yearning buried deep within. Needless to say there is also that dubious thing of an “unassailable certainty” that these groups offer, and also a feeling of a kind of superiority that is unhealthy but magnetic and able to draw people.
Now what the Vatican has done seems not only petty and vindictive toward these American nuns, but the sad fact is that it was also totally useless and unnecessary. The frank and sad fact is that they are dying out. American religious life for women as represented by the LCWR is not only an “endangered species”–it is for all practical purposes done, finished. But instead of feeling sad we should remember that really these women are a harbinger of some bigger change and movement, that God is the Ultimate Reality behind all this, that what is to come we cannot foresee. And the authoritarian machinery that ground them down over the years, well, that too is a very human fabrication. And recall that other very symbolic human fabrication of recent years, the Berlin Wall, how it somehow when the time came seemed to crumble on its own…..
B. Speaking of religious groups, I have been reading Abhishiktananda’s little essay, “India and the Carmelite Order.” As usual, truly brilliant….but…. And with Abhishiktananda how often that is the case: “truly brilliant….but….” In this case the “but” has to do with his vision of the Carmelite Order. I don’t know what he was seeing in 1964 in India, but the Carmelite Order in the US in 2012 is a mere shadow of what he projects. I suspect it is one of his grand idealizations–more like what he hoped they would be in his vision of that charism that linked Elijah to John of the Cross and thousands of hermits in between. Yes, there are some exceptional individuals in the Carmelite Order, even here in the US, but the Order as a whole leaves a lot to be desired.
C. We all know that Jesus is called “the Word of God,” in the New Testament. Though this is the classic rendering of the original Greek, it nevertheless is actually a very poor translation–even though there is no real alternative. The same is probably true of all the other renderings in all the other modern languages. Jesus is called the Logos of God, and the Gospel of John begins with the echoes of Genesis in the background: In the beginning was the Logos…. Now to translate “logos” as “word” is to seriously impoverish the term. It is not incorrect to translate it as such, but it is also an incredible diminishment of the symbolization and reference power that the word “logos” carries. It is one of the richest words in ancient Greek. Think of that tradition of thought and usage from Heraclitus, through Plato and Aristotle and the Tragedians, and the poets and common usage, all the way to the Gospel of John, a period spanning over seven centuries, think of how much “weight of meaning” that word is by then carrying. If you truly know ancient Greek, you won’t want to translate but simply call Jesus the Logos of God. And then there is the incredible, “and the Logos became sarx…” It reveals a new meaning to the human condition. I wonder if one could say the Logos became maya.… Just wondering…. Adopting and adapting the Sufi saying: It is one thing to know God “beyond” the veil; it is quite another to know God in the veil itself.
But we have something else to consider: Jesus is also the Silence of God. (We are not talking about the so-called “silence of God” that 20th century existentialist thinkers were so focused on.) Abhishiktananda loved this statement, and of course it comes from St. Ignatius of Antioch in one of the earliest Christian documents outside the New Testament. Also, in his letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius says that the one who truly possesses the word of Jesus is also able to hear his silence, “that he may be perfect,” meaning complete, fulfilled, etc. So there is a “beyond” to the words of Jesus, and this we will discover in the “silence of Jesus.” Much to ponder here. On the one hand, there is the Logos bringing a horizon of Silence, indeed also bearing within itself Silence; on the other hand there is also the Logos of Silence itself. Much, much to ponder.
D. There is this remarkable quote by Abhishiktananda in his essay on “India and the Carmelite Order”: “The prophets of Yahweh were the heralds of the Word; the rishis of India, the privileged witnesses of the Silence of God. Had they met, probably neither Elijah the Prophet nor Yasnavalkya, the Rishi, would have recognized or understood each other for, humanly speaking, they were approaching each other from totally opposite slopes of the holy Mountain. Nevertheless both of them were precursors of Christ.”
What a statement! I wonder if Abhishiktananda really has a sense here of the full implications of what he is saying!? Usually it is said that ideally speaking interreligious dialogue should take place on the basis of the true and deep experience of each side. However, who could be said to have a deeper experience of their respective traditions than Elijah or Yasnavalkya; and it seems, from what Abhishiktananda says here, that had they met they wouldn’t have even been able to recognize each other’s religious experience. So what is the real basis, the real ground of all dialogue. Interesting. So something else is needed beside their own individual spiritual experience, or else even the most holy person can get “locked inside” their own tradition. Note that Abhishiktananda says that “both of them were precursors of Christ.” Indeed, but NEITHER of them would know THIS Christ. He is always the “third” in every encounter, in every dialogue, in every movement toward communion. Or perhaps we should say it is the Holy Spirit given by Christ. Isn’t a “third” always there in every communion whether it be in word or in silence?
E. Speaking of silence(!), let me quote again that marvellous poem by Gekka Gensho:
Making the busy streets my home
right down in the heart of things
only one friend shares my poverty
a scrawny wooden staff;
having learned the ways of silence
amidst the noise of urban life
taking things as they come to me
now everywhere I am is true.
Gekka lived in the 1700s in Kyoto. Having been a Zen monk for 40 years, he left and became a layman selling tea and writing poetry. That last line is a direct quote from Lin-chi, from the 9th century. We are invited to “learn the ways of silence.” This is the Zen way of dealing with the “veil.” Now my beloved Han-shan, a hermit from the Tang Dynasty of the 7th century, reversed the process. First, for years he was a busy man, a government bureaucrat, an intellectual, and a practitioner of popular Taoism– until one day he left everything and became a hermit. Here is his own account of it:
In my first thirty years of life,
I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles.
Walked by rivers through deep green grass
Entered cities of boiling red dust.
Tried drugs, but couldn’t make Immortal;
Read books and wrote poems on history.
Today I’m back at Cold Mountain:
I’ll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.
(Gary Snyder translation)
Either way is good! Both are True Men of No-Rank. If you look for them by way of credentials and in the world of credentials, you will not find them. Like the monk who asked to see where Anthony was and could not see him, they are there where Anthony is. Amen!