Women Looking for Counterculture

I don’t begrudge comtemplative women’s orders their boom. I doubt any mature woman religious does either. The CNS news note about a new book seems to be incomplete, or I hope it is.

The book, titled “The Foundations of Religious Life: Revisiting the Vision” and published by Ave Maria Press, is a project of the (Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious). It explores why the orders represented by the council are gaining numbers and how they are living out the vision of consecrated life described by the Second Vatican Council. The book, released May 16, consists of essays written by six religious sisters representing five orders. The topics they address are: religious consecration, the spousal bond, the threefold response to vows, communion in community, and mission.

These topics are important, and relevant, too. That “spousal bond” continues to be a curiosity, at least for me. I know the history, the “culture” behind it; my upbringing as a Catholic wasn’t that impoverished. However, in the sacrament of marriage, there is a mutuality and complementarity between spouses. While it’s true that every relationship with God is in some way mutual, and the Church as a whole is sometimes described as a wife, the metaphor fails when looked at too closely. My suggestion would be to find some non-marital expression of the consecrated life. I’m not so ready to lend a sacramental image near and dear to me. And then we get to the sexual and procreative overtones. I guess I’ll have to read the book. The list of essays don’t address what I see as the main thing leading young women to religious life: the charisms of contemplation, stability, and the monastic tradition–as opposed to the mendicant tradition and its daughter movements.

Lay women know they can live a holy and religious life as a married or single woman in the world. They can work for the Church, and to all outward appearances, have all the advantages of community life (with family, friends, colleagues, and as associates of religious orders) without commiting to celibacy, poverty, chastity, or obedience.

I’m doubtful about the “countercultural” aspect, except that every generation of Catholic religious have striven for some degree of counterculturalism. In part, they separate in some way from the world, but lay women, again, can do this by homeschooling their children, by adopting voluntary poverty, by advocating for peace and justice, and by doing all sorts of things that don’t buy into the materialism, consumerism, and general tilted outlook of the secular culture.

As for what’s within the Church, I doubt the big orders, Franciscans, Benedictines, and Dominicans are going away anytime soon. So, no, I don’t buy into the habit thing. It’s got to be more than that.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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3 Responses to Women Looking for Counterculture

  1. Jack Smith says:

    Todd –

    I think in this post and a couple previous that you’ve identified a distinction between contemplative orders and those engaged in apostolic works which is not the specific difference between growing and stagnating orders (in terms of recruits).

    Many of the orders that are growing are in fact engaged in apostolic work, eg., the School Sisters of Christ the King and some are in fact branches of historic mendicant orders. If you look at the website of the CMSW you’ll find plenty of active orders.

    On the flip side, some of those which are dying are traditionally contemplative.

    So I think the difference between growth and stagnation (again, speaking strictly in terms of numbers) is not strictly related to contemplative vs. active.

  2. JC says:

    Right, the Nashville Dominicans have certain aspects of the Cloister, but they teach and engage in some interaction with the world. The Sisters of Life certainly are an apostolic Order.

    I think the habit has *everything* to do with it, and if it doesn’t directly pertain to it, it symbolizes it.

    I know, for me, the idea of the habit was one of the main factors that attracted me to the idea of religious life growing up.

    If I had known that a) I could get the proper medical care, b) there was a monastery where I wouldn’t be unnecessarily destroying my health and c) any of them would actually take me, I’d have pursued the monastery.

    But I look at the vocations ads for orders of “Sisters” like the Sisters of Mercy and the SSJ. Not even getting into theological issues, they don’t really give a clear reason *why* someone would want to join them, what makes *them* special.

    If anything, their whole focus is why *not*. I’ve seen seen ads that literally say, “We don’t wear habits anymore, so you don’t have to be embarrassed. No one will ever know you’re a nun!”

    “We do regular jobs. We’re teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, social workers, even television producers. We work in the world. We make money. Then we come home and live with a community of other women and share our faith and prayer.”

    That is basically how the LCWR style “apostolic orders” present themselves in their own vocations materials.

    Why would someone do that? Why would a woman want to make vows of povery, chastity and obedience just to work a regular job, for which she’s not entitled to keep her earnings, then go home and live with a bunch of other women?

    She can do that by having a bunch of roommates. My wife joked that her post-college roommates were like an informal transitory convent: a group of Catholic women, all of whom were teaching at Catholic schools or attending Catholic gradutae schools or working for Catholic organizations, sharing a townhouse with no TV and talking about religion when they got home in the evening.

    Plus, they had the freedom to have their various boyfriends/fiances over to visit.

    Plus, someone who wants something more “formal” could join something like Opus Dei or Regnum Christi, or Catholic Worker Movement, or whatever, and, again, not be as “bound” as in a traditional Order.

    So why would a woman who could have *that* give it up to join the SSJ or the Sisters of Mercy or whomever?

    The religious life has to offer something more, and that something more is symbolized in the habit.

    As for the “bride of Christ” thing, read Faustina, Teresa of Avila, etc. There is certainly something to be wondered about in exactly what the female mystics mean by “spiritual espousal.” Since we know, from modern psychology, that intense prayer (as well as intense exercise and a few other experiences) leads the brain to release dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins, and can have the same effect on the brain as sexual intercourse, it’s not hard to extrapolate.

    In fact, St. Faustina explicitly refers to Communion as being the equivalent of sexual intercourse with Jesus, and compares post-Communion meditation to afterglow, speaking of how, when the bride is wrapped in her husband’s arms after lovemaking, she can ask Him anything.

  3. Todd says:

    Lots to comment on, but I’ll confine myself to a few things:

    – My understanding, though it may be faulty, is that the habit signifies more women who lead community lives in a cloister.

    – Wearing the distinctive clothing seems a shallow reason, by itself. As a symbol of something deeper, why not?

    – Dioceses, as well as long-standing orders of women religious don’t promote vocations in ways appealing to today’s young people. My parish has produced significant numbers of men for seminary and priesthood. Women religious, not so much, and that goes back 60 years.

    – My sense is that many communities of women religious are satisfied to be passive in promoting vocations. In contrast, I remember taking a date to a Trappist monastery when I was 27. The guestmaster showed us a vocation video.

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