Monasticism sees revival as people search for meaning in a rushed world
When Judith Valente, a Benedictine Oblate, leads contemplative retreats online and in monasteries across the country, she has noticed that lay people – whether Catholic or spiritual but non-religious, married or not, male or female – are outnumbered the monks and nuns about three to one.
“And why is that?” said Valente, author and co-chair of the Being Benedictine in the 21st Century movement. “There is a thirst for true communion there. Not just communication, but true communion, and one of the greatest monastic values is hospitality. Here they suddenly feel valued, as if they belong here.
Drawing parallels between today and the time of Saint Benedict of Nursia, Valente also does not believe that the renewed interest in monasticism is a coincidence.
The father of Western monasticism, Benedict wrote the Rule, a document that would ultimately serve as the foundation of his monastic tradition, in the sixth century during the collapse of the Roman Empire, barbarian invasions, loss of institutional credibility and political leaders prioritizing personal life. interests in the common good.
“He lived in a time very much like our evening news,” said Valente, who is an Oblate with the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas.
She made the comments in an interview with Global Sisters Report.
Monastic traditions – including stability, silence, community, hospitality, love of learning and continued growth, to name a few – are speaking right now, and those that will from non-religious to apostolic Catholic sisters are listening.
In recent years in particular, Catholic sisters in apostolic communities – who tend to lead more mobile and ministerial lives with less structure than their monastic counterparts – have re-engaged with the communal contemplative dimension of religious life.
The Second Vatican Council lit a fuse for religious congregations in the early 1960s. Suddenly the sisters were encouraged to return to their founding visions through their action-oriented ministries, modeling the life of Jesus with the charisms of their community at the center of their calls to action.
But as needs change, so do the ways in which religious communities respond, and today many feel called to focus on society’s growing spiritual hunger and reclaim the value of collective contemplation.
“There is great interest in bringing together two sides of the same coin – contemplation and action in new ways – especially through apostolic nuns,” said Sister Nancy Sylvester, whose Immaculate Heart of Mary in Monroe, Michigan, is apostolic. Indeed, many apostolic congregations today call their charisms “contemplation in action”.
“It’s an evolutionary process,” she said, noting that the roughly 60 years of the pendulum swinging toward activism is “not much in evolutionary time,” but enough to consider “new integration.” for a future that is still emerging.
Asking why there is a renewed interest in monasticism lends itself to a futile exercise in speculation: To say that monasticism is experiencing a “return” is to misunderstand the tradition, as Benedictine Sister Linda Romey explained.
Monasticism, on the contrary, is experienced as “evolution, progress,” with no turning back, said Sister Romey, a member of the Benedictines of Erie, Pennsylvania.
“If monasticism is a doorway to a more contemplative life, it means it is a doorway to the future, to a deeper knowledge of what it is to be a human creature made in the image of God,” she told GSR.
Reverend Adam Bucko, an Episcopal priest, is not convinced that humanity today is going through a “process of secularization,” or that there is even a meaningful distinction between the secular and the sacred.
“They tell us the tabernacle is empty,” he said, but “a lot of people who identify as non-religious actually aren’t in churches, because they’ve found God elsewhere: in nature, in activism, in joining people who fight for justice, in what we could call less religious spiritualities, like mindfulness.
Bucko is co-founder of the Center for Spiritual Imagination, a monastic community that weaves Benedictine, Franciscan, Cistercian, and Carmelite traditions with other spiritual influences. He believes that how someone feels about churches is not a predictor of how they feel about God, spirituality, or the mystical search for meaning and purpose.
The statistics confirm it. A third of young people have no religious affiliation, three times the rate of their grandparents’ generation. But hidden in that statistic is a crucial if less-hyped detail: Among those who aren’t religious, about two-thirds say they still believe in God to varying degrees.
Movements like Nuns and Nones, a grassroots community of Catholic sisters and young spiritual seekers, have provided space for spiritually ambiguous conversations between those who wish to explore the contemplative as well as the communal.
It is perhaps natural that the monasteries have since become home to some of its members.
For the past two years, Katie Gordon, co-founder of Nuns and Nones, has lived with the Erie Benedictines. What started as a summer internship turned into the decision to live indefinitely in the monastery’s Pax Priory community.
Seeing with his own eyes how Benedictines live their lives in search of God in a ‘generative and open way’ made Gordon want to stay and learn more about their 1,500-year-old way of life , the community model for “living differently”.
Gordon, 30, grew up Catholic but spent most of his twenties on a spiritual expedition, focusing less on figuring out the specifics of his beliefs and more on the inspiration, meaning and mystical nourishment of a variety of religious traditions.
“It’s a huge time of upheaval that we’re going through, and this other way of being provides a community model to get through this,” she said of this time in history.
Although the word monasticism often conjures up images of extreme religiosity – likely reclusive individuals immersed in scripture – the concept is broader.
“Monasticism is a lifestyle word, not a religion word,” said Benedictine Sister Judith Sutera of Atchison, Kansas. “It’s an attempt to see the unity in all of creation.”
Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, theologian and author, recalled the frustrations she felt as a child when the big questions around God arose, and the unsatisfactory answers that would follow for simply having faith, even though it was all unbelievable.
“We don’t have, as a whole, as a culture, a God big enough to believe,” she said. “We have diminished God. We have made God a puppeteer, a magician, a vending machine, a warrior, a judge, all shards of ourselves.
“But, of course, anyone with an understanding (looks) up into the sky at night, thinking, what’s out there? Where does all this come from? Where is he going ? And what about the people who have left our lives? Where are they? These are cosmic questions. And I believe that, for me, my God is a cosmic God.
Monasticism – which Chittister defines in his most recent book, “The Monastic Heart”, as “the wholehearted search for what matters” in all life – appeals to these questions and the exploration of a God who ” is not a drawing”. of our own lives,” she said.
“Do I think this (practice) should be Christian or Catholic? ” she says. “Absolutely not.”
For many monastic sisters, like Benedictine Sister Idelle Badt, silence is one of the tradition’s greatest offerings, allowing her to “disconnect from the world” when she returns to her monastery of the Annunciation in Bismarck, in North Dakota.
“I don’t have the constant bombardment of white noise,” she said, adding that it wasn’t until she experienced the shared silence in the community that she realized how silence is necessary. “There is something magical about sitting in complete silence with 40 other people; your thoughts change, your body relaxes, and you feel closer to God and those around you.
Escaping the constant chatter and cross-talk is especially appealing to young members of Sister Megan McElroy’s Dominican congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, she believes. Sister McElroy, who served as co-director of her community’s novitiate from 2010 to 2018, also spent three weeks in an immersion experience with the Dominican contemplative community in Squamish, British Columbia, in 2016, working on her thesis project. concerning the preaching missions of the Dominican Church. nuns who lead a contemplative and monastic life.
In a sense, the younger sisters are seeking to reclaim some of the traditions that the older sisters “spent their lives abandoning,” she said.
Now, among older members of the community, McElroy added, there is a “recognition that there was some value in these practices, so how do we bring them back?” The new members bring an awareness to the communities, that it is a gift for us to be able to live together, to have moments of calm. It refreshes us and energizes us to do our ministry more fully.
Chief among the misconceptions about monastic life (besides the image of all cloistered monks) is the perception of boredom, “walking towards meals and subjugating our individualism,” Sutera said.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth. … Predictability doesn’t mean it has to be monotonous,” she said, adding that the lifestyle is more about providing stability in an unstable world.
Sutera suggested that people “rethink” their perception of monasticism and how it may apply to their way of life.
“Service and contemplation should not be mutually exclusive. This is what we must recognize: that the world is hungry for prayer and communion, and there are different ways of living this. Ours is just a structure that has functioned for 1,500 years.
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Salgado is a writer for Global Sisters Report.