Monday, January 6, 2020

Reprisal: Epiphany on Moreland Street

In honor of the Epiphany, this January 6th I offer a reprisal of a poem from 2016. Follow the light my friends, follow it wherever it leads.

Epiphany on Moreland Street

In the light of the night
they lay
unceremoniously discarded by the roadside
conifers cast aside with
season's cheer and a chill in the air

and as I drove past
the only guide, a set of headlights
I wondered- when does room at the inn run out?
what price must be paid for new life?

And there in rings as bright as day
like stars traced out across the sky
the stumps answered in
a chilled chorus of Hallelujah:

Keep your gifts.
It takes a life.
To make a manger...
to take the journey.

Friday, January 3, 2020

The grace of perspective: 20/20 Vision for the new year

As we enter into the new year, I invite you to take a moment to pause and look back. One of the greatest callings to us at this time of year is to embrace the grace of perspective. As we bid farewell to 2019 and say hello to 2020, that's exactly what I've taken time to reflect on in my most recent column for the Global Sisters Report. Blessings of perspective, patience, and perseverance to you all this new year!

The day before New Year's Eve I met for breakfast with an old friend from college. In a tiny cafĂ© in Boston, far from the life I've grown accustomed to with my sisters, we reminisced about days gone by. The truth was, with the exception of a message here or there and a random dinner a few years back ― the year of which neither of us could exactly recall ― we had slipped off each other's radars.

Still, as we laughed about the things we thought we knew when we were younger and listened attentively to the events we'd missed in each other's lives, drawing parallels all along the way, it was as if the 10 years of relative absence in between us melted away.

"When did we get so old?" We uttered in unison to one another as the meal began coming to a close.

It wasn't a question of age, but rather an acknowledgment of a distance covered quickly in conversation and yet separated clearly by chronology. Where had the time gone? We seemed to be asking one another. And what's more, where would the time ahead lead us?

Parting ways, we both gave thanks for the relationship we had and the connection rekindled at year's end. The questions of time past and future still hung in the air, and yet, overwhelmingly, I was taken by the gift of gratitude and grace of perspective I found in that moment.

In this season of recollection and renewal, as we make resolutions and mark the new year, it is the perfect moment to consider the grace of a healthy perspective and to step back and assess the grace at work in our lives.

At its core, perspective is the way we see the world and our place in it. A healthy perspective grounds us in the reality of what is; it recognizes who we are and how we are in the world, it allows us to better interact and relate to others, and it judges freely how to proceed based on a balanced vision of experiences and encounters.

Perspective, of course, comes from our own vantage point. Thus, to have a balanced and fairly realistic view both of what has been and what is requires self-awareness, frank honesty, deep patience, and a willingness to consider the many sides of a situation. Gaining perspective, then, is a process that requires the hard work of mindfulness, which ultimately leads to peace.

This work of gaining perspective is done both in our everyday interactions and in the silence of our hearts. At this time of year, as we pause to look back at the year and decade that have been, we have the perfect opportunity to gain and deepen our perspective.

A healthy perspective "doesn't only see what we wish to see … it allows us to better encounter everything we must face to move forward in life," psychologist Dr. Robert Wicks writes. "[A healthy perspective] doesn't help us run away from the truth … it enables us to put things in their proper place."

At the precipice of this new decade, we have the opportunity to consider what has been, how we've come to where we are and what perspective these considerations offer to our assessment of what may be, or what we may be called to in the days, weeks and months ahead.

For myself, I've found it helpful to consider what the last 10 years have held in my life. If I were to give this decade a name, what would it be?

For me, the decade by and large had been marked by the transition into adulthood that comes in your 20s and 30s, with particular attention to my own movement into religious life. Above everything else that this decade has held, socially, politically or otherwise, it has been for me the decade of the sister.

At the beginning of the decade, I was just beginning to visit sisters and inquire about what this life and call could mean for me. Hopes and desires abounded. In the ensuing 10 years, some of those dreams have become realities, transforming with all the realism that comes with such metamorphosis.

Realized dreams, we soon often find, can be less shiny than we imagined. Looking back on what has come to pass in these last 10 years, it is important to take stock in the essence of what was longed for and what was realized. The congruence of these two aspects gives us perspective on the work of the Spirit and our own attentiveness to the Spirit's work in our lives.

In 2010, I longed for intentional community, for a deeper relationship with God, for a spirituality, charism and mission I could find a home in. That longing led me to religious life. What I imagined was a beatific vision of the life I now live. The years since have refined that vision, revealing realities not seen or understood before. Experience has put my hopes and dreams in perspective. The essence of those desires has not changed, but the perceived path forward and vision for what can be and how it can be has needed to be re-envisioned.

As I look back, I read my own words from 2015. At the midpoint of the last decade, I was writing about the need to see with eyes of hope through lenses both mystical and realistic. "We have to be visionary," I wrote then as I reflected on the call of religious life. "We believe in what we cannot see and, through faith, we learn to see in ways unknown and unclear. In time, vision progresses. We cannot know what tomorrow holds, but we can learn to see the signs of the times and anticipate what may be to come."

On the brink of this new decade, I still believe this to be true. The vision of our hearts adjusts just like that of our eyes. Whether the outlook is bleak and foggy or bright and clear, we have been given eyes to see and hearts to weather all conditions.

The hopes and desires with which I started the decade have not been lost. Some have changed, and some have faded. Others have been reinforced and demand attention more readily. And yet still others ― new dreams, desires and hopes ― have come and been added to the collection in my heart.

If the decade has taught me anything, it is that change comes incrementally. God works in our desires and our desires are realized in the slow work of the Spirit played out in daily choices and prayerful attentiveness.

Where I began the decade as an inquirer to religious life, I end these 10 years as a newly perpetually professed member of a congregation. This change didn't happen overnight; it relied on the faithfulness, patience and perseverance that become apparent within the context of healthy perspective-taking.

As I look forward to the year ahead and beyond, I wonder what could possibly be in store. What will change in me and in the world? What do I need to hold tightly, and what would I be better off letting go of? How clear is my vision and to what might God be inviting me ― both in big movements and small ― for the years ahead?

No matter how we answer these questions, we must be mindful of our vision: what we see, how we see, and why we see things the way we do… Finish reading the article here

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Comfort & Joy: Engaging Advent in the Christmas Rush

Wish you all Advent blessings as the season begins. May it be fill with peace & hope, comfort & joy. Hope you enjoy my latest article from Global Sisters Report

Months ago, my 7-year-old nephew told me what he wanted for Christmas. "Christmas is a long way off," I tried to explain, but to no avail. The prospect of gifts grabbed his imagination and took hold.

Advent hadn't even started, and it was hard for him to believe that it wasn't Christmas yet. I don't blame him. After all, over the last few weeks, I've seen pictures of friends beside their Christmas trees and been bombarded with advertisements that are clearly telling me I'm behind the curve on decorating.

My heart aches for the simple sound of "Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel" and yet "Do You Hear What I Hear?" echoes in my ears. Advent, it seems, has taken a backseat to the hubbub of Christmas.

Traditionally, Advent is the peaceful beginning to our year. It is a time of preparation. It is a season filled with hope and promise; a liturgical invitation to four weeks of joyful journeying in anticipation of Christ's coming into the world — past, present, and future.

Yet, over the last few years and decades, the expectation of the season seems to have been transformed from that of expectant waiting for Christ's coming to a frenzied flurry of preparations for a season of parties and holiday cheer. Advent has unceremoniously and inadvertently become a final countdown to December 25. Filled with Christmas carols that began playing long before our Advent wreaths were unboxed and lights that have been on houses since the end of October, Advent is a season in need of revival.

The expectation of what is to come is a gift. If we choose to engage this time of waiting, Advent has the power to deepen our celebration, enlivening the joy that makes itself manifest in myriad manner of decorations and celebrations these days. This joy is contagious. In the midst of dark days, physically and societally, people long to embrace and embody it. That desire is so deep that anything will do.

Recently, a friend lamented that all she wanted to do after a long day was go home, put on Christmas music, and maybe bake some cookies or watch a Hallmark movie. The shifting light of winter days, drastically emphasized by the end of Daylight Saving Time in our country, called for the spark of joy and creature comforts contained in those well-worn traditions.

"It's a great distraction" she said with a grin, "No news, no nonsense, just a chance to get lost for a little while … to escape from the worries of the world."

I can understand her sentiment. I think we all can. The impeachment hearings alone make me wonder where the closest cup of cocoa is.

The joy, however, that Advent brings isn't a cheap kind of escapism. Nor is it a distraction from the realities of the world. Rather, it is the joy that comes from encountering Goodness, the peace and respite found in attentively engaging our world as a gift from God, even in the midst of what is troubling and what demands us to be attentive with action.

We spend this season making space for joy — that is, the peaceful, triumphant birth of the Divine in our midst. The new space that we are making requires intention. It isn't meant to be filled with preparations that raise our anxiety and stress; it's about embodying all the graces that come from expectation. It is about making room for the simple joys, the graces of God. These are the true gifts of this season: hope at the fulfillment of God's faith-filled promises, joy at encountering Love in the people and circumstance of our lives, and comfort that comes from (and contributes to) the peace of God's presence and the faithful witnessing to and engagement in Jesus's coming, yesterday, today, and always.

The joy of this season also calls for serious action. As we engage the gifts that spark joy, we recognize the need to bring joy to our advocacy. Our preparations are not just for Christmas day but so that all might know and experience the grace of God and the coming of the Kingdom in the here and now. Just as John the Baptist heralded the coming of Christ, our living out of our faith should speak to the One we are preparing the way for. With joy we work these Advent days especially so that Jesus might find a place of welcome in our world as we welcome and care for our neighbors and all of creation.

While Christmas permeates the collective consciousness, it will do us good to pause for Advent moments along the way...Continue Reading

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Forging foundations without forgetting our founders

Seeking new life and reconciling new beginnings, long-held traditions, and foundations of all sorts... With all that I offer my latest from the Global Sisters Report:

I never signed up to teach English classes. Yet when a deficit of volunteers and a surplus of students at the neighborhood center where I minister necessitated a teacher for another class, I found myself stepping in as an instructor on the fly. As Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick said of our sisters in 1847 when we first came to Philadelphia from St. Louis, they are truly "ready for any good work."

This past week, it seemed like any and every good work that could demanded my time. In the midst of it all, our Founders' Day (Oct. 15) came to pass, and I found myself in class at the Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Center in Camden, New Jersey, rather than at our motherhouse, celebrating.

Disappointed, I came to class less than thrilled by the prospect of teaching. I would have much rather been celebrating with the larger community than looking over lesson plans and preparing for basic English class. My mind kept on wandering to the community gathered to mark the occasion. I wished I could be there with them, and yet I wasn't.

Taking a deep breath, I put those thoughts aside as the first students walked into class. The next hour and a half would be a whirlwind. By the time we emerged from our lesson, there were cheerful smiles and promises to be back for class later in the week.

After class, I sat with one of our volunteers, debriefing the night. An associate of our congregation, she had raised the issue of the conflict with Founders' Day at the teacher orientation meeting a month before.

At the time, we'd discussed the difficulty the scheduling conflict posed. On the one hand, we wanted to celebrate with the congregation at large; on the other hand, canceling class for the night only a few weeks into the semester would be disruptive to our students. Together, we agreed it was best to skip the celebration in favor of continuity.

Yet even though we'd agreed on this decision, the sacrifice still stung that night as we came to class rather than the communal celebration.

"I have to admit, I missed the celebration," I said with honest acceptance. My friend nodded in agreement.

Then I heard words come out of my mouth that I hadn't expected. "I'm glad I was here, though. This is where our founders would have wanted me to be ... working side-by-side with a mother of two struggling to master her numbers in English so that eventually, she can learn enough English to talk to her children's teachers at school."

The volunteer smiled warmly. "You bet. Those first women wouldn't have wanted us to be anywhere else. In fact, they probably would have been sitting right there beside us if they could."

That, after all, is what our founders, no matter the congregation, called for: a spirit ready for any good work — ready to serve, to love and to live the Gospel without boundaries.

Remembering that call is the first step in more fully living it out; the first step in fostering and furthering the mission we have committed ourselves to, to becoming founders for the future.

Such a call requires a remembering of the past, an engagement in the present, and a desire for the future. There is no clear road map for such living, but if my experience in the classroom is any indication, flexibility certainly stands as a paramount virtue of firm foundations for the future.

My life these days has become a crash course in flexible foundations. Only a few weeks into the semester and a few years into the process of establishing this new sponsored ministry, I can see the spirit of our founders at work and the lessons of foundation-building at work within me.

No matter my expectations (or lack thereof), there's always room for surprise. The ability to adjust to such uncertainty, to "go with the flow" and trust the Spirit, is key to success. It is an uneasy state of being. Rote answers and saccharine platitudes are contentious rather than comforting. The push within me is to seek solid ground, with the firmest foundations coming from the honest pursuit of mission in the everyday, lived reality of life.

The honesty of this pursuit of mission is that it is imperfect. That imperfection is humbling. To trust the Spirit is to quickly realize you aren't in control. As much as you might want a specific outcome or desire a certain course of events, no formulation is a failsafe path to your desired outcome. Formulaic foundations can come off as contrived and overbearing. Yes, we must plan for the future, but some of the greatest planning allows us to let reality, relationships and individuals breathe life into the structures set forth.

Thus, we lay groundwork on which something, perhaps unknown even to us, can be built. To do so, we must ask ourselves: "What is the goal of this undertaking?" "What is the foundation we hope to build on?" "What do we hope to embody in this endeavor?"

We must plan with an eye toward flexibility, doing the deep inner work of personal and communal reflection that allows a structure to flex rather than falter. This requires listening attentively — not only to the Spirit within me/us, but also to the Spirit among us, the Spirit that speaks in the voices of those with whom we journey.

When we were first beginning the SSJ Neighborhood Center, people in the neighborhood as well as our sisters wondered aloud what the center would be. The voices that stood out in these conversations were not those that gave pat answers or proposed old models; the outstanding voices were those who wanted to invest in a vision that, although uncertain at times, sought to do what our first sisters did: meet the needs most pressing in the community.

Each day, we encounter new neighbors who take the step of making such an investment. By sharing their lives, asking for help, naming desires and offering a friendly welcome, these neighbors enter into relationship and become co-founders of a place rooted in relationship. At times, this is an effortless act, like when a community member finds a prayerful place of sharing in which to speak his truth through stories from his childhood.

Other times, the hurdles of cultural differences and lingual divides can make the very act of communicating difficult. In this space, flexibility and humility are key. No one is better than the other; we are simply journeyers seeking understanding and trying to connect for a common good. 

Without a common language, you come to understand that compassion is a universal language. We need one another for this to work. As much as I can teach, I must also be willing and open to learn.
This brings us to one of the most vital lessons of laying foundations: Failure is always part of the option.

"What feels like failure in the moment is an opportunity for growth," I wrote earlier in the process of setting up this new ministry. "With any luck, as we free ourselves and our institutions to fail, we will discover a new form of success: success in faithfulness to the Spirit, that far exceeds anything we could ever accomplish on our own."

Like the students I teach, I recognize that faithfulness helps lay a firm foundation. We can't fear failure. Instead, we must embrace it as a step toward progress. Each step, no matter how big or small, is taken in vulnerability. We risk so that we can grow… Continue the piece here

Friday, September 6, 2019

Saying Yes to Forever

On Sunday, September 15th, I will make my final vows as a Sister of St. Joseph. These days of preparation leading up to perpetual profession are more graced than stressed (though I have my moments!)  In the midst of many things, I offer my latest column from the Global Sisters Report, a reflection on what it is I'm saying "yes" to and how that commitment speaks to me right now. Blessings, Colleen

A little over a week from now, I will make my final vows as a Sister of St. Joseph. With nearly a decade of formal formation behind me and many more years of informal discernment, it's hard to believe that I've come to this point in my journey as a religious sister. Yet, through joys and sufferings, laughter and tears, I now find myself on the cusp of final commitment.

This past year has been one of intensive discernment of what it means to say yes to forever. My tertianship, the designation my congregation gives to the year before perpetual profession, has been one of remembering why I came to this life, refining my relationship with Jesus, and reconciling the imperfections of religious life with the deepest desires of my heart. Truly, the year has been a blessed moment of discernment.

Looking back, I see pathways that were forged in trust and companions who have inspired hope, offered wisdom and borne witness, time and again. Looking forward, I see a hopeful horizon and a promise of change that will actively engage every angle of my faith. And for all this looking back and forward, I find myself solidly planted in the present, ready to commit and consumed by the core truths of the religious life I am called to live.

In one of my first columns for Global Sisters Report, "Considering Commitment," I wrote, "When I return to the question of why — why I would choose to make a vowed commitment now — my heart cries out: Love! That is what I am committing myself to." Now, more than five years later, I know this sentiment to be all the more true. There are things I know now about what that Love demands that I couldn't have possibly known as a novice considering first vows, and I imagine, in time, my understanding and experience will only deepen more.

Love, it turns out, is a messy thing. It is holding those who mourn as they weep; it is naming hard truths for your own liberation and that of others. It is trusting the One who calls you, even when the path isn't clear and consolation doesn't come easily. Love is showing up, shutting up, and stepping up. Love is a God who knows me better than I know myself, who loves me more than I can comprehend, and who calls me to the truest version of my being. Love is a commitment, and as much as I am committed to Love, I've also come to know and believe that Love is committed to me.

Living forever in union with that Love is part of what drew me to religious life in the first place. Recently at the final vow celebration of a dear friend and fellow sister, I got into a conversation with a peer. "I can't live any other way." She said to me as we talked. "My love is too large." It's a love of God that is beyond and within all other relationships, that is part and parcel of this forever commitment. Neither of us denied that we had and could still fall in love with an individual. "That's only human," we agreed, "but our vows … our commitment is to live out a love, that's larger."

Sr. Colleen Gibson in the Chapel of Unity and Reconciliation at Christ Cathedral, Orange, California, dedicated to the Sisters of St. Joseph and inscribed with words from a foundational piece of the CSSJ charism and spirituality. (Provided photo)
The love we are called to is all inclusive and without distinction. It finds God in every neighbor; it longs for unity and bears all things for the sake of the Gospel truth. In theory, there's a beautiful aura around such love. When I first entered religious life, I imagined at its core this perfect love was what I would come to live out and which would, in turn, perfect me. I soon realized that reality is far from ideal.

The love I live out is, in fact, perfectly imperfect, just as my (and every other) religious congregation is. Recognizing and reconciling this fact comes only with time and commitment. Rather than the perfect love of perfect people bringing about perfection, it is instead the imperfect love of people trying their best that draws forth a more perfect union within us with God and one another. To this end, to say forever is to commit to a community, foibles and all, and to recognize that we are a part of the imperfection that we often rub up against. We are all human, and when we can embrace that fact, love can flourish.

Laying claim to our commitment and those we commit to is core to this step on the journey. I claim this congregation. I claim this vocation. I claim my faith and I proclaim God's claim on me. For all the steps ahead, I claim what is core to my being — Love through and through.

Each step I take now is one of trust. I trust in a God who loves me unmistakably and unreservedly. I trust in Jesus Christ and pray each day to imitate his compassion and to give my life to the Good News of the Gospel he proclaimed. I trust in the Spirit, whose promptings I hope always to be attentive to and who has guided me by grace thus far. I trust that God is working in and through the congregation I am committing to to create union in the world by the very grace and gift of our humanity and imperfection.

As I walk in trust, my sole desire has become union with God and a life dedicated to love of neighbor lived out in chastity, poverty and obedience... Finish the piece here

Friday, July 19, 2019

Small Steps & Giant Leaps

"Let me say, as I sit here before you today, having walked on the moon, that I am myself still awed by that miracle. That awe, in me and in each of us… must be the engine of future achievement, not a slow dimming light from a time once bright."
–Buzz Aldrin, astronaut on Apollo 11 reflecting back in May 1997 on its historic moon landing.

This week, in the midst of news filled with division and derision, I've found myself captivated by, what is by all accounts, old news. Amidst racially charged tweets, revisions to our country's asylum policies, and the ongoing crisis at our border, I find myself drawn to the news of 1969 and the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Without losing sight of the current state of affairs in our country and our world, I'm intrigued by the lessons that the lunar landing offers to us today.

We choose to step out   

"We choose to go to the moon." President John F. Kennedy famously declared in September of 1962, nearly a year after he mandated to Congress that by decade's end the United States should put a person on the Moon. "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." 

The Space Race that ensued brought with it all the twists and turns of a great story. It is a story of triumph in an age of disarray, a tale of perseverance and accomplishment that made history.  The choice to go to the moon was about more than doing the "hard" thing- it was about committing to principles and progress for all peoples.

Sure, it would be hard, but, as with many things in life, the commitment was for something greater, a challenge in the service of a greater good.

The choice to go to the moon wasn't a one-and-done decision.  There were a lot of other programs and projects that could have used the funds given to NASA. After President Kennedy was assassinated, President Lyndon B. Johnson could have easily eliminated funding for the space program; in fact, on many occasions, especially as it seemed time and again that the Soviet Union would win the race, politicians and officials suggested cutting the seemingly exorbitant program budget because to reach the moon by the end of the 1960s seemed impossible. Rational thinking seemed to say: this isn't a choice worth making — give it up!

Nevertheless, the choice was made. Despite obstacles and exhaustion, heated debate and other pressing matters, the ideals of the undertaking persevered. "We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people." Kennedy remarked in 1962 when he spoke of the choice, "For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man."

The choices we make affect the impact of our ideals. In trying times, it can be easy to choose what is easier, perhaps when we look to the moon we'll remember that the choice for change is ours to act upon.

Every step contributes to the leap

One of the remarkable pieces of the story of the moon landing is the many hidden figures and small acts that contributed to this monumental project. It's hard to imagine the number of details that went into putting a human being on the moon. While the focus of history is so often on the astronauts who manned the missions in space, one can't help but note the droves of people pictured at mission control — the engineers, controllers, programmers — not to mention the manufacturers, technicians, physicians, and many more.

Listening to stories about the moon landing, I'm particularly struck by the small acts that amounted to the success of the missions. There were the seamstresses charged with stitching together the spacesuits for the mission; women on whose every stitch hung the balance of an astronaut's life and safety. The software engineers who wrote the code that drove the ships and managed myriad functions on miniscule amounts of memory (without the near disaster of overwhelming it).

It is the dedicated work of these people that shows that every act, no matter how small, contributes to the whole. Without one, what was thought impossible might indeed prove to be.  Each person has a part to play in the whole and we must trust that the work we do works toward the greater good we've committed ourselves to, whether or not it is readily apparent or seemingly achievable.     

Giant leaps defy gravity

Neil Armstrong's iconic words upon stepping out of the lunar capsule fifty years ago still resonate today: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." 

Truly, those steps on the moon were monumental, signaling the progress and potential of scientific inquiry in the modern age, and yet, beyond science, the expansive effect and lessons of the Apollo program fifty years on still reveal how far we have to go.

"I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles, their outlook could be fundamentally changed," said Michael Collins, who flew on Apollo 11 with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. "The all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment." 

From that height and distance, Collins argued, we could see that truly we are all one and that, indeed, this place and planet we call home is a finite and fragile place.  With that recognition, we might be able to work towards unity and we might be transformed by mystery.  Then, the giant leap we might take is not only towards greater discovery beyond our planet but also toward better care for our common home and relationships.

As Pope Paul VI poignantly declared in a speech given on the day of the moon landing, the day truly was "a sublime victory" and yet war and hunger still raged on in the world, causing him to ask "Where is real humanity? Where is brotherhood? Where is peace?" 

If these are the lessons, principles and ideals embodied in the moon landing, then we still have far to go... Continue reading here

Friday, June 7, 2019

Partnership Doesn't Require Replacement

Blessings as Pentecost fast approaches. Partnership is part of the future for religious life, but what nuances do we need to consider when we look to the future?  My latest Horizons column for the Global Sisters Report:

For the majority of my religious life, I have been told that the future will look different than the current reality. There is no doubt in my mind about this; in fact, there is no way that the future couldn't look different.

Yet, somewhere along the line, I realized this innocuous comment about the future meant different things to different people. For some, it was a simple fact: numbers, facilities, ministries — everything could and probably would change. For others, though, the change meant something else.

"Our future isn't our own," one sister said to me at a community meeting. She then went on to speak about transitioning our ministries to lay leadership, the importance of promoting our associates program, and interesting new programs developing involving young adults and spiritual "nones." I listened intently to her points, noting her energy around these issues. I also noticed something else: these plans didn't involve me, or any newer members for that matter.

Then, last week, a New York Times article about the Nuns & Nones movement showed up in my inbox. It wasn't the first I'd heard about the movement, having read about it (Global Sisters Report had a series on it) and heard about it from other sisters. The thing that stood out to me this time though was an ongoing narrative that even the sister who spoke of the future not our own seemed to have internalized: as diminishment accelerates, we must find someone to carry the charism.

The narrative of diminishment and replacement though isn't the whole story. Where, I wonder, is the future within religious life? What's a more accurate picture?

I've seen the future and it is partnership

A few years ago, I was missioned to a new neighborhood center being opened by my congregation. As we got the center up and running, the team of sisters charged with implementation began to realize we needed help. Putting out a call for volunteers, a number of our congregational associates joined us in mission.

One day a few months into the project, as we were working in the food pantry, one of the associates stopped me as we stacked canned goods. "When I became an associate twenty years ago, this is what I always dreamt of," she said looking intently in my eyes. "I always dreamt of working side by side with the sisters, serving together … and here I am, finally doing it."

I soaked up the depth of her sharing about the connection she felt. This.I thought to myself, This is the future.

Thinking about what the future could hold for religious life, I hold these two stories, one of realized relationship and another of a way of life in need of a lifeline.

Painting a portrait of replacement is simplistic. It assumes that the changes in religious life are something to be solved, that the decrease in numbers can easily be remedied, and that the disproportionate distribution of demographics requires a single solution. 

In reality, religious life is and always has been more complex than that. It is a system dependent on the Spirit. We trust that women and men will continue to be called to this way of life, a way of life that is indeed meant to be shared with the world. The call to religious life may manifest itself in many different ways and the manner in which the principles of religious life and commitment are lived out will vary from person to person, be they associates, partners in mission or vowed members. Charism can take form in and on many vocational paths, but to consider the future of religious life we must commit to the core from which that charism operates and emanates.

Vowed religious life is not just a way of living or a systematic approach to social change, it is a fundamental call to a life committed to the Gospel through a distinctive set of vows and particular (and, by most accounts, peculiar) means of communal living. To consider the future of religious life without making serious efforts to preserve and promulgate this form of membership is a dismissal of those committing themselves to vowed religious life today and in the future.

As I approach my own final vows, this point resonates with me in a particular way. Over the course of my formation, I have repeatedly heard that the future of religious life lies in the passing on of mission and charism to lay associates and partners. Many of my peers relay similar stories of community meetings in which other forms of congregational membership are pointed to as the hope for survival of religious life.

Imagine the effect of such statements on the mentality of newer members and the deeper sentiment they convey about congregational commitments to the future of vowed membership. Pointing to another group of partners as the inheritors of a charism to the exclusion of others on a path to vowed commitment devalues their commitment and creates unnecessary division.

When other forms of membership are raised up as ways to bolster congregational numbers and reach, energy often swarms around the idea. This energy, in my experience, indicates a hope that new partners will continue the good work of the congregation and/or that newcomers will be able to absorb the wisdom of our sisters and our structures. This energy, however, often overlooks current membership.

I have no doubt that the many forms of membership in our congregations will (and do) play a monumental part in the lives of religious congregations into the future. Yet, for all the hope these forms present, the cultivation and preservation of vowed membership must not be lost.

Rather than painting a picture of replacement when we consider those who might be in line with or might benefit from the lessons of religious life/our charisms, it would serve us well to consider the value and strength of partnership as a joint venture. Energy needs to be committed both to cultivating partnerships and to attracting new members. The countercultural nature of religious life and the vows will always be appealing to some segment of the population. Why not open the doors of consideration to all without excluding or replacing any one group? Together we can paint a picture much more vibrant and complete than we can without one another.

As I envision the future of my own life as a vowed religious, I see myriad opportunities for what such intentional cultivation could make possible. From housing and ministry to companionship and peer support, the possibilities are endless and exciting. As congregational numbers normalize, newer members are finding companionship in vowed members of other institutes who know the reality of what it means to be a vowed religious today; similar possibilities could lie in creating connections around mission and charism between peers both inside and outside of religious life. Such partnership honors both parties and, in relationship with one another, helps to strengthen each one's commitment to the vocation they are living.

Such communion upholds and strengthens the core of religious life. In recognizing that the driving force of religious life is not a series of best practices that can easily be co-opted or universally applied, but rather is a firm commitment to the call of faith lived out in the day-to-day, partnership points us toward a way forward... continue the piece here