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We live in an age when young adults rarely consider religious life an option for their own lives. Are we dinosaurs? If we are not, then why is it that we come together in religious communities in this day and age—or in any day and age? I am not going to tackle the question of why we have consecrated life in any form, but will simply reflect on the purpose of religious community, whether we are talking about community under one roof or community in a broader sense that does not necessarily mean living together.

Why do we gather? For example, are we brought together as religious for the purpose of a particular task? Do we form community for the sake of the ministry we do? Many groups do join together for a task—music groups and sports teams, for example. Some groups even live together to make the job easier, like the ad hoc assemblages on some of the reality shows. We too have a task, and for religious, this is usually a task not only precious to us, but valuable for the people of God. It is true that good community life can assist us in the carrying-out of our ministry. But is ministry the primary reason we come together? Today, in most cases, other people do the same ministries we do, and do them just as well as we do, without being members of religious communities. If religious community is for the purpose of performing our ministry, and if the ministry no longer necessitates coming together in community, then is our gathering as consecrated religious also unnecessary?

What about relationships? There was a lot of talk a few years ago about relational communities as opposed to task-oriented communities. A quick internet search shows that the concept is far from dead today. As Christians we are indeed called to be in relationship both with God and with each other. Without the relational element, any individual, much less any community, is bound to be lifeless. Consequently, relationships and companionship must be nourished in religious life. However, although loving presence is absolutely necessary for consecrated life, companionship—even deep relationship—can be had in other ways, some of them far easier than religious community. Besides, neither friendship nor companionship can be the main purpose of religious community. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes in Wind, Sand and Stars, “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking together in the same direction.” [1] When our primary gaze in Christian community is on each other, rather than on Christ, relationships cannot lead to true communion.

Can religious community exist for the purpose of making the practical details of life more economical or more simple? It certainly can do that, though it does not always. In our university town, we see students who live together to save money and sometimes to make life less burdensome and leave more time and energy for studies. We know that religious community too can be a good model for simple and economical living—even for gospel poverty. But is this all there is to it?

What about security? People throughout the centuries have banded together for the sake of security. Gated communities are thriving today. California lays claim to at least three gated cities—basically walled towns: Rolling Hills, Hidden Hills, and Canyon Lake. There are probably people who did enter religious life to be safe from the dangers of the “world.” (Not to mention the others who tried, but were not accepted, like the woman who told me she wanted to “escape the demons.”) We know from experience that religious community is no way to flee the world, if for no other reason than that the world walks right in with us. Security, therefore, cannot be the purpose of coming together as religious.

There has to be more to religious community than any of these, more even than all of these together. The Quaker Parker Palmer, who at the time he was writing was part of an intentional community, puzzled over the longevity of monastic community, especially given the difficulties of community life. He concluded that it is because the monks “created a form of community that brings them together not for the purpose of togetherness but to support each other in the rigors of the inward journey.” [2]
To support each other in the rigors of the inward journey: the inward journey, the spiritual journey, is indeed rigorous. It has no less a goal than transforming union with Jesus Christ. That, after all, is the Christian call. Along the way, the road can be rocky, and pitfalls can lurk in our path. There are periods of discouragement on the journey, as well as periods of joy, peace, and love. There are moments when we are astonished by grace, and others when we are thoroughly bored; times when we are tempted to take the easy path of complacency, and times when we are strong against the wiles of the enemy; moments when we have glimmers of understanding and others when we are miserably confused.

Truly a rigorous journey this is, more rigorous than the Tour de France or the Iditarod or the ascent of Mount Everest—and one that is much too arduous to be undertaken alone. Without each other, the journey can be well nigh impossible.
So yes, I would agree with Parker Palmer about the rigors of the inward journey. I believe, too, that whether we knew it or not when we said yes to religious life, this journey is the primary reason we entered. It is a purpose that God knew, even if we did not—the call to give ourselves wholly to God in this journey of transforming union in love.

Demands of the Spiritual Journey

This spiritual journey not only blesses us with the joy of being loved and forgiven, it also demands much of us.

First, it would seem to go without saying that the inner journey requires prayer. Nevertheless, I believe it does need to be said, because while for some people, prayer may be pure joy, for others, prayer truly is a rigorous obligation. And as for praying together, some find it no burden at all, while others are sorely tested by common prayer. The spiritual journey asks us to find the courage to carve out leisure for prayer and presence (both to God and to each other) when society—and sometimes religious life as well—would instead reward us for constant activity. How many times have we heard someone say with a hint of pride in her voice, “I haven’t had a day off in months”? Or maybe we have even made that boast ourselves.

The spiritual journey requires us to learn compassion toward the uncompassionate and to love those who do not love us. It asks us to see loveliness in those who appear unlovely, recognizing how incredibly beautiful we all are. The spiritual journey demands an acknowledgement of our own sinfulness, our helplessness, and our inability to understand either ourselves or the God who loves us and in whose image we are made.

The spiritual journey in religious life means being favored with a vision of life—but usually without visions. It involves taking on the mind of Christ who emptied himself. It means not clinging to anything, holding nothing back. This journey obliges us to take one step at a time, without knowing the end of the road and often without even being certain whether the next step is the right one. It can take us through an interior landscape where it may seem as if someone has removed all the highway markers; and the weather can be so obscure that we barely see our hands in front of our faces, much less perceive the presence of God.

But what a trip it is! Formidable though the way may be, it is precisely here that we find our delight. After all, the God who created the universe, who fills the cosmos, who is and was and ever shall be, this God is, amazingly enough, both our companion and our destination. After beginning on this path, any other way seems insipid, hardly worth the trouble of putting one foot in front of the other.

To nurture this wondrous journey and to smooth its progress, we come together as community. We gather in order to support each other by our words, our prayers, and our presence; to encourage each other as well in the silence and solitude we need. And when we become discouraged, like Elijah lying under the broom tree, we take for each other the role of the angel who said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you” (1 Kings 19:7 NRSV).

If we are truthful, though, we will admit that sometimes our sisters and brothers themselves can be part of the “burning of the noontide heat, and the burden of the day.” [3] The community may be the very reason we long to crawl under the broom tree and disappear in sleep. But the burdens and the blessings of the road are intermingled and often indistinguishable one from the other. What seems like a burden may in reality be a blessing, and each blessing tends to bring with it its own weight, imperceptible at times, unbearable at others. In community, as we accompany each other along the way, as we support each other in the rigors of the spiritual journey, we are for each other burden-bearers, burdens, and blessings.

What, then is the role of our ministry? Is the value of ministry lessened if the work we are called to do is not the primary reason we are brought together? On the contrary. Apart from the inward journey, our ministry lacks integrity. A religious community with a task—even a noble task—as its primary purpose and goal risks allowing both the community and the task to become sterile. The apostolate is inseparable from the journey of transforming union. Flowing out of the journey, rather than usurping its place, our ministry flowers and reaches fruition, for it becomes more and more the work of Christ, as we ourselves are being transformed into the compassionate and merciful presence of Christ for each other and for the world.

__________

1 Aimer, ce n’est pas se regarder l’un l’autre, c’est regarder ensemble dans la même direction.

2 Parker Palmer, “The Monastic Way to Church Renewal,” Desert Call, Winter 1987: 8-9.

3 Eliz­a­beth C. Cle­phane, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” 1868.

. . . . . . . . . .

The above Journal reflection is somewhat longer than usual. This essay was accepted for publication in Review for Religious. However, when it came out in January, 2007, it had been edited so severely (without my knowledge or permission) that it was almost unrecognizable. According to Sister Elizabeth’s calculation, only 27 of the 87 sentences were my own. Even worse, the intent had been modified.

I thought that some of you might like to read the original.

Sister Rose Hoover

7 Responses to “Why Do We Gather? Religious Community and the Transforming Journey”

  1. Dusty says:

    The sheer length of it alone would prohibit publication.

  2. Cybernun says:

    Actually, the essay is rather brief by print publication standards — shorter than most of my others that have been published. Review for Religious didn’t so much shorten it as rewrite it and change its focus.

  3. Mary-Catherine Corr says:

    I really enjoyed reading the article and found it refreshingly honest and insightful. Sister Rose is a beautiful soul, always so earnest. I know this because she has helped me through a very deep trauma that transformed my interior and rebuilt my faith.

  4. Medievalmama says:

    WOW! I, too, think that this is not too long– AND it puts the thoughts that I have been bumbling around with for months into correct, concise perspective -thank you so much!

  5. sherry says:

    Sr Rose your article is really wonderful…capturing the essence and purpose of the religious(community)life, it is true that IMITATION of JESUS consists in being totally “possessed” by the same motivation of Our Lord….a process that is realized only through the Transforming Union with Him….the various ministerial activities of which are only an outward manifestation of this reality! Thank you and God Bless

  6. maria says:

    A fine piece on Community.
    Thank you.
    Maria

  7. Angela Arnold says:

    Very thought-provoking to this Quaker. Thank you.

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