The visit of the RSHM Enlarged International Leadership Council to the Eastern American Area from November 18 to December 6 was a time of joy, filled with special gatherings and celebrations. Their follow-up letter included the following reflections:
We experienced a strong sense of life and mission among you, not just among those actively engaged in external ministry but also among sisters who are retired or dealing with the limitationsof aging or illness, who continue to live our mission through their prayer, presence, and acts of service within the community…. We were very happy to meet many of you again at the Area Day on the 3rd of December and members of the SHM Extended Family on the following day. We saw that relationships between the Extended Family and the sisters are warm, appreciative and life-giving. In general, it was evident to us that, while numbers are diminishing in the Eastern American Area, life and mission are flourishing.
One of the highlights of the visitation period was the Area Day featuring the video of a dialogue between Constance Fitzgerald, a Carmelite contemplative nun, and Shawn Copeland, a theologian especially attentive to the black experience of slavery in this country. It is a conversation between two deeply religious women who are both struggling to tease out the meaning of our human situation and the place of religious life in this contemporary time of diminishment and displacement, which is a common worldwide phenomenon.
Sister Constance has spent her life exploring the richness of the Carmelite prayer tradition especially that of St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Her conviction is that, currently, religious women are invited to a deeper place, a place of intimate union with Christ crucified and the Trinity. From this place, they find themselves in communion with all the displaced and suffering people of the world.
Shawn has developed in contemplative life a deep commitment to the transformation of consciousness that binds all human persons together as one and as one with the cosmos. She invokes the “dark wisdom” of the enslaved not to avoid suffering, nor to deny suffering, but to SUFFER suffering.
Their conversation leads us to view displacement as a planetary experience: wave upon wave of migration; thediminishment caused by climate change; the perceived loss of power by dominant groups, white males in particular; escalation of violence; limitations of the pandemic; and in our current experience of religious life, declining numbers, loss of motherhouses, and varied expressions of coming to completion.
Women religious today are led by the Spirit to stand with all the despised and excluded at the foot of the cross. We are invited to a deeper place, called to appropriate a totally relational life, an identity shaped by the crucified Christ for the awakening of the entire cosmos.
The frailty and losses which we experience are like the dark night of the soul in classic mysticism. The Christ-life takes on a new depth, luring us to greater union and communal love. This involves a stretching of the soul, not just our individual souls, but the soul of religious life.
There are lifelong obstacles to be faced in this stretching of the soul. One is the false self, the egocentric bent that blocks true communion. The other is simply the condition of being human, the limitations of our incomplete and restless nature.
The soul-stretching to which we are invited involves reconfiguring our selfhood – replacing the selfhood based on autonomy with one based on communion. It is like the unraveling of a ball of yarn, both painful and exciting. Wisdom is so often expressed in paradox. A beautiful quotation from slave literature is: “Wisdom in the heart is not the same as wisdom in the mind.” It is this deeper wisdom that seeks a “freedom future” rather than a “fractured future,” secure in the unwavering conviction that “He Be With Us.”