THEOLOGY OF RELIGIOUS LIFE
Barbara Fiand, SND
Ancient Eastern wisdom tells us that one cannot step into the same river twice. Contemporary scientific theory confirms this in recognizing change alone as permanent. In the light of this, a discussion on the theology of religious life does well to stress, as you in fact have, the dynamic flow necessary for relevance. Perhaps what might still be added to your definition is the future as an essential referent. The present, after all, is merely tomorrow's past. Its importance lies in its creativity as well as in its gratitude.
In the light of this, what would I want to say about religious life? Over the last several years the primacy of our baptismal call to be about the reign of God has placed the meaning of religious life for me squarely within the context of the Easter agenda for justice and personal as well as social transformation. The vows, in as much as they are our ways of living out our baptism, are shaped, as I see it, within the justice context - receive their meaning as well as their nourishment there. I do not believe that an interpretation of them that does not hold this as primary has any justification in our time, and no amount of referencing the past will provide it. Thus, for example, poverty, vowed and lived in our midst, clearly needs to focus on solidarity for the sake of eliminating never merely imitating destitution and social discrimination. The vow of poverty, as personal as well as congregational willingness to share, aims at furthering God's reign and the equality of all. It has little to do, as I see it, with dependence as such, no matter how much ecclesial law may still laud this. It fosters economic and social justice - the self-determination of a person and a people that allows for an adult expression of freedom. It opens up numerous possibilities to those committed to justice, and the natural gospel penchant for creativity with which it is connected resists the need for uniformity or sameness.
If baptism and its call to Christification becomes our primary focus, it would seem to me that charism will have to become our gathering priority, and that the vows will receive their importance as well as their relevance there. (They may, in fact, undergo reinterpretation in the light of the charism and its being lived out in a particular context and time. They may even change.) The charism of a religious congregation, as I see it, is that facet of the diamond called the gospel agenda that draws a group together and energizes it for the sake of justice. It was this most likely which energized the creativity of our founder or foundress and had either of them commit to a particular need present at their time in history. Their energy and enthusiasm drew others to them and empowered the founding of a congregation. Today that same charism energizes us within the social context in which we find ourselves and draws us together for the sake of justice. It is our gathering priority, as I see it, the criterion whereby we judge what we are about, alter our course, and redirect our agendas. The charism empowers and informs us and, in turn, is addressed and enhanced by us. We experience a dialectic here, a dance, if you will. We all receive from as well as gift each other and enrich the charism that inspires us. There is, as I see it, no inside or outside, no up or down, in this experience, just one whole. The vision is ever focused on the "not yet" of God's reign which we proclaim by our lives as being among us. All our decisions revolve around bringing it about.
Given this view, the question can, of course, be asked as to what differentiates us from all the other baptized who, after all, also are called to Christification. I have no major response here, since it is not a primary concern for me. The relationality into which we are called in this new millennium, as I envision it, is not primarily concerned with distinctions but focuses on at-one-ment instead. Our identity needs, first and foremost, to be with the Christ and here our similarity rather than our difference is of the essence. If we can all be one as Christ Jesus is with God, his Beloved, what distinguishes us will be a non-question. What this means is that we will live the life which we find most conducive to our bringing about transformation, and our focus will be on that rather than on our identity.
It would seem to me that new forms of membership would then blossom around the gospel agenda which all of us espouse. Our vows would be judged in accordance to their enhancing of our goal. Most likely new and diverse vows would be taken by some in our group, while the traditional vows would remain important to others. Our gathering priority would be what identifies us to each other and gives us life.
The observation of Philip Sheldrake may serve to reassure those who find my reflections somewhat disconcerting. "[R]eligious life," he says, "is not so much a single spiritual tradition as a variety of movements and Christian
life-styles which, because they interrelate, are generally viewed as a single phenomenon." [Spirituality and History, (New York: Crossroad, 1992),107, italics mine] Our interrelatedness, I maintain, will need to emerge out of our common passion for the gospel agenda and of our gathering into community around the charism that we feel most drawn to in bringing it about. Variety, if religious life in its essence is to survive, will most likely become greater as we move into a millennium whose cultures will have moved away from some of the dualisms and strictures concerning our body, and matter in general. The values we espouse will then have to find a sound footing in our adult sense of community, and the "shoulds" of the past will need reappraisal, rejection, or re-appropriation within the context of mature self-understanding.
The future is wide open, I believe, and the harvest is ready.