Critical yeast for this crucial time

December 18, 2015: During the holiday season, GSR presents an of an earlier column, which, a little more than a year later, is still relevant and offers thoughtful solutions that apply to religious life today:

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There is so much human-induced suffering happening in the world these days. Just open a newspaper, check your news feed on your favorite social network, or turn on a cable news channel, and you will no doubt know what I mean. Armed conflict, sectarian violence, racial injustice, raging poverty, forced migration, environmental damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions . . . the list seems to never end. In fact, it seems to get longer by the day, hour, minute and second.

There is also much human-supported goodness happening in the world these days. We know this in our own lives, families, friends and communities. Good things happen to us every day, and hopefully, as we are continuously converted by the good news of the Gospel and the example of Jesus, we ourselves are responsible for some of that good stuff in other people’s lives. The good stuff is also part of what it means to be human, every day, hour, minute and second.

I sometimes think that, as a general rule, we are at risk of becoming paralyzed by what Pope John Paul II called the “supposed impossibility of changing the world” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia #16) Yes, the world seems to be more and more in crisis. Yes, it is difficult to see how we might go about building peace and achieving justice for all God’s little ones. But if we listen to our heart of hearts, we understand that we can’t hide behind impossibility. Rather, the call of this crucial time seems to be to seek out and actively choose what is possible, despite the odds.

One book that has given me great hope and food for thought in this regard is The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace by John Paul Lederach (Oxford Press 2005). Lederach, a professor of peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame, shares insights from his experience working in conflict situations and offers examples of ordinary people choosing possibility over impossibility. I first read the book two years ago when it was assigned for a course on reconciliation and forgiveness at Catholic Theological Union, taught by Robert Schreiter, CPPS. Last year, I was given the opportunity to read it in a different context, this time in another CTU course taught by Maria Cimperman, RSCJ on religious life in the 21st century.

Often times, when we find ourselves facing supposed impossibility, it is because we do not think that we have the critical mass needed to overcome the situation. Indeed, experience tells us that the success of many social movements – from the civil rights movement to the long road to women’s suffrage in this country – relied on the participation and conversion of large numbers of people. I suspect it is this experience and expectation of systemic change that gives us pause, and might even lead to despair, in the face of the chaos and suffering of our present global reality.

Lederach offers an alternative image to critical mass that he names critical yeast. Instead of asking a question about quantity, how many people, Lederach challenges us to ask who, which people, in this situation, “would have a capacity, if they were mixed and held together, to make things grow, exponentially, beyond their numbers?” (pg. 91). Put another way, what mix of people might make the good stuff of life grow and spread?

As I ponder the present reality and my hopes for the future of religious life, I find myself returning again and again to Lederach’s metaphor of critical yeast.  It has been especially helpful in imagining the path forward as we face a time of rapid demographic change and the small-scaling of North American religious life.

In her 2014 presidential address at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Carol Zinn, SSJ, wonders if the call of “our current experience of living into the smallness of religious life out of the large institutional reality of religious life these past years is the beginning of a dissonant harmony” of charisms that might free “us to live this life more fully, more creatively, more boldly, more at the periphery.”

I appreciate both Zinn’s naming of and her curiosity about the call of this new-to-this-generation experience of the “smallness of religious life.” It resonates with a realization I’ve had lately: It must be difficult for those who entered and experienced large-scale institutional religious life to imagine and embrace the small-scaling God seems to be inviting to. By contrast, as one of a few newer members in an aging community, I’ve always had some vague notion of and excitement about the possibility of globally connected small-scale religious life.

Much of my excitement about this radical shift in the landscape of religious life resonates with what Lederach tells us about critical yeast.

  1. The principle of critical yeast is that a “few strategically connected people have greater potential for creating the social growth of an idea or process than large numbers of people who think alike.”
  2. Yeast has to move and mingle with others to have an impact.
  3. Yeast needs a warm, inviting, safe environment.
  4. Yeast is kneaded and mixed into the mass and has “capacity to generate growth.”
  5. Yeast is not static or stationary but “constantly moves across a range of different processes and connections.” (Lederach, 91-93)

Mixing my own inklings, with Zinn’s curiosity, and Lederach’s insights about critical yeast, I find myself even more hopeful and excited about the potential for small scale religious life, with its mingling of charisms and greater movement and freedom to meet the unmet needs of the human and earth community. Perhaps God is inviting us to be critical yeast so that we can help spread the good stuff of the Gospel for generations to come.

[St. Joseph of Peace Sr. Susan Rose Francois is a Bernardin Scholar in Ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She has ministered as a justice educator and advocate and worked in local government prior to entering religious life. Read more of her work at Musings of a Discerning Woman.]