Life consecrated, not religious

Siberian Musk Deer in the taiga (Erik Adamsson / Wikimedia Commons)

It is 2008. I am sitting for meditation at the chapel of a Benedictine Ashram called "Forest of Peace" in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Benedictine Sr. Pascaline Koff has been guiding me through the meditations, and she hands me a book for my leisure time. The name of the book is Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West.

In the course of that one month retreat, I reached page 199 and got stuck there forever, reading this quote of St. Catherine of Siena again and again:

All has been consecrated. The creatures in the forest know this, the earth does, the seas do, the clouds know, as does the heart full of love. Strange! A priest would rob us of this knowledge and then empower himself with the ability to make holy what already was.

Saint Kabir was a weaver in North India. His famous poem "Of the Musk Deer" reveals that God is one and is everywhere. Producing sweet-smelling musk at his own belly button, the deer meanders in search of the source of the enchanting aroma. He runs helter-skelter in all directions and — dog-tired — he drops and curls up with his nose near his belly button and finds the aroma there.

So is our consecration. We were all consecrated as an embryo in our mother's womb. "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jeremiah 1:5).

We need not imitate the deer in his maddening rut, in search of consecration outside of our body and the cosmic body of the planet. If each one of us finds our peace, our dignity, our freedom within us, then we understand what the Vietnamese monk, renowned Zen master, poet and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh says, "Peace is every step … walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet. … Peace is a state of mind, a way of being … the experience of peace is rooted within us."

So is our consecration within and around us.

We do not have to search for the consecrated life as something "up there," but rather the "beyond" that lies within. As Jesuit Fr. Anthony de Mello says, "You sanctify whatever you are grateful for."

We have to let go of the traditional notion of God, and of consecration as something outside of our body — which is terrifying and at the same time liberating.

Jesus, the prophet par excellence, announces that the time is now — time for the reign of God. In my understanding the consecrated one (prophet) comes to this planet with clear vision, the ability to announce that vision effectively both to the powers that be and to the people at the margins, and is ready to pay the price.

2015, the Year of Consecrated Life, made me aware that no one can take away our consecration before God, not even the civil or ecclesiastical magisterium. Every person, having been consecrated in the womb, holds God's place in relation to another human being. If anyone asks me whether I am a religious or secular sister, I find myself answering that "I am consecrated."

In her essay, "No More Sea," Society of the Sacred Heart Sr. Ishpriya Mataji narrates the following story:

The story is told of an ingenious adventurer of the last century who persuaded a number of businessmen to finance his research into the behavior of tigers in the Antarctic. After spending three years and a considerable amount of money on the project he returned home. His backers arranged a public lecture at which he was to share his findings. The announcement aroused much interest and it was to an audience vibrant with anticipation that he addressed these opening words: "Ladies and gentlemen, as you know I have spent three years in an exhaustive research in this topic. I am now convinced that there are no tigers in the Antarctic." After this he sat down.

This parable raises many disturbing questions for religious who are supposed to be prophetic voices crying out in the wilderness but find themselves comfortably ensconced in their institutional boxes. "Consecrated life" includes every human being, not just the institutions. After much research, Mataji has concluded that religious life and the church as we experience them today will no longer survive.

In an LCWR leaflet on "Formation," Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister wrote an article entitled "The Fall of the Temple: A Call to Formation." In it she predicted that the temple of religious life will fall, just as the temple of Jerusalem collapsed.

She laments its demise:

It is precisely our security that is killing us, and our isolation that is insulating us from the gospel, and our obedience that is making us useless lackeys of oppressive and unjust systems. We have taken the very vows that were meant to free a person and turned them into institutional niceties that now enslave us to the economic standards and antiseptic social strata and patriarchal systems to which we say we are counter-culture.

I have met several highly committed sisters who have expressed deep dissatisfaction with the irrelevance of institutionalized religious life. Some sisters, including provincials and superior generals, have left religious life and are exploring more meaningful possibilities of consecrated living.

Religious life as we see it today has strayed away from its basic thrust of countercultural protest. Forms of religious life which arose as prophetic movements according to the needs of the situation have become more and more institutionalized and lost much of their prophetic commitment. They compromised with the world and allowed themselves to be co-opted by it.

Would it be too far off the mark to say that the majority of religious congregations, which were started for the poor, find themselves catering primarily to the rich and pacifying their own consciences by throwing charitable crumbs to the poor?

Gerald Arbuckle, in an insightful study on religious life, comments: "Historically, once these movements cease to be prophetic, though in the Church law they may remain religious congregations, they are no longer authentically religious. By sinking to the level of purely human institutions they have lost their reason for being."

The crisis in religious life is a providential opportunity to explore new forms of consecrated life and an appropriate spirituality like, "Everything is sacred and everything is consecrated."

While some of us may lament the loss of vocations in religious life and its decline, it is high time that we dismantle its institutional trappings so that we can move from a religious life to a consecrated life style for today. In many western countries there may be a shortage of new entrants to religious life, diminishing numbers, departures and deaths.

But Consecrated life remains until the end of the world.

[Margaret Gonsalves belongs to the Sisters for Christian Community, Washington D.C. (WEB Region). She is the founding president of ANNAI Charitable Trust and networks with various newly founded women religious congregations for the empowerment of tribal/indigenous girls, including religious women.]

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