Liturgically, we have recently completed the Easter Season and have returned to Ordinary Time. Even the great Sunday Solemnities of the Holy Trinity and Corpus Christi, and the Friday Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, are part of Ordinary Time. They mark the transition from the Easter Season.
In secular life, we are also in a season of transitions: we celebrate graduations with quasi-liturgy pomp at school and with a festive table at home. It’s also the traditional time for marriages and ordinations and congratulations are in the air. In the United States monasteries of our Order, there have also been elections and there are now three new superiors in our region: Sr. Vicki Murray has been elected Abbess of Santa Rita Abbey in Arizona; Sr. Rebecca Stromoski, Abbess of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Iowa; Fr. Gerard D’Souza, Abbot of Genesse Abbey in New York. And of course we all offer them congratulations and laud the honor.
To become the superior of a monastic community, however–not unlike entering into marriage or moving on from high school to college or from college to the work force–is not an achievement. It’s the assumption of grave responsibilities and learning to fit into a very familiar pattern and community of people in a totally unfamiliar way. It’s a challenge to the community, too. Each of the new superiors mentioned above had served their communities as Novice Directors; new leadership has to be called from the ranks to fill that gap. Monks and nuns are not interchangeable pieces on a game board but multi-dimensional human beings; the dynamics, the emotions, the relationships shift through the entire organism that we call a community. The community, as well as the superior, has to be willing to change, to adjust, to listen and respond to the future. In our time, we live in a society with values often inimical to our vocation. We live in a complex and ailing economy; we live in a culture of high-risk. A monastic community can’t simply “drop out” of the system if we are to care for our members and our seniors (e.g.,utilities, insurance, health care, social security, medicaid). Primarily and Abbess or Abbot would be spiritually generative in the community; today she or he also has to juggle economic responsibilities, health care, zoning issues, public relations, psychological jargon–you name it. Of course, they don’t handle all those departments but they have to be conversant with each of them. They must support the monks or nuns with whom they share these responsibilities–and find their own support systems among their peers in the region and in their own communities. If our Abbots once had the privilege of wearing the “pontificals” garb of a prelate under their monastic habit (a very uncomfortable priveledge that must have been) and the accent was on the honor of his position, our contemporaries are probably more aware of their crowded calendars, the problems they have to balance and making it to the next retreat day.
There are more sobering considerations. Two of the monasteries of our Region have had to close their novitiates and that fact is indeed sobering for all of us. If we cannot attract vocations from our society, if there are no future monks and nuns, how can monasticism continue? Each of our houses knows this challenge well and we wonder whether we can meet the challenge. What is very important for us to consider is what shape would our monastic life take, what value would there be of our life if we knew we did not have a future? Of course, it would not have been wasted and the monastic commitment would not have ended when no new member enters. There is the vocation of dying well, of letting go and “letting God”, of still responding to new challenges, of deepening the life of prayer for the Church and for all of humanity, of persevering to the end.
And so, we pray: we pray for the new graduates, the young couples, the newly ordained and the new abbots and abbesses. We pray for renewed vision to live a monastic life that’s viable for future generations. And we ask you to pray with us and for us.
a future post will reflect on how to support potential vocations