Anyone familiar with the recent investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) will know that it has become somewhat boilerplate material to try to isolate "the problem" with the sisters. Some pundits claim that they have been infected with liberalizing strains that made them lose sight of their original charism. Others decry their getting out of their religious habit, as though uncomfortable garb were the essential to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Make no mistake: I often take exception to how the LCWR accents certain issues above others. There have, without question, been missteps (and let the one of us without sin cast the first stone!). Indeed, I'm ashamed to admit that I've sometimes succumbed to making jokes at their expense.
My retreat this week, however, has driven deep into my heart just how foolish, and ignorant, I have been. I look back on some of the jokes I've made in the past, and repent of them: for I realize that often my attempt at humor was merely an attempt to conceal my insecurity about the costs and consequences of how many religious women have felt called to live out their discipleship.
This year, I'm making my annual retreat at The River's Edge, a ministry of the Congregation of Saint Joseph. I have a special place in my heart for the CSJ's as one of my great-great aunts, Sister Miriam Therese (aka Aunt Barb), was a CSJ and I loved her very much. Many of the sisters here were friends of Aunt Barb and this morning, after Mass, two of the sisters came up and told me that they'd "adopted" me to be their Jesuit nephew. They promised to pray for me and I assured them of my prayers for them and their intentions.
In Latin, the word mercy is misericordia: to place one's heart (cor) with the poor and despised (miseri). This morning, as I ate a silent breakfast, I eavesdropped on a table of sisters discussing a recent Congregation-led project to provide housing for low-income families. One of the sisters, presently, shared her own experiences of living amidst those in subsidized housing and I marveled as they thought together about how they could be present to the poor.
No, they weren't just thinking about the poor as so many of us are apt to do; as I've said before, for many of us our bourgeois sentiment can be best expressed with blessed are the poor...in theory. These women weren't speculating about how to get the poor to understand the word consubstantial; they were concerned with trying to find them a place to live.
Walter Kasper, in his book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, writes that "Mercy is ultimately grace for conversion." Mercy demands that we get down, we get dirty, and immerse ourselves in the muck and mire of life's hardships. Rather than a lace napkin, real mercy is a sturdy trowel that enables us to get into the dirt of life.
One may joke about sister's "sensible shoes" and nondescript pin, but if you look at her fingernails, there's probably a lot more dirt their than you'll find in most priests.
So what's the problem with the sisters? Is it their lack of orthodoxy? Their refusal to be obedient? Perhaps the problem is less with them than it is with those of us who make japes at their expense. Mayhap it be with us who'd content themselves to "pray" for peace but to settle into the comforts and rhythms of a life built on the exploited. Maybe it's with those who fervently want and pray for the Kingdom of God...so long as it comes on our terms in a neat package rather than through the hard work it demands.
In Psalm 85 we read:
Mercy and faithfulness have met;
justice and peace have embraced.
Faithfulness shall spring from the earth
and justice look down from heaven.
The Lord will make us prosper
and our earth shall yield its fruit.
Justice shall march before him
and peace shall follow his steps.
When we are tempted to heap scorn on another Christian, or group of fellow believers, we should be mindful of these words. Jesus' first word to his gathered disciples was not "orthodoxy" or "dogma" but peace. The anger and cynicism that attends so much of the discourse about the "problem with the sisters" betrays a fundamental lack of faith in the power of the Resurrection and an unwillingness to accept the peace and joy that comes with knowing, and following, Jesus.
It is peace and joy I have found here at the River's Edge, a grace given both through my own prayer and reflection and in the witness of so many courageous women. In many cases, these elderly sisters once taught classrooms of children how to pray. This lesson continues today, as their willingness to endure scorn as they follow Jesus do not teach us merely the words of prayer but show us what it is give flesh to the words we've said and to become living prayers offered in peace and joy to God.