The American Monastic Newsletter

Volume 43, Nr. 1, February 2012               Richardton, ND 58652

Inside this issue:

President

Convention

Guest Essay

Library Section

ABA Elections

World Oblate Congress

Monastic News Omnibus

Book Reviews

Junior Essay Contest

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AMN Online

 

 

ABA Index


 
 


 

Issue Contents


 

Monastic Interreligious Dialogue: Vocation Dialogue Reveals Commonality

Concern over the changing vocation picture in monasteries is hardly news, but a recent meeting highlighted a surprising aspect. Every few years, the North American commission of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue sponsors a dialogue specifically for monastic women under the title "Nuns in the West."

The purpose of MID is to foster communication among world religions by focusing on similarities and points of conversation rather than differences and points for argument. In planning the meetings, a topic is selected around which participants from various faiths can share their experiences and insights. When Sister Helene Mercier, executive director of MID, met with Venerable Yifa, a Buddhist nun who was a university professor in California, it was the Buddhist who suggested the topic of attracting young people and passing on monastic wisdom to the next generation.

Everyone to whom the planners spoke, regardless of religion, thought that this was certainly something of great interest and relevance in their own lives. The dialogue, which took place last fall at Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, KS, brought together some of the female members of the MID board, a Buddhist nun and two Hindu nuns. The Benedictines, in addition to Sister Helene (St. Joseph, MN), were Sisters Barbara Austin (Tulsa, OK), Anne McCarthy (Erie, PA), Katherine Ann Smolik and Meg Funk (Beech Grove, IN), and Judith Sutera (Atchison, KS). Sister Elizabeth Carrillo (Atchison) assisted with planning and hospitality, but ended up becoming a consultant of sorts in the conversations because she herself had come to community in the recent past and was perpetually professed only a few months earlier.

It was obvious from the beginning that all monastics are asking the same questions. It was, in fact, one of the Hindus who framed the series of questions for the conversation. They will sound as if she may have been eavesdropping on the meetings in many Christian Benedictine houses:

  • Whatever a faith tradition's ideal of monastic life, it manifests through human models. New monastics, or lack of them, shine a spotlight on our religious tradition, community, and our personal spiritual lives and practice. What are the issues, both positive and negative, that arise from this, particularly in contemporary society, and how do people deal with them?
  • There are issues that surround tradition and adaption to modern life: What are the particular issues the different faith traditions are facing?
  • Are traditional monastic values cultivated primarily through traditional monastic practices? How do we distinguish between a necessary adaption and an adaption that has not been tested by hundreds of years of tradition and may not work?
  • Society has changed, we are told, more radically in the last few years than in the hundreds of years that have preceded this time. Values have also changed (commitment, pre-marital chastity, self-sacrifice, careers for women etc.). Contemporary monastic aspirants reflect these changes. In issuing the invitation, how and in what areas can we adjust to this, without either setting up such unrealistic standards that only a rare person would still qualify, or bringing in people who would have to effect such a radical transformation that we are probably just setting them up for failure (to say nothing of the issues that those who have these problems wreak on the community while everyone is realizing that they will eventually leave)?
  • How do we handle issues that arise on negotiating the agenda between the traditions of the community and the contemporary monastic aspirant without either being too reactionary or accommodating to the point of compromise?
  • What are the pros and cons of older vocations?

Needless to say, the conversation was lively. Needless to say also, no one should expect an announcement that any of the questions were decisively answered or any of the problems solved. There was a strong feeling across all three traditions that there is still an important place in the world for lifetime commitment to celibate contemplative life and that it is a crucial and prophetic alternative to the "world's ways." In all the faiths, there seems to be a hunger among young people for the skills and values that monasticism teaches, so interacting with them is of great value.

As for the future, monastics must accept the challenges and possibilities of this time of change with a spiritual and peaceful attitude that will be attractive to others and fulfilling for themselves. They must be cautious of maintaining their balance, recognizing the need for progress but weighing the influence of the culture in ways that detract from the contemplative life. New members should be neither people who have deep personal problems to be "fixed" nor people whose objective is to "fix" everything about the community.

One of the observations was that monasteries can worry about "contraction" in the sense of becoming smaller and less visible, or use the same word to think of the contractions of a time of birth. After three days of conversation, the participants not only learned more about monasticism in other traditions but were able to encourage one another and share many insights. One thing that was abundantly clear was that, despite faiths that are radically different, all three monastic groups in today's American culture are finding themselves sailing in the same universal boat.

 

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Judith Sutera OSB
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