. . . I may be admonished,
by the thought of my vanishing years,
that it is high time to flee from Babylon.
~ Petrarch, “On the death of Laura”
In the wake of yesterday’s announcement of the CDF’s intention to impose reforms on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, I wrote an angry post. It was not as angry a post as it started out to be, but it was as much anger as I’ve directed at the Church since my reversion. And underneath the anger was what felt like a tsunami of grief, as unexpected in its depth and power as it was inexplicable to anybody who tried to talk me off the ledge of it.
It was initially inexplicable to me, too. I thought at first it was empathy for the religious women who’d gotten what appeared to be a raw deal from the hierarchy (though why that should come as a surprise to me, having gone through this with the IHMs 40 years ago, is also a puzzlement). Then I watched the focus of my anger turn from the CDF to the people who tried to console me, because they didn’t seem to get it. It wasn’t only my friend The Hermit who suggested that it might be time to let the old orders die off. To a person, everyone who weighed in on the topic with me expressed the same opinion: These women have outlived their charism and their ministry; many of their members have long since left the Church, though not through outright schism like the members of the SSPX. It’s time for a new model of religious life–or an old one, renewed–to blossom. Everyone was charitable, and eloquent, and prayerful–and adamant. The times they are a-changin, hippie girls of God, and you need to step aside.
I look back on the messages from last night and I recognize the truth in them, and I am grateful for the kindness when so many in comboxes continue to heap abuse with gleeful abandon. (Worst example today, from a commenter at The Deacon’s Bench: “They caught those nuns with their polyester pantsuits down!”) And I’m delighted to see that Fr James Martin, SJ has found a brilliant way to use new media to fill in what I found so grievously absent yesterday–any sense of appreciation for the gifts that LCWR communities and sisters in general have shared with us over the years. His #WhatSistersMeanToMe Twitter hashtag is not a campaign or a polemic, but a space for gratitude, and seeing the generous response lifts my heart.
The morning also brought more clarity on some of the issues that really do need reforming. Public stances that are 180 degrees removed from Church teaching–not to mention actions, such as a Catholic sister escorting women into an abortion clinic–send mixed messages at best, and it’s hardly surprising that the institutional part of the Church (which can seem like the only part sometimes, but isn’t) would react with the equivalent of calling middle managers on the carpet for compromising brand integrity. The LCWR’s initial response to the charges is, predictably, shock, but I’m thinking that’s pro forma protestation. Women as prophetic as these are must have seen this coming down the Via della Consolazione for decades.
So I’m less angry, but somehow still as sad. And that’s how I know that my grief is not (and maybe never was) for the sisters, but for myself. It’s what my friends guessed when they pulled their punches last night. Like Hopkins’s Margaret in “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” who only seems to be grieving over the loss of Goldengrove’s autumn leaves, it is myself I mourn for. The torch of the Church has been passed to a new generation, and it ain’t mine. Hard as it is to admit, God did not call me back to the Church to relive the glory days of Corita Kent and Dan Berrigan, but to put the energy of those days to use in the service of raising up the next generation and preparing it for the joys and dangers that will inevitably arise. The lesson of these late years is the lesson we all must come to in the end, the curriculum of the Baptist: “I must decrease, that He may increase.”
There’s suffering in that letting go. There’s humiliation–the emptying out of pride, the returning of ego to the dust, which will be done to us by others if we cannot do it ourselves. To expect otherwise is to mistake the mission. And to expect praise for what is past, or even acknowledgment, is foolish. “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do'” (Luke 17:10).
But there is joy in this acceptance, too. I realized this morning, after hearing the phrase applied over and over to the late Dick Clark, that I don’t want to be remembered as “the world’s oldest teenager.” In my Italian literature class this afternoon, we read Petrarch’s note-to-self, scribbled in the margins of his copy of Virgil, after the death of his muse, Laura. In his grief, Petrarch experienced conversion, an awakening to the brevity of time and the need to turn his energies toward the Love that is eternal. “It is high time to flee from Babylon,” he wrote–to let go of the gratification of the self, the quest for fame, the need to be right and to be loved that can tempt all of us, poets and nuns and bloggers alike.
And even kings. The answer to my angry prayers of yesterday came in God’s many voices: my friends The Hermit, Elizabeth, Michael, Joseph, and Frank; Fr James Martin; John the Baptist, Luke; Gerard Manley Hopkins, Petrarch. And Alfred Lord Tennyson’s King Arthur, who had the answer for the grief of change:
So I launch my little boat away from Babylon and on to Avalon, on a sea of prayer. In whatever days I have left, let me practice decreasing with grace.