Loretto Community Visit, Day 4 – Spirit, transformation, and Gethsemani

My day started and ended with prayer. At 6:30am, Mary Swain and I walked out to the chapel in the woods for thirty minutes of silence. Later this morning, at 10am I went to mass at the Loretto Church. This evening, we were at the Abbey of Gethsemani and attended 5pm vespers followed by 7pm compline. Four times for prayer today alone! Who have I become?

Anyways – today started with the same 6:30am walk as yesterday, but today as we walked out, due to the “spring forward” time change, instead of walking in dusk light we walked in the darkness. The night sky was clear, and Mary pointed out to me the planets and constellations. She said the stars feel like friends because they’ve spent so many mornings together. As for this morning ritual of a walk and silence, it seems that Mary has been doing this since Cedars of Peace opened in 1978. But when asked about what it’s about for her, she says it’s not about any deep or profound prayer – it’s simply about showing up. Maybe orienting ourselves and our time toward God is all we need to do in our spiritual lives.

After we got back from our morning walk and silence, the sun started to rise, and I watched it through my window as I sipped coffee and read New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. It was an idyllic morning.

From there, I went to Sunday mass, where Mary was giving the homily (and playing the organ, for that matter). And – by the way – today was her 79th. birthday. I’m mostly including these details because Mary seems to be a woman who does it all and remains grounded the entire time. It’s exactly why I love to hang out around these women. They all seem to have this spirit.

Speaking of this spirit, after mass I talked with a Sister who casually mentioned that she founded a Women’s Spirituality Center in Santa Fe, NM. It was open for 8 years, and really had a profound impact on her and the women who came through its doors. This is why I’m particularly drawn to the narrative thread of Foundresses in women religious orders. One foundress seems to inspire the next; there is a spirit of founding that is very much alive in religious life. And it’s a founding that recognizes both life and birth, as well as new life and resurrection.  The Sister who founded the Women’s Spirituality Center said that after 8 years they decided to close it, and hosted a grieving ceremony. Her attitude wasn’t one of sadness but acceptance; the organization ran its course, and served its need. It was time to find the next need and ministry. This spirit of founding and re-founding has shaped not only religious life as a whole, but the many ministries that have come out of religious communities as well.

Back to the day. The sun was finally out, so Susan and I went on a walk before lunch, around Mary’s Lake and then through the cabin she built that she and JoAnn now live in. We reflected on this shared work we seem to be a part of – the questions that are guiding us, but are so much bigger than us. The questions that seem to hold us as we move around inside of them and figure out what its asking of us.  The same threads have been pulling on both of us – the signs in religious life and in spiritual life that there is a new form of community life aching to be born. Neither of us – nor the projects we’re a part of – know what that is, but we’re going to keep experimenting, and talking, and dreaming into that future. Like we see modeled in Susan and JoAnn’s cabin, which was built out of the trees and clay and stones from the very land it stands on, transformation is possible. Something found in nature can be used for building walls of a house; old kneelers can be used as interior siding; a wheel from a wheelbarrow can be repurposed into a dish hanger. Just like nature, and just like this cabin, we are capable of transforming and being transformed.

Over lunch, I met Jessie and Andy – a married couple with a foster child – who moved from Colorado onto the motherhouse grounds two years ago in order to live in community with the Loretto’s and in order to live more sustainably. They’re now dreaming up even deeper and bigger possibilities of community life in Loretto. Again, transformation is possible.

After lunch, Eleanor, the archivist, and I went to the Merton room with Cecily Jones’ poetry – from her collections “Mostly for Promise” and “The Porch of Possibility.” From these books, Eleanor read poems Cecily’s poems about the history of the community. The poems are sometimes told from the perspectives of these founding women, and sometimes told by current-day Sisters. Each poem embodies the spirit of this place as one of founding and re-founding, always open to seekers and searchers, as we all accompany each other along the journey.

Late afternoon, a few of us went to the Abbey of Gethsemani – only 15 minutes down the road – to visit with monks and explore this home monastery of Thomas Merton. When we arrived, Brother Michael greeted us, and brought us to see Merton’s gravestone. Since he is the celebrity of Gethsemani, and the Abbey is a pilgrimage site largely due to the fame that Merton brought to it, I thought that he might have a special location or at least a special marker. But I was glad to find that he fit in just like any other brother. And from the stories we heard, he really did have a humble presence, so much that novices wouldn’t realize that “Fr. Louis” was actually Thomas Merton.

From there, we went up to Merton’s hermitage, where he spent his last couple years before he died. Brother Paul met us up there, and showed us into the hermitage, which functions today as a retreat spot for the brothers. Before we walked in the door though, Paul asked us to turn around, so we could see the most important part of the hermitage: the view from the porch. Inside, there’s a small chapel, kitchen, bedroom, and living room. As we were sitting down, Paul’s next request was that we play “Merton Roulette” – as the guest, I would pick one of his personal journals and we would open to today’s date in that journal. We read the entry from March 10, 1962. And of course, it spoke to me even in today’s context.

Then the six of us, three from Loretto, two brothers, and myself, just sat down in a circle in the hermitage to talk. We talked about the role and relevance of monasticism today; we talked about “new monasticism” and Nuns & Nones; we talked about silence, pilgrimage, and work; we talked about the monastery’s Fudge Department while enjoying some of it ourselves. Though mostly lofty topics, the brothers always brought it back to moving, personal experience, and most importantly, they brought in a light-hearted sense of humor. I could feel the presence of Merton in the space, through these two individuals that he had spent time with before his death in 1968.

After Vespers back at the monastery chapel, the six of us shared dinner in the visiting room – wine, bread, cheese, and fruit. We heard stories from Michael and Paul about Merton and their conversations. We also talked about his close friendship with Mary Luke Tobin, the pivotal leader of Loretto in the 1960s. I brought up the Merton Center for Creative Exchange that Mary Luke created as an event and discussion space in her basement to honor her friend, and that it eventually ended up at the Loretto Motherhouse. I asked if he spoke about this vision for creative exchange, but Paul mentioned instead his vision for the hermitage, which he intended to name Mt. Olivet. He wanted the hermitage to be a space for writers, artists, intellectuals and activist to come together and engage with one another. While Merton died only a couple years after the hermitage opening, it has certainly still lived into that vision ever since. It feels like we just got a small taste of that vision in the hermitage today.

I’ll close with this story. Michael, reflecting back what he read in the Nuns & Nones article from Global Sisters Report, said that it seems like there’s something special happening there. There’s some sort of seeing between the communities of Sisters and millennials, a deep recognition in the other of their inner light. He said it reminded him of Merton’s epiphany on Fourth and Walnut in Louisville. I looked up the piece tonight, and feel immensely grateful for him to see Nuns & Nones alive in this excerpt. I will end with Merton’s words from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”


Loretto Community Visit, Day 3: Renewal and Emerging Forms

Today started with a walk to the woods, and sitting in silence. Mary Swain, a community member and Sister here, walks out to the chapel in the woods every morning for 30 minutes of contemplative silence. So we left the novitiate at 6:30am, and walked out to Cedars of Peace, the retreat center of Loretto that is located just a 10 minute walk away into the woods. Cedars of Peace is a collection of hermitages where people take individual silent retreats. Within that small compound, once you walk past hermitages with names like Hope and Namaste, down the cedar path and next to the labyrinth, there is a small chapel that feels more like a meditation room. Walking into it, you take off your shoes and enter into the chapel. There are cushions for four people to sit, two chairs, and windows as large as the walls themselves to look into the woods.

After 30 minutes of silence, where I probably realistically experienced more like 30 seconds of internal silence, I still felt renewed. Just being in the space helped me feel present, grounded, and connected to place. This is what I consider one of the greatest gifts of Sisters’ communities: there is always space to pause, even – and perhaps especially – in the midst of an active life.

Later this morning, I started my meetings with community members. From talking with the community archivist, to lunch with the Emerging Forms Committee, and finally an afternoon conversation with a Loretto who marched in Selma in 1964, it was another incredible day of learning the stories of this community.

Eleanor Craig, the archivist, shared with me even more context for the history and renewal of the Loretto’s. As I learned from Eleanor, renewal of the community started beforeVatican II. In fact, much of the 1950s actually paved the way for more changes to be implemented in the 1960s. And Loretto Sisters were often a part of these global conversations about the future of religious life – from Loretto Sisters studying theology in Europe in the 1950s and learning the ideas that fed into Vatican II, and then Mary Luke Tobin being able to audit Vatican II. Coming out of these changes, the community started to write a new rule for their community, although rather than understanding it as a rule, it was considered a guideline for life. It was called I Am The Way, and was drafted, edited, and revised over 30 years, starting in 1967 and being approved by the Vatican in 1997. This document still feels very alive today in this community.

Around this same time of the original drafting of this document, the community also started to consider the role of co-members in the community. Originally called for by Sisters who were leaving their vowed life but still wanted to associate deeply with the community, the structure of “co-members” was created in the 1970s. Co-members include both women and men of different affiliations and traditions who share the Loretto mission: “to work for justice and act for peace because the gospel urges us.” Today, the Loretto Community includes both the Sisters of Loretto, who are vowed, and co-members, who tend to not be vowed. But as I’ve mentioned, in November 2017, two co-members took vows and started another way of deepening in this community.

If you look on their website, the Loretto’s have a Belonging tab that includes the Sisters, co-membersLoretto Volunteers, and Loretto Circles. As they expand their sense of who belongs, or who counts, in the community, the Emerging Forms committee is holding some of the imagination and direction forward. This is who I spent a nice, long three-hour lunch conversation with.

What is happening in the Emerging Forms committee is incredibly exciting. They are continuously asking the question, what form will community life take in the future? Their method for asking the question is cross-pollinating across traditions and networks, and in fact we have been inspired by many of the same people, including Carol Zinn, CSJ and her talk at Dominican University in 2016, as well as my colleagues from How We Gather, Casper ter-Kuile and Angie Thurston.

In 2012, Susan and JoAnn, the two vowed co-members, began the five-year journey toward their vows. Through deep dives into books, retreats, and discernment, they drafted their own vows, which can be read in this article. The vows are largely inspired by the chakras, intending to commit to these energies in order to release them for the good of community, rather constrain them to a narrow view consumed by power and control. In thinking about the vows, building off of Diarmuid O’Murchu’s book Poverty, Celibacy, Obedience, they often asked themselves the question: “What values need to be radiated?” A vow, as they came to understand it, were energies that have been given to us, and that we want to give to the world. At the core of these vows, as well as vowed co-membership as a whole, was to contribute to the Loretto Community and its future. They wanted to commit to working with the energies that were most “life giving and forward moving.”

I’m so grateful for the innovative and experimental drive that the Emerging Forms committee holds – and for the ways that Loretto have fed and followed this creative energy. The implications of these conversations feel awe-inspiring. With communities facing diminishing numbers, the narrative does not have to be one of despair. It can instead be one of hope and new life – taking root in co-members, in 20-something volunteers, or in lay led community circles.

As I mentioned, after this energizing conversation, I sat with Maureen, who is actually a testament to the value of these emerging forms of religious life. She joined as a Sister in the early 1950s, and ended up leaving in the midst of the “mass exodus” after Vatican II. However, as she says, she never really left. While in law school, she still spent summers with Loretto, and then within a few years she was able to re-join the community as a co-member.

Maureen is someone this community is lucky to have around. As a teacher in the 1950s, she taught her students to be committed to justice and speaking up for important issues. In 1964, she was called upon as a faith leader to join the marchers in Selma, and flew out there from Kansas City to put her body on the line for a greater cause. Trained in non-violence resistance, and formed by those protest songs, she said she still sings them to herself in church when she finds the hymns boring. Even now, in her old age and lessened ability to put her body on the line, since she walks around slowly with oxygen aids and a walker, she still serves in the ways she can. By calling congress, or feeding her fellow community members who can no longer feed themselves, she simply wants to keep spreading gifts, as she has been so gifted in her own life. Because of the co-member model, Maureen remained a part of the community even after leaving her vowed life, and what a blessing for her and the community it has been.

My hope for the future is that the spirit of experimentation and exploration continue in this community and beyond, and that Loretto may be a hint of possibility for those exploring new ways of being together. The hunger for belonging and becoming in communities of spirit in action like this one is increasingly present – in people who stretch far beyond the Catholic Church and the Christian tradition. If the models can evolve, to envelope all those seeking such commitment to these contemplative and justice-oriented ways of life, perhaps another renewal is on its way.

Loretto Community Visit, Day 2: the founding and the future

Day 2 was dedicated to learning the history and story of this place, particularly the stories of the founding and foundresses of this community. Naturally, in the end, this also became a day about the community’s future: how they are imagining and living into a new stage of religious life.

To start, I walked into the Archives that morning, greeted by their staff with a few pamphlets that were left for me: Courage, American: A sketch of the life of the Lorettine foundressAn Army of Peace: the story of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross and With Captain Dogwood: A Life of Charles Nerinckx. I also looked through their book collections – finding a book from 1929 on Great American Foundresses, one of the few books I’ve seen name and celebrate foundresses specifically. Then I found the books published by Loretto Sisters over the years – commentaries on the evolution of religious life, books of poetry, and creative zines with comics and spiritual insight. A few that piqued my interest: “Toward a Spirituality for Global Justice: A Call to Kinship” by Elaine Prevallet; “Breaking through the Stained Glass Ceiling: Women Religious Leaders in their Own Words” edited by Maureen Fielder; and “The Porch of Possibility: Poems” by Cicily Jones, SL.

After spending time in the archives, I went to meet with Sr. Kathleen, in one of her favorite rooms at Loretto: The Thomas Merton Center for Creative Exchange. As she shared with me, Merton had developed this idea of a center for creative exchange, a place where people from all philosophical and religious backgrounds could come together for engaging with one another respectfully and creatively. After his death, his friend and former Loretto leader Mary Luke Tobin opened up a Center for Creative Exchange in her house’s basement in Denver, CO, hosting events and gatherings. Then the Center moved to the motherhouse where it’s lived for many years now – housing a collection of works by Merton, works about Merton, and many beautiful photographs and relics from his life.

This is the setting in which Kathleen walked me through the history of Loretto. Using coins and jolly ranchers, because, as she said, she’s used to teaching kids and using visual aids, she told me the story of how Loretto came to be through Catholics from Maryland settling in Kentucky in the late 18thand early 19thcentury. Mary Rhodes was one of these Catholics from Maryland, and she wanted to teach her brothers’ kids in a school. She taught them in a cabin, and soon other kids joined, looking for schooling, and then two other women joined her as teachers. The need for education grew, and the three women also wanted to grow in their own piety. Working with a local priest, he helped them to establish their own order – a distinctly American order not rooted in a community from Europe, but starting with these three women. After they were officially recognized in April 1812, within a few months three more women joined them.  They were now able to elect the first leader – Mother Superior – and they voted in the youngest woman in the group: Ann Rhodes, who at the time was just 19. (What a story to learn on International Women’s Day, huh?)

While there is much more to the story to be explored in a deeper format down the road, the thrust of the story is typical of other Foundress narratives I have heard: a woman or women noticed a need in their community, they joined with other women, they committed to each other and to that work, and they created the response necessary to the need in community through their own creation of community.

Here on the property, they have a diorama of this origin story. It’s labeled: “The Three Foundresses of the Sisters of Loretto – 1812 – Mary Rhodes, Christina Stuart, Nancy Havern.” The diorama shows the three women teaching children in different settings, with backdrops including their seal of the community, the Rules of the School, and finally a map of the “Holy Land of Kentucky.”

This is another fascinating aspect of this place – there seems to be holiness infused into the land. After the Sisters of Loretto began in 1812, within 30 years the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth were created, then an order of Dominican Sisters. Ultimately it was the Sisters of Loretto that sold Gethsemani to a group of Trappist monks, which is where Thomas Merton spent his life. This small area in the middle of rural Kentucky is home to several religious orders that have existed for the last 200 years, formed tens of thousands of people in religious life, and collectively started thousands of schools, hospitals, and non-profit organizations across the country and world.

Mary Rhodes was the first one.  Among this overflowing energy of commitment to faith and service in this region, she was the first to say yes to a calling she felt. She was the first in this area to ask what the needs were, and how she could serve. Her legacy lives on today in and is as forward thinking as ever; the Loretto Life states: “We strive to educate and be educated in order to face the challenges of the 21stcentury and beyond.”

The legacy of the founding women lives on today through the many Sisters and co-members that continue to respond to the signs of the times in creative ways, to challenge unjust structures, and to build community as support structure to get work done.

My day unfolded to reveal ever enriching details to the story of the founding of the community, and its continuous evolution.  After lunch, I sat in the Church with Sr. Antoinette, learning about the history of the land and the buildings, receiving her detailed wisdom about the particulars of place and people.  Then I had a tour through the Heritage Museum with the Archivists, two young women who have both started working here both in the last year. These two young women, neither Catholic, are immersing themselves in the story of this community, and preserving these stories for future generations to learn from.

My favorite exhibits in the museum are the ones focused on justice and change. One is dedicated to Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, the leader of the community during the renewal years, who was one of fifteen women present at Vatican II in the 1960s. She also was elected to serve in leadership beyond Loretto, in the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which became known as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Tobin, as a close friend of Merton, also brought him to the motherhouse to speak with novices, and even got him to give his opinion on the early drafts of the community’s emerging new document “I Am the Way.”

Another exhibit is on the School of Americas protests, where Sisters have consistently showed up to advocate for non-violence in the face of military aggression. One very apt pin, in their collection of activist pins, says “Pro Future.” This is a political stance that can sum up many social concerns women religious dedicate themselves to today.

Finally, the museum has a giant globe-type-structure you can step into to imagine the future of religious life. There are quotes all around:

  • “I believe the future will surprise us with its beauty when we thought all good was gone.”
  • “We need the skills of open listening, trustful sharing and patient waiting as we walk into the future, so that our Loretto journey can unfold and shape as we go.”
  • “Our future is already here and our mission is to be conscious of it and begin living in it.”
  • “Something new is waiting to be born. We are called to be midwives of a new form of religious life, a model of the single sacred community that is the Universe. Not only is the human sacred. The entire universe is sacred! We are all kin.”
  • “The greatest thanks we can give for our past is to take responsibility for our future.”
  • “No matter what our future holds, I think Loretto values will endure through those whose lives have been touched by us through the years.”
  • “It’s natural to ask: ‘What new ministries are we being called to?’ But I think there is a crucial preceding question: ‘What new understanding of mission is being called forth from us?’”
  • “I am not good at dreaming up the future. However, I believe that we are meant to be a stable rock, a trusted group within the Church and society that people can count on during times of doubt and confusion.”
  • “I hope Loretto becomes a microcosm of what we would like the world to be—inclusive, egalitarian, progressive, joyful, ingenious, just, compassionate, authentic, courageous, flexible and loving—a world worthy of our creator.


While museums might be natural places for audacious dreaming for the future and its possibilities, the spirit of openness is present far beyond the museum as well. Over supper with two Sisters this evening, they casually talked about how religious life as they know it is over. Citing Diarmuid O’Murchu’s Religious Life in the 21stCentury, one Sister said that most religious institutions die after 200 years anyways, so the time is ripe for a new form to take shape.

In the meantime of that new form, the current form is an incredible gift. Tonight the community hosted two professional musicians for a private concert held in the Church, a tradition they’ve had for decades, and we enjoyed wine and cheese with them afterward in the novitiate living room. The daily rhythms of life here inspire groundedness and connection, stability and growth, curiosity and compassion. I could not hope for better midwives than communities like the Lorettos to help usher in whatever comes next in religion and spirituality.

Loretto Community Visit, Day 1: entering the mystery

Hello, world. Keeping with tradition of blogging during my trips for the Foundress project, which I outlined in this blog from my trip to the Benedictine Sisters in Erie, PA, I’ll be writing and reflecting during these visits.

Today I arrived into Loretto, KY to visit the Loretto Community.  I say community rather than Sistersbecause I’ll be spending time with both their Sisters and co-members – as they consider themselves to be in one community together, not as separated between those who are vowed and those who are not. Co-members, like oblates, associates, covenant companions, or other names, are lay people who commit to holding the charism of the community alongside the Sisters. Co-members in the Loretto Community now out-number the number of Sisters in the community; there are something like 200 co-members across the country, and 134 Sisters. Additionally, 70 or so Sisters andco-members live here at the motherhouse, and many of the Sisters’ ministries today are now run by co-members or lay people.

This community has been thinking about emerging forms of religious life for years. In fact, last year two long-time co-members, Susan Classen and JoAnn Gates, became vowed co-members, as written about in this piece from Global Sisters Report. Susan and JoAnn are the ones that helped facilitate my coming to Loretto, and they also run the two retreat centers on the Loretto property – Knob’s Haven and Cedars of Peace.

This is actually what initially drew me into curiosity about Loretto. Two co-members professing vows to a religious community was a clear sign that there is something happening in Loretto – there is some sort of radical openness to the evolution of religious life. I needed to come and see it for myself – what was happening, how, and why.  I wanted to learn more about this forward-looking community, understand their past – particularly their foundresses’ stories – and get a feel for how they are living into this transitional moment in religious life.

So – I landed into Louisville, about an hour from Loretto, and Susan graciously picked me up. Immediately, we had too many things we wanted to talk about! Thankfully, we have days to allow our shared passions to all unfold. When we arrived to the convent, we had lunch with Mary Swain, a Loretto Sister, and I became oriented to the space and to the weekend. I’d spend some time in my own personal research on foundresses, visit with Sisters and community members, attend some of the vespers and prayers, and speak to the whole community about Nuns & Nones on Saturday night.

And excitingly, Mary also coordinated a trip for us to go to Gethsemani, Thomas Merton’s monastery. Gethsemani is only about 15 minutes away from Loretto, and actually shares some roots with the Loretto community. We’ll go over on Sunday to explore the grounds, visit Merton’s hermitage and grave, and share supper with some of the Brothers.

Trips like this make me so thankful for divinity school – and for getting out of the walls of academia. Being in communities like this one are what make all the readings and papers on spirituality, contemplation, and formation feel real and relevant.

Anyways, after lunch, Mary showed me to my room – a novitiate room, which is a former classroom from when this building was a school. Winding through the halls, she greeted nearly every plant we saw, cheering on their growth or apologizing for their dryness. We arrived into the room I would stay in, and there was a quotation on the wall that immediately spoke to me – from StoryPeople, it said:

I don’t know how long I can do this, she said. I think the universe has different plans for me & we sat there in silence & I thought to myself that this is the thing we all come to & this is the thing we all fight & if we are lucky enough to lose, our lives become beautiful with mystery again & I sat there silent because that is not something that can be said.

Arriving into this new place, seeing this story above my bed, I felt affirmed that I’m making the right choices in my life that help me to keep living into the mystery. But how do you say that, when people are asking you what you are doing after graduation? “Following the spirit” isn’t exactly what most people would expect from a Harvard Divinity School graduate.  But at least in this space, in this community, there are plenty of people living into the mystery without words, living into the questions without answers, living into the future without certainty. In that sense, places like this feel like home.

Day one finished out gently and beautifully. A slow walk outside. Energizing conversation over supper. And reading Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation in my room while Sisters watched MSNBC in the living room outside my door. A taste of simplicity for these few days while I’m here, and a chance to enter the mystery.