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.

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