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-members, Loretto 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.