Millennials & Monastics in Erie, PA

One of the most unique things about my experience with the Erie Benedictines was the amount of young people who have chosen to be in community with the Sisters – whether by joining the community or by moving to Erie to do life alongside the community. From all around the country, young people have come to Erie for internships or short-stays and then chosen to move back and live there in order to be closer to the life of the community. I got to spend a lot of time throughout the week with a few of these young women in their 20s and early 30s – the same age cohort as myself – and it was so inspiring to see young people choosing this way of life so aligned with their values, being present to this place and people in order to learn from them more deeply not through short visits, but invested rootedness.

My conversations with Sr. Linda Romey, the Erie Benedictine who hosted me, over the last several months indicated that there was something special about this place – that the young people who are a part of their community are feeding their energy for the emerging future of religious and spiritual life – and once I got there I realized how special it really is there. And thanks to Linda, we got to see a tiny glimpse of what this intergenerational community looks and feels like through a Nuns & Nones-inspired gathering that we more appropriately dubbed, “Millennials & Monastics.” Along with Linda, we gathered 10 folks – 5 Sisters and 5 Millennials – all (save myself) living in and committed to Erie, PA – to share the questions we hold, the gifts of monastic practice in our lives, the way that desire for community shows up for us, and more.

Read Linda Romey’s reflection on the gathering here.

And if you want to read the pieces that sparked Linda and I’s own conversations on the future of religious and spiritual life – here are a few of my favorites. Linda is an essential voice in this conversation, and I’m so indebted to her wisdom and vision from these pieces:


Rethinking Religious Communities: 18 months later

This week, a second piece of mine was republished by Saint Mary’s Press, which had appeared originally in the Grand Rapids Press in January 2017. “The ‘Rise of the Nones’ Part 2: Rethinking Religious Communities.” (Part 1 was on “The ‘Rise of the Nones’: Creating Community in New Ways”)

In this second part, I explore how holy spaces that are open to change might be able to live their religious values while also responding to the needs of their community and engaging the emerging generation. I argue that young people have the potential to bring fresh perspectives to religious traditions and religious life, helping point them back to their own “untamable, countercultural, service-oriented heart” (Citing Krista Tippett’s helpful articulation in Becoming Wise). This piece was the beginning of my love story with this shifting moment in religious and spiritual life. It was when I started to see everything that could be possible if we simply came together.

And interestingly, it was this series of articles on the ‘Rise of the Nones’ that actually sparked my conversation with a Dominican Sister, which turned Nuns & Nones from idea into reality. Fast forward 18 months… I’m sitting in Erie, PA along with the Erie Benedictine Sisters, one of the most forward-thinking religious communities I have come across, and I am literally asked over dinner, “So Katie, if you could change anything about religious life, what would it be?”

I give a few examples of what I’ve seen in various communities that seem exciting, I share some dreams that my Nuns & Nones collaborators and I have discussed, but when it comes down to it… I don’t have any ‘answers’! It is only through our collaboration, our conversation, that I believe together millennials and Sisters might be able to uncover some possible ways forward.

So – backing up to when the original article was posted. I thought I was way out there. Here I was, some twenty-something non-religious person, boldly proposing to religious communities that “Hey! You should listen to us young people! Even those of us who left and never show up anymore!” Honestly, I thought people might roll their eyes at me. Or might be offended at the suggestion. At most, I thought people might kindly ignore my naivety and idealism, and move on with their life.

Thankfully, as I mentioned, at least one Sister emailed me to talk more, giving me hope that maybe there’s something to this after all. 18 months later, here we are. The wheels have kept turning, the movement has kept growing. Among those facing religious decline (which is a good majority of American Christianity!), women religious are proactively opening avenues of dialogue and discernment that are productively assessing the future of their communities and creative possibilities. Through their on-going ministries, hopefully through our Nuns & Nones conversations, and elsewhere, women religious are listening to the yearnings and wonderings of millennials, thinking about the ways our challenges fit into their own. Women religious are coming up with creative ways of inviting in fresh voices to help reimagine the future of religious life. Frankly, other traditions could learn a great deal from these women and the way they face up to this pivotal shift in religiosity.

This topic is even being discussed this very week at the Leadership Council of Women Religious annual gathering in St. Louis. In her keynote address, out-going president Sr. Teresa Maya pointed to listening to the next generation – those within and outside of religious life – as a priority for leaders in religious communities. As quoted in Global Sisters Report, Maya said, “Young people are not the problem. The young – like any one of us, really – are simply looking for authenticity.” In the midst of increasingly secular identification in the US, Maya argued that, “Our nuns, our sisters, our communities need to go forth into these conversations with the ‘nones.’ I have hope in the conversations being convened by the Nuns and the Nones movement.”

Also earlier this week, a commentary in the National Catholic Reporter by John Vitek, president and CEO of Saint Mary’s Press and co-author of Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, responded to questions concerning the upcoming Youth Synod in the Catholic Church. Regarding the shifting religious and spiritual landscape, Vitek suggested the church can engage with Nones in meaningful ways, highlighting the emerging Nuns & Nones communities as a way of “women religious and millennials across the country charting new ways of forming a common religious and human experience.” And in a tweet by John Vitek, he wrote:

@SMP_Prez: Catechesis has been interpreted from the Greek word by the church as “instruction by word of mouth” but can we imagine a new catechesis that is a “listening of the heart?” is showing us an example of new modes of spiritual friendship — hearts listening to hearts.

There really seems to be something here. No answers yet, but relationships that might come up with answers through our journeying together. We both need these answers – Sisters discerning the future of their traditions, millennials wondering what formation and community can be for them – and so much common ground to work from in these questions.

In an interview between Krista Tippett and Joan Chittister in 2007, this was actually something Sr. Joan talked about. In regards to the slow pace of institutional change of the church, she said that what is going on right now “is simply the seeding of the question.” So many new questions have risen, but “the new answers have not yet emerged. They’re only beginning to simmer in this stew that is humanity.” I think these Nuns & Nones conversations, and for that matter any unlikely dialogue that occurs across different backgrounds, are helping these new answers emerge to our on-going challenges. These conversations model a way forward, a communal discernment that invites the collaboration our communities will necessarily live into throughout and as a result of the process.

In my original piece, Rethinking Religious Communities, I closed by suggested that we must ask the questions and welcome the answers. I think we have begun that process. Now we must experiment with possibilities, and see what evolves as we experiment together.

Erie Benedictines Visit, Day 5: Prophetic Community

What to say on my last day here? As I depart early tomorrow, I wanted to soak up the last bits of this place and these people today. I had breakfast with a Sister this morning, who after I told her my story and my spiritual questions, remarked that we’re actually quite exactly the same (a common response I get here!). I had energizing conversations from there on out – a phone call with someone in Minneapolis, a zoom call with the national Nuns & Nones network, and many more in person and digital conversations sprinkled throughout.

This evening was a highlight, though. I went out with a group of Benedictines – Sisters, oblates, and friends – who have a standing Thursday night golf outing and dinner at this place on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie. There were about 10 of us, and I think it’s the most I’ve laughed this week. Some folks there were Sisters, nearly all worked in the Sisters’ ministries, and some of them actually used to be in the community, then left when they fell in love and wanted to get married. But you can tell – even if people decide vowed life isn’t for them, they are still welcomed into the community. I’ve actually heard this mentioned – if someone leaves in those first few years of discernment, it’s not a failure on their part, it’s not a failure of the community, it means that the discernment process is working. Religious life isn’t meant for everyone, but everyone can find a place in the broader community.

 To see this value on display tonight, with a group of 10 or so women that have been meeting for golf and dinner weekly for many years, who all act as best friends and family, well – that’s what community is. I heard it a few times in dinner – these Benedictines have been there for one another through the good and the bad. This is what community is. It’s the Vow of Stability, it’s choosing to be alongside these people for good, for life. It is accepting one another and walking alongside one another. And the thing is… this isn’t just the way these women treat one another. It’s the way they treat everyone around them. At this restaurant, they knew the cooks, the servers, it seems like they knew half the people that walked into this place. Two of the Sisters even have their pictures on the wall inside. They invite people into community wherever they go. I have felt it this past week. I have been invited into community at every meal, prayer service, ministry visit, and conversation. I’ve seen so many people invited into community as we move about our days.

It makes me think about something that Brittany Koteles, fellow Nuns & Nones organizer and dear friend, said on our Nuns & Nones Zoom Conversation today. She said, “The charism we [Nuns and Nones] share is one of prophetic community.”  We all feel called into a community that calls us – and our places – into greater being. Community that challenges what is wrong, and works toward what is better. Community that invites us across our traditions and across our affiliations to collaborate toward the common good. I don’t know if we, as a collective of Nuns and Nones, have quite figured out what that prophetic community looks like yet. We have some great models from Sisters. We have some great energy and aspiration from the Millennials. The recipe is all there, we just have to build it together, over time, through relationship.

Although I’m leaving tomorrow morning, I know the work is well underway. The possibilities are there, and we – in our various pockets – are moving toward those possibilities. I believe prophetic community is possible because I’ve seen it, and I’ve felt it, and I’ve felt the hunger for it from my age-cohort. Now… we keep building, and see what unfolds before us.

Erie Benedictines Visit, Day 3: The Vow of Stability

Right before my trip, I learned that monastic orders often take a vows unique to their communities, beyond the usual vows – poverty, chastity, and obedience. Monks, or at least Benedictine monastics, take three vows –  the vow of obedience, the vow of stability, and the vow of ‘conversation of life.’ I was especially intrigued by the vow of stability – which I’ve heard described as a vow to stay put, a vow of relational commitment to people and places. The vow of stability is a commitment to stay in one place, in one community, and commit themselves to it. One Sister told me that when she said her vow of stability over 40 years ago, she was saying that vow of stability to stay here in this community to welcome seekers like myself, a vow to an unknown future relationship with whoever wanders into and even out of their monastery.

This vow has also inspired place-based ministries that are always responding to the evolving and emerging needs of the community. Some ministries might come and go, but Sisters stay in one place, committed to listening to what is being asked of them in this place.

I saw this so clearly today as I was given a tour of several of the ministriesthat the Erie Benedictines have throughout Erie, mostly in inner-city Erie.

As I wrote yesterday, the building that used to hold their convent now holds offices and classrooms. St. Benedict Child Development Center is on the first two floors, Benedictines for Peace is on the third, and the fourth is home to Benet Vision, Monasteries of the Heart, Alliance for International Monasticism, and Emmaus Ministries. Emmaus’ reach extends across the city, including to a building next door called The Studio at St. Mary’s: Space to Create, which houses the Kids Café, an artist studio spaces, and other gathering groups. Emmaus also runs a soup kitchen, food pantry, and Urban Farm just about a mile down the road.

Back in this main block, dubbed the Benedictine Block, is the St. Benedict Education Center, which focuses on the “social, spiritual, economic, educational, and vocational needs of a wide range of persons.” People come here to build skills to join the work force, including refugees who use a space within the ministry called The Mending Space, focused on utilizing seamstress skills. Next door to this is an inclusive recreational facility, called St. Benedict Community Center, and an additional house, which includes a store and factory level for people to shop affordably and utilize maker-space. The front of this house has a sign that says “Nuclear Free Zone.”

And if you go a few blocks down from the Benedictine Block, you find the Neighborhood Art House, founded by Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki in 1995. In it, there are free classes for children in music, art, poetry, dance, woodblock printing, ceramics, environmental issues, and more. My own favorite part was seeing the prayer flags that young people make with the woodblock printer, celebrating unity, love, courage, and peace. There is a quote on the wall somewhere in the Art House from Joan Chittister that says that “beauty breaks open the human heart. This place certainly does that.

Finally, my favorite part of the tour – the “Hold Fast to Dreams” Poetry Park. It was designed to bring beauty to this neighborhood in the inner city, and to be a space for creative and safe gatherings and events. As you walk around the loop of the park, there is poetry on the sidewalk, poetry in the sculptures, and poetry embodied in the space. Right next to this park is the Catholic Worker house, with brightly colored pillars on the front porch. And at the house across the street, which also belongs to a few of the Benedictine Sisters, there’s poetry on the steps up to the house. Art fills this street, and provides a model for other neighborhoods to do the same.

These aren’t even all the ministries of the Erie Benedictines, a group that numbers about 90 vowed women today. These are only the ministries I saw today. But it is easy to see the power of staying put. The vow of stability opens up endless opportunities to dedicate oneself to one place. Some ministries have come and gone, some have stayed open for decades, but the Sisters are always creating structures for solutions in response to systemic problems. They know this place, they know the people, they have the relational capacity to make transformative things happen.

I’m reminded of a quote that Mary Lou recently wrote about in her blog, Old Monk’s Journal: “Don’t just do something, the Buddha said, stand there,” Dan Berrigan. Sometimes standing there is what brings transformation to a place. The vow of stability is a vow of rootedness to place, tending to whatever arises in our midst.

Erie Benedictines Visit, Day 2: Lessons in Eldership

Monday was filled with conversation. So much conversation I thought it was Wednesday by the time the day was over.

In the morning, much to the surprise of the Sisters and myself, I made it up for 6:30am prayer. A recording of bells rings through the hallways of the Mount five minutes before prayer begins, and I ran upstairs to get a spot. It was Feast of Transfiguration, so we sang hymns about embracing transformation, sat in contemplative silence, and closed with a recognition of the 73rdanniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Later that morning, I went to the Erie Benedictine’s downtown offices and spent time on “the 4thfloor,” which includes the ministries of Benet Vision, Monasteries of the Heart, Alliance for International Monasticism, and Emmaus Ministries. Walking through the hallway and greeting the Sisters, oblates, and others who work at these offices, there’s a palpable environment of excited hospitality, genuine appreciation of visitors. No one is too busy to meet the newcomer, meetings and emails can wait until all feel welcomed. It’s a work environment foreign to the usual grind associated with the workday, too often driven by urgent deadlines rather than relationships.

From there, I went over to meet with Sister Joan Chittister, renowned and respected writer on spirituality, monasticism, and feminism in the church. She lives at the same house in downtown Erie she has lived in for many years, brews me a cup of coffee as I arrive, and we sit down to talk as her parrot, Lady, becomes very interested in pecking at my toes. Our conversation was filled with wisdom and apt advice in regards to the ministry I have found myself in – namely, Nuns & Nones. The first piece of advice was that I shouldn’t feel the need to re-invent the wheel. Look to the traditions and the structures that already exist as potential partners, and create alongside those communities. And she encouraged me to think about how we can base our gatherings in one tradition. Community needs a place to stand; community needs grounding in order to grow and flourish.

I spent the rest of the afternoon back at the 4th floor offices, surrounded by all the inspiring feminist and social justice fridge magnets and posters you can imagine.

I also got to sit down with Sister Mary Lou Kownacki, a monk and advocate of many years. She’s the Director of Monasteries of the Heart, has created programs that serve local neighborhoods, and served as executive director of Pax Christi USA. Mary Lou is also a poet and author, probably most well-known for a quote she’s not positive she should be credited for – “Engrave this upon my heart: ‘there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.’” But Fred Rogers credited her with it several years ago, as Joan also continues to do so, so it seems at this point she is stuck with the accreditation.

I had started reading “Monk in the Inner City: The ABCs of Spirituality” by Mary Lou last week, in preparation for my trip, and it’s hard to say what a soulmate each word and idea in that book felt for me. It shows her playful relationship with prayer and her prophetic witness to justice and peace. As I quickly learned, she’s been arrested 13 times and is deeply committed to daily practice of zen meditation. She is a life-long monastic and innovates ways of teaching these spiritual values online. She has been a writer for the local paper and she has run national organizations. She responds to the needs she sees around her by filling the gap, creating the response to mend the ill. I could go on and on. The point of it all is that I am truly amazed by this woman, as is everyone else here. Our conversation was both generative and grounding.

Finally, my day on the 4th floor concluded with a conversation with Jacquelin, a younger woman in the community, around my age, who is currently discerning her vocation. It was the exact processing I needed in order to reflect on my encounter with two living saints in our midst.

That evening after prayer, 10 of us – both millennials and monastics – gathered for dinner and drinks at a downtown pub to talk about Nuns & Nones. We opened with sharing our ministries or vocations, along with what question we are holding in regards to our spiritual, political, or vocational lives. One question from Sister Anne McCarthy, who has been arrested 20 times at public demonstrations, was about what the most effective way we can use the gospel to motivate people to passionate resistance against our current political reality. Other questions were around how monastic values, and a monastic way of life, can help people in our current times. My own question is the one I have been asking since earlier this year: how can I best give and receive love, and how does community fit into this search? We explored questions of community and commitment, choosing place and people over jobs and success, how we define “seeker”, what it would look like for a group of unaffiliated millennials to join into a monastic community.

The whole day left me overflowing with gratitude for the monks in our midst, to borrow language from Monasteries of the Heart. Each one of the people I met throughout the day, from the more well-known public figures of their community to the ones quietly doing transformative work in their day-to-day lives and local contexts, are living deep and searching lives, committed to justice in their community and world.

In my work, both with Nuns & Nones and How We Gather, we often speak of the role of Elders in young people’s formation processes. Meeting two spiritual elders, Sr. Joan and Sr. Mary Lou, and getting to sit alongside them in their homes and offices, I did not know where to even begin with our conversations. But maybe that’s okay. Throughout the day, I realized that this question of who Elders are, and what they do for us, is simpler than I thought. Elders are there. Elders offer their presence and life as a gift to model one’s own life upon. They sit with you, and respond to what you ask or say. They do not correct or instruct, they simply accompany the questions and the journey to the answers…or to more questions.

Of course, these two knew this all along. They’ve written about it, they’ve talked about it. Monday evening, I revisited these lessons on eldership, in deep gratitude of their presence in my day. Here are two lessons on eldership from Sr. Joan and Sr. Mary Lou:


Joan’s story on eldership:

“The disciples ask to someone in their midst, ‘I hear you are going to see a spiritual elder.’

‘Yes I am.’

‘What rituals does the spiritual elder teach you that are so important to you?’

The disciple says, ‘The elder doesn’t do any rituals at all.’

‘Well then, what prayers does the elder teach you to say so that you have a feeling of grace and goodness?’

‘Oh, the master has never given me a prayer at all.’

‘Well then, what potions are you taking from the elder to give you a new spiritual life?’

‘Oh, the master has never given me any potion at all.’

‘Well if you’re not getting rituals, and you’re not getting prayers, and you’re not getting potions, why do you go so far to sit with this spiritual elder for nothing?’

‘To watch the spiritual elder light the fire.’

Wisdom comes from choosing the right people to watch, to grow from.”

(Joan Chittister, “Sister Joan Chittister: Lighting a Fire with Faith,”interview by Tami Simon, Sounds True: Insights at the Edge Podcast, Dec 8, 2017, audio, 59:00.)


Mary Lou’s story on eldership:

“’Is there anything I can do to make myself Enlightened?’ the seeker asked the elder. ‘As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning,’ the elder answered. ‘Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribed?’ the seeker asked. And the elder answered, ‘To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.’”

Mary Lou Kownacki, A Monk in the Inner City: The ABCs of a Spiritual Journey (New York: Orbis Books, 2008).

Erie Benedictines Visit, Day 1: Introduction

Hello! Greetings from Erie, Pennsylvania, the first stop on this next little adventure of mine. This is an introduction blog post to a series of updates I’ll be posting from the road of this journey. Hope you’re able to follow along!

Earlier this summer, I found out that I received the Mother Guerin Research Travel Grant from the Cushwa Center at the University of Notre Dame. In the spirit of the foundress the grant is named for, my project is focused on the too often untold and unknown stories of the foundresses of women religious orders. As I travel to various motherhouses and monasteries, I hope to uncover these stories and the profound lessons they hold for us today in this crossover moment in religious and spiritual life.

The Erie Benedictines and their monastic tradition is the perfect place to begin this journey – grounding myself in their first and foremost value, the first word spoken of the Benedictine Rule: listen. To listen to the stories that shape communities and traditions, to listen to signs of the times and respond to the needs emerging. Through my own deep listening, and recording some conversations along the way, I will produce an audio series to be released as a podcast, that will share these stories of foundresses with a broader audience. What I’ve learned most from my time with Sisters, and in Nuns & Nones conversations, is that there is a particular wisdom and insight that emerges from our dialogues, that there is much for young people to learn from elders, particularly those that have created and shaped traditions. I hope to capture some of this in order to share the gift with others.

While I will record many conversations along the way, those won’t be released for several months, so in the meantime I will be writing and reflecting upon my visits and conversations here on this blog to keep my own creative juices flowing as well as share these conversations with anyone who cares to read. If you are one of those people – thank you, and I would love to know what you most want to hear about!

And finally, I want to share where this Foundress project came from, and what the vision is moving forward. Read on to learn more.

Overview of Project

The Foundress is an oral history project that tells the stories of foundresses, or female founders, who established orders of women religious. Throughout centuries, women religious have responded to problems inflicting their communities and the most marginalized among them by transforming these social issues through relationship, advocacy, and community. Foundresses are women who have radically challenged the status quo, of their own traditions and broader society, and have been shaping movements of religious life ever since. Through interviews with those who hold these stories most dear, each episode will tell the story of the Foundress of a particular religious order, and illuminate how the charism lives on today, within and outside of religious communities.

In one way, like many before me, I am creating what I need today, in these tumultuous yet transformative times. I wish I heard these stories in my tradition growing up. I wish I read about these Foundresses in history books and scriptures. I wish I saw these Foundresses preaching, creating space for others through their very existence in leadership.

But in another way, I am creating something to respond to a need I see across my generation, and beyond. We hunger for depth and meaning in our lives that are too often rushed and transactional. We hunger for models of community that are inclusive and transformative. We hunger for examples of female and feminist leadership that empower us to do the same.

I remember the first time I heard the word Foundress. Through the voicing of the word, it suggested that there are enough female foundresses that it warranted its own language. Hearing it from Catholic Sisters, I saw how the legacies of women that founded their communities centuries ago lead them into leadership today, each in their own way. While rarely publicly told or celebrated, the lives and legacies of Foundresses have shaped more than religious life, but the social services and justice programs that have been established in their memory over centuries and across the world. By pushing the edges of their traditions, they allow us to do the same today. They help us, especially women, claim space in traditions and cultures that tell us to stay silent or behind the scenes. Foundresses help us live better lives. More contemplative and action- driven; more rooted and connected.

While I have had the blessing of hearing these stories through “Nuns and Nones” conversations, gatherings of women religious and unaffiliated millennials, I have seen how deeply needed these stories are both for preserving them in history and connecting them to contemporary concerns. In this pivotal moment in Catholic religious life, these stories have much to teach us all.

For example, the Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph practice a unioning love that manifests in diverse ministries. Their community was first established by six women who came together in LePuy, France, alongside Jesuit priest Fr. Jean-Pierre Médaille, to minister to the “dear neighbor” in their midst. These foundresses model collaborative leadership, responding to the signs of the times, and locally-based ministry.

The Society of Sacred Heart’s original Foundress, Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat, founded the Society of Sacred Heart in the wake of the French Revolution in order to provide education for girls. Inspired by Barat, Saint Rose Philippine Duschesne brought the Society to North America, leading to the establishment of educational institutions across the continent. These foundresses teach us what it looks like to do mission-driven work that is replicated on a wide scale, maintaining communal identity even in an internationalizing ministry.

This past year, through a course at Harvard Divinity School affiliated with Diane Moore and the Religious Literacy Project, I have produced these two initial episodes. Each episode features two voices: an archivist, to shape the history, and a storyteller, to animate the living story. The first episode on the Sisters of St. Joseph is told through the voices of Carol Zinn, SSJ, former president of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, and Roberta Archibald, SSJ, associate archivist for their Philadelphia congregation. The second episode is on the Society of Sacred Heart, and includes the voices of Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ, provincial archivist based in St. Louis, and three lay Catholic women who are Sacred Heart alumni and now attend Harvard Divinity School, Louisa Fish-Sadin, Bridget Power, and Lisa Richmond.

Through the Mother Guerin Grant, thanks to the Cushwa Center at University of Notre Dame, this grant will allow me to continue building relationships and recording oral histories with a number of Sisters and communities surrounding these stories of the Foundresses. Over the coming year, I will be visiting communities and organizations that live at this intersection of women religious, storytelling, and emerging models of religious life and spirituality.

The legacies of Foundresses are rooted in history, but live on in religious orders today. This narrative links the historical and contemporary, and the ancient and emergent. Through these stories, religious life’s charisms and ministries are being transformed for 21st century issues. Particularly in this transformational moment of religious life in North America, with diminishing numbers yet evolving ministries, these stories are ripe with wisdom for those of us within and outside of traditions. This is just one part of the much larger story of Catholic women religious and their revolutionary power through the ages.

C3 Talk: Friendship as a Spiritual and Revolutionary Practice

On March 18, when I was back in Michigan over spring break, I got to visit C3: West Michigan’s Inclusive Spiritual Connection and give a talk on the good life. This was my fourth time speaking at C3, and my first since leaving the Kaufman Interfaith Institute and starting at Harvard Divinity School, so it was a treat to be back with a community that has seen me, my work, and my ideas evolve over the last few years. Plus, the conversation we are able to have before and after the service itself always deepens and expands my understandings of the topics I share with the community.

Below is the text of the “secular sermon” that I gave, and the video can be watched online soon, or found on their Facebook page.

The first time I considered the question of the good life was my first year in college, when I took a class on happiness and the good life. One of the books we read was Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, a true story about Chris McCandless, a young man who refused the wealth of his family, gave away all his savings, got rid of his possessions, and set out on a journey into the Alaskan wilderness.

In the wild, living off the land, one day Chris accidently ate a poisonous plant and ended up facing his imminent death. In the last moments of his life – moments spent alone, isolated from society and family – he scribbles notes in the margins of a book he was reading. The words he wrote in these last moments of his life were: “Happiness is only real when shared.”

“Happiness is only real when shared.”

Whether intentionally or not, this has shaped much of my own approach to attempting a good life over the years. Looking back, I see that relationships are at the core of all work I engage in. In Model United Nations during my college years, relationships created coalitions and shaped policy proposals. In my interfaith work, relationships transcended differences in theology and tradition. And in my media and radio work, relationships enriched and deepened interviews.

Then… as you may know, this past summer I left Grand Rapids and moved to Boston to study at Harvard Divinity School. Alongside my classes, I now work with the How We Gather team, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, and Sue Phillips, who are the Ministry Innovation Fellows at Harvard Divinity School.

Their work began with the initial report entitled How We Gather, looking at where non-religious and unaffiliated millennials find community when they leave behind religious institutions. The communities they studied in this report were places like the Sanctuaries, a multi-racial, multi-religious arts and social change community in Washington DC, The Dinner Party, a monthly dinner held at people’s homes for those experiencing the loss of a parent, and even Soul Cycle and Cross Fit, organizations with an evangelical zeal that focus on personal and communal transformation through fitness.

Over these past four years, they have convened the leaders of these communities, and learned much about this world of spiritual community building today. The newest report they published – just this past week – explores that new, yet actually very old, work of caring for souls. Thus, the Care of Souls report names the emerging religious landscape we see today, and names the roles that are required for the work.

In Care of Souls, Casper, Angie and Sue suggest that the task now is to bridge the ancient and the emergent, and to discover how to apply wisdom to new generations. Their central question, and the thrust of my work alongside them, is: “How do we care for souls in the 21st century and beyond?”

I share all of this to introduce the context from which I now enter into this question of the good life. Beginning as a college freshman, hearing the words that “happiness is only real when shared,” to now in a calling centered on community and care, there seems to be a thread that suggests what my own good life has been rooted in: friendship as a spiritual and revolutionary practice.


 It’s only in this last year I started to take friendship as a spiritual and political practice seriously. After first noticing it as a powerful presence in my own community-building, I started noticing it explicitly discussed in theological and philosophical practices of spirituality and movement-building.

And none of this is new or radical, I think it’s something we all feel in our bones. But to speak for myself at least – I often forget. I forget the transformation possible through deep friendship. In this hyper-individualized society, we’re all taught, conditioned, and expected to make our own selves our own bottom line.

So the reason I chose to share about friendship today is because I think friendship tends to be something that we don’t take seriously enough, or something that we sell short, lacking an appreciation of its power. After all, while we’re more connected digitally than ever – we have thousands of Facebook friends and twitter followers at our fingertips – we’re actually more isolated than ever before.

In recent decades, researchers have discovered that loneliness left untreated is not just psychically painful; it also can have serious medical consequences. Studies have linked loneliness and social isolation to heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and suicide. Isolation has become a public health epidemic in the modern world.

So, responding to this epidemic of loneliness and crisis of isolation, and looking to a vision of the good life based in authentic and transformative relationships, what I want to share is several teachings on the role of friendship. Through these insights from various communities, texts, theologies and philosophies, I hope to begin to uncover the tradition of friendship as something to embrace as a spiritual and even revolutionary practice.


 There are six short examples of what this looks like.

 About one year ago, along with the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, we started gatherings called “Nuns & Nones” a meeting of Catholic women religious and non-religious millennials. Many unexpected friendships immediately flourished from that space, and the inter-generational nature of these friendships made them even more special. These friendships between 20-somethings and 70-somethings rooted the group in a larger sense of time and a deeper sense of hope; they swapped strategies for change and tools for resilience; they shared histories of oppression and stories of liberation. After gathering about twice a month from last year April until now, one Sister even said that the highlight of her year was building friendships through this unlikely community. Nuns and Nones taught me that friendship has the ability to cross social barriers and transform us at any age.

Particularly among women, friendship can transform ourselves individually and in community. In Sister Joan Chittister’s book “Friendship of Women: The Hidden Tradition of the Bible”, the feminist Benedictine Nun reclaims a history of feminine friendships that have been lost to the patriarchal storytellers through the ages. What I learned from Joan is that Friendship is a spiritual resource to tap into for strength, support, and empowerment, particularly for women who have been shut out of traditional forms of political power. Joan claims friendship not just as public “alliances of the court and castle,” but as a “personal tradition of spiritual friendship.” She follows in the tradition of St. Augustine and believes that “human relationships are the ground of growth.”

 However, this transformative, vulnerable friendship shows up not just in women’s lives. One of my favorite examples of deep friendship is between two Irish poets, David Whyte and the late John O’Donahue, who have frequently talked about their friendship and dedicated poems to one another. John O’Donahue, who died in 2008, wrote a book based on the Celtic idea of Anam Cara – translating to SOUL FRIEND. As he writes: “In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the ‘friend of your soul.’” Friendship, for these poets, then, is a purposeful presence, an intentional integrity toward one another. In o’Donahue’s words, “A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.” Again, “A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.”

It is also the nature of friendship across category, across difference that has a transformative power on people – not just personally, but in their political lives. Whether it is across differences in religious conviction or come from different generations, the practice of building friendship can lead to what Hannah Arendt called “thinking without bannisters.” Arendt, a 20th century philosopher, believed that friendship had political relevance and importance. And the essence of friendship existed in discourse, a discourse that through its practice the world is “rendered humane.” Friendship then, for Arendt, has the power to rehumanize us to one another and those unlike us, liberating us to think without bannisters which too often divide us.

In a new book, entitled “Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times,” writers Nick Montgomery and carla bergman view friendship as the root of freedom. They remind us that “Friend’ and ‘free’ in English come from the same Indo-European root, which conveys the idea of a shared power that grows. Being free and having ties was one and the same thing. I am free because I have ties; I am free because I am linked to a reality greater than me.” Embracing the relational interdependency of friendship, then, is a revolutionary method of freedom; it is a freedom that releases us from the capitalistic profit-driven world and thus re-centers us on one another and the ways in which we can mutually support each other. In Joyful Militancy, friendship is a way to resist, a path for freedom, and a tool for collective liberation.

Friendship is a powerful element in many faith communities as well. One community in particular centers their entire theology on friendship. The Community of Sant’Egidio is a lay Catholic community founded in Rome exactly 50 years ago, and today holds a global presence in prayer, dialogue, and peace work in 73 countries with over 60,000 members. This global movement all started with a group of high schoolers in 1968 inspired by their faith to live into the gospel in radical, counter-cultural ways. Living out the gospel to them meant building friendships with the poor and marginalized, and letting all ministries and actions to follow from those friendships. In each community and each country now, Sant’Egidio members build friendships with the marginalized in their context, and let that friendship determine what accompaniment and advocacy looks like. Sant’Egidio sees the practice of faith as a call to friendship, a friendship that Jesus modeled as a transformational path of peace. They believe that a “glimpse of the Kingdom can be born through prayer and friendship with the poor.”

Through these examples, we can see the personal, communal, and political transformation possible through friendship.

The intergenerational friendships in Nuns & Nones. The spiritual friendship of women named by Sr. Joan Chittister. The “soul friend” connection beautifully articulated by poet John O’Donahue. The practice of friendship rehumanizing us to one another, taught by Hannah Arendt. The interdependency of friendship as a path to freedom for the authors of Joyful Militancy. And the Sant’Egidio model offers friendship as the foundation for living into peace and justice work.

In each of these cases, Friendship leads to resilience and sustenance… resistance and freedom… and faith and advocacy. Friendship is the process and the end, the method and the goals. From faith leaders and philosophers to poets and activists, friendship plays a central role in their personal and public lives. Friendship is not only what sustains us, but it liberates us; friendship not only inspires us, but it transforms us.

As we today – and this month – ask what the good life looks like, what caring for souls in the 21st century means to our communities – what answer does friendship provide? How can the wisdom of friendship from both ancient and emergent sources respond to today’s needs?

The poet John O’Donahue, in one of his last interviews before his death, reminded us that friendship is vital to our whole spirit – to our being, our character, our mind, and our health. But so many of us, he says, forget and don’t spend enough time with the friendships in our lives.

I know certainly for myself, I am guilty of this. Too often, I am caught up living a productive life, rather than a good life. I usually measure my days by how many things I cross off my to-do list, rather than how many conversations I had with friends.

“My friends are my estate,” wrote Emily Dickinson. In other words, friends are the wealth we will have at the end of our lives; they are the treasure we accrue.

What if we all measured our life this way, instead of by the hours worked, emails sent, or money earned? I think if we remember friendship at the beginnings and ends of our days, and the starts and closes of our weeks, we could all get a deeper sense of a good life. Or at least the good life that is possible through a shared life.

As Joan Chittister says, “It is surely, then, of the highest spiritual order to celebrate the Sacrament of Friendship.”