2018 Parliament of World’s Religions – closing thoughts

My second Parliament of World’s Religions is in the books. Very grateful to have gotten to participate in one of the largest interfaith gatherings in the world alongside some good friends this past weekend. Some highlights and gratitudes:

-Hung out all day and each night with so many old and new friends who are the “next gen” of the interfaith movement and going to do so many good, important things to help this movement become more intersectional, politically-engaged, critical and constructive. Shout out to y’all. So honored to be doing this alongside you folks.

-Presented on Nuns and Nones to a full room of about 60 people, full of enthusiasm, hope, and a desire to help us spread this movement and model of intergenerational relationship, dialogue and action even further. Some Sisters came up to me afterward to share that I spoke their language and represented them perfectly, which I couldn’t be more honored to hear.

-Learned about how Canada is implementing Truth & Reconciliation efforts in response to the historic and present injustices committed against First Nations tribes across the land. And learned about public awareness efforts Toronto has taken on as a city to recognize, center, and celebrate the First Nations land they are on, a small but important step in the continuous journey toward a more just society. SO MUCH for the US to learn on this front. Also, I was reminded of the essential wisdom of indigenous peoples everywhere, and how turning to elders in this planetary moment might help us navigate ways forward in reconnecting with earth / addressing climate change (https://www.wisdomweavers.world).

-Snuck away one morning to hang out with my colleagues and one of our fav Sisters, Sue Mosteller, CSJ, who has given us so much inspiration through sharing stories from her life with us. Was totally reminded of the greatest gift of my work – which is sitting around on a slow morning with wise and gentle souls, asking searching questions and finding direction through stories and conversation.

-Participated in fun, delicious, and delightful shared rituals, from daily Lungar thanks to the Sikh community to an early morning Sunrise Cosmic Mass with creation spirituality priest Matthew Fox. Plus, enjoyed the overwhelming yet charming exhibit space full of orgs, traditions, resources, knowledge booths, and much more.

Now, back to Divinity School life, filled to the brim from these past few days.

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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 4: What is a Foundress?

Today I did my first interview on the story of the foundress of this community, Benedicta Riepp. Her full story can be read at that link, but I wanted the stories that have been passed down through the community, the parts of Benedicta’s life that lives on in the Sisters today. I interviewed Anne McCarthy, OSB and author of that biography, and Jacqueline Small, an oblate who recently presented on Benedicta’s life and legacy to a visiting group of young women theologians and students.

There are many things that stand out in Benedicta’s story. She came over to the United States and founded the first women’s monastic community by the age of 31. She struggled against the male monks trying take control over their community, and along with the other Sisters set the measures in place so they could remain independent. This was in the mid-1800s. Women claiming their own ownership of place and community, not only advocating for their independence but taking it for themselves. In the 1850s. While Benedicta died of tuberculosis after only 10 years in the US, she had already helped establish six thriving Benedictine women’s communities. She had seen her vision through and changed US monastic life for women entirely.

At the end of our interview, I asked Anne and Jacqueline to reflect on what qualities or characteristics might be unique to foundresses. Jacqueline pointed to vision, and a deep sensitivity and awareness to the community needs. Starting something new requires creative thinking, and as she pointed out, we see this live on today as plenty of Erie Benedictines continue to found new ministries to responds to the needs around them.

Anne pointed to community as a core value of a foundress… these women never do it alone. They might be visionaries and leaders, but community and relationships are also always core to founding something new. Anne pointed to the importance of freedom and love in order to be innovative and risk new things, and the role of community to support, encourage, challenge and provide roots to help enable that innovation and risk.

There are still many untold and/or unknown stories of women leaders and foundresses who come before us, but I think once we learn their stories, not only will we be able to honor them, but may we also live into their legacies. Benedicta Riepp’s legacy invites us to risk, to challenge oppressive structures, to find strong women to stand at our side, to place the dire needs of others over the letters of the law. Benedicta Riepp has inspired this community’s 150+ years’ worth of women, Sisters, and oblates, to live into this legacy in their day-to-day lives, in Erie, and around the globe. Imagine what is possible if more knew this story. If more knew of what was possible.

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).