Religious Life in the Future: What Might It Look Like

by | Apr 16, 2016 | Formation, Reflections


Part of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth and Colorado Vincentian Volunteer Alum, Sister Jen Gordon prepared a fantastic talk for the 2012 gathering of Women Religious called ‘Living on the Edge.’ Treat yourself to her insightful perspective…


Sister Jennifer Gordon, SCL was invited to participate in a panel at the 2012 LCWR Assembly entited “Religious Life in the Future: What Might It Look Like.”  The panel was covered by the  Religion News Service  and  National Catholic Reporter.  Jennifer has been active in Giving Voice and allowed them to post the entire text of her talk on the Giving Voice Website.

Jennifer Gordon, SCL, LCWR Assembly, August 9, 2012

Good morning.  It is an honor to be with you here today.  Over my 11 years in religious life, LCWR has come to represent for me strong, faithful leadership in our Church and in our world during these uncertain times.  And so I am both honored and humbled to be with you during these Assembly days and to be a part of this panel this morning.

I’ve spent some time this summer sorting through old papers and recently came across the notes I had taken during a Region XIII Intercommunity Formation Gathering that I attended as a second-year candidate in 2003.  Our own Sister Janet Mock was our presenter for the weekend, and she spoke about religious life in general, and about our vows in particular, from the ecclesial, cultural, charismatic and communitarian contexts.  And she asked us, “Why live this life if we’re not living it at that liminal edge?”

Janet’s question caught my attention at the time – my notes have several stars around these words – and it resonates in my spirit still today.  This sense of liminality, of taking the risk to go to the edge, seems to me an essential component of what it means to be a vowed religious in the 21st Century.  Our Gospel call as women religious today is, as it always has been, a call to follow Jesus to the margins, to love those we meet there, and to risk the vulnerability that comes from being intentionally – not coincidentally – on the edge.

Annie Griffiths Belt, a photographer for National Geographic, captured with a single camera click an image that exemplifies for me what it means to go to the edge. (Clck here to view the photograph. )  It is an image of a young African man standing in the water at the top of Victoria Falls in Zambia.  He stands just a few feet from the top of the falls; one misstep and he would be swept over the edge to his death, more than 350 feet below.  And yet he stands tall, eyes focused, seemingly at peace with himself and with his place in the world.

As women religious in our church and our world today, I believe that we are called to follow this man’s example.  In times as unsettling as these, it is tempting to take a step back, to retreat into the comfortable, or at least the familiar.  Would it not be lovely to look at Victoria Falls from a distance, to snap a few photographs from the safety of a tour bus, to buy postcards to send to our friends back home?  This would not be a bad thing, but I suggest that it is not our thing.  Our thing is to stand with this young man at the top of the falls.  Our thing is to go to the edge and to risk standing there with our brothers and sisters who call it home.

As a relatively new and relatively young Sister, I am frequently asked what I think the future of religious like will look like, and each time I respond that I really don’t know.  But I think it will look a lot like the view from the top of Victoria Falls.  It looks like standing on the edge.

It looks like safe houses for mothers and their children who are fleeing abusive relationships.

It looks like campus ministers chaperoning college students on overnight bus rides to participate in the annual national pro-life march in Washington, D.C.

It looks like teachers who open their students’ minds and hearts to the wisdom and the mystery of the universe.

It looks like Catholic hospitals and health systems learning to partner with other-than-Catholic care providers to better meet the needs of the communities they serve.

It looks like planting school gardens to teach elementary school children how to care for the earth.

It looks like retired Sisters spending hours each day in front of the Blessed Sacrament, praying for our communities, for our church and for our world.

It looks like nuns on a bus, pointing out flaws in our federal budget and offering a more just alternative.

And it looks like the hospital chaplain who works nights, who journeys with women who have been trafficked, accompanying them as they have tattoos removed, tattoos displaying their pimps’ names that the pimps had had etched into the women’s inner thighs.

This, I believe, is what it looks like at the edge today.  It is to stories and to relationships like these, and so many others, that we are called as women religious.

But as leaders of our communities, as those who have been delegated to listen to the whole, to listen for the whole, you have a unique call within our shared call to live at the edge.  As leaders, you must interpret these turbulent times in our church and in our world and then guide us, your sisters, to the edge – when the time is right.

The top of Victoria Falls is rarely calm enough for anyone to get this close to the edge.  Most of the time, the Zambezi River is rushing so quickly, and so furiously, that anyone daring to approach the top of the falls would be immediately swept over.  Only occasionally does the raging river turn into a swimming hole.

And so you as leaders are called to be part weather forecaster, part scout.  As we together go to the edge to which Jesus calls us, you bear the responsibility – and perhaps the burden – of checking things out, of testing the waters, and, when necessary, of raising the danger flag.  But please don’t raise that flag too readily.  Please don’t play it too safe.  Nudge us toward the edge, challenge us to be our best selves, call us to move beyond our comfort zones and into that margin of grace.  Remind us who we are, and whose we are.  Remind us that we know how to swim.  We will follow your lead.

Yours is not easy work.   I do not envy you.  But I do trust you and your shared wisdom, and, even more, I trust the Spirit who has called you to this ministry of leadership.  And I, along with all of our sisters who are with us in spirit during these Assembly days, support you, pray with you, and thank you for wearing the mantle of leadership with such grace and such fidelity during these uncertain, painful times.

I offer you this morning one more image, this one of deep blessing.  Several months ago I was at a wake to celebrate the life of our Sister Mary Frances.  Near the end of the service, as is our community tradition, we stood up and extended our hands in blessing over the body.  This blessing takes a couple of minutes, and this particular evening it was a little too long for one of our elder sisters.  As one of our community leaders returned our vow formula to Mary Frances’ hands, this senior sister sat down, but she kept her arm extended.  As we prayed that God’s own radiance would light Mary Frances’ way home, the sister’s arm began to wobble a little bit, but still, she kept it extended.  And as we invited Mary Frances to go in peace forever, the sister reached over with her left hand to support her exhausted-but-still-extended right arm.  It wasn’t until we began the closing song that this sister allowed her arm to relax at her side.

And therein, I believe, is found a deep invitation for each of us.  Let us together follow Jesus who leads us to the edge.  And as we do, let us bless one another and those we will meet along the way.  Like our elder sister, let us use every ounce of strength and energy we have to extend our arms, and our voices, and our hearts, in blessing to our broken, beautiful, edgy world.

Let us together offer all that we have, and all that we are, praising our God in the words of St. Apollinaris of Ravenna:

“Come to the edge.  No, we will fall!

Come to the edge.  No, we will fall!

They came to the edge.

He pushed them and they flew.”

Thank you.