This was a short homily delivered at the Annual General Meeting of the Conference of Religious of England and Wales in January 1999. It was subsequently published in Signum (10 March 1999) 21-22.
‘Thanks to diminishment, religious life has come alive again.’ These words of Joan Chittester from the reading at Morning Prayer seem so apt. As we die to the institutionalisation of the religious life, both in terms of the large institutions we maintained and the way in which we lived, a rebirth is taking place. But, as Teilhard de Chardin said in the reading we heard some moments ago, we must ‘trust in the slow work of God’. It is not easy to be patient in these times.
Our theme for this part of the conference is ‘identity’. I am reluctant to throw in my three-and-fourpence here, as some, perhaps many, feel that we spend far too much time mulling over this subject, and that we should just get on with it. I can understand that, but as provincials one of our jobs, surely, is to stand back from the fray and look at the religious life from a longer perspective.
Speaking personally, I am a post-Vatican II product. I joined in the Seventies, and there has not been a time for me when identity was not an issue. I have never known the uniformity and the apparent stability of religious life that many of you will recall. I have only read or heard about it. And yet, I don’t feel ill at ease with that. It has been for me a kind of poverty, and it has kept me on my toes about what it means to be a religious.
However, one thing has sustained me throughout: the conviction that the search for God is a shared search, a common project. Christianity is essentially a communitarian experience. Remember, St Paul wrote most of his letters to groups of Christian converts and not to individuals – the Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Corinthians, and others.
We have just emerged from a long period when the spiritual life was privatised and focused very much on the individual. Strangely, that was happening at the same time that the externals of religious life were rigidly controlled and everyone was expected to do the same thing. Faith in those times was a private affair between the individual and God. If you shared it with anyone, it was only with a spiritual director – in secret. The preoccupation was with the salvation of the individual soul.
All that has changed. As has been said recently, ‘faith is personal but never private’. Religious life, therefore, should be giving corporate witness to Christian values, but in a different way from the past. We need to listen to the gospel and respond to it together and not just as individuals. St Augustine has a powerful image to express this reality. He talks of boats in a harbour being lashed together so that when a storm takes place, the boats move in unison with the waves and don’t crash into one another and sink. As for the boats that are moored singly, they don’t stand a chance in a storm. As Christians, we cope better with the storms of life when we are together than when alone. I think that was what Augustine was trying to say.
I am not saying, however, that we should rush off and form cosy communities, sitting round the dying embers of religious life. But I do believe that in some way, perhaps yet to be discovered, corporateness, acting as one body in Christ, has to be part of our identity.