Emerging Religious Life

Leaders' Dilemma

It is my honor and privilege to work with many different religious communities of men and women, and I see two alarming trends:

1. Those elected to leadership are so busy having and attending meetings, and traveling to other meetings, that the quality of leaders' relationships with community members is getting more and more tenuous, even scripted. Among members, this is a source of puzzlement and loss, as well as promoting the over-importance of leadership in general. This is, as far as I can see, a worsening situation.

2. The second relates to the first. As energies decline and demands increase, with predictable urgencies and necessary but often rushed decisions, a dangerous trend towards returning to hierarchical authority is beginning to show its face: just what we have spent decades evolving away from.

A sense of attention to what lies beneath urgency, overwork, and over-importance is called for here. We are only a small part of a larger unfolding, after all, and what we proclaim and do must resonate with who we are and who we say we are...and what path are we really treading?

Where am I seeing the new? What does it look like?
Is there room in religious life for contemplatives and semi-hermits and creative artists/writers?

Contemplative Longing

In my experience with religious communities I am finding a great longing to slow down, to "be more contemplative"...but along with the longing comes a lack of knowing and practice of contemplative presence itself. No matter the longing; "ministry" is still considered doing and helping, and the emphasis-even in aging religious communities is still on this meaning of ministry. Consternation is growing.

The contemplation called for in the world of our time is not that of separating from the world even for a half hour a day, but of being contemplative with eyes open, in the midst of daily activity. It is approaching everything with contemplative presence. This is a deep and radical learning and a long journey. Even the body changes in this way of being in the world, present to everything.

Contemplative presence is doing/not doing: presence to all with eyes open; union with Divine Energy - not APART from anything in the world, not removed from the world, but attending to, speaking with, giving and receiving all at once. The learning is available if the longing is deep.

the contemplative imperative

It is my undeserved privilege to have been facilitating communities and congregations of religious men and woman for now nearly thirty years. Over that time, slow and subtle changes have been shifting into awareness, something like tectonic plates, under the radar of immediate concerns and necessities. But now these changes are escalating in number and frequency, brought about by aging, illness, and death.

One of the most obvious of these changes, growing in awareness and practice, is the increasing emphasis on contemplation. This is new, in the way of coming into consciousness mainly in the last 10-15 years. Those leaning towards contemplation are not the contemplative communities, founded for that purpose alone, but the "active" communities, those founded for the purpose of carrying out services like education and health care. But as capacities lessen with increasing frequency, a kind of overwhelmed helplessness and hurry - the usual companions of such conditions are beginning to escalate. So it is a healthy sign, if a desperate one, that these deeply spiritual women whose lives have been literally spent in service, should turn to the inner life in a deeper and more profound way.

But contemplation is a practice, and not an automatic skill to be decided upon. Inner quiet, not outer, is its necessary condition, and this is not so easily attained. Even when communities ask for "Contemplative Chapters" - a new and recent phenomenon - the untrained and unread ability to engage this reality makes the doing of it very much a beginner's experience.

Nevertheless, this is not a drawback: only the unwillingness to learn and engage new inner knowledge and practices - as well as " we learned all this before" is. Contemplation cannot be learned in our mind-focused and book-learning way.

We are all being given an invitation of the heart, of the soul and spirit, and may it become as essential to us as daily food, and as transforming as heartfelt prayer.

Leadership and Administration

There is leadership

and there is administration.

Seldom do they come

combined in the same person,

but sometimes they do.

Administration is direly needed

in these ending times

and it is important to name this need

and to affirm it

in those who have the gift.

But - it is not leadership.

Members alone recognize their true leaders -

those who have that gift of presence

to each one and to the whole,

above all. Each sister

feels seen and heard and respected

by a true leader.

It is an instant of recognition

a grace that lasts for the learder's term.

A leader has that gift

of being tangibly in the present

with the whole group

and with each sister. She

does this by tending her own soul carefully,

knowing her limits

and the drawbacks of her vision.

She tends the needs of her own body

and her own soul, respecting them

as the temple that they are.

She knows her emotional conditioning

and sees beyond it.

Tending all this, she unfolds

her hidden light for all.


Sometimes ministry

is not finding things to do

or ways to be seen doing them.


We have made ministry too small.

More often than not,

ministry is simple -

a visible dedication to a way of life

lit by meaning and inner presence

which shines in the world

without any special

structure of planned action.


Ministry is first of all being -

a contemplative presence

that is clear light

in a world of escalating,

driven and

desperate activity.


coming up to the wall

Doris Klein CSA: The Torn Woman

Some religious communities are beginning to name the disillusionment of seeing, not far off, the ending of religious life as we know and have lived it for lifetimes. Sr. Rhea Emmer, CSA, speaks and presents about this necessary step in transformation eloquently and simply.

For decades we have both avoided this reality and done all we know how to do in this competent and professional world we have constructed, so competent and professional that we are most surprised when our efforts don't bring about the results we want.

But there is so much more here to consider! Our Congregations were never ours. They were never even the founders'/foundresses'. Religious Congregations, in all their various forms, were brought about by God, to serve God in whatever way a particular decade or century's forms addressed the needs of the poor, the sick and the uneducated. This still goes on, but not necessarily in the traditional forms we have become accustomed to and protective of. Somewhere along the years, many of us became so identified with the structures we created that we thought they were permanent.

The evolving world, and the recent challenging transformations of Church teachings by Pope Francis, throw open questions we never thought to face. As the escalation and intensities of transformative energies swirls more intensely every year, pulling the world together/apart and us into the whirlwind, it is necessary for us all to come up to the wall. Perhaps we might never see over it. Perhaps the most we can do is to make camp there and let it teach us. Moses never saw the Promised Land he led his people to enter.

Here is what we can be sure of: with or without us, God is the source of this transformation and is offering us an invitation to dive into the wreck to find treasure.

a way into the new?

In the former posting I referred to Bernadette Farrell's book Embracing Solitude. In one section she describes the life of Monnine (c. 432-518), a Celtic solitary woman from the early Irish Christian Era. Here is a quote that stayed with me today after my early morning reading:

Moninne exhibited the universal journey of insightful spiritual innovators by

her withdrawal to solitary space. Entering the "desert" space symbolically

represents the distance she placed between herself and the established culture

and life forms of her society. While there is much to learn from her daily

engagements, it is in the silence that the learning is harvested, tasted,

digested. In the practice of removing herself from the busyness of her daily

life she sought to embrace the wisdom that a creative indifference to

the public symbols of success can yield.


Earlier in this chapter, Flanagan quotes Bertrand Russell, who "articulated succinctly that "one of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important!"

Embracing Solitude

Earlier I spoke of the growing attraction towards contemplation in religious life. I need to add that this emerging hunger for deeper meaning and ways to encounter the inner self in relationship to a Divine Presence is growing in the culture, and in the world, not just in religious life. In some ways we are behind in this emergence; we are following what is already a way of life for thousands upon thousands of people. One of many illustrations of this is the number of ordinary people who practice Centering Prayer and other forms of contemplation - mainly lay people comprise Contemplative Outreach, for example, Thomas Keating's home group for teaching and practising.

But today a new book asks to be introduced. It is called Embracing Solitude: Women and the New Monasticism by Bernadette Flanagan, PBVM (Ireland).  This comprehensively researched yet practical book reveals a trend that has come down through the centuries and is now finding an expression in ours: that of living in solitude, even if that solitude be of the heart and not always of a woman living alone. The number of contemplative communities - and not all women - springing up in so many places is almost shocking.

Bernadette's writing is remarkably simple and practical; most of all, it opens a world of women seeking and finding a deep and satisfying interior relationship with God that does - as it must - affect the world and those in need. This book shows that the old dichotomy between contemplation and action is essentially a false one, and that being deeply contemplative initiates an energy of good effects in a world that is verging, for many, on being overwhelming in its loss of soul. Embracing Solitude both awakens and satisfies a longing to know and live in relationship with the Divine.

Increased Pondering

I have begun to realize the swiftness with which religious congregations are physically ending. Ten years ago, we could not have predicted the dire straits most of us are in today: providing resouces and care for the endings has become a primary concern for leadership teams and councils. And the rate at which this is happening can only increase.

The rise of an emphasis on contemplation is noticeable now in many communities, but equally noticeable is the fact that many members don't really know what it is or how to practice or where to go for help. This is really humbling for women whose lives are dedicated to God first of all, but whose activities and helping and doing slowly took over from a lifestyle of balance and prayer. As has happened to most people in our First World Culture.

How can we encourage contemplation in the lives of long-active women? How can we be welcoming of this direction together? These are the questions I take to bed at night, because I believe without doubt that the fruit of these active lives will live on in ways we alive now will never see. But that is our faith. And faith only ever is operative in the dark.

But how to invite, and speak and act differently NOW?

Contemplation? But how?

Heron Stillness

Recently in a gathering of senior women religious, I was asked "but how do we enter into contemplation? Whenever you have us keep silence for five minutes, my mind keeps going, torments me...I can't be quiet!." This is the first time a member of a religious community has admitted this to me in a group gathering, and I was profoundly moved by her simplicity and humility. My first thought was "ah! It is finally surfacing."

Religious women are coming alive at the invitation to consider a more contemplative lifestyle.But they don't know how...and are just admitting that their over-active lives have robbed them of this interior connection with God. The longing is growing, but the practice is just beginning to surface for manyactive vowed religious. This is true especially of communal contemplation, which is just breaking ground as a possibility. I am heartened.

summary quote to follow from previous post

Here is a direct quote from the intro to Hereford's book. It both describes what religious do now, and with fresh words nudges a little farthur:

"many of the men and women seeking religious life today long for communities that exemplify these values: a radical commitment to shared gospel living; a commitment to a balanced lifestyle where there is time for prayer, community and mission. We seek to incarnate the gospel here and now, asking what task God might take up on moving into our neighborhood. In small local communities we become peacemakers, share the good news, live lightly on the earth, and actively pursue justice. We share life, goods, and spirituality so that we can support one another in the commitments we have made." (xix)

Does this sound familiar? It is what we have mostly always tried to do. I like this description...and I would add that an element of contemplative dialogue would enrich it even further and weave the life together ever more deeply. How to be personally contemplative and especially how we can be in communal contemplation is a new burgeoning element in religious life. It would affect our belonging, our conversing, our prayer and our decisions in ways we cannot foresee. 

A new book on Religious Life

Amy Hereford, CSJ has just published Religious Life at the Crossroads: a School for Mystics and Prophets.(Orbis:2013)


This is the most realistic and hopeful book I have read on this topic for many years. This book can speak to both older and younger religious women in her clear presentation of large overviews and possibilities for the emerging future. The only drawback for me is that it is still very contained within familiar frameworks, and changing the names of things - the vows, e.g.,- doesn't necessarily guarantee the change in meaning and expression. Neither does this description include enough the tremendous, indescribable change happening throughout the whole world and the place of vowed religious within that swirling transformation. But that is something we can do - and must do - ourselves. Thanks, Amy!

Though this fable was written about seven years ago now, lately readers have told me that it is a fable of what is happening in religious life right now...I include it here for that reason, and it is being distributed to communities with whom I work...


The River Leaf

The river leaf began her life not knowing the river at all.

 She burst forth one day, the tiniest of red buds on a giant old tree known as red maple. She could see other tiny buds around her, knew she wasn’t alone, and felt the hard brown branch on which they all saw each other for the first time. It was a big branch, thick and long, and it stretched out over something they couldn’t quite see. Yet, from the beginning, they were surrounded by the river’s voice without knowing what it was.

 The tiny maple bud pushed up and out. She unfurled, and spread. She inhabited the air around her like a fan. Sometimes she stood still, seeing the multitude of other leaves filling out this old tree in garments of glory. Some of them were close to her, touching her, and she felt glad. Sometimes a slow breeze moved them all together and apart, together and apart, and they knew themselves to be dancing. And sometimes a loud wind thrashed them together without mercy, and they could only bend and blow with it until that wind blew itself out and left for other trees. Rain was welcomed for its softening, its cleansing, and its nourishment.

 And always the river sang, just below their knowing.

 Days and weeks went by in the rhythm of wind and light, rain and dark. The maple leaf grew large, with a stem powerful enough to stand up to the wind, to taste the rain, and to laugh at the strong breezes that sometimes arrived suddenly with no warning at all.

 And all the time the river was singing, going only one way, unnoticed by the leaf and her companions on that one strong and hardy branch.

 Then one day the maple leaf felt a new feeling. It was the cold. It began slowly at first, but then – everything was filled with it – the wind, the rain – even her stem where she was attached to her branch. The cold made her feel shaky, and then – and then – she noticed that her color was changing. She could hardly recognize herself. Her green was going. Yellow – what was that? And now red was seeping in. Who was this red leaf? She was so taken up with her own changes that she forgot to look around her, and when she did, she was shocked to find that all her companions were looking unfamiliar, different shades of different colors, like herself.

 Finally she was all red, a shining, luminous red, but she still found it hard to think of herself that way. What could she do but say yes to this new color? But wait – something else was happening. Her stem – her proud strong attachment to the tree – was loosening. It was coming away. She felt unsteady. Everything familiar had disappeared when she wasn’t looking, it seemed. The red maple leaf tried to huddle and cling to the only familiar thing left in her world – and she couldn’t.

The coldest wind of all came. And the river still sang.

 The red maple leaf floated for what seemed an endless time, and to her it was. She was lifted one night – not quite gently - from her old battered branch, and placed on the invisible wings of the wind. There was nothing to do but move with this unfamiliar current that she could neither see nor hold onto. But it moved her somewhere, and all she knew was that she was still alive. Nothing else was left. As she floated downward and downward, a new voice came into her hearing, the voice that had always been there, faint and distant. The red maple leaf seemed to hear this voice for the first time as she was laid on its moving sound. The river took her with a violent shiver.

 Where once she had stood still, moving only to the wind’s whim but always feeling secure in her solid connection to the branch, now the red maple leaf was swiftly swung into a fast moving current. Nothing held her but the water. Shapes she had never seen before passed into her knowing but she could no more choose to hold them or stay with them than she could get back to her branch. Who could know how big the world really is? she thought. And here I was thinking that my branch was the world, and that I would always be firmly attached to it.

 The red maple leaf wasn’t alone on the water, but her companions were now not the familiar shapes of maple leaves like herself, or the squirrels who had raced by her often enough to be considered part of her tree. Passing her in the swift flow were sticks of all sizes, leaves in shapes she’d never seen before, white foam that threatened to envelop her completely. Then there were the birds – ducks and herons and hawks and loons. Beneath her were the strangest shapes of all – creatures actually under the water, moving with it or against it: fish, beaver, otter, mink, snake. Some of them moved above and below at will, she saw. But the red maple leaf could not choose her path in the river. She could only move as the river moved her, and no amount of resistance could change this truth.

 Gradually, the red maple leaf found that the river not only had a flow, but a rhythm of its own. Light and dark changed places again and again, just as they had when she was lodged in her tree. She could count on that. Then she noticed that the river had faces other than the fast flow. She was often pushed into eddies where she had little spaces of motionless and soundless slowing while the river swirled her around more softly and became quiet, almost like a lullaby. The red maple leaf treasured these times especially, though she knew they would not last – and she knew that she’d come to them again. She also became aware that whenever the river came to a corner, its voice became louder and its flow a little faster, as if making an effort to take the turn. And that when the turn was done, she could expect a slowing down, a restful, slowing movement when she could rest on the water.

 Once she was mistaken for food by one of the underwater creatures and was pulled under before being rejected for that purpose. For awhile, she was fully immersed in water. No air. Strange shapes and sounds. After that immersion, the red maple leaf began to think of herself differently. Her world had changed so completely that she could no longer think of herself as a red maple leaf. She realized that she had become, instead, a river leaf.

 The river leaf continued to flow with the river, each day surrendering to wherever it took her. She began to enjoy the sun on her surface, and even the cold breezes didn’t seem as bad as when she was high up on her branch. Sometimes the river took her into crevices and corners, stuck in the debris that was floating along with her. She never knew how long she’d be there, but she knew that the river never stopped, and that she would move into its flow again. That fact, like dark and light, was to be trusted. And one more thing she realized was also to be trusted: the river flowed in only one direction. She would never see her branch, or her tree, again.

 The river’s voice became the river leaf’s song. The river’s adventures were her adventures. She knew herself now only as belonging to the river, not to the tree, that faint memory. One day, she noticed that the current was slowing and slowing, and she could no longer see the familiar scenes along the river’s edges. She could only see a vast expanse of water, and it was no longer moving.

 Gradually, the river leaf came to rest among the tall striped grasses where the river became the lake. She felt hidden there, safe – but not in the old way of being attached to the tree. The river leaf felt a fullness, a completion of something she couldn’t quite name, but the grasses helped her to know it, and to hold it. No more wanting anything else but what she had, no more wanting to be anywhere else but where she was.

 One more change awaited the little river leaf who’d lived the fullness of her days. Now even the red began to fade – the red that was once so strange and threatening – and then familiar. A crystal coating of white covered her one night, and just before morning she saw that she had been painted in the most delicate of lacy patterns, and beneath those patterns, she was no longer red, but gold. She was astounded at her own beauty, knowing that she had not made herself so, but that she had been made so. And that she was ready to begin again.

And the river sang her into ending, and later – into beginning.



Ilia Delio on religious life in the future

It will be about relationship, not about membership. Life is not a static essence. Rather than seeking new "forms" for religious life, the Book of Nature asks us to consider our relationships. Form emerges from patterns of relationships; hence, union is prior to being. (Lessons From the Book of Nature)

What would emerge, I wonder, if some of us sat with this thought and allowed a conversation on religious life to emerge?


"Letting the Land Lie Fallow"

The title of this reflection is the theme of the latest issue of LCWR's "Occasional Papers".

While the issue reflects on this theme focused mainly on the organization itself, I feel its application to religious life itself, in the way and the form that all of us living now have and are experiencing it. This quote, from Dianne Bergant, CSA, sums this up for me: "When the period of fallow land is understood as the sabbath of the Lord, it takes on profound religious meaning.It testifies to the conviction that all planting and harvesting, all programming and publishing, all protesting and advocacy are really in the hands of God, regardless of the human effort put into them." (p. 4)

I apply this statement not only to LCWR as organization, but to religious life in general, as I said above. As the forms fall away, we have moved, are moving, into transformation. Often we use the phrase "holding space": this means deliberately entering into fallow time with attention, intention, deliberate engagement with Divine energies. How? How?

Contemplative practices are rising in our awareness as gateways into this holding space, this fallow time.

How to move together, engage ourselves and one another, in this conscious movement? So far we each are finding our own way who see and feel this call. Is it time to bring our energies together in a different way? For it must be different from anything we are accustomed to.

What is the new way to the new way? And can we even answer that? OR is it more about surrendering, listening, waiting? Together...how?

they changed the thinking of their time

I have been thinking about foundresses and how each of them saw a different future unfolding from what they saw around them. We all know this. We all can tell the stories. But this morning with my tea I had a sudden revelation which links that common truth with what is happening now in the realm of a growing awareness of evolution, or emergence, or unfolding.

When I choose to read or engage something unfamiliar, something that moves me to a new insight or a more inclusive and deeper perception of what is happening in the world and where it might lead, I am opening to evolution and to emergence. I am allowing myself to be transformed. I am stepping over previous boundaries.

Many individuals in religious communities have been doing this privately for many years. Perhaps enough of them that some saturation point is coming closer, when enough members shift their perception so that significant change can take place in the group. Is it time to accelerate that process by inviting groups to explore new thinking, rather than leaving it to individuals?

One way this happens, and has been happening for awhile now, is the encouragement of book studies within communities. Groups of members come together regularly and frequently to discuss a book which invites them into new awareness, and sometimes even new thoughts altogether. Many are undertaking "new consciousness" groups. I believe that this venture will significantly contribute to a shift in perception of religious communities, and lead us further into evolutionary awareness and experience. I am including a list of possible books that could be uselful for this purpose: they are on the "Transformative Reads" page of this website.

Epilogue to Original Fire: an Invitation



 Epilogue:We Are the Next Story

          There is some talk in the various transforming communities about “being the new story”, or about “telling a new story.” Using such a term is a bit deceptive, not to say short-sighted.  The unfolding will go on. The most we can say at this stage is that we are the next story, because what is unfolding in the large universe story surely does not end with us. Perhaps it is even more realistic to say that we are the next chapter in a story that has no end.

          If this is true of the large view of the universe, so it is true of the smaller story of women in general and Catholic vowed women in particular. All the effort that goes into keeping things as they were, all the energy that goes into holding to a belief that we have to make everything continue as we were at the peak of our unfolding, is wasted energy and even more serious, it goes against the natural rhythm of creation. Choosing to take the step into the transformative cocoon – whether personally or communally – is to honor the creative vibrant Source that brings everything into creation and releases it back into the cycle, to emerge again, recognizable or not.

          There is a mistaken belief among us that transformation is a grand and glorious change that will demand very little of us, because its result is positive and desired. This belief is so far from the truth as to be ludicrous. It can only be a belief of the intellect without considering what the body, spirit and emotions must go through in the transformative process. Neither does transformation take place all at once, some grand gesture that is dramatic and even recognizable, unless one happens to be the Beast in the musical stage play of “Beauty and the Beast”, when – at the end – the Beast is raised into the air, spinning so fast we can’t identify the moment when he becomes a handsome young man who is gently laid back on the earth again.

          Transformation is more like a phrase from the theme song of that same musical: “just a little change” signals the beginning of transformation. Small, almost imperceptible shifts in how we perceive, what we see, what we are willing to question that we took for granted before. Spinning in the air – an image for being uprooted from familiar ways – can also be an experience of transformation but not necessarily and is only one phase if so. And we might go forward and back – trying to go back being a sign of the deep anxiety often accompanying transformation.

          We are already transforming, though we might be at different stages, and with different questions. The new – or the next – is already here, happening every day as we read and research and try to go back and marvel at a new insight. Transformation has been happening while we try to understand it, identify it more clearly. How can we identify the new? They are often the ones on the fringes, the ones who ask frightening questions, the ones who shed old patterns and won’t accept old answers very readily. They are the ones who step out of structures – not necessarily leaving them – but going far enough to both question them and to bring new thoughts back to old ways of doing.

          Transformation – of the magnitude we are seeing in our lives today as women and as Catholic vowed women – can best be understood in metaphor, for we have no real language for what we are now experiencing. Nature’s most powerful metaphor for transformation is that of moving from caterpillar to butterfly, but until the evolutionary biologist Elizabet Sahtouris told us the details, we could not make as accurate a comparison as we can now. Paraphrased in Korten’s (2006, 74-75) writing, here is how transformation happens:

The caterpillar is a voracious consumer that devotes it life to gorging itself on nature’s bounty. When it has had its fill, it fastens itself to a convenient twig and encloses itself in a chrysalis.  Once snug inside, it undergoes a crisis as the structures of its cellular tissue begins to dissolve into an organic soup.

Yet guided by some deep inner wisdom, a number of organizer cells begin to rush around gathering other cells to form imaginal buds, initially independent structures that begin to give form to the organs of the new creature. Correctly perceiving a threat to the old order, but misdiagnosing the source, the caterpillar’s still intact immune system attributes the threat to the imaginal buds and attacks them as alien intruders.

The imaginal buds prevail by linking up with one another in a cooperative effort that brings forth a new being of great beauty, wondrous possibilities, and little identifiable resemblance to its progenitor. In its rebirth, the monarch butterfly lives lightly on the earth, serves the regeneration of life as a pollinator, and migrates thousands of miles to experience life’s possibilities in ways the earthbound caterpillar could not imagine.

           Where do you see this happening now?

           There is only this: we are already the next story. Let the telling begin.


Contemplative Chapters


Contemplative Chapters:

Reclaiming Inner Life for Mission

(Brenda Peddigrew, RSM) ©2013

 “The Christian of the twenty-first century will be a mystic or will not be a Christian at all.” (Karl Rahner)

 “The soul grows by subtraction, not by addition.” (Meister Eckhart)


          The word “contemplative” has been re-emerging in the life and meetings of active religious for perhaps only eight or nine years. It’s as if – in our emphasis on Mission and Ministry since Vatican II - our foundations began to shift, and the foundation of it all – interior relationship with the Divine – fell more into individual practice and assumption. This is neither avoidable nor anyone’s fault; in fact, it was needed for the deepening of a communal contemplation that is calling us now. We have been and are part of a global shift in awareness.

           Perhaps one of the reasons contemplation is re-emerging as our numbers and structures decline is that it never went away. Like the presence of God, it is always there, and just needs turning towards, and giving daily time, and –this is the newer development – brought into communal practice as well as a personal one. Certainly, LCWR has been inviting a communal contemplative practice as part of its gatherings for the last few years.  I believe that this has made possible the steady, integral response that LCWR leaders have been able to make consistently to the Vatican investigations.

           At a two-week meeting of one Congregation’s international leaders five years ago, I invited all to sit together for twenty minutes every morning before breakfast, and to practice whatever form of meditation or contemplation that was theirs. Towards the end of the meeting, several came independently to tell me how different this meeting was from others before, that decisions were made without rancour, argument, or disdain. When I asked why they thought this was, every single one said “it was the praying silently together in the mornings.” I have invited every group for the past five years to engage in this practice before a meeting or a Chapter, no matter what length of time the meeting takes.

           But Contemplative Chapters (indeed – contemplation itself) cannot be communal alone. It is the individual commitment to interior prayer that contributes to and increases the power of communal contemplation. One of the unfortunate and unintended effects of Vatican II renewal was that interior prayer and meditation became de-emphasized, and it was each one for herself on that front. Liturgical Renewal and involvement on our part for the first time in history escalated our engagement in extraverted prayer expressions. Neither was interior prayer a common topic of conversation among religious. All our gatherings became occasions for spoken words and singing and sometimes dancing…all forms of an extraverted expression of prayer.  All good…but the inner connection, needing significant exterior and interior silence, began to recede somewhat, and for some, was lost altogether. Some of became slaves of our culture’s most common cry “Not enough time!”

          So when I am asked now, as a Chapter facilitator, “if we can have a contemplative Chapter,” I am having to stop and ask what it is that is being asked, and why. I sense in the communities I facilitate, and others I hear about, a deep longing for something, a presence that is more than words. I sense a longing for silence and quiet – but not simply external silence and quiet. We have had that and it still leaves many feeling empty and disconnected. In fact, external silence alone allows us to encounter our interior lack of silence! Then the work of silence really begins. In silence we are seeking a connection, a listening within that is not possible in the time-starved schedules of our culture into which many have fallen, and we are seeking a connection with God that is to the soul what food or oxygen is to the body. Only individuals can develop the practices that cultivate contemplation, and when that is the case, a gathering of such individuals engaging collectively affects both processes and outcomes of a gathering such as a Chapter.

           There is no shortage of contemplative practices available for individuals and groups in our world. Indeed, our shifting of emphasis towards contemplation could be part of the deeper arising described in Contemplation Nation: How Ancient Practices are Changing the Way We Live (Papers from the State of Contemplative Practices in America), a five-year study of all the different ways that many different faiths, workplaces and groups are following contemplative ways to change the face of their country. Nevertheless, as Catholic Christians, we are rich in contemplative traditions and practices. What is needed now, as Thomas Keating so succinctly suggests, is “fidelity to the old and openness to the new.” He goes on to say "unfortunately those of little faith tend to identify the values of the Gospel with particular structures and symbols. We have to grow beyond that identification."(Reawakenings, 55)

           So, our first challenge in planning for a contemplative Chapter is to know what we are really asking. Many members of religious communities are seeing the evolution of consciousness and the emergence of new realizations as part of that contemplative stance. This is openness to the new and what might be emerging “beyond”, as Keating says, an identification of the Gospel with particular structures and symbols. Can we go there?

 Immediate Context


               Meister Eckhardt’s words at the beginning of this paper “the soul grows by subtraction” invites us to look without filters at our present reality. Our works, our buildings and properties, our numbers and our visible presence in the world – all have been diminishing for some time. No attempts at vocation promotion seem able to get us back to the old ways of attracting members. Many have been in some denial of this reality, implying that “if we only found the right way…said the right words…did the right things…” then people would join us. This is a very narrow view, as it presupposes that this is in our hands, not God’s.  And God inhabits the whole world, of which we are a very miniscule part, though very effective in the part we have played. When I use the word “diminishment,” some become defensive, denying visible reality, refusing to open to what God might be bringing about, or assuming that God will continue to work in the way we think things should happen.

           Our work now is to foster the openness needed to live and breathe contemplation, the kind of contemplation that leads us outward in more opening towards the world. And that is the first level of invitation to contemplation: opening one’s heart. For contemplation, unlike many forms of meditation, is about surrendering and consenting to the work of God.  It is about allowing. Listening to inner resonances and knowing how to change and trust the moment is the first movement of contemplation. External silence doesn’t help if internal silence is not being cultivated. From that place, prayer arises.

           A simple distinction between meditation and contemplation is that the former is primarily active, while the latter is primarily receptive. In most forms of meditation – and they are many – one chooses a word, a passage from scripture, an image – and focuses one’s mind on that for a period of time. In contemplation, the inner movement is primarily shifting to a self that is beyond thought and beyond feeling, what Merton called “la point vierge”, that “virgin point” in every soul where God dwells and the only human response is to surrender and receive.

           How can contemplation be a flavor then, of Chapter, if not its essential character? Here are some beginning ways to prepare:

  • encourage members to read, talk about and find ways to bring the reality of contemplation into their personal and communal conversations long before the Chapter Gathering;
  •      provide sources of material for contemplative reading; this could be a task for the Planning Committee, drawing from members;
  •      have conversations about what is meant by communal contemplation; encourage groups to practice it;
  •      Suggest a book study on one of the resources listed at the end of this article;
  •      use talking piece circles in small groups, where members wait and listen rather than converse in the usual give and take;
  •      encourage and practice speaking from the heart rather than responding to someone else;
  •      keep affirming that discomfort is a good sign that something new is being learned; that transformation is taking place;
  •      offer teachings on interior silence (see suggested reading list)
  •      search out ways together to encourage the study, practice and conversation about these topics.

 Empathic Listening

               One last way to embody a contemplative approach to every day and especially in community conversations is the personal practice of empathic listening. This practice helps to loosen one’s own tight attachment to “the way I think about it” and opens a way for all manner of wider viewpoints to have a place. Empathic listening involves a few simple questions: “what if the way I think about it is only half right? What if it isn’t right at all? What if it’s only me who thinks that way? What are my assumptions in holding this opinion?” “How can I loosen my attachment to the way I see things? This exercise is not about letting go of your own opinion, but because the effect of seriously considering these questions allow a space to arise inside where not only God, but other people may offer insights and possibilities.

           A Contemplative Chapter is as receptive as it is active. It includes a personal habit of inner listening and empathic listening to others as described above. Each personal contemplative practice contributes to the communal morphogenic field that is the whole gathering at this moment in the history of the community, and only for this moment.

           If we are not listening to our own hearts, if we go into Chapters of Affairs and Elections with fixed ideas and opinions, there cannot be a contemplative Chapter. God can break through at any time, but God cannot be pre-programmed by us. So listening to our inner resonances and knowing how to change and trust the moment is the skill of contemplation.

 Chapter of Considerations and Directions(Affairs)

 There is no one way to design a Contemplative Chapter of Considerations and Directions – the days preceding inviting and choosing leaders - but it will include some of the following qualities:


  •      a schedule that includes significant times for communal silence and prayer;
  •      times for interior listening before speaking; directions for the “how”;
  •      learning to recognize what the whole is sitting with and not just staying with my own personal opinion; (empathic listening)
  •      inviting creativity and trying out new ways of doing what is necessary in a Chapter;
  •      slowing the pace of work; spaciousness in schedule;
  •      emphasizing inner practices and heart attention;
  •      speaking from the heart of what one is hearing within;
  •      holding what each one says without judgment or criticism.

           Some readers will hear familiar echoes in this reflection. For many years, most communities have been trying to design more reflective chapters, with more time for quiet, prayer and a slower pace, especially at the beginning of the day. That is all good, but choosing a contemplative Chapter takes it a further step.

           By way of summary, I see four new emphatic developments:

1. an invitation to more deliberate individual inner practice;

2. empathic listening as a way to be together;

3. more deliberate and conscious allowing of insight in the moment to change what might have been planned and pre-decided.

4. a new form of choosing leaders.

           We engage in a Contemplative Chapter by keeping a loose hold on what is emerging in the moment that might neither be expected or planned for.  What might emerge that we have not planned for? How do we recognize and allow it to come into being?

 Choosing Leaders


               For many years now, most religious communities have been making long preparations to elect leaders. The preparation – personal discerning, inviting, discernment retreat for invitees – all these steps take place previous to the Chapter itself.  Even in small communities where members know each over throughout many years, this practice has continued. Discernment for leaders begins even without the formal process, however, in the months prior to the Chapter itself, as members begin to orient themselves natural to the choosing process. One possibility for a Contemplative Chapter is to hold the entire process during the Chapter itself, following the choosing of direction for the first few days. During this time, the emerging focus and direction for the community is agreed upon, be it vision statement, directional statement, wisdom statement. Adding this element to the invitation for leadership invites another opportunity for congruence with Chapter outcomes, when the question becomes “who can best lead us to actualizing what we are agreeing upon?” Thus leaders are chosen not only for personal qualities and experience, but for what is resonant with this time in history, with this chosen direction.

           The longer, pre-Chapter invitation process could be helpful in large Congregations whose members don’t know each other. But even in those situations it has sometimes caused more confusion than clarity. In smaller groups, it seems redundant now.

           In a Contemplative Chapter, listening to self, others, and Spirit with an open heart and mind – all of these characterize each meeting day . Invitations are either spoken from the floor, or written on paper and announced by the facilitator, followed by quiet discernment time, open questioning of invitees by the whole, finding leanings and then formally electing according to Constitutions. Thus a leadership team congruent with this moment in the community’s history is created.

 Conclusion: This Contemplative Moment

           At the beginning of this article a famous quotation from theologian Karl Rahner is used to focus the call to contemplation that is drawing us now. His words remind us that our primary relationship with God is an interior one, and all our good works flow from this mystical relationship. Too much attention to outer structures, plans, and predictions slowly and unknowingly create a wall around our primary relationship with God, and until we deliberately remove those layers we will not access that interior place where God not only speaks, but works through us. This is the Great Unfolding that God is bringing about, and many are now seeing their way to surrendering and consenting, the two great and necessary movements for God to work through us in a new time, much of which we will never comprehend with our minds.


            Jesus encourages his followers to be deliberate about searching and

             requesting. He promises they will find what they are seeking. But this

             is more about the internal world than the external one…[Perhaps] we

             are to ask for what matures and strengthens our relationship with

             the Divine…request what will transform us into our best gladness, our

             foremost faithfulness, our strongest fire….what will prepare us to be

             catalysts for goodness in our world. (Rupp, Open the Door, p. 49)


To live from the inner depth of love, as persons in evolution, is to live

             with purpose and direction not as an “I” but as a “we”, a collective whole.

             To know God as the wholeness of Love is to enter into oneness at the heart

             of all life. That is why prayer and contemplation are essential for the next

            stage of evolution. Without the eye of the heart or the inner space to welcome

            the new ways love shows itself in others, we cannot love towards greater

            unity. (Delio,The UnbearableWholeness of Being, p. 112.)


A Contemplative Chapter begins with the question, “how willing are you to open the tight and uncompromising places within your own heart?”


                        Recommended Sacred Reading: a very beginning list!

(in order of recommendation)


Sardello, Robert Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness (2008)

Rupp, Joyce, Open the Door (2008)

Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Jesus;

                                            Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening


Rohr, Richard. Immortal Diamond (2013)

                               Falling Upwards

                               The Naked Now


Delio, Ilia The Emergent Christ(2011)

                     The Unbearable Wholeness of Being(2013)


Hall, Thelma R.C. Too Deep For Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina (1988)


Keating, Thomas: Reawakenings

                                      Active Meditations


Bush, Miribai (ed) Contemplation Nation: How Ancient Practices Are Changing the Way We Live. (2011)


Contemplative Music


Jan Novatka, (all) especially “The New Consciousness” and “Emergence”

 Carmel Boyle, especially “We Shall Remember”


and whatever music leads into inner Presence





New Buds in Religious communities: look for them!

New Buds in Religious Communities:

what are we being offered?

Yesterday morning I was wandering outside in the slowly emerging, tentative moving of spring evidence, following, not determining; receiving, not planning. The light was strong in my eyes, and I was marvelling at how the warming sun of the past few weeks was bringing forth green shoots where only a few days ago there was nothing but dead stalks and branches. I was in thick bushes, with hardly a place to put my feet, when I came face to face with a branch lined with just emerging buds. I would have had to move them aside to walk forward, so close were they to my face, so I stood still, and observed them before making that mindless push to clear my way.

 What I saw that I had not seen before was that new buds emerge where there is space.  Though the bushes seemed crowded, and the forest itself strewn with organic debris, the newly emerging buds were unfolding into a spaciousness I had never noticed before. There was room for the buds – and plenty of it – because all the old growth of last year had fallen to the ground and was feeding the branches so that the new buds could emerge, but that old material was not crowding the new in any way that I could find.

  I could not help thinking, in this moment, with my face so close to this amazing yearly phenomenon,  that something similar must be happening in religious communities. What buds are emerging? Why can we not see them? What old growth still hasn’t fallen to the ground, but is crowding our vision so completely that the new buds not only can’t be seen, but will never emerge sufficiently to take any clear shape?

 The first reality that came to mind is the crowded way that many religious, men and women, live daily life. This is no judgment: most will say it outright to anyone who will listen. “I haven’t time for quiet; I have no space in my day; there is so much to be done; I have to fight for time:” these are some of the expressions I hear most frequently in my work with religious women and men. They contain not only an unfulfilled longing, but a helplessness that indicates a lack of personal ground and therefore any sense of being rooted in the larger reality. This larger reality needs to contain the never-ending tasks of work-to-be-done, rather than being contained – and controlled- by them.  In this way alone, we have become expressions of the culture of which we are now so much a part that many of us cannot see it.

 This reality is not confined to individuals, however, but to whole communities, gatherings and meetings of almost every kind. As a facilitator of Chapters,  planning meetings, assemblies and other forms of communal gatherings, the first impulse I encounter is to fill the time so lopsidedly with the business of the gathering that there is hardly time for prayer, not to speak of silence together, or learning to experience silence as another voice at the meeting.  Even with so many elders present, it takes special attention to design time together that respects their natural limitations.



 So how to begin to honor space and spaciousness?As with all deepenings, this begins with each person. Groups cannot promote what individual members do not live and value as primary commitment. So the slow turning around from busyness and frantic activity could be an invitation to members, a direction offered and highlighted, a tentative step into reclaiming the soul’s need, and a container in which surrender to the call might begin with a reshaping of life both personal and communal. This is not, and never will be, easy.

 Beginnings of religious communities took place in a spaciousness that opens only with something new. For our founders, there was no past to carry, no corporations to protect, no security to ensure. There was no language to assume everyone understood: they made a new language. For us, though we long to continue what gave us so much life and meaning, there is weight and debris to shed that crowds the space where new buds are not given enough light to flourish, nor even be seen.

 Five Beginnings


          Here are five ways in which – for anyone who resonates with this understanding – a beginning might be made.  There are more - and opening a space will reveal them. For these five beginning suggestions have only one purpose: they are ways to clear space where none seems present now. They will open emptiness, loss, grief, endings, anger  – no less than each autumn brings to bushes and trees – and they can, I have come to believe and experience, hold a container where the new buds that we cannot see now will again emerge, and we might not live to see them. But we will be the branch in winter.


  • language: The old language cannot be heard, nor understood, in the world in which we now live. Words like “formation”, “vows”, even “vocation” as well as other of our specialized words might provide comfort and a link with the past, but they also keep us enclosed, cut off, protected. They are uninviting to those in the world today who carry the flame of spirit and service that we long for but are unwilling to let go enough to attract those – especially the young – of like flame. It is we who must learn a new language.


  • contemplative spaces: These are not physical spaces – and though such are needed, they are only a beginning – but a cultivation and encouragement of the interior prayer, meditation, and immersion in nature that nurtures a life in Divine Presence that is bigger than immediate reality. We want to find ways – for individuals and for communal gatherings – that will enable us to live anew the life within that is beyond the urgent grip of immediate demands and must-do’s. We want to cultivate the capacity to listen within as first priority.


  • encourage individuals: Stories now abound regarding proposals and visions of individual members of religious communities whose ideas are not only not heard, but are negated immediately, many without a hearing, because they do not fit the corporate idea we have of ourselves. But might not that idea be the one that will open a door we have not previously seen? What if we can’t afford it? Aren’t founders the ones whom authorities consistently negated? Rather, to get to a new place, we must look to those who see and live outside current and traditional boundaries, and yet stay connected in some way to the community. What might they be teaching? What opening might be there?
  •   invite everyone: “Who can belong” to religious communities  (and even who can be an Associate Member) is now so restricted in some cases that the description eliminates more people than can ever consider joining. And yet there is at the same time a deep concern – and some have given up altogether – that because no one is joining, the community must end. What about the wedding banquet in the gospel? What if we opened to anyone who wishes to come and learned from them a new way of being?  What if we are the ones saying “I cannot come?” “Inviting everyone” doesn’t mean having no boundaries or distinctions, but allowing the natural, spiritual boundaries to emerge from the new as it unfolds, rather than imposing them from the beginning, based only on our previous experience.*
  •  circles of possibilities: Instead of focusing on requirements, necessities, securities, or preserving structures, what if we sat in circles of possibilities?  And helped one another stumble and fumble into a new way of seeing the present and the future? Circles equalize; give space for newness in ways that traditional authoritative structures cannot (calling it “leadership” doesn’t always diminish the authority behind it); circles allow us to confront our painful limitations, hidden assumptions, and barriers of fear and anxiety.

While I was pondering these thoughts, I tried them out tentatively on someone who lives very much in the traditional way but also longs for more. Her response was “but if we let go of all that, what will we put in its place?” Ah! there’s the leap of faith  that the bud makes, that seems impossible for us to make: we don’t know. Stepping into the space without knowing is what’s required. Living the paradoxes is what’s required. Waiting to be given, to receive from the Divine rather than being the ones to give and to do, is what’s required.

 While writing these words, a phone call came that told me of the passing of a good friend with whom I had walked the dying journey these past several months. In one of my last visits with her she ended by saying, when she held out two closed fists, “It’s time for me to move from this (closed fists) to this” – and she slowly opened her two hands until the palms were straight out. It might be time for us to do the same.



When great symbols lose their content and their meaning for us, we are in danger of losing our souls…so great is the pressure from the collective values of our time that even for those of us who recognize this truth, there is need to struggle every day so that we may avoid falling into a subtle devaluation of all our efforts towards image-making.” (Helen Luke)



 This reminder was given to me by my friend and colleague Gabrielle Uhlein, OSF in her response to this paper.

Catherine Cormier 29.05.2016 20:17

Thank you for this great article. I too am a lover of nature and am always amazed at the power of new Life and what it can teach us. New beginnings are possible

Lee Gauthier 09.07.2013 19:46

The path of transformation is evident and desired by us all it seems.. and the absence of knowing where it all will lead is the bud.

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Latest comments

23.11 | 19:20

Hi Marilyn...can you share your writing when there's a chance? Love to read some!

04.01 | 19:04

Thanks, Andie...that's it exactly ! So glad you experienced it!

04.01 | 18:36

'Whatever you need
and wherever you go next -
will come to you'
My holiday experience.

28.12 | 15:12

Hi Brenda,
I've just finished reading The Choice - got it from the public library. What an amazing story and an unbeatable spirit. I'll check out youtube now