XIII Why Religious Life Died
Within a few years of my departure, many communities, especially women's communities, changed beyond recognition. The mandate of Vatican II for Roman Catholic communities, which of course spilled out into Anglican communities—(which always had one eye on Rome and another on England—so much for authenticity)—had been for the communities to recall the spirit of their founders and regroup accordingly, with new constitutions. Little did the Vatican realize that it had opened a Pandora's box, because many of the women founders of women's communities were radicals who had been forced into enclosure and subjected to other strictures because of the misogynist and restrictive eras in which their communities were founded. But now the women took the bit in their teeth, and were off, especially in America.
Some, like the Ursulines, recovered the spirit of their foundress, Angela Merici, and cast off the enclosure which had been imposed on them, which often had prevented them from optimally taking up the tasks of education of women and care of the needy that she had enjoined. At the opposite end of the spectrum, others, like the Carthusians, recaptured the vision not of their original simplicity (huts in the woods, the simplest of food, clothing, and only the necessities for their work), but rather the time of their greatest grandiosity when the Grande Chartreuse was built and when they enjoyed the patronage of kings and queens (at one time they owned the steel monopoly in France). Their new statutes ooze with self-congratulatory phrases and Jansenism: we are the best, we are the elite, we are a church within a church (meaning a law unto themselves and abuse of the human person), and the distorted 'more masses more merits', 'suffering is good for you' quasi-magical and sado-masochistic attitudes of the Counter-Reformation.
As far as the women were concerned, the back-pedalling by the Vatican began almost immediately. Pope John Paul II, that echt misogynist, wrote an encyclical on the religious life, pointedly aimed at women, which said, yes, they'd always had less money and poorer living conditions than the men, but that they should submit and be content and stop causing trouble. Of course the encyclical neatly overlooked the fact that in a number of cases, nuns had entrusted money to their brothers to buy them (the nuns) some property, and instead the monks had used the nuns' money to buy property (always the best pieces) for themselves. Today, ironically, the remnants of these women's communities, who have been pioneers for social justice and other causes in every corner of the world, are being subjected to repeated scrutiny by the Vatican males—mainly for being uppity, one suspects, which, being interpreted, means claiming their humanity.
The Anglican communities, having been founded relatively recently, also had some out-of-date, mainly Victorian, attitudes to break free from, as well as the death-dealing, Manichean spirituality they had adopted wholesale from their RC sisters (or which had imposed on them by their male founders) transmitted through von Hugel and Evelyn Underhill. The Anglican view of habits, however, was different: Anglican nuns historically had to fight for the right to wear them, whereas among RC women it was mandatory, and many RC sisters couldn't wait to ditch them. Many communities went first to modified habits, which were often extremely ugly, and then to secular clothes. A few dug their heels in and went in the opposite direction, living an even more exaggerated and dehumanising life than was the case at the beginning of Vatican II. Only a handful had the sense to retain some sort of community dress for liturgy and formal occasions. No-one undertook what was, I believe, at the heart of the Council's mandate, which was to rediscover the reasoning, psychology and theology behind certain practices that made up religious life at its best and give them contemporary expression.
All of the communities, Anglican and Roman Catholic, went through a time of questioning and change that was often ill-considered and far too rapid. The churches were introducing changes into the liturgy, which were even more ill-considered. No-one seemed to know what discernment meant any longer. No-one seemed to apply consistent criteria to the changes under consideration. Silence was abolished. Talk in the common room degenerated into discussion of individual pension pots and ecclesiastical advancement.
The liturgy was degraded to hyperverbal squawking; the attempt to make it more sensitive to gender was a disaster: no-one had any idea what invaluable subliminal signals were being lost—for example, the use of 'he' for God, when it indicates the reach, the stretch of mercy and kenosis, which is far more astonishing when it appears in men (who are physically stronger) than in women. Chant was suppressed. Ancient hymns and glorious music were exchanged for endless, repetitive, simple-minded explorations of the key of C, and the banal and sentimental words one might hear in a third-rate cocktail lounge. As Annie Dillard once put it, 'Who gave the nice Catholics [and Anglicans] guitars?' [Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper and Row, 1982) 18-19]
There is a singing group in this Catholic church today, a singing group which calls itself "Wildflowers." The lead is a tall, square-jawed teenaged boy, buoyant and glad to be here. He carries a guitar; he plucks out a little bluesy riff and hits some chords. With him are the rest of the Wildflowers. There is an old woman, wonderfully determined; she has long orange hair and is dressed country-and-western style. A long embroidered strap around her neck slings a big western guitar low over her pelvis. Beside her stands a frail, withdrawn fourteen-year-old boy, and a large Chinese man in his twenties who seems to want to enjoy himself but is not quite sure how to. He looks around wildly as he sings, and shuffles his feet. There is also a very tall teen-aged girl; she is delicate of feature, half serene and half petrified, a wispy soprano. They straggle out in front of the altar and teach us a brand-new hymn.
It all seems a pity at first, for I have overcome a fiercely anti-Catholic upbringing in order to attend Mass simply and solely to escape Protestant guitars. Why am I here? Who gave these nice Catholics guitars? Why are they not mumbling in Latin and performing superstitious rituals? What is the Pope thinking of?
The community in which I had been a novice was no exception. Most of the original nine founders left or died. The new sisters, following Sister Q, were hell-bent (I used the phrase advisedly) on getting ordained and becoming celebrity gurus, whether or not they had anything to teach. The superior, who had been my nemesis, tired of men, tired of the double life she was leading, and, way ahead of the times, left the community to live with a woman with whom she had fallen in love. With all this drive towards careers and stardom and sex, and a growing sense of entitlement, the community became more like a women's club than a religious community, forgetting, as if it had never known, that human beings are not limited to, are far more than sex, ambition and consumption. These activities may bring short-term self-esteem in some cases, but it is bought at the price of long-term self-respect. The pornografication of global populations, now blatant and overt, was already well under way.
The rich lady's money was accepted, and the baroque harpsichord duly made its appearance in the austerely beautiful, starkly modern chapel; Gregorian chant disappeared. The Offices were cut both in number and content. The two most essential elements of religion—mystery and beauty (not just aesthetic beauty, but the difficult, often upside down beauty of Christianity)—were suppressed without anyone's seeming to notice.
Ambition, competition, fashions, politics, careerism; any pretence of community life, in the sense of supporting one another in the way of contemplation, overflowing into loving and serving the community and the world without counting the cost, vanished. Every passing fad was, at least for a short time, enthusiastically embraced until the members got tired of it or something more diverting came along. This is a key word, for conversion, the basis of monastic and Christian life, was exchanged for diversion. The house was no longer a home but a hotel.
As time passed, the rich woman's legacy disappeared through profligacy—frugality was evidently no longer an integral part of the life—and the house, and other houses, had to be sold. What is left of the community has retreated to a small convent in a distant state where they lick their wounds, wondering whom to blame, and what went wrong.
While many Catholics, both clergy and laity, were demanding that the Council's vision of full participation for all in the church be realised, the Anglican rush to ordination meant that the Episcopal Church and the Church of England (and other Anglican churches) were becoming more clerical: laity were and are considered by many clergy no more than necessary nuisances, numbers of bums in pews bearing pocketbooks that need to be picked, however genteel-ly. Again, there was and is little regard for discernment—not only have the criteria been lost, but the selection committees seem to be looking for salesmen rather than those who seek holiness and wisdom—but then, the whole idea of vocation has degenerated into a sense of entitlement. The seminaries have been just as bad as the religious communities, and there was and is little or no resistance to the heedless, rudderless juggernaught that has been unleashed. Is it any wonder that religious have left their communities in droves and the laity have disappeared from the churches?
While the cultural context has contributed much to the degeneration of the churches and the communities, there has not, on the other hand, been any attempt to resist or even discriminate what was and is appropriate to inculturate and what is not. The situation has been complex, but my feeling is that the catalyst for the attitudes that have led to the dead end (with the emphasis on dead) of western Christianity in which we find ourselves is due in large measure to one person: Thomas Merton.