Saturday, October 20, 2012

Why Religious Life Died

Recently someone told me that he was puzzled and saddened by his mother's closely-guarded pain over something that happened long ago which had led to his birth—something that had been her own choice over which, she emphasised, she had no regrets. Nonetheless, it continued to sound a ground note of pain in her life. He said she hardly ever talked about it, but that he knew it had something to do with the fact that she had been in a religious order and, after meeting his father while at university, had left her community to get married. On the rare occasion when she had spoken of it, she always insisted there were no regrets, but even so, the pain endured. There must be hundreds of thousands of women like this man's mother, and, although I am in vows, as I listened, it crossed my mind, not for the first time, that I am numbered among them. 
In this series of posts I want to explore what has happened to religious life, why it declined abruptly after Vatican II, and why the few women and men who want to explore religious life today have no place to go; why the relict communities that want to attract these women are doomed to failure. I am a member of the last generation to have lived the religious life both before and after Vatican II, and it seems a useful exercise to write down my impressions, which are not necessarily those of others.
Religious life—both Roman Catholic and Anglican—as it was constituted before Vatican II, was both inhuman and unsustainable. It was anti-incarnational, turning people into robots through a complete misunderstanding—some of it deliberate—of the notion of what constituted 'loss of self'. Sadistic and frightened male superiors and bishops, many of them misogynistic and struggling with the immaturity and sexual confusion that seminary education engendered, didn't want any problems from the women; they had enough of their own. A survey taken in New York City in the late sixties suggested that 72% of the clergy of all denominations were gay—and firmly in the closet. Women were barely tolerated; for a woman or a community to have a problem meant a black mark and censure, perhaps even persecution.
         There were equally misogynistic and sadistic women superiors, who, in addition to enforcing the male ecclesial attitudes, confused emotional dependence with obedience. Of course this renders obedience illicit, for licit obedience must be freely given and without constraint or coercion. Enclosure had become a prison: it violated all common sense. It was used to keep nuns in rather than keep the world out.
There was little screening at the time, and when, for example, the absolute silence of the Trappists was lifted, it was found that many monks had been crushed, mentally and physically damaged, some of them to the point of psychosis. What was discovered about the women was even worse: in addition to their suffering similar problems to the monks, a survey carried out in the 1970s suggested that perhaps three-quarters of the women in enclosed religious life had been molested or raped by their fathers. The dreadful theology of the day dictated that women were the cause of sin. These women had entered the monastery in order to make life-long reparation for having led their fathers into sin, and in spite of this perpetual immolation, still felt that even so they would go to hell—but perhaps their fathers would be spared for Purgatory.
To remove the habit was unthinkable even when it endangered the person wearing it, whether walking down the street or driving a car or handling machinery in the kitchen or on the farm. Superiors chose to ignore both safety concerns and the much bigger problem that there are damaged and perverted people in the world for whom the habit is a magnet for sexual or revenge fantasies. When I see veiled women today, whatever their religion, I cannot help but think of the missionaries to Hawai'i who discovered that by covering the nakedness of women they became more of a sex object.
        Some of the coifs had become unmanageably elaborate—a symbol of competition for status among communities of women who had no way to live 'authentically' without the approval of a man, and so, without any solid ground to stand on of their own, fought among themselves for any swampy tussock on which to place a single foot, whether inside or among communities. If you were a 'diocesan' religious, a sister, you were the lowest of the low; if you were a member of an 'exempt' enclosed community, such as the Cistercians, you were considered upper class. The canons reinforced these attitudes: you were allowed to go up from sister to nun, but not down, from nun to sister. Clearly for the Vatican, nuns were totems: papal enclosure was the closest substitute the men could come to for burying women alive at the doorposts. Furthermore, papal enclosure kept the women out of sight. One story that circulated after Vatican II was that a pope commended a retiring cardinal by saying, 'Your courtesy was perfect: you never once mentioned women in my presence.' John Paul II, in his decree on religious life, even declared that women should shut up and take it as God-given penance that they should have what was often inadequate housing and funding. 
In addition to preventing women from driving or working safely, some of these habits permanently damaged women's bodies: in a manichean religious atmosphere, bodies were problematic but women's bodies especially so. The men, too, had their absurdities: the Cistercians, for example, had to sleep in their woolen cowls whatever the climate until some high mucky-muck from Rome was sent to hospital when he caught a terminal case of prickly heat at the Conyers, Georgia, monastery in mid-summer. There are few better or more ridiculous examples of literalising the metaphor of not knowing the day or the hour of the apocalypse. In one of his books, Peter Anson tells of a Spanish royal house of nuns whose habit was so elaborate that it required two hours for the nun with the help of a maid to dress herself appropriately for a feast day liturgy.
Religious women were not thought worth educating, although some communities, such as the Adrian Dominicans, refused to be kept down and sent their sisters to major universities to obtain good degrees. Education in the interior life was almost non-existent except for the passing on of aphorisms whose referents had been long forgotten, but which were applied like a template on which the religious were to try to force themselves by sheer willpower. There was little or no discussion—or knowledge—about topics such as contemplation, even in enclosed orders, beyond the formulas (God forbid that anyone might think for herself); anyone aspiring to contemplation was thought to be arrogant, getting above herself, wanting what was reserved to God's special elite (and of course it was the male superiors who decided who was elite and who wasn't). 
Observance for the sake of observance was all that counted, down to the last jot and tittle: put your soul's money in the ecclesiastical vending machine and your reward will come to you in the next life. There was little about the love of God and neighbour, and but a great deal about poor little Jesus, prisoner in the tabernacle, for whom one was suffering in reparation. Such attitudes, especially towards the Eucharist, reduced religious life and especially sacraments, to magic, and infantilised and reified the lives of the practitioners. There are, of course, people who still insist on magic, and local clergy where magical attitudes obtain appear to do little to enlighten them, lest the laity become uppity and have ideas. I was once leaving a mass when I overheard a man complaining to his companion that one of the chalices was not on the corporal during the words of institution and the epiclesis, and so had not been validly consecrated.
Those were the days of babies in Limbo, and the ever-present threat of hell—a notion invented in the twelfth century—if one died unshriven. My roommate at Stanford in the early sixties, during the break between the two sessions of Vatican II, was a devout Catholic studying chemical engineering. Her father was a mining engineer. One day he was caught by a cave-in and buried under tons of rubble. When she came back from the funeral she was clearly distraught. Finally she told me that she was terrified that he had gone to hell because he wouldn't have had time to make an act of contrition.
Those were the days when organists in Catholic churches didn't play Bach because he was a Protestant; when Catholics were afraid to go into Protestant churches and Protestants were afraid to go into Catholic churches for fear of being struck by lightning. The first cracks appeared in this absurd wall during the last few terms I was at 'The Farm', as we fondly called Stanford: I will never forget going for the first time to one of the inaugural 'dialogue' masses at the Catholic chaplaincy—a radical, very radical move to make in those days, and a heady experience.
                          [To be continued]


Blogger Ultra Monk said...

Maggie, I think your future posts will go deeper and address the now. But I will say, yes, the old style convent was an emotional disaster.

I succumbed to the lure of "Are you seeking God?" I had a head full of Merton and I thought you had to live in a monastery to get what he had. So I joined a contemplative Benedictine monastery.

I learned:
a) its about community,
b) nuns serve the church by definition
c) it is not for individual spiritual growth.

This comment is to small to go into details. But true spiritual seekers don't belong in convents. Nowadays the most popular orders are for girls who want the strict habit and all the rules as they think it makes them better.

The order I came from had an average age of 70+. I know I am not cut out to spend my life caring for little old ladies.

10:15 pm, October 20, 2012  
Blogger Ultra Monk said...

ps: even though it has been 9 years since I got "kicked out" (2 days before vows), the changes wrought during 4 years of monastic life are still with. Some good, some annoying.

10:22 pm, October 20, 2012  
Anonymous AM said...

"True spiritual seeker"? This too borders on being presumptuous...

12:16 am, October 30, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear AM: Did I miss something? I can't find the phrase in this post. And did you send another comment? Because this one sounds as though you did. As I noted above, Blogger is having problems sorting out the comments from spam, so sometimes one gets lost. I always value yours.

I agree that one cannot presume who is a 'true' seeker; I am writing casually in this series, and these posts have not been honed the way the more scholarly ones are.

But it is also the case that some people involved in the so-called spirituality movement are in it for the money, or as an ego-trip, etc. In a way they are seekers too, but how would you refer to their ulterior motives?

9:46 am, October 30, 2012  
Anonymous AM said...

Hi Maggie,
That's all the short comment i wrote. Meanwhile, i'll be picking up this morning James Danaher's book on Contemplative Prayer courtesy from a friend in the US. I've been trying to order all your books but they can't seem to get through with the ordering process.

Many thanks always for your work of silence...

11:23 pm, November 04, 2012  

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