LCWR National Assembly Presidential Address 2002
August 18, 2002, St. Louis, MO
by Kathleen Pruitt, CSJP
TENSIONS HELD IN THE HEART OF HOPE
‘These are the best of times and the worst of times. … an age of wisdom and an age of foolishness; an epoch of belief and an epoch of incredulity ….it was the season of light, it was a season of darkness … it was the spring of hope and the winter of despair …”These opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities describe what well may serve as a modern context for a similar reading in Ecclesiastes. There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every purpose under the heavens: a time to weep and a time to laugh ….. a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to seek and a time to lose … a time of war and a time of peace … a time to be silent and a time to speak.(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
In so many ways, each fits as much for us today in our nation, our church and our world, as it did in those earlier times.
And recall a challenge that Jesus extended to his sometimes less than courageous followers, one he extends to us today: When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say immediately that rain is coming – and so it does. When the wind blows from the South you say it is going to be hot – and so it is. If you can interpret the signs of earth and sky, why can you not interpret the present time? Tell me, why do you not judge for yourselves what is just? (Luke 12:55-57) … You will hear of wars and rumors of war … nation will rise against nation; .. false prophets are heard in the streets. Evil increases … love grows cold. Still, in the midst of it all God’s promise of salvation is sure! This good news will be proclaimed throughout the world as a witness to every nation.(Matthew 24:6 ff)
At this time, in this place, in this moment we continue to pray for the wind and fire of a new Pentecost. We pray for the Gift of the Spirit to fill the well of our hearts with peace, flame us into fire for justice, and transform us into women and men eager and willing to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with our God. We yearn with all the yearning possible to make the Good News of Jesus Christ visible with our lives.
We know, even if darkly, that, in the words of our brother Paul, the Kingdom of God is justice, peace and joy in this same Christ Jesus.
These are times in our nation, our world, our congregations and in our church when it is all too easy to become prophets of gloom: violence seems a first response for resolution of differences, corporate greed robs many of a rightful share of goods and resources, globalization of war, racial divisions, ethnic hatreds and alienation of the poor are ever increasing realities, our Earth-home suffers, groaning under carelessness, wanton destruction and political arrogance and neglect. Lack of honesty, violation of integrity, betrayal of trust, exclusivity, structures of silence and secrecy all too often leave power in the hands of the few. Diminished numbers, individualism, loss of visibility, stiffeled dialogue, fears of what might be. Impasse raised up for us even as we seek new ways of being! We wonder, we ponder, we pray! We ‘read the signs of the times’ and weep! Knowing we are all part of these broken and painful times, we weep! Even as God does, we weep!
Yet it is precisely in times such as these that we are called to be prophets of hope. Living into the Paschal Mystery, we believe with outrageous hope that the Spirit of God shines forth through the strength and the frailty of our very beings! The Spirit of Truth is given to teach what we need to know; the Spirit of Light shatters the darkness that covers the earth; the Spirit of Love pervades the farthest reaches of the human heart; the Spirit of Life calls us to LISTEN, to LOVE, to LIVE, to LABOR: in short, to be prophets of hope for the reign of God. Religious life in its very essence is prophetic. And so, it would seem that our congregations – living witnesses of that life – our congregations, gifted by the Spirit with rainbow-rich charisms for the life of the Church, for all God’s people, are called to claim and to live into the dynamic tension of the call to be prophetic …to be prophets of hope. What does this mean? What is required that aprophet of hope might speak of the reign of God?
Listen to the powerful, tender words of Jessica Powers, contemplative poet of our time, inviting us to the essence of this prophetic vocation:
To live with the Spirit of God is to be a listener.
It is to keep the vigil of mystery,
earthless and still.
One leans to catch the stirring of the Spirit,
strange as the wind’s will.
The soul that walks where the wind of the Spirit blows
turns like a wandering weather-vane toward love.
It may lament like Job or Jeremiah,
echo the wounded hart, the mateless dove.
It may rejoice in spaciousness of meadow
that emulates the freedom of the sky.
Always it walks in waylessness unknowing:
it has cast down forever from its hand
the compass of the whither and the why.
(Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers, ICS Publications, 1999. pg. 38)
To live with the Spirit of God is to be a listener…
The essence of the prophetic vocation is to Listen deeply … to see with the eyes of the heart, in a word: to be contemplative. Contemplation is the heart of prophetic leadership. When the way is dark, and the path unclear; when there are no answers – even the questions elude; when we cast down the compass of the whither and the why -- to whom do we go … where do we fly? …….. In our hearts we know! As leaders, two years ago gathered in this very assembly, Risking the Sacred Journey, seekingJubilee, we recommitted ourselves to being contemplative in the midst of our works for justice and for peace, … being stilled in the heart of God, that the Spirit’s breakthrough will bring us to new places – places and ways we may not otherwise go. We are committed to that heart listening! …. We lean … together we lean to catch the stirring of the Spirit. Be still and know that I am God… be still and know … be still … my sisters and brothers … be still! Know that God is here! Know that God lifts up, holds us and makes us strong, God calls the Moses in us … ah, but I am too young! God calls the Isaiah in us … ah but I cannot speak! God calls the Jonah in us … ah but I will run the other way! God calls the Elijah in us …. Go to the entrance and listen! Listen in the tension of a world at war. Listen in the tension of a church torn asunder by sins of passion and abuse of power. Listen in the terror of violence in our streets and of children and women without food to eat. Listen in the anger of racial hatred and ethnic division! Listen in the weariness of not enough time … of too many demands! Listen, too, to the wonder of goodness, compassion, care, and concern. Listen to the alms-giver, the merciful, the peacemaker, the reconciler, the justice seeker! Listen … listen …. Listen! God’s Word, incarnate in Jesus, speaks: Go down the mountain! BE what I ask you to be. Speak what I give you to say!
A truly prophetic word emanates from in-touchness with the heart of God. It arises in the context of community gathered in contemplative/obedient listening to God’s Spirit.
In this wandering waylessness of unknowing divine imagination flames up and finds expression. Eyes, not ours alone, see more clearly, hearts afire love more dearly, feet emboldened follow more nearly. In THIS time, in THIS place, the Good News of the reign of God must be proclaimed! We, you and I, our Congregations, are called to ‘read the signs of the times’: simultaneously to challenge and to empower, energize and enable. The dynamic of prophetic leadership, living into the tensions of these times, requires of each of us the endurance to see things as they are and the intuition that things as they are might one day be transformed into things not yet seen. It is to articulate God’s vision of what ‘can be’. Only as the prophetic word is called forth out of the heart of God, ‘listened’ into articulation in the discerning community will it be at once sharp and incisive, compassionate and merciful. Out of the dynamic of hearing and listening the prophetic word will be a word of power – in Hebrew ‘dabar’ -- a word that matters. It startles, challenges acts and invites to further hearing. It is at once starkly practical and realistic and creatively imaginative and hope-filled. We are called by the Word-that-matters to risk. As risk-takers for the reign of God and knowing only too well our own vulnerability, we humbly, persistently engage outrageous hope in the midst of pain and suffering. In the face of confusion, uncertainty and instability a prophet calls to ways of growth and wholeness. In the worst of times a prophetic community, a prophetic leader, calls for the best of times, assuring those who mourn, those whose tears run warm, that there is a time to dance. In a time of loss and diminishment a prophetic community, a prophetic leader, acts with courage drawn from the strength of faith and the wisdom of grace, calling all to seek new paths, different ways of being. In a time of war a prophetic community, a prophetic leader, calls for a time of peace. To be prophetic is to be about salvation … about the kindom …. alwaysto be about the reign of God. But it can be so only as the prophetic voice emanates from a profound and shattering experience of God. Living in the midst of dynamic tension is to experience with every fiber of our being, the messiness of the ‘winter of despair’ …. and, at one and the same time, to give voice to a song for the springtime of hope. And what might HOPE look like?
Theologian Mary C Grey, in her book, The Outrageous Pursuit of Hope, reflects that hope – hope beyond reason, beyond measure – and prophecy, kneaded like bread of critique, lament and vision, are intricately intertwined. So much so that an authentic theology of hope must express the three essential elements of prophecy: critique, lament and vision.
Critique: Critique, simply described as ‘seeing things as they are’ and the courage and willingness to name what is seen … to give voice to experiences of oppression and sin … to actively address abuses that divide and destroy. Critique to be exercised according to the measure of faith. Like Mary, who in her hymn praising the salvation of God, speaks as Hanna before her, of the mighty works of God: giving food to the hungry, lifting up and comforting the poor; confusing the proud and arrogant, removing from thrones those powerful who see no need for mercy. And so, in our time, in this place standing in the midst of the darkness named and sinfulness claimed, we, you and I – our congregations -- must, out of that profoundly silent and sometimes dark contemplative place within the heart of God, hold carefully, prayerfully, the dynamic tension of ‘a time to be silent, and a time to speak’.
We all know those gone before us and those here present whose prophetic word heard on the mountain tops and in the city streets has startled, challenged, invited us .… whose lives speak to our hearts calling all God’s people to be about the reign of God. In the silence of your heart, name them!
Lament: Lament we must, you and I – our congregations -- …. Lament like Job and Jeremiah, or Rachel mourning for children lost and abused; like Amos calling the people to repentance for sins of violence and structures of injustice; Like Esther, begging mercy for God’s people, reversing plans of death and destruction, or Hosea, pleading and promising forgiveness into reconciliation. And so, in our time, in this place standing in the midst of sin and suffering we must hold courageously and compassionately the dynamic tensions, alive and real this very moment in our nation, our world, our congregations and in our church. Indeed there is, in this age of wisdom … this age of foolishness, ‘a time to weep and a time to laugh … a time to mourn and a time to dance … a time of war and a time for peace’. Tell me, Jesus says, why do you not judge for yourselves what is just? The good news of salvation, the coming of the fullness of the reign of God, will be proclaimed throughout the world as a witness to every nation, and yes, in our congregations and in our Church. We, you and I, our congregations, will proclaim it but only if we see it … we taste it … we touch it! Even as we, too, are part of the brokenness and the pain, we must be – and if we are not, we must become that ‘dangerous memory, a dangerous story in the Church, for our world.! (Followers of Christ, Johannes Metz)
We all know those gone before us and those here present whose lament heard on the mountain tops and in the city streets has startled, challenged, invited us… whose lives speak to our hearts calling all God’s people to be about the reign of God. In the silence of your heart, name them!
Vision: Vision we must … you and I, our congregations must vision for without a vision the people perish. In an image used by Margaret Wheatley, we are called to jump into chaos, seeing chaos as that within which there is unlimited energy for new life, new ways of being. Chaos is where the Spirit is present and active – a fruitful darkness that is also light, if we dare let go. In this searing light of the Spirit’s creative imagination will we be spirit-filled ‘shape-shifters’, visioning a nation, a world, a church, our own selves as bread-bakers and water carriers …. as garment weavers and tent makers …. as bridge builders, menders of broken breaches … as place-setters at a table where all are welcome and no one is excluded, … as care-full for earth, who cares for us … as sowers of seeds, plowing and tending to harvest justice and peace. In our time in this place, as leaders we are called upon through the discerning community to articulate the prophetic mission of Jesus -- to simultaneously see and listen, challenge and lament. Grieving what is, we must also energize and uplift, living into vision, straining with all God’s holy ones toward that ‘future full of hope’ – a future which is now.
We all know those gone before us and those here present whose visioning heard on the mountain tops and in the city streets has startled, challenged, invited us … whose lives speak to our hearts calling all God’s people to be about the reign of God. In the silence of your heart, name them!
Hope and prophecy: critique, lament, vision! In THIS time, in THIS place, this moment given us, listen again to Ecclesiastes: There is a time to speak and a time to be silent. The challenge to us, how best to speak clearly, to act effectively to bring about necessary change, reform, renewal and healing within our wounded world, our nation, among ourselves, and particularly in our Church. Participating justly, lovingly, humbly in naming and claiming and honestly, openly addressing all that is in need of change or reform brings its own tensions. Call for change or reform of structures, modes and methods of acting that perpetuate exclusivity, secrecy, lack of honesty and openness, all of which fosters inappropriate exercise of power is tension-filled.
In our world, our nation, among ourselves and especially within our Church, we are called to be part of renewal: renewal of all that encourages authenticity, and trust; of all that fosters life and growth; of all that speaks to the reality that these dark and tragic moments do not define who we are as a people, nor do they define the church. We must somehow find ways to assure that the voices and gifts of all in the Church can and will be heard and experienced as necessary and important to the its life and ministry. For this is the vision of the fullness of the reign of God.
We have the awesome opportunity, not without tension, to be about healing! Healinghurt, brokenness, disappointment, disillusionment. Bringing compassion, care, comfort to all whose lives are so deeply affected by what is taking place. This is to be about restoration of right relationships, of healing wounds inflicted by exclusivity, division. It is mending broken breaches, building bridges, walking new paths, calling for new ways of being. Calling for mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation even when we perhaps find ourselves in the midst of the messiness, uncertain, unsure, perplexed! We all experience the darkness, the tensions of these times. But with outrageous hope, we believe that light and fire – a new Pentecost – is at hand if we remain open to the presence and promise of God’s Spirit. It is the vision of the fullness of the reign of God.
Let us remember again, that first Pentecost: They were all together in one place, gathered in community … tongues as of fire appeared, which parted and came to rest on each of them …. Each of us gathered here or at home, not just as individuals but as communities in the church for the church, are called to be prophetic leaders. Authentic to who we are in the church -- religious life en-fleshed in the particularity of each congregation -- we participate in the prophetic mission of Jesus as servant leaders in our nation, our world our congregations and particularly in our church. As we ‘Read the signs of the times’ we are painfully, radically aware that each of these, shaped by tragic events, is different today than each was even 12 short months ago! More than ever before our call as prophetic communities is toward greater collaboration – to stand and to act in solidarity with others. Prophecy today, as it always has been, is about justice, restoring right relationships, and social justice, often requiring radical and risk-filled action that can bring change of systems and structures for the good of all. Prophets are wonderful so long as they are not noisy, as long as they are quiet observers, as long as they are ‘kept in their place’. However, it is precisely in the ‘out-of-placeness’ in recognizing our belonging to the community of life that the prophetic word best and most authentically serves the church, serves society, serves the world. As religious congregations we dare not allow this ‘rich gift for the life of the church’ to be co-opted by individualism or by institution. Are we authentically what Johannes Metz in his classic work Followers of Christ calls us: the ‘dangerous memory … dangerous story’ in the church for the world? Do we challenge at the margins, calling for ourselves, our nation, our world, and our Church to be its very best? Religious life has mystical and social/political dimensions; and it is out of this lived experience and expression that the prophetic word is raised. If this is true, and we believe it to be so, then we must never cease to kindle the fire of our rich and varied charisms, gifts given by the Spirit, for the people of God, so the reign of God might be ablaze in this time, in this place because we enter into the tension of our times, aflame with that same Spirit.
And so, the leadership we are called to places us squarely into the messiness of a winter of despair, requiring of us the endurance to see things as they are’ but living into a springtime of hope – God’s promise that ‘things as they are’ will be transformed into things we have not yet seen. Willingness to live this dynamic tension requires much more than endurance. It requires clarity of vision, acuity of hearing and integrity of action -- a contemplative heart, participating in God’s vision. It requires the ability to effectively announce that vision simultaneously to the powers that oppose God’s reign and to the people oppressed by those powers. It requires a willingness to pay, even with our lives, for the ‘coming of the reign of God’. A poem by Rainer Maria Rilke says it well:
God speaks to each of us as [God] makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
And make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand. (Rilke’s Book of Hours, Riverhead Books, 1996. pg. 88)
These are indeed the best of times and the worst of times … it is a season of light and a season of darkness … a winter of despair… but, even in the midst of the best, the worst, of darkness and despair, for us always it must be a springtime of [outrageous] hope. For we are people – communities -- of the Paschal Mystery, bearers of a rainbow-rich variety of charisms given by the Spirit to the Church, for the people of God, in OUR time, and in THIS place – in the country we call life …. We know it by its seriousness … let us, with our God, join hands together! And so it is and will be always, outrageously hope-filled!! AMEN.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) has approximately 1,000 members who are the elected leaders of their religious orders, representing 76,000 Catholic sisters in the United States. The Conference develops leadership, promotes collaboration within church and society, and serves as a voice for systemic change.