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Leadership Conference of Women Religious

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LCWR Presidential Speech: OAKS OF JUSTICE

LCWR Presidential Speech

August 19, 2005

Christine Vladimiroff, OSB

 

OAKS OF JUSTICE

 

I. Jubilee in Scripture

 

“You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; . . . you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its in habitants. For it is a jubilee for you. It shall be holy to you.” (Lev.25)

 

You and I stand in this forty-ninth year today. We hear the ram’s horn, the shofar. We pause -- and heed this call. It is the call of jubilee: It beckons us to make real God’s dream for our world here and now. And so we journey this year as a jubilee people. Far from “business as usual” we are in a year of God’s favor. It is a time of grace. It will be a time of challenge; it will be a time of blessing. Jubilee will make profound demands on our hearts, our minds, and our souls. Our foremothers and founders have shown us the way through the past. Now it is our time, the only time we have — the present. The future of religious life is in our hands to shape for those who will follow us.

 

Jubilee, in the Hebrew tradition, builds on the Sabbath principle of handing one’s life back to God. Jubilee affirms that God is sovereign, in actual fact, and in eschatological hope. But it does not stop there. Jubilee demands that the structure of our lives in the human community -- in our social, economic and political aspects -- must embody our affirmation of God’s sovereignty. Jubilee rests squarely at that intersection where our daily life of human design encounters the truth of God’s sovereignty. How we live with each other on this planet must reflect that truth. Our patterns of life must manifest this truth powerfully so as to move hearts and minds toward a new way of life. Jubilee is about transformation. Transformation is what we seek.

 

Jubilee is symbol and vision of a new age—a reminder of the way creation was intended by God from the beginning. Jubilee is not a time to paternalistically “take care of the poor,” but rather a time to dismantle the structures of injustice that render people poor. It is a time to demolish systems that grossly distort the relationships we have with each other. It is a time to eradicate ways of living that create winners and losers. Jubilee is about the ethical consequences of being a people of God.

 

You shall let the land lie fallow,

                                    that is, you shall practice Sabbath;

                        You shall forgive debts,

                                    letting forgiveness in;

                        You shall free captives

                                    and proclaim liberty;

                        You shall find out what belongs

to whom and give it back;

                        You shall hold a great feast, learning

                                    To sing the canticle of “Jubilate.”

                                                            (based on Leviticus 25)

 

The Year of Jubilee in Leviticus presents the most radical program for continuous social reform to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. It tells us how to bring righteousness and justice back into existence because our manner of living together has built barriers that obscure God’s presence and activity in our midst. Jubilee is an opportunity to return graciousness to our living with all creation. Jubilee calls us to mutuality, empathy and affinity in our relationships with each other.

 

Walter Brueggemann writes:  “It is difficult to imagine a more radical social possibility than the sabbatic principle, particularly as it leads to the Jubilee year. The intention of the command is that Israel’s regular, daily transactions should be shot through with the radicality of Yahwism, for the God who commands, commands precisely certain acts and policies that pertain to the lived reality and practice of social power.”[1] 

 

As we celebrate this year together, we must resist the temptation to “spiritualize” jubilee and in that way keep it from touching our lives. If we give into the temptation then we quell the urge to change and blunt the prophetic edge that is needed to effect the reign of God.

 

Was jubilee ever observed in Israel’s history?  Most modern scholars would answer that there is no evidence that it was carried out as Leviticus instructed. That fact, however, does not diminish the desire planted in the heart of God’s people: the desire to live in a world in which God’s love is manifested precisely by the care and concern we show each other.

 

Isaiah revives the call to jubilee in the dark days after the Babylonian exile. He spoke to a disillusioned generation about to undertake the painful pilgrimage of return to their homeland. For the exiles, Jerusalem held only memories of the desecration of the temple, terror, death of loved ones and disgraceful captivity by the enemy.

 

Perhaps we can feel the despair of the people and the contrast of the power of Isaiah’s words if we imagine ourselves and the prophet standing in a camp where refugees from Darfur are gathered in the Sudan. Their lives know the violence humans can visit upon persons simply because they are “other,” further fueled by the greed for resources such as land and water. In the Darfur region two million people have been displaced by the fighting in Western Sudan. A United Nation’s estimate puts the dead at 200,000 while others give the count of the massacre at 400,000. The refugees gather around this prophet, this stranger. They only know horror and they are not anticipating any good news. Isaiah speaks:

 

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

Because the Lord has anointed me;

He has sent me to bring glad tidings

 To the lowly,

To proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, 

To announce a year of favor from the Lord

To comfort all who mourn.” (Isaiah 61: 1-2)

 

These people – broken, weakened, devastated by death and suffering, devoid of all hope -- hear that God so cares for them and that their tomorrow holds promise. They allow themselves to think that a future is possible. Hope springs and then flows forth in their hearts as they stand in tatters in the midst of wreckage. The enormity of this change is indicated as Isaiah tells them:  “They will be called oaks of justice, planted by the Lord to show his glory.” 

 

Yes, the oak tree: a sign of strength and endurance, symbol of insistence and flexibility, mightily anchored so as not to be toppled by the winds and storms. The oak, whose root system extends in all directions, driving deep into the recesses of the ground; while other trees whither, the oak can find water with its taproot drilled into the earth. And so this huddled mass of humanity -- refugees from life, barely able to stand, constantly in hunger and in despair -- are the oak trees planted by God for God’s glory. They, the poor, will be participants in the promise. The year of God’s favor is gratefully accepted. They are to become a transformed people.

 

Isaiah, as other prophets before him and after him, shares the vocation to express the pathos of God to a suffering people. Sympathy is a prophetic quality. Prophets are sensitive to the divine in the real events of a people. This is only possible because of the intimate link the prophet has with God. The prophet experiences God; she is in communion with the divine. In the depth of her soul, the prophet knows God. She knows of God’s love that has no limit. She embraces God’s anger that targets the evil, which produces suffering. Prophecy presupposes this intimacy. Prophecy is not possible without mysticism.

 

Megan McKenna writes:  “The spirituality of the prophets, if you can speak of such a thing, is based on three principles: prophecy—the message and the honor of the name of God through justice and peace; their presence as God’s witnesses in the world for truth and against those who disobey the word of God; and pity—the overflowing of compassion and mercy.”[2]  To borrow the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, prophets are “the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor.”[3] 

 

In the person of Jesus, God’s love and care for the world is incarnated. Jesus brings into a particular time and place God’s presence and activity among God’s people. Luke, Chapter 4, presents us with a vivid image of Jesus in the initial days of his public ministry. Filled with the power of the spirit, Jesus reads Isaiah from the scroll in the synagogue in Nazareth. As he carefully rolled up the scroll he uttered a stunning statement, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

 

Jesus was proclaiming jubilee. It was a year of God’s favor. It promised everything that the Torah taught the people to hope for:  good news to the poor, release to prisoners, the end of blindness, and freedom from oppression. This is no mere announcement of a future occurrence. In Jesus we meet the inaugural celebration of God’s reign.

 

In Nazareth, Jesus defines his mission as messianic, proclaiming it as fulfillment of a prophecy. The whole of Jesus’ ministry — his preaching, his teaching, his miracles — can be seen as not just announcement but realization of the reign of God. Some of those who listened found his words “gracious” our Scripture tells us. Those who recognized Jesus most readily as he moved about were those who were poor, those suffering the pain of physical illness and the many who were ostracized in the occupied Palestinian society and the Jewish temple cult of Jesus’ time. When the poor and the sick and the marginalized came to Jesus they experienced healing, freedom and acceptance. It was a time of God’s favor in their lives. They rejoiced in the liberating freedom of jubilee. God touched their lives and they were changed forever.

 

But others, our Scripture relates, attempted to heave him over the crest of the hill in Nazareth and kill him. In the end those forces of resistance would succeed in Jerusalem. And so the celebration of Jubilee brought demands. For in proclaiming the sovereignty of God, allegiances had to be shifted from the structures, systems and institutions that characterized the old order of oppression to a new way of living. This unknown place and time of the “reign of God” represented a risk to those with a stake in the old way of being and living. Jesus’ preaching presented a radical reversal of perspective for our lives: He called us to a complex conversion, calling into question what we valued and how we lived with others. It meant walking away from the status quo and comfort of the known and walking toward a new place in life. Like the rich young man in the Gospel, some walked away sad because they could not let go.

 

During Jesus’ ministry the people listened and wondered as they heard his words. Perhaps that wonder is ours as well. Why would one choose to sit in the last place at a banquet?  How can those who come at the last hour be paid what those who labored all day receive?  Why cure the unclean and the unworthy -- the lepers and the woman with a hemorrhage? What is the meaning of inviting yourself to the house of a tax collector and sitting with sinners?  Why go the extra mile; why turn the other cheek?  The outrage of forgiving seven times seventy makes no sense.

 

In Jesus’ message God’s transformative intent is manifest. The logic of the good news of Jesus touches every part of our lives restructuring relationships with one another and with the rest of the created universe. It is a call to fashion an alternate way of being in our world, a way that embraces the ethical dimensions of discipleship. It is a call to holiness.

 

 

Religious Life: Mystical, Prophetic

 

In Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, we can see that the community of disciples, the Church, begins to take the role of prophet in proposing an alternate vision of how we should live, if we profess to follow Jesus. The Church’s understanding of herself gave movement to modeling a new arrangement of life, such as sharing all things in common, appointing deacons to serve the poor and preaching love instead of violence in a land where foreign troops occupied the streets. We even have evidence that there were objections to participating in war for it was a contradiction to that of being a disciple of Jesus. In those initial years -- so close to the flame of Pentecost — the apostles proclaimed Jesus’ message that all were equal in God’s reign. There would be no difference or higher rank regardless of ancestry — Jew or Gentile; regardless of economics and class — slave or free; regardless of gender — male or female. There was to be a way of living that would mirror the Trinity — a communio of love.

 

Today, you and I stand in the long and rich tradition of religious life, with the same desire as our founders and foremothers to live the Gospel in such a way that the reign of God breaks through in us and is manifest in the way we live together.

 

Try to imagine a newspaper reporter in your city interviewing people on street corners. If she asked passersby where she could find a group of people who truly seek God and also model a lifestyle radically different from the individualism of our culture and not tainted by the American consumer society, would the majority of people in your town answer her query with:  “At the Benedictine monastery, of course,” at the Sisters of Saint Joseph Motherhouse, at the Sisters of Mercy Center?” In its origins, Christian monasticism and religious life was a prophetic sign for a church that was becoming too comfortable with the Empire, with that which was non-Gospel in the surrounding culture. Today, you and I must ask ourselves: Is the witness of our religious life strong and clear — in the Church and in society?

 

The essence of religious life is deeply rooted in an experience of union with Christ. This  is its mystical foundation. The way we live out this intimacy with God, concretely in our community life and ministry, should be a clear and radical model — an unmistakable affirmation of the reign of God that is emerging in the midst of the world. This is the prophetical dimension of our life as women religious.

 

Sandra Schneiders remarked at a talk to the Benedictine Formation Conference in February of this year: “Our religious profession constructs an alternate world where the reign of God has exclusive prominence. Religious profession is a promise to live by the co-ordinates of God’s reign and not the world’s.”[4]

 

In the Church, religious life began to appear in those heady days following the coming of the Spirit. Religious life, as a life form, developed early in the history of the Church. We have evidence that by 88 A.D. there were groups of women vowing perpetual virginity as a way to radically live their baptism commitment. Religious life arises from a total self-gift as a response to the individual experience of the transcendent that transforms us. The transformation of the person becomes a transforming power for the world. It is this mystical experience that is at the heart of the prophetic role of religious life. The experience of God’s holiness changes us and impels us to empower and ennoble others to give their gifts to bring about the creation that God intended from the beginning. It is this experience of God that also calls us to oppose that which blocks the image of God or distorts it in our lives. Forty years ago, Lumen Gentium situated religious life as forming part of the Church’s holiness. “Religious life, in its many and varied forms, is the gift of the Spirit for the mission of Jesus Christ.” (Lumen Gentium #44) 

 

Discipleship is a radical commitment to enter into and bring about the reign of God. Religious life is an intense call to live by values not generally esteemed by the culture around us. The prophetic quality of religious life calls us to a selective marginality for the purpose of engaging the culture so as to change it. In those areas where the dominant culture is the antithesis of jubilee we need to work for transformation. Our world needs liminal groups to reveal not only the limitations but also the possibilities of institutions. Thus the liminal complements the institutional; both Church and society need this witness. We are those oaks planted by God for God’s glory — we cannot be swayed by the prevailing winds. We must resist being co-opted by the culture rather than compelled by the Gospel. We can, in our world today, be a sign of a more profound level of what it means to be human, what it means to be redeemed. Our roots are planted deeply in God’s word and watered by all that is sacramental, all that brings grace into our lives.

 

I am not above the fray of worrying about the future. As we engage in endless discussions about religious life in the United States we need to focus clearly on the very essence of the life we have undertaken. It has very little to do with numbers or median age or empty novitiates, actuarial studies and retirement funds. Those are questions of survival. My community is not exempt from the complex forces of the post-modern era. I take seriously our consideration of such issues.

 

However, I believe that as women religious, as monastic communities, as apostolic congregations, as evangelical federations and as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, we must contemplate the renewal of the life itself from the perspective of the mystical/prophetical nature of our lives. When we can clearly articulate who we are in our world and how we are gift to our Church then we can move with confidence into that future that is hope-filled. This will also suggest to us the areas of our lives —  as individuals and as community — that must change, that must be transformed — for us to become a declaration of God’s Reign — truly a jubilee people.

 

How are we bringing the liberating news of jubilee to this first decade of the third millennium?  Religious life flourishes or declines according to its ability to address the crucial issues of meaning within changing cultural patterns. On July 23, 1968, Thomas Merton, OCSO wrote in a letter to Dom Jean Leclercq, OSB, from the Abby of Clervaux in Luxembourg, “Those who question the structures of contemporary society at least look to monks for a certain distance and critical perspective, which, alas, is seldom found. The vocation of a monk in the modern world . . . is not survival but prophecy.”[5]  Merton uses the word “monk” speaking from his monastic background, but the saying can equally be said of us as religious. This should be our agenda, not mere survival.

 

I have a favorite story that serves as a metaphor for the point I am trying to make.

 

Once upon a time, in a remote, unfriendly village that clung to the side of a mountain, there lived an old woman whose habits seemed strange to her neighbors. Since the harsh winters kept most villagers huddled near their fireplaces, they did not cultivate the art of hospitality, and rarely spoke to anyone outside their immediate families. The mountainside, itself bleak and barren, beckoned no one toward its slopes, even in the less harsh seasons of the year. Only the children ventured to climb, ever so stealthily, partway up its side; a daring feat that they were cautioned not do by their parents.

 

During such furtive forays, they inevitably met the old woman. Most of the time she was bending over, digging a little hole in the ground, and dropping a tiny something into it. The braver children asked:  “What are you doing, old woman?”  Her reply was always the same: “I am changing the face of the mountain.”

 

The children grew into adulthood, and most left the village for the world of cities. It came to pass, however, after several decades, one grown child returned to show her husband and children the harsh environment of her youth that she had often described for them. She came back but she did not recognize it. The mountainside was ablaze with a dazzling array of colorful flowers gently swaying in the breeze. Clusters of bushes and young trees lent their foliage as shade to the myriads of children and adults gathered along the base of the mountain. All spoke to each other, laughed and played games. Families and neighbors picnicked together.

 

The woman who had returned stopped one of the villagers to ask:  “When did all this come about?  What happened to the bleak and barren mountainside of my childhood?”  The villager replied:  “Do you remember the strange old woman who lived here, the one who would wander up and down the mountainside?”  It was she who planted all these seeds. She went out every day, intent on her sowing; believing all the while the results would bear fruit.”

 

The woman did recall the image of this old and bent figure from her childhood. At last, she understood the meaning of those words:  “I am changing the face of the mountain.” 

 

The point of the story is obvious. I believe the old woman had a picture of what she wanted the mountainside to look like after she was gone. She wanted to create a world of love and caring—a warm place that welcomed and nurtured a sense of community. She created a place where the beauty and harmony of the environment spoke to the soul of a people who walked gently on mother Earth. She wanted to alter her present bleak world so that others would have the embrace of a home that would nurture their spirits in the future. She personally invested herself in those changes so that the people would be moved, transformed as was the mountainside.

 

Do you and I have a picture of what we want the Church and the world to become?  Do we go out each day to make it happen?  Do we live that change we want in community?  Are the signs of service evident, rather than those of privilege and status in our communities?  Are our monasteries places of communion where people can see God’s mercy and experience ongoing acts of pardon and reconciliation in our way of life and prayer?  Are we willing to be untiring in our efforts to leave behind a legacy that brings God’s reign a little bit closer?  Can we evoke the change; can we find symbols that speak to the heart?  Can we be faithful to the mystic and prophetic core of religious life?

 

Pope John Paul II wrote about religious as prophetic:

 

True prophecy is born of God, from friendship with him, from attentive listening to his word in the different circumstances of history. Prophets feel in their hearts a burning desire for the holiness of God and, having heard his word in the dialogue of prayer, they proclaim that word in their lives, with their lips and with their actions, becoming people who speak for God against evil and sin.[6]

 

Prophecy is always an incarnated response to the very challenges of the historical moment. As women religious we have embraced our time and the challenges. We continue to labor to change the face of the mountain. I have great hope, as we gather in this assembly. Leadership is about releasing the gifts of all for the mission of God’s reign. Let us now consider the deeds we have undertaken and the choices we have made to walk with those for whom the structures, the systems and institutions do not work. Together we will stand strong. We are the oaks, planted by God for God’s glory.

 

Our Times are Times of Violence.

Year after year we have gathered to close the School of the Americas. Each year the gathering gets larger, each year our members join with others at Fort Benning to challenge the conscience of a government that funds and operates a school for killing. In classrooms they pass on the art of torture and export it to support dictators to stay in power and oppress their own people. Our sisters have stood bravely before the judges in the courts, willing to suffer the consequences of answering to a higher law. Some of our members, at ages 60, 70 and 80 years, have been given prison sentences. They have heroically shared the lot of the poor and that of the discriminated in our penal system. Their names are an honor roll of those who have rejected a citizenship on earth that condones death-dealing as a way of life. Our sisters have declared the Reign of God as their true homeland. They are setting the captives free by their own incarceration.

 

Each year as our sisters come to ask permission and a community blessing to take part in the demonstration at the School of the Americas, I am reminded of an old Zen story.

 

Once upon a time an old Buddhist monk went to the town square every day to cry out for peace with justice and for an end to hostility and anger. His cries went unheeded and unheard and had absolutely no effect on his country’s war-making or his own neighbors’ hatred and petty selfish lives. After awhile even his own monks were embarrassed for him and sent a delegation pleading with him to stop, saying that he was having no effect and that people thought him senile or crazy. They did not want to be associated with him anymore. They begged, pleaded, and rationalized with him to stop. They told him, “No one cares what you say. They don’t even listen to you any more. Everyone in the country has gone insane with fear and war, selfishness, greed and killing. Why go on?”  His answer was given directly, looking his own monks right in the eye:  “I cry out for peace and justice so that I will not go insane!”

 

The prophets’ vocation is to cry out—to God, to the town square, to any open heart that will listen. Women religious will gather outside the gates of the School of the Americas this year. And we will do it next year and the year after. Is it futile?  No; it is an investment in changing the face of the mountain. We will not have our voices muted by accommodation to the politics of war. I am confident that someday, our daughters, who will follow us into religious life, will witness the closing of the School of the Americas. They will gather and celebrate their foremothers who went back year after year, decade upon decade, never wavering in their resolve to dismantle institutions that bring death. They will thank us and we will rejoice in heaven. Jubilee!

 

 

Ours is a time of leaving behind the poor.

Individualism marks our culture. Action for the common good is very uncommon indeed. As religious we need to be conscious of our culture: What have we assimilated and what do we mirror in our life in community?

  • Does my life, our life together, reflect this American individualism that expects that the whole world exists to fulfill my needs?
  • Are we intentional about building community whose center is Christ? 
  • Are we willing to struggle and be changed through learning how to make space in my heart and in my life for the epiphany of God that each sister can be for me? 
  • Can we find ways of living together that express our love for each other and see community as a way to lay down our lives for each other in the daily-ness of our service? 
  • Are we reconciling communities where forgiveness is humbly asked for and generously given? 
  • How authentically do we live in a community of concern and compassion? 

 

We are to live as tenderly and lovingly in our time as Jesus lived in his. In his presence, the poor experienced healing, freedom and acceptance. As a community, we are to be present to each other and to our world in that same manner so that we give healing, freedom and acceptance to each other — and to those whose lives we touch.

 

It is hard to imagine a more callous time than now, when political and economic decisions are made with complete disregard of the consequences for our country’s most vulnerable — women, children and the elderly. Social programs and safety nets are slashed and money is directed to military spending. Ours is a time when our government’s international policies and trade agreements devastate poor countries. Hard hearts make meager attempts to forgive debts; the United States is sadly the most reluctant in both poverty reduction at home and abroad, and debt forgiveness. Selfishness and greed, not lack of resources, are the causes of hunger and poverty.

 

In my initial attempts to address this topic of poverty, I amassed the statistics about hunger and poverty that we all know. Luckily the prayer bell interrupted me. As I sat in chapel and we began chanting the psalms, it became clear to me how I wanted to approach the topic. Many of the psalms are spoken by a person struck low, or voice the heart’s cry for the oppressed against the powerful. In the entire Psalter of 150 psalms the primary topic is that of the soul’s relationship to God; the next recurrent theme is the plight of the poor. As I let the words sink in, I knew that the psalms could never be written from the comfort of our monasteries and motherhouses. They were the words of one who knew destitution and devastation and who relied on God as a refuge.

 

The word often used for the poor in the psalms is ana, meaning “bent down, bowed over” under the pressure of social injustice, illness, destitution. Thomas Cullinan, OSB, writes: “Such people belonged in a special way to God because they belonged to no one else. Their poverty was not the holy simplicity which some of us romanticize about today, but the unholy poverty which destroys people and which is utterly rejected by the psalmists and prophets.”[7]  The psalms’ message is that God will vindicate the poor while the established, well-to-do-religious people ignore the poor at their peril.

 

The psalms do not pray much for the poor; they invite us to pray with the poor or as the poor. We are not called to a maternal charity for the poor but rather our souls are being prompted each day at the Liturgy of the Hours to identify with and be in solidarity with the poor in our world. To pray the psalms authentically will affect our lifestyle and our worldview, our economic and political decisions.

 

How do we move into and express our solidarity with the poor?  How do we, as jubilee people, proclaim good news to the poor?

 

The Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, OP, asks what he calls the “lacerating” question, which continues to haunt him: “How do you tell a poor person that God loves them?” The telling would be truthful only in the doing. The same question is posed to us as well, to we who benefit from the world’s inequalities. Our faith tradition and the jubilee legacy is necessarily in contrast to all that hinders human communities, indeed all creation, from thriving according to God’s design.

 

Globalization has been emptied of its promise to deepen the unity of the human family. Instead, it has ushered in a process of exploitation and destabilization, giving rise to scandalous poverty, war, and a sense of being uprooted, along with profound anxiety and despair in our world. At the international level women religious are working to advance the cause of the Millennial Development Goals. We must see that the initiative is realized and does not remain words in a document. Governments must allocate adequate funding to achieve these goals of poverty reduction worldwide. We have been a loud voice for debt forgiveness since the late 1990’s as we moved into the millennium in 2000. Praying the psalms brings us not only to sympathy for the plight of the poor but to an effective solidarity with the poor.

 

Regina Mbunbo, OSB, of Twasana Monastery in South Africa writes:  “In order to pay on its debts, South Africa has closed many hospitals and clinics while those that stayed open suffered shortages of medicine and equipment. There have been epidemics of cholera and influenza. Many doctors have left South Africa to practice abroad.

There is no money to pay civil servants such as teachers. Many have left the profession. Many educational institutions have closed, the rest are poorly staffed. The government no longer supplies books and equipment. Many classrooms are simply under the trees. More than one-and-a-half million government jobs have been lost. This contributes to a high crime rate. The government offers no help to farmers.”

 

At home, our members have moved into the inner city and founded shelters, soup kitchens, day care centers and schools. They are like the old woman who knows that life can be arranged in another way, that flowers will grow if planted and nurtured – there can be beauty for the soul to see. They plant trees to shade the now empty and barren streets where people walk in fear. Our sisters share the lot of the poor in the sub-standard housing, the boarded-up stores that have left the neighborhood, and the pervasive drugs and death that wander in and out of the area. Women religious accompany the poor now as they did the immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries. New immigrants today are isolated in the inner cities in a country no longer welcoming, but indeed hostile to the stranger. Religious women come to the ugly parts of the city and bring warmth and presence, charity and advocacy. They work at relating personally to the people and to cultivating a sense of community among the poor.

 

Michael Himes writes:  “Each relationship brings with it responsibilities. The fundamental responsibility is to give oneself away as perfectly as possible.”[8]  In this giving ourselves away, in living with the poor, we help people to hope in the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. The dream of that newness must take root in human deeds and decisions.

 

Marcelo Barros, OSB, Benedictine theologian from Goias, Brazil, tells us:  “The prophecy of the Church and monastic life is to point towards the future of the Reign of God without losing touch with the present. Monastic communities should take good care to foster this special capacity to renew humanity’s hope — to be a sign in the Church of that which the whole church is called to be.”[9]

 

Jubilee as a time of Hope

Good hope has the qualities of realism, courage, patience, and the willingness to embrace difficulties. It is not an “easy hope” that merely wishes for better things. Certainly hope can disappoint; we risk our very selves when we dare to hope. It is a costly venture. But when we hope we open ourselves to the future. Hope makes life in the present vital. To sustain hope, to grasp possibility, we must live deeply.

 

Dom Christian de Cherge, OCSO, prior of the Algerian Trappists who were martyred in 1996, wrote a testament just a few days after the seven monks were first visited by the armed group who in the next days would take their lives. He wrote: “If it should happen one day — and it could be today — that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.”  The disciple is willing to follow the Christ to Jerusalem. Life is layed down. Dom Christian ends the testament speaking to the one who would kill him. “And you, too, my last minute friend, who would not have known what you were doing, yes, for you too I say this THANK YOU and this A-DIEU—to commend you to the God in whose face I see yours.” 

 

United States women religious have made hope tangible to the poor. They paid, with their lives, the price to accompany the poor. They shared in their lot of suffering, the precariousness of life and then death itself. These women teach us, not with words but by the integrity of their acts of the gift of self.

 

In December 1980, Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clark and Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, in the company of Jean Donavon, were tortured, raped and killed in El Salvador. The treacherous act of murder was designed and carried out by military members who were trained at the School of the Americas. Our government gave military assistance to the Salvadoran government to hang on to power in spite of the voices of the poor, rising up and struggling for change. Truly, these four women were oaks planted by God in the soil of Central America for God’s glory. We are touched by their spirit and pray for the courage to be able to gift our lives in new ways for the cause of those who are oppressed. Their lives were good news to the poor in a jubilee act of great generosity.

 

In October of 1992, our sisters, Shirley Kolmer, Kathleen McGuire, Joel Kolmer, Agnes Mueller and Barbara Ann Muttra, Adorers of the Precious Blood, stood with the people in Liberia. The Sisters cared for the people as the country suffered the violence of civil war. To leave was not possible; the sisters heard the cries of the poor with the ear of their hearts. They could not abandon a people who found little reason to hope or to even live. Our sisters gave the ultimate testimony of God’s gracious love by the gift of their very lives — given, not taken. Our sisters are those oaks planted deep in the African soil seeking justice and peace, seeking a reason for those people to hope anew.

 

In February of this very year, 2005, Dorothy Stang, SNDdeN, a sister of Notre Dame de Namur was murdered. She was an outspoken critic of the forces of government and money who were pillaging the rain forest for profit. Their actions left the native people without livelihood or the God-given treasure of their environment. This was a rape of the earth and theft from the poor. She was murdered and her life and death sparked a renewed movement for agrarian reform inBrazil. Peasants are now marching in the streets clamoring for justice. She was a strong oak planted by God for goodness to our mother earth and the children that depend on her. She is a sign of hope for us as we mourn her loss and celebrate her gift of life. She is an oak of justice, strong in the Brazilian forest.

 

This is our litany of holy women who demonstrated powerfully that religious life is authentic when it is lived, not as flight from the world and from history, but as foment and stirring within history. They will not be forgotten. We, their sisters, must keep their memory alive. These women, our sisters, have blessed us with their spirit. May it be the leaven in our lives. May it cause us to rise up and be the good news that we proclaim to the poor, in new ways, in this new time of God’s favor. They are oaks planted by the Lord for God’s glory. Their lives and their deaths announced God’s holiness and sovereignty. We are the oaks planted in this place and at this time. Heroic love is what is required.

 

LCWR Jubilee CALL

 

What has gone before us is grace; where we stand now is holy. Our CALL will guide us as we move into the future. We have shown a willingness to be changed and transformed. We stand together and we have committed ourselves to be bearers of hope. We stand between the hopes of yesterday and the unknown of tomorrow. Where will we gather energy for this Jubilee year and life?  Two of jubilee’s elements, I believe, will be essential for us as we move forward. We must-- let the land lie fallow and forgive debts, let forgiveness in.

 

An admirer once asked a great pianist:  “How do you handle the notes as well as your do?”  The musician answered: “The notes I handle no better than many pianists, but the pauses between the notes—ah!  That is where the art resides.” 

 

We are on our sacred journey. Critical to renewing and refreshing the mystical capacity of our lives is the call to “ground all our actions in contemplation.”  In the ancient jubilee writings we are told to let the land lie fallow – to pause. It is the jubilee/Sabbath command to stop, to give rest to the earth, the water, the trees and to care for the natural world; and to express gratitude for earth’s gifts of food and nourishment. Thomas Berry in an interview said:  “We need the sun, the moon, the stars, the rivers, and the mountains and the trees, the flowers, the birds, the song of the birds, the fish in the sea, to evoke a world of mystery, to evoke the sacred. It gives us a sense of awe. This is a response to the cosmic liturgy, since the universe itself is a sacred liturgy.” [10]

 

This same jubilee invitation reminds us to let the land of ourselves lie fallow, to cultivate stillness, solitude, the quiet lectio that allows God to speak to our heart. The Jubilee has everything to do with expanding our capacity for mysticism. It allows us to see the world as God sees it.

 

Sabbath and Jubilee have to do with holiness and with freedom. Contemplation is the experience of the holy, at times it makes us realize how far from God we are. At other times we are able to see as God sees—the beauty and the suffering of our world. Mysticism stirs our conscience. Keeping the Sabbath creates a holy people, a people who are what they are intended to be, a people who are like God. If we are holy, people who are like God, we will treat each other as God does. The Sabbath creates — indeed requires -- a people who practice justice.

 

Jubilee and observing Sabbath gives us the pauses in between all the notes of our “doing.”

 

The prophet called individuals and a people to “repent.” We all walk through life with our insecurity, fragility and profound need for continuous conversion of heart. Our daily life and interactions can at times fray the fabric of community, the bonds of charity, that link our lives in community. We have lived long enough to know that life brings us to places where forgiveness is the only way out. Jubilee calls for forgiveness, for right relationships. What is called for when we forgive is not an attitude of judgment, but a fullness of love for the other—a person, the community or an institution, the Church.

 

Ephrem Hollermann wrote of forgiveness: “When you or I gift another with authentic forgiveness, it expresses our desire to call forth and rebuild that love which is the only authentic ground of any human relationship. It is only because God continually calls forth and rebuilds this love with us that we are capable of doing so with one another. Thus, to forgive is to participate in the mystery of God’s love.”[11] 

 

When I forgive another, it is an implicit promise to place aside my judgment on the person who has hurt me, and to leave behind my resentment and desire for retribution. Further, it is a pledge to forget, in the sense that I will not allow the power of the hurt to hold me trapped in a continual replay of the event in my heart and mind. Jesus is the teacher of radical forgiveness. He took the initiative, forgave unconditionally, and preserved the worth of the offender.

 

An author once wrote: “ In the beginning, God said to Cain: ‘What have you done to your brother Abel?’  On the last day God will say to Abel:  ‘What have you done to your brother, Cain?’  Abel will rise to new life, not to take revenge, but to protect Cain, to take care of him. When Abel will make himself brother to his murderer, then the Kingdom of God will really be within every heart.”

 

Jubilee is a radical turning of our life over to God. We have made a commitment as a conference. Our fidelity is measured by our daily search for God in the events of our world. Abraham Joshua Heschel tells us: “The religious quest is a quest of the contemporanity of God.”  New heavens and a new earth emerge, because God, who is the absolute NEW, lives within our limitations making them explode with possibilities. We believe it is possible to give shape to another way of being and of thinking, of acting and of living as Church and in the world. That is the true meaning of Jubilee.

 

The determination to stay with the journey into the future --  whatever its shape and wherever it leads -- can come only from within, and it is dependent on a deep spirituality. To find the way to a renewed sense of meaning worthy of new times we must have the courage to journey inward and look at the very essence of religious life — its mystical-prophetical core. We must find ways to live it and express in our time of God’s favor.

 

May our communities and this conference be centers where we sow and tend the dreams of jubilee into bountiful blossoms of hope. Isaiah said that those who practice jubilee would be called “oaks of justice planted by the Lord.”  What a wonderful image!  It captures our deep desire of who we want to become as women religious — oaks of justice planted by God.

 

Together we move into a hope-filled future, inspired by the radical call of the Gospel, guided by the wisdom of the women who went before us and in the company of one another.

 

Our “today,” as in Scripture, is both promise and fulfillment. Our time is holy; our challenges are a blessing.

 

Thank You

 




[1] Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy(Minneapolis,MN 1 Fortress Press 1997) pp189-190

[2] McKenna, Megan Prophets: Words of Fire (Maryknoll, New York. Orbis Books.2001),7  

[3] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets: An Introduction  (New York: HarperCollins, 1962) 5

[4] Schneiders, IHM Sandra,  American Benedictine Formation Conference, February, 2005

[5] Hart, Brother Patrick editor, Survival or Prophecy: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Jean Leclercq ( New York, Farr, Straus and Giroux, 2002) 175

[6] Pope John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, Apostolic Exhortation on the Consecrated Life, March 25, 1996, 84 (Boston: Pauline Books &Media, 1996), 138

[7] Cullinan, OSB Thomas Excerpted from Inherited Illusions: Integrating the Sacred and the Secular.

[8] Himes, Michael J. & Kenneth R. Himes, OFM. Fullness of Faith: the Public Significance of Theology Paulist Press, New York 1993) 61

[9] Barros, Marcelo , Seminar Paper “The Prophetic Dimensions of Monastic Life Today” given at Weston Priory, Weston, VT December, 2003

[10] Berry, Thomas  Interview in Parabola Vol. 24, No 1, February 1999

[11] Hollermann, Ephrem  “Pledging Forgiveness” 2000