Religious Orders and Christian Communities

“Guide and sanctify, we pray, those whom You call to follow You under the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 819)

What is the “quest and adventure” of Religious life today?

– Brother Curtis Almquist, SSJE

Religious sisters and brothers are eccentrics.  I’m not referring to our being rather dated curiosities (though we often do attract attention).  I’m speaking of how, since the early centuries of the church, individuals have been drawn to the edge, to be eccentric, from the Greek èkkentros, out of the center.  This movement has often been as a protest to the “success” of the church, its power colluding with the rather than confronting or transforming the surrounding culture.  The movement out of center has also been a radical, sometimes-desperate response of individuals who know their personal culpability and who long to see more clearly, follow more nearly, love more dearly the God of their desire.  The psalmist prays, “lift me to a place that is higher than I.” It’s that longing sense of perspective, of integration, of withdrawal that often attracts a person to explore the religious life.

An early desert father, Evagrius of Pontus (346-399), spoke of this separation not as a point of exclusion but rather of inclusion, about our being “separated from all and united to all.”  What we read on the front pages of the newspaper – about war and conflict, about hope and desire, about fear and failure – we surely understand in our own hearts.  From that point of identification, we seek to pray our own lives and help others find the prayer that God is giving them.  In religious guesthouses, individuals are offered a king of holy space to stand back from their lives in order to see God’s hand at work within them and around them.  A retreat is not the same as an advance.  Especially in North American society, where the tyranny of urgent demands can be so blurring, some regular experience of retreat (even daily, if only for a few minutes) is often crucial to retrieve or redeem or reflect on what otherwise could be lost components in making us whole and really present to life. 

Robert Putman, in a recent book, Bowling Alone, offers a provocative and comprehensive study about the collapse (and hopeful revival) of American community.  Putman, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard, documents the vast decline in civic, political, and religious participation in our culture, noting a steady move toward individualism and alienation especially in the last fifty years.  He speaks to the need for viable organizations – I would include religious orders – to simultaneously “bridge” and “bond,” to create “social capital,” the ways in which we connect with friends and neighbors and strangers.  “Bonding” is an ongoing necessity to abide with one another, not just to bunk under the same roof.  The Johannine literature of the New Testament gives such fruitful images for a community of love and practice, gathered in Jesus’ name, where there is friendship, a united vision of discipline, and a generous availability for what is new and what is now.  “Bridging” is also crucial, especially as religious orders seek to live out close to the edge.  Religious orders look and pray for new links to other people, organizations, traditions, disciplines where there is the experience of reciprocity and illumination, otherwise we simply live in a pseudo-bastion of truth, with no currency to trade.  I recently had a conversation with a graduate student who came saying she had no background in any religious tradition but was desperate to learn about “the Real Deal.”  We bridged our two worlds by finding a common second language.  These days living the religious life is both an adventurous quest and an urgent invitation.  Consider exploring the way with us!

© CAROA – used by permission

Brother Curtis Almquist is the Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE) in Cambridge, Massachusetts and an experienced preacher and spiritual director.

Religious Orders and Christian Communities