Multiple systems and networks exist under the Catholic umbrella. There are local and global layers to the hierarchy and there are the religious communities of men and women as well. Although the realities maybe invisible to the untutored, the uniqueness of each is emblematic to those who live it out and often challenge pedominant stereotypes. Most importantly, those realities deepen the perception of what it means to be human. Maybe that is best glimpsed from the inside where individual integrity wrestles with institutional precepts and structures. An insitution that has lived through centuries and millenums has done so through persons in each generation; each one has carved meaning from what was and has been to find understanding of what is and move forward to what can be. For example, there are the contemplative houses of women.
From the medieval outset, the monasteries of women lead by Clare of Assisi represented an alternative to the patriarchal systems in place. Hundreds of years later, monasteries of contemplative women quietly pursue the life she designed. Medieval roots meet contemporary lifestyles with thoughtful consideration and a clear sense of who they are as believers, women, communities. For instance, the Poor Clares of the Bronx told a wonderful story that exposed both their understanding of communication and people and their awareness of others, their sense of what happens “behind the curtains” of the Church.
The sisters had few days outside the monastery, but attended annual gatherings of Franciscans like picnic celebrations. At one such event on Long Island, a bishop who had attended the papal enclave that elected Pope John Paul was present. He requested a ride back to New York City in their aging station wagon, and volunteered to answer their questions on the trip. The sisters went right to the core of things: “What was the politicking like at the enclave? How did the campaigning for candidates go?” His response was textbook. “Sisters, it is entirely the work of the Holy Spirit.” There was a moment of quiet, and then the burst of laughter that lasted from the Cross Island Parkway and over the Throgs Neck Bridge. Men, of course, are human. And to conceive of a world, a process, a sacred enclave, where there are no touches of humanity was impossible for women who live within the confines of a monastery, practice eight hours of prayer each day, rely on donations to survive finanacially and live a simplicity that environmentalists would love to master. Men are men, after all. Humans are human and created by God who accepts, forgives, encourages and sustains.
The Church provides guidelines and lifelines, but most importantly invites us to be the best of who we are as human. Paths are different and journeys diverse, but everyone has a place. On this 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, nothing could be more true. In the Gospel, Jesus asks the proverbial “Who do you say I am?” and he is identified by the Apostles as the Christ. It is equally important to pose questions like that for ourselves, and to have the courage to answer them. “Who am I? How do I know?” The reading from James is a reminder that we say we believe and what we do, faith and works, are revealing of who we are. The example of women who dedicate their lives to prayer and live out a vow of poverty prove this. Their vision of who we are as human is grasped with a courageous honesty that transcends stereotypes. It enables us to look realistically at the gifts of life and the truths of who we are. Embracing all that is accepting of human characteristics and features, behaviors and choices with understanding and empathy. The umbrella gets bigger with each generation.