Mlle Marie-Laure Durand
Theologian

RELIGIOUS, MISSIONARIES OF HOPE

 

A Contribution for the Meeting of Young Religious of France, Brother and Sister, Act 2 on 29th January, 2012, at Passy-Buzenval.

 

 

MLDurandI am not giving a course of theology. I want to respond to a certain number of question posed to me by the theme, ‘Religious, missionaries of hope’, studied at the meeting.

 

Hope when our humanity is hard pressed

Before entering on the theme itself I would like to make a detour via the Bible. The title which was proposed to me was ‘Missionaries of Hope’ with respect to the religious life. However, normally when one speaks of hope it is because one is undergoing a difficult moment. Rarely does one speak of hope when everything is going smoothly! So hope is often linked to a time of crisis, and so of choice. At the same time talk of hope suggests that the situation is not inescapable. In these days the situation is dark, but something is also being born in the night. In hope ‘something is being prepared’. Note the double implications of this expression. ‘Something is being prepared’ suggests that something needs to be done. It can also suggest that something is on the way despite ourselves. I have looked in the Bible for a strong moment which could clarify our situation. I have chosen to speak to you about Joseph of Arimathaea

42Now as soon as evening came, since it was Preparation Day—that is, the day before the Sabbath—43Joseph of Arimathaea, a respected member of the Council, who was himself awaiting the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44Pilate, surprised if he was already dead, summoned the centurion and asked if he had been long dead. 45Having been assured of this by the centurion, he granted the corpse to Joseph. 46Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking him down from the cross, wrapped him in the shroud. (Mark 15.42-46)

In this account Joseph is all alone, surely in the depths of despair. The Messiah in whom he believed has just died on a cross. At the exact moment Joseph eschews theology and philosophy. No matter what he is thinking or living through at this moment; that is not the problem; he must deal with the body and this inescapable reality. Joseph takes it upon himself to act despite his feelings of disappointment, of blockage. He takes the body and places it in the tomb because it is the only thing he can do at this moment, and he pays his last respects to the body of him in whom he believed.

This behaviour expresses an act of hope, certainly dark even for Joseph himself. Psychoanalysis has shown us that we are not transparent to ourselves. Hope against all human hope begins with this gesture. And it is because Joseph placed the body in the tomb that it is possible to affirm the Resurrection on the Sunday morning. The body had disappeared because in the darkest of nights Joseph had taken charge. We shall come back to that. Hope is never so problematic as when the situation is difficult and seems to be at an impasse. The New Testament teaches us that hope is acting out that ‘something is being prepared.

In what way is religious life a mission of hope? Can it be a witness of hope in today’s world? In the light of what I have heard this weekend I would like to stress several points.

 

The Meeting between Modernity and Religious Life

 

Acceptance of Modernity

The weekend has been shot through with this. Many of your proposals consist in taking seriously modernity, its complexity, its novelty, its de-stablizing character. This acceptance is a starting-point to work on. Hope is not flight from reality to take refuge in ideas or sentiment. Reality cannot be avoided, but the question is the difference between acceptance and approval. Approving something is equivalent to saying, ‘Fine!’. Acceptance is saying, ‘This is the case; it could be different, but it is not.’ Joseph of Arimathaea could have taken the road of disappointment or anger; he does not do so.

Your proposals show a tension, a human challenge: how should one react to a world, to people who are in a situation or choice of life which they would not have chosen, with which they are not necessarily in agreement, which they perhaps do not understand? I find there a real question, and your answers differ according to your charisms and personalities.

 

Anthropological changes

How can one take up a stance in a situation of changing anthropologies? How should they be read? In fact today’s anthropology is changing and playing havoc with our conceptions of relationships. We have a different attitude to many things:

• A different relationship to our bodies: vitamined, nourished, warmed, painfree, larger, our body is different. We communicate with the world through our bodies; if the body changes, our access to reality changes.
• A different relationship to nature: 50% of humanity now lives in cities. There are consequences of this removal from nature which teaches us patience and humility.
• A different relationship to technology, notably information technology and the virtual world.
• Different social relationships, especially in family break-ups.

Everyone has been caught unawares by this new anthropology: how can we make sense of it? If I am running through all these changes rather rapidly, it is because we are more and more in a ‘bloodless’ society, a ‘sunless’ world. I am perhaps going to shock you, but what better expresses a bloodless and sunless society than religious life? The classic argument to make sense of the vows of religion was solidarity, with the poor, the lonely, the captive. In this day and age we must go further with this argument and modernize it. You are a family which has gone through a break-up. Accept to make sense of families which have had a break-up and live bloodlessly, to make sense of same-sex parents. This is a fierce dispossession, becoming significant to persons totally unexpectedly!
You must explain to us how, and perhaps at what price, it is possible to live bloodlessly. How can you become a brother without choosing it? How can you explain this to a re-built family? How can you make permanent sense of such a family? How can you call ‘sister’ someone who could be your mother? You must also explain to us the condition of living a life without a stable foundation. What price mobility? How can you belong to a place without being born there? What makes one belong in a place? What makes one belong to a group? It would also be very interesting to turn to religious life to discover what fidelity is.

This brings a real challenge. How can the relationship in which you live explain the new bonds of family? This brings in something about which you do not have much to say, community life. This silence puts a question to me; as in archaeology, the absences speak as loud as the actual finds.

• If it works, the successes must be shared
• If it doesn’t work, you must discover why not.

Society needs your explanation on this matter because you are working on relationships. You must tell us on what conditions it works when you put men and women together. How should one behave when one has something to say to someone and wants to avoid being hypocritical or damaging? In the language of yesteryear a brother would say, ‘Convents are shot through with individualism.’ How do you deal with individualism? How do you deal with mixed cultures? How do you deal with mixed generations?

Society is asking itself all these questions, and you are the outriders, ahead of the pack, like the first explorers in the Promised Land. It is the fineness of the grain which is interesting! It is where it grates that we expect an answer from you. If it grates on you it grates on us too, in our schools, our families, our businesses, our living together. It is precisely here that you can be witnesses to the women and men of today. You can do this because you have the ability to analyse what you are living, and you have the words for it.

I would like to add a third condition to those of ‘bloodless’ and ‘foundation-less’. I would like to add ‘non-judgmental’. Our Church needs people deeply anchored in Christ but non-judgmental. For many people religious life is the bearer of this hope. For example, to say ‘I will pray for you’ without adding ‘provided that you change your ways or so that you may change your ways;’ this is like keeping hold of something which is meant to be given freely. Just start giving people their liberty, recognizing them as adults! The hard and harmful world is thirsty for something different: you can touch hearts. Society does not want a Church which adds exclusion to exclusion, familial and social, or which adds suffering to suffering by personal judgments. God alone knows the secret of hearts, and the Church rests part of its credibility on this.

 

Gospel frequency

Another point which has been stressed during this weekend and which is a witness to hope comes into play: you are the bearers of an anthropology anchored in the Gospel. You stress that modern society is passionate, but that it is developing a rapidity, a mobility which generate stress, and in the end tend to destroy people.

You underline also that by your choice of life you are bearers of a force – whether you are apostolic or contemplative – which is at work in silence, prayer and withdrawal. One person may say, ‘It is vital to be grafted into Christ’, another, ‘We have a schedule which holds us fast, the liturgy of the hours’. By this you witness that life can be lived according to different rhythms. By rooting yourselves in the Gospel you make your own a frequency unavailable to modern society. In a society where it is always a matter of being stronger, more beautiful, more speedy, in an anthropology which is rapidly changing and taking us away from what nature can teach us (notably patience and humility) you are the guarantors of this frequency. In this you possess what many people are beginning to seek on our society: you know how to find yourselves in the by-ways of the interior life. You have a precious spiritual savoir-faire: you know how to let go, to work on your own ego, to work on your desires, on the dark night of the soul. All this knowledge of the interior life which is ourselves is a source for which many people thirst.

At the same time there is room for disquiet. How is it possible to share such a frequency with others without oneself falling onto the other side? Someone once said, ‘The fragility of another shows me my own fragility.’ Indeed, this dialogue with modernity is a risk because you have accepted to be witnesses of Christ in your lives, in your bodies, in your relationships. Anything human is fragile! We are, like Japan, built on a fault-line. We have to invent earthquake-proof houses, earthquake-proof personalities, capable of moving a metre or two without collapsing. That makes an interesting building-site: what are the norms of earthquake-proof religious life? Putting that question brings us into a concrete situation. In a forum on the internet someone put the question: how long before Vespers does one need to quit Twitter in order to be in the right frame of mind? It is an excellent question which many parents would ask about the evening meal. Once again your answers and the limits you put would interest everyone because you wear this anthropological change of clothing over a spiritual good sense.

 

Reviewing Change

So much for changes in society; I would now like to dwell on changes in the religious life because I have been astonished by the relative silence on this matter. You know better than I the changes which centre on the fall in numbers of religious. This has brought profound changes: inter-juniorate, inter-congregation, fusion of communities between communities who share a charism, creation of new communities. In a world which depends more and more on marks of identity you accept to forego them in order to live better.

The great question of our society today is how to retain hope in the face of change and de-stabilization. But you, in the most profound silence, are in course of changing collectively before the whole world. You have the opportunity to be well ahead. To be missionaries of hope consists in explaining to us how this is possible without losing serenity.

You have a second asset in this mutation: you are not an institution. You are made up of individual and collective elements without becoming an institution, although you are part of an institution, the Church. Today all institutions are in a state of collapse (politics, universities, syndicates, the French Football League); people have lost confidence by an excess of woodenness, of self-protection, of inability to be creative. Institutions protect themselves instead of serving the purpose for which they were created. On the other hand religious life can be creative where the ecclesial institution, as institution, cannot. This means to say that you are objectively the part of the Church which moves most. Thank you!

By closing establishments to re-structure and re-think religious life you contradict the idea of a destined future. To hope is to leave the past aside. Joseph, lowering the body of Christ, knows well that nothing will ever be the same again. The object of hope can never be what one already knows. If this is not hope, it is expectation. So hope presupposes laying aside. Something is being prepared: God is in process of trying to advance, to construct something out of what we leave, out of what we give to him. The power of God exceeds the understanding we have of him.
Should one seek to be a witness?

At the present time there is a great debate about how to be Christian: we have been ‘the salt of the earth’; we must be ‘the light of the world’. It seems to me that the stake is not to choose between salt and light; what is at stake is to be in place.

Look at the passage in Genesis 20. Abraham puts Sarah forward to Abimelech as his sister. Abimelech is warned in a dream of Abraham’s deceit and reproaches him, saying, ‘You have behaved improperly towards me.’ Abraham replies that Sarah is his wife and also his sister, but he will not do it again. In the next chapter Sarah at last becomes pregnant. Abraham and Sarah produce a child because they are in place. Being in one’s place in human relationships allows the production of a family. In the Letter to the Romans Paul tells us that hope is a time of having children. One does not become a witness simply by wanting to be a witness; the important thing is to be in the right place, and it is by being in the right place that one bears witness. If one is on the right frequency, everything goes well. So the main question is, ‘Am I in the right place? Is the place where I am really mine?’ But equally, ‘Am I being allowed to be in the right place without intrusion or indifference?’ In one of the forums a sister said, ‘How can we make the French sisters understand that we have riches of our own?’ Am I leaving room for others?

 

What is this hope?

Are we to be missionaries of our own hope or of the hope of the Church? The latter; but that is not all! Here too there must be an inversion. To be a missionary of hope, one must be a witness of the hope of others, that is, be capable of inspiring hope in others. It is not a matter of passing on your own hope like a foreign object, but of helping others to find their own hope. By contact with you something of their own hope can come back to life, things which they had abandoned because life had maltreated them. The centre is not your own hope; the title ‘missionary of hope’ indicates something quite different. It is a matter of someone else’s hope, and this presupposes at least two things:

• That you should be firmly rooted in hope. If you yourselves hope, this will be obvious – no worry!
• That there is no witness to hope without a relationship. Every meeting with God is mediated by a meeting in the world.

What you are can re-awaken, lift up (like raising from the dead) something living, something divine in the people you meet. In order to be a witness to hope for others you need a wide space in yourselves so that others may hope through you. Hope required patience. Many of our mistakes, of our breaks in relationships come from impatience, from our wanting to go too fast. You can’t make a plant grow by pulling it upwards! Life is speeding up, but we must accept that not everything is going quicker.

In a world which is accelerating and growing more complex, in a world in search of authenticity, religious life can be a guarantee of the essential. Thank you!

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