I found her to be nothing less than amazing: bright, engaged, open to new ideas, and about seventy years of age. I wasn’t sure from her gray hair, but I bet she was probably a red head in her youth. She had a fiery spirit as well as a deep inner wisdom. Periodically I’d chat with Sr. Mary Thomas over coffee in the dining room of her monastery. I always enjoyed the time we spent together.
It was about ten years ago when she confided something I wasn’t expecting. “I really don’t understand the young women who join us today. I think they really want the life we gave up years ago. They want to be pious nuns in a convent and not the intentional monastics we’ve become. I don’t understand why they want to return to the things we worked to change.”
Sr. Mary Thomas shared with me stories of monastic life of women when she became a nun. All the time was regulated, no unapproved books could be read, and even the life of prayer was proscribed. She had to follow a manual to pray each day in addition to the set times for mass and the periodic communal prayer commonly called “the hours.” She was one of the women who helped break the mold. She’d get new books on prayer and theology. Because she couldn’t be seen reading them, she’d slip into the lavatory late at night while others slept and sat in a toilet stall and read. She pushed the boundaries in other ways as well. As a result of what she and others did to broaden the experience of women in monasteries, there were opportunities for advanced studies and graduate programs, options created for the sisters to study with Hindu and Buddhist teachers, and to welcome people of other faiths to the monastery to learn the monastic traditions of Christianity. As she grew to the end of her career, Sr. Mary Thomas found it confusing that younger women sought out the pious devotions that she and the other older women had found outdated and oppressive.
Today, I find a very similar struggle to the one Sr. Mary Thomas shared with me a decade ago. In the few years I’ve lived in Atlanta, I’ve worked with and served as spiritual director for several twenty-something’s who are preparing for ordained ministry in my denomination. Within the overall context of Christian theology, they are inclusive and progressive in their outlook toward people. At the same time, they also gravitate to theologies and practices that seem very much out-dated to me.
While they are familiar with contextual theologies (i.e., feminist theology, womanist theology, queer theology, liberation theology, etc.), they prefer the classic works of white male German theologians from the early to mid twentieth century. They prefer traditional liturgical forms that separate the minister from the congregation rather than the preference I hold to bridge the divide between minister and congregation. They talk much more about the rightness of the teachings of Jesus while I often focus on the transformative experience of the spiritual encounter with God. In many ways, they seem to be more inclined to a hierarchical church while I scratch my head and wonder with several colleagues who have also been in professional ministry for the long haul at how they would end up valuing what we worked so hard to leave behind.
I grew up in a time when church was very formal and very boring. As a teenager, I was engaged by those who made religion accessible. It began with teachers who played recordings of popular music by artists like Simon and Garfunkel and asked us how their message made sense in the context of our beliefs. Our vision was to be that “bridge over troubled water” for others, to allow others to “lean on me,” and to “let peace begin with me.” In time, sitting on the floor with others and discussing passages of the Bible helped to form my inner awareness of personal faith and spirituality. Later, I would gather with friends around coffee tables in homes, breaking bread and sharing the cup, understanding that our communion was not just the symbolic elements but the heart of the community we shared with others. The formative process of my youth and through my twenties led me to intimate experiences of the Sacred within small communities that were vital, accepting, and dynamic. From those experiences, I learned what it meant to be involved in significant social justice issues including advocacy for people with AIDS, work with the homeless, and making attempts to bridge racial divides. In those small gatherings, my friends and companions also used our rituals to have fun. A great example was on July 24, 1984 when a group of us organized a celebration of Christmas in July, decorating a Christmas tree, baking Christmas cookies, and welcoming a visit from Santa. We celebrated “Midnight Mass” in the back yard as dusk began to fall. At this event we collected a truck load of toys for a children and youth program whose director told me that they never had stuff to give the kids during the summer. So we used our informal community of faith to provide a way to help these young people.
It is that kind of intimate, hands-on experience of Christianity that embodied a living theology in the context of people’s lives that has nurtured me over the years. It’s that experience of Christianity that I attempted to share with others when I served as pastor of various churches and administrator of denominational programs.
Christianity is in the midst of a difficult transition. In many parts of the world, the institutional church is dying. It’s outlived its usefulness. Today, the church is stuck on problems of institutional survival and focused on inconsequential issues. In recent decades, the church has generally failed to take moral and ethical leadership in areas that have been vital for the post-modern era focusing instead on maintaining antiquated sexual ethics. I look to the millennial generation who are preparing for ordination to lead us in new ways. At the same time I recognize that the path that seems best for them is not one I can easily follow because it harkens back to what I worked so hard to change.
The one decision I have made is this: I won’t be like many of the clergy from my youth who often told us that we were wrong for wanting change. “Oh, that guitar music has no place in church,” they’d say. “You need to show proper reverence for sacred things,” they’d admonish us. “When you’re older, you’ll understand,” was their sure conclusion. Those pastors taught me a great deal about ministry. From them I learned exactly what not to do if I wanted to be a supportive influence in the lives of others. Their admonishments resulted in frustration and anger, resulting in many people from my age group giving up on church. Luckily, I found other options.
I guess that’s been the theme of my life since my youth: finding other options for sharing a dynamic faith rooted in an awareness of the presence of the Divine infused throughout all of life. These days, as I work to be of some support for talented younger people entering professional ministry, I hope that I am accepting of our different generational perspectives and help them find their own way. At the same time, I wish that I lived closer to Sr. Mary Thomas. As my senior in accepting the different perspective of younger generations, I’m sure she’d have some helpful insights.
© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.