Nuns in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem on Holy Thursday, April 14, 2022 (CNS photo/Ammar Awad, Reuters)

When we talk about the decline of religion in modern life, religious orders are not often our first topic of conversation. Shrinking Catholic religious life is a relatively specialized concern affecting a relatively small number of people. What use are orders of priests or nuns when 30 percent of U.S. adults belong to no religious denomination at all?

From one perspective, the religious life can seem like a refuge for men and women holding too tightly to an outdated mode of existence. From another, it can seem like the last refuge against a secular world firmly opposed to the truths of religious tradition. Sensing the Spirit: Toward the Future of Religious Life, Judith A. Merkle’s intervention into the question of the religious in a secular frame, is neither a surrender to the secular world nor a retreat from it. In fact, Merkle is not making an argument for the continued relevance of religious life at all. She insists that it is relevant and important because it still exists—and it must now adapt to the changed landscape of religious belonging in what Charles Taylor (one of her main interlocutors) calls the “secular age.”

The book is divided into two sections. The first utilizes Taylor to contextualize religious life in our current world. Taylor argues that we are a population of selves buffered against each other by extreme subjectivity; we live in a world that has lost its ontological commitments to a divinely ordered cosmos, and so we now have many different ways of creating meaning. If Taylor is right, then the ideas and identities that characterize religious life have to be rethought. The idea of a charism, monastic identities like virtuosi, and other concepts whose purpose is “attaining, or helping others to attain, some sort of spiritual perfection” must be reinterpreted for today’s world. Doing so can help better articulate the space that religious life must occupy.

Merkle invokes a biological metaphor: seeds. As religious congregations face the realities of a secularized world, they must unfurl in contemplative action like slowly germinating seedlings. They must adapt and settle into their niches, shift and grow as plants in hostile climates do to survive. It is a metaphor from nature and Scripture: from small beginnings emerge large trees in which “the birds of the air come and make nests” (Matthew 13:32). When it comes to religious life, the pope has a green thumb, too: in a message on the 2023 World Day of Prayer for Vocations, Francis called the gift of vocation “a divine seed that springs up in the soil of our existence, opens our hearts to God and to others, so that we can share with them the treasure we ourselves have found.”

Merkle even has a specific plant in mind: the ice plant, whose bright color against the dull desert sand shines like ice. These plants have a distinctive “flexing and packing mechanism,” intricate folds that only open when enough water has saturated them—a sort of time-release to ensure hydration in dry climates. Merkle uses this metaphor to “gain insight into the adaptations possible for religious congregations today.” She highlights four ways that religious congregations can act in our world: “As a bridge between the sacred and the secular; as a religiously focused lifestyle; as a trajectory of becoming holy and finding wholeness, and as a witness to values which matter—the coming of the Kingdom.” As her title suggests, the Holy Spirit, which both destabilizes and renews, will guide those who are seeking to reimagine religious life.


A devotional existence is a communal one, a charitable one, an abundant one.

In the second half of the book, Merkle sketches out what she sees as the future of religious life in a secular age. For instance, what does it mean to make a vow of poverty in a world that condemns poverty, either on the grounds of economic injustice or as a failure to achieve the promises of capitalism? How about a vow of obedience, in a culture of justified skepticism toward institutional hierarchy? Or chastity, in a sex-obsessed culture?

Merkle’s response to each is that religious life is a call to conversion which draws us out of the flow of secular life toward a deeper relationship with God. Some might see vows as either an act of resistance against secularity or as an uncritical submission to a dominant authority, but Merkle recontextualizes the vows as a form of worship that “reflect the postures of gratitude, appreciation, and dedication to God.” A person who takes vows becomes attuned as a “worshipping self” who applies devotion to every aspect of existence. A devotional existence is a communal one, a charitable one, an abundant one. As Merkle puts it, “religious life is best described through the language of the abundance of the Kingdom, the hundredfold.”

This abundance Merkle connects with the Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan’s fourth level of consciousness, which he calls religious experience. Religious experience for both Merkle and Lonergan is not strictly rational, but instead a result of judgments of value. Religious conversion and experience are oriented toward that which has ultimate value, God, and lead us to “share in the divine nature in the deepest way.” Conversion involves more than making good decisions in day-to-day existence; it’s a desire to know and do what is truly and finally good. 

For Merkle, a fundamental human realization is that “through grace we are capable of God.” It is this realization that alerts us to our calling in life, whether to marriage, the single life, or religious life. God’s grace allows us to be receptive to our particular call and to live out that call well. The only thing that sets the religious calling apart for Merkle is that it is more direct. The religious call cuts out worldly intermediary concerns like careers, money, or romantic relationships; God’s ultimate value shines like a beacon, giving all vows their rationale. Merkle recasts the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience as conditions of the conversion to religious life. Each is undertaken in unrestrained pursuit of God. Poverty is a symbol of absolute trust in a God who provides. Celibacy puts God in place of a loving spouse and children, and through that divine relationship, meaningful human relationships bloom. Obedience is not obedience to an arbitrary authority but the authority that comes from the “active presence of Jesus in the community.”


Merkle is aware of the variety of practical solutions proposed for a revival of religious life, but by this book’s end it is clear that her question is not one of organizational strategies but theological sourcing. Merkle is not primarily concerned with how a religious order can attract and keep new members. She is interested, instead, in how people who take religious vows can best form themselves to their vocation in this de-sacralized world. She urges authenticity, an informed faith, and love over fear.

One comes to the end of Merkle’s engaging text hoping for more concrete takeaways about reform possibilities within the Church. Her breadth of knowledge and clear awareness of the practical issues facing religious communities today indicate that she would have innovative solutions for the problems religious communities face.

Yet solutions are contextual and contingent, and therefore temporary. Merkle seeks something eternal, a return to biblical virtues like faith, hope, and love to take religious life out of the realm of the political and into the discourse of the ultimate. To make use of her favored metaphor, the tree-like structure of a religious congregation may wither and fail, its branches bound up and burned. But a tree can also image heaven. The role of religious orders now is to fold themselves into the lattice of those branches.

Sensing the Spirit
Toward the Future of Religious Life
Judith A. Merkle
T&T Clark
$16.06 | 192 pp. 

Jack Nuelle is a PhD student in systematic theology at Loyola University Chicago. His work has been published in America, the National Catholic Reporter, and Image Journal’s “Good Letters,” among others.

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Published in the April 2024 issue: View Contents
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