Over the past year, a research project has taken me into quite a few homes in Britain and Ireland. The people I visit work in, or are retired from, a range of occupations, including school principal, spiritual director, dance therapist, and NGO consultant. They live in a variety of arrangements: on their own; in groups of two to four; or in housing for the elderly. All are women, and many share certain habits. France tends to figure in their conversation: a casual mention of time spent in the country; a reach for a French word in the midst of conversation.
The prominence of France is explained by the fact that all my hosts are members of the Congregation of La Retraite, a religious community whose story goes back to seventeenth-century Brittany, where Catherine de Francheville pioneered the first retreat house for women. Today the Congregation of La Retraite comprises over a hundred members living in Ireland, England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Cameroon.
My original connection to the congregation was Barbara, a woman I came to know a dozen years ago when I inherited the part-time graduate students of a retiring colleague at the University of Nottingham. In her late forties when we met, Barbara was one of the younger members of her congregation, and she remains one of the younger members today, though she’s now over sixty. This fact reflects a basic reality of the congregation: its members are aging and dying, and the group itself is shrinking. For the past ten years Barbara has been in charge of the British and Irish wing of La Retraite, and whenever our paths have crossed, she mentions funerals she’s been to, the intricacies of sorting out arrangements for aging sisters, the complexities and sadness involved in closing down a retreat house. I know what a challenge it has been for her to maintain her own sense of balance while coping with the collective experience of diminishment and loss the sisters undergo as they live through their dwindling.
Our research project is the outcome of an enduring concern on Barbara’s part with questions of integration: between emotion and intellect, experience and theory, the life of the mind and the life of the whole person. Barbara’s doctoral thesis was driven by such questions, particularly the relationship between the psychological and the spiritual, and between the spiritual and the theological. Initially, I have to confess, these issues seemed too general to me, and too familiar. It has been common in academic circles over the past few decades to lament the gap between theology and spirituality, and to call for a renewed integration. So when Barbara was working on her PhD, I focused mainly on the mechanics of the thing rather than on the overarching theme. But the question of integration remained a feature of our conversations in the years afterward, and gradually drew me in: How, for instance, can the kind of thing I do, as a theologian inhabiting an academic context, be better integrated with the kind of reflections in which she and her sisters engage?
I began a while back to think about suffering. Systematic theologians are allowed to think about ridiculously big issues—God, creation, what it is to be human—and although suffering isn’t on the standard list, I had become concerned with questions about the status it is given in Christian thought. Is suffering inextricably bound up with love, and therefore God? I mentioned this to Barbara, who immediately suggested that it was something on which to collaborate: a few of the sisters had been through experiences that she sensed they could usefully reflect on and write about, and she thought she could see a convergence. What will happen when you bring together a thinker who tends toward the abstract with people whose theological reflections are more intimately rooted in their own experience and indeed in their prayer?
I was initially a bit resistant. Writing is a solitary business for me, and one that usually follows from an equally solitary process of reading, so I wasn’t sure how a collaboration would work. We discussed various possibilities. Could we write something as a dialogue between some of the sisters and myself? Alternately, might I just offer publication advice after they wrote reflections on their experiences? Or should we, with the help of a more qualified colleague, set up a fully fledged piece of social scientific research, where the sisters would be given carefully designed interviews? Understandably, Barbara didn’t want to ask the sisters to revisit difficult, sometimes traumatic events in order to become data in an experiment, and in the end we decided to test a form of collaboration modeled not on interview and data analysis, but on conversation.
This is why, alongside my usual activities of solitary reading and wrestling with ideas, I have found myself visiting sisters’ homes across Britain and Ireland, being fed tea and healthy homemade meals, and discussing particular instances of suffering: disabling chronic pain, alienation within families, a slow death from motor-neuron disease. I’ve been asking the sisters how they think about the suffering they’ve encountered in their own lives and in the lives of those they’ve taught, directed, and accompanied—and I’ve been testing with them my own thoughts. My goal is not to write about either the sisters or their views, but to collaborate with them in reflecting on suffering and its relationship to love.
WHILE GETTING TO know the sisters is not the main object of the project, it has been a fascinating and rewarding consequence of it. Without fail, the sisters make me feel comfortable, put me at ease. Consistently, they are good listeners, interested in me and in the wider world—even those far into their eighties. We have grown rather close. You cannot, it seems, deliberately set out to talk to people about the suffering they’ve endured or witnessed without quickly moving to a certain level of intimacy. In fact, I’ve noticed a deepening of conversations with other friends and acquaintances: people hear what I am working on and tell me their thoughts about the death of a brother, the disability of a mother, the impact of an illness on their sense of vocation. Normally, I suppose, there are good reasons people don’t do this: most of the time we avoid introducing experiences of suffering and loss into everyday conversation because we don’t want to seem to complain, and because we hesitate to inflict an emotional burden on our listeners. And also, no doubt, because we are so shaped by our culture’s orientation toward happiness and success.
With the sisters, something that occasionally comes directly into the conversations, and is more often present in the background, is an element of suffering related to the congregation’s own diminishment. On the day I began our conversations, twelve months ago, everyone was reeling from the death of a sister a few days earlier. Theresa had been ailing, so her death was not a complete surprise. But she represented a vitality, a set of gifts and talents, now forever lost to the congregation. And it could not be presumed, as it might have been in the past, that the loss would be balanced by younger women joining.
That the sisters live separately—in small groups or alone—is a choice they’ve made in response to this diminishment. They are committed to allowing those still of a working age as much freedom as possible to continue their ministry, their “apostolic work,” and they’ve determined that this means living in a variety of arrangements. One might think of it as a decision by the older sisters not to be a “burden” to the dwindling numbers of younger ones, or as a decision by the group as a whole to remain outward-looking, concerned for something beyond its own life, as long as possible.
It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly I find impressive about this group’s way of facing the possibility of its own end. In part I suppose it resides in the things I don’t hear these women say. There is no searching for who to blame, no complaining about, say, the young people who don’t join religious life, no anxious backward look to determine where something went wrong. I also don’t hear—or even sense—anyone questioning the value of the lives they’ve led, of the congregation itself. The congregation is diminishing—it’s a fact. The sisters are smaller, older, frailer, and fewer. This is something they are facing, and the task is to live through it.
In many of the accounts of suffering and loss I’ve heard, there has been a story of an intensification of relationships—the strengthening of bonds, and sometimes also the deepening of rifts. Relationships become more visible, more clearly felt. Is this also true in the collective experience of diminishment and loss the community is undergoing? To my eye, at any rate, the fascinating and complex web of relationships among the sisters is made movingly visible in the way they are living through their dwindling.
Sisters occasionally talk in terms of “generations”—groups who entered at roughly the same time, went through a similar style of formation, and absorbed together the emphases of a particular period. There is a certain kind of bond among those of the same cohort, but also a rich range of links across the cohorts: two sisters divided by ten or fifteen years might nevertheless have lived together or collaborated in some project over a significant period, and take visible pleasure in each other’s company; one sister may appear in the life story of those of a different generation as providing decisive support at a key moment, or as having modeled a way of living religious life that continues to shape their reflection.
I FIND IT hard to settle on an analogy for this delicate web of relationships among the sisters. At the start of the project, a group came together so that I could be introduced and discuss what we planned to do. As I watched them greet each other and chat over tea, I wondered whether this was like the occasional get-together of an extended family—the pleasure in seeing one another again after a time apart, the shared history evoked in anecdotes of colorful and long-gone characters. Yet the sisters were more careful and polite with one another than most families. And they had more in common, in their commitments, in their outlook, and in a shared vocabulary about the things that matter most, than any family I’ve ever encountered. A rich range of friendships exists among them, but neither are they simply a group of friends. They are a little like the longtime colleagues one might find in a stable department of a small liberal arts college—except that they work, or have worked, at very different things and in different places, and may well not see each other for months at a time.
The sisters would probably say that what matters is not just their relationships with each other, but also their ties to those outside the congregation. Even though the nature of their ministry hasn’t been the subject of our discussions, I’ve been struck by certain things I’ve picked up along the way. Though their occupations, and their professional and educational backgrounds, vary quite a lot, certain words and themes recur in the conversation of all: listening, presence, accompanying, freedom. To someone used to living in a world focused on publication, prestige, and influence, the consistent centrality of “listening” and “presence” in the sisters’ view of what matters most in their work is striking. So is their understanding of success. At the beginning of the project, I told them I didn’t quite know how it would work—we were feeling our way forward, and I couldn’t predict the outcome. They were entirely at ease with that, and didn’t press for anything more concrete. Their academic counterparts would have required a fully articulated method, a set of dates by which well-defined “outputs” were to be produced, and a plan for how to maximize the impact of those outputs.
Some of what I have learned from the La Retraite sisters is peculiar to them, to their particular “charism,” and some will be shared by other congregations. Certainly the experience of diminishment is widely shared. A recent report on women religious in the United States found that there are currently more sisters over ninety than under sixty. Of course religious life will not disappear altogether from the church, and even now, new religious congregations are coming into being. But we are, nevertheless, experiencing a very significant period of loss, of the dying off of communities that were each unique in themselves and distinct in their contributions. Something I have come to appreciate from conversations with one or two of the sisters, including Barbara, is that few things are more important in life than accompanying those who are dying. Ought we as a church, as a society, be paying more attention to these communities before they go, so that we really know them for what they are and have been, and understand what it is that we are losing?
Whatever the future of La Retraite may be, the chance to spend reflective time with them, in their period of diminishment, has been a real gift for my work and for me personally. I had not had much to do with women’s religious orders before this project; I didn’t go to a Catholic school, and met only one nun (and not a very pleasant one) in the Connecticut parish in which I was raised. Not too surprisingly, perhaps, I never even toyed with the idea of a religious vocation. But now I can see the attraction and the beauty of the life, and of the people who choose and are formed by it. It is a beauty that shines out particularly clearly, to my mind, in the calm way this particular group faces the possibility of its own end.