Book Review: The Foundations of Religious Life, Revisiting the Vision

by Therese Ivers, JCL

This book is a collection of 5 essays and a conclusion by different religious sisters who reflect on their vocation as women religious. It was written under the auspices of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. As this is a collection of essays, I will briefly comment on each essay. Meanwhile, the book begins with discussing how religious life (particularly for active religious) for women began.

1. Religious Consecration- A Particular Form of Consecrated Life

This two-authored essay discusses things such as the meaning of the word “consecration”, the deepening of baptism through consecrated life and the origins of consecrated life. Also tackled are some distinctive characteristics of consecrated religious life such as its public witness, public vows, separation from the world, and community life. As this essay is in the Preview area of Amazon.com’s website (click on the link above to read this essay for free; if you like it and buy it, I do get a slight commission), I will not comment much upon this portion of the book except to note a couple of things which should be clarified.

In the section entitled Building Upon Baptism: Consecrated Life, pages 19 & 20, the authors could have done better in how they depicted other vocations in Consecrated Life. What they said is in black (I crossed out some of their actual words) and my comments are in blue:

For consecrated life may be lived in the lay state as an individual or within a secular institute, or as a vowed religious (this is true only when you look at the Church as a hierarchy; when looked at it in terms of states of life, the consecrated state is different than the lay state). In the (consecrated not) lay state, a call to consecration is expressed by the life of a virgin (dedicates) consecrates her virginity as a self-gift to God through the profession of a vow of virginity received by a bishop (and becomes a consecrated virgin by receiving the Solemn Consecration of Virgins conferred upon her by her Bishop), by a hermit dedicated to prayer in radical solitude, or by a lay man or woman (this is correct as non ordained members of secular institutes remain lay) who profeses promises in a secular institute and remains in the world as a hidden leaven through a discreet witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Consecrated life is also lived by those called to public vows and public witness to Christ and to the Church according to a specific charism in religious life characterized by separation from the world (proper to the institute) and a stable, form of life lived in common with one’s brothers or sisters… (Public witness is also proper to the Diocesan (Canon 603) Hermit and the Consecrated Virgin who is “constituted a sacred person” who are also in the consecrated state. )

2. The Spousal Bond

Sr. Paula Jean Miller, FSE, begins this essay with a question about whether the spousal bond of religious consecration which arises through profession of the vows is poetical, merely symbolic, analogous, or metaphorical. Unfortunately, she blurs the distinction between the vowed religious and the consecrated virgin by citing the Rite of Consecration of Virgins to back up her statement that “The Catholic tradition continues to maintain that the spousal bond at the heart of consecrated life is a living sign of this marital covenant between Christ the Bridegroom and his bride the Church.” The following three passages she quotes from the Ritual of a Consecration to a Life of Virginity are the heart of her argument for believing religious women are truly spouses of Christ. This is unacceptable because properly speaking, consecrated virginity is different in essence than religious vowed life. Consecrated virginity is spousal in essence and religious life is not. Perhaps Sister should have looked at the Rite for Religious Profession for Women which puts things into perspective for religious women as it has its emphasis on service and the evangelical counsels and only briefly references a spousal bond.

Again, in the section entitled Spousal Virginity Within Church Tradition, Sr. Miller once more fails to make necessary distinctions. Coming from a form of consecrated life in which the term “consecrated virginity” is currently understood in a broad, loose sense (because physical virginity is no longer required of religious women), she applies this to her description of virginity: “Virginity, as a consecration of body and soul to God, has been esteemed and reverenced since the earliest days of the Church…”. This description is missing one essential element, namely, that of genuine virginity on the part of the female virgin, which factual condition was presumed in most of the writings of the Fathers of the Church. The author’s theme of virginity carries on into a description of what she calls a double consecration: consecration and vows. The reader should understand her use of the word “virgin” to mean “chaste woman” and “virginity” to mean “chastity” because this “double consecration” only applies to vowed (religious, eremitic, or secular institute) life, not to the espousals of consecrated virginity.

The section on the development of the spousal identity of religious life is likewise lacking in clarity. In addition to mistakenly equating consecrated virginity to religious vowed life, the author throws into the mixture the traditional stages of the spiritual life in people which includes the “mystical betrothal” and “mystical marriage” stages. The mystical union of the spiritual life is not the same thing as a the spousal bond she is trying to describe of religious life, but is open to all Christians. In the remaining portions of her essay, the author continues her theme of vowed communal life and quotes from various Church documents on the value of the religious life commitment.

The question I would pose to Sr. Paula is whether she can explain why in addition to the Rite of Profession for Religious Women, certain women (virgin) religious have the privilege of receiving the Solemn Consecration of Virginity from their Bishop if (as she incorrectly assumes) religious profession automatically makes one a bride of Christ. Since she quotes from the Rite of the Consecration to a Life of Virginity, she should have some degree of familiarity with it. That being said, I myself will be discussing this very issue in my upcoming book on convents.

3. The Threefold Response of the Vows

Written by the Dominican, Sr. Mary Dominic Pitts, this reflection on the vows begins with a brief history of religious life, the calling of religious to deepen their baptismal commitment through vows. She then goes on to give a good explanation of the nature of a public vow in the context of the Church. Sister Mary Dominic then goes through each of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and gives a commentary on them.

4. Communion in Community

Sr. Mary Prudence Allen, RSM discusses how religious are to model “communion” because of their common life. She tackles what she lables as three errors in religious communal life: living like a democracy (without hierarchy), evolution (religious life changes in essence over time), and process (inability to make permanent vows because the person changes over time). The author touches upon Mary as being a guide for living in communion, the call of the religious to comunal life, the plan of formation of spiritual formation for religious, and other aspects of communal life and witness such as friendship and dialogue.

5. Evangelical Mission

This last essay is about how the religious continue the mission of Christ through the apostolate. Sr. M. Maximilia Um, FSGM, touches on how one can be said to “participate” in the mission of Christ, and makes many observations about the nature of mission. The mission of Christ, the Church, and the religious are covered briefly in this section of the book.

The conclusion of the book was co-authored by two sisters. In one section, the sisters try to understand the difference between religious consecration and the consecration of a member of a secular institute. They then delve into why the Council for Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR)was founded.

For those serious in obtaining a greater understanding of the position of those communities aligned with the CMSWR and for their perspectives on the respective topics, I would recommend this book. I think it is best suited for those who are themselves religious and/or are grounded in the theology and law of consecrated life. Should you wish to order this book, you are welcome to order through this site and support our work by clicking below:

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One Response to Book Review: The Foundations of Religious Life, Revisiting the Vision

  1. researcher says:

    Dear Therese,

    I agree with you that the spousal bond which is supposed to be at the heart of consecrated life- is different with regard to an individual religious and an individual consecrated virgin. This is what distinguishes the Rite for Religious Profession of women and Rite of Consecration to a life of Virginity for women.

    Religious women may symbolize the Bride of Christ only as a community [which itself is a symbol of the Church community which is the Bride of Christ.] For e.g. if an individual religious leaves her religious community through a dispensation of her perpetual vows, she automatically ceases to be this symbol because her bond with Christ is communal and not personal.

    However the Consecration of Virgins concentrates the specific grace in the person of the virgin and constitutes her a Bride of Christ as an individual. Her bond with Christ is personal and therefore more than symbolic because it requires her to assume the obligation to love the Christian community and the world- as a virgin, bride of Christ and a mother. She is the symbol of the Church even as an individual just like Virgin Mary. I do not believe that the Rite of Religious Profession confers this charism on the individual Religious woman.

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