Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Rainbow of Monks and Nuns

This week we had one of the periodic meetings of CAROA (The Conference of Anglican Religious Orders of the Americas) here at Holy Cross. This is the association of traditional religious communities of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. At times it also includes the Caribbean and South America, but presently we don't have much presence there, except for one house of the Sisters of St Margaret in Haiti and a fledgling Franciscan community in Brazil.

What a collection we were, and what a sight! There were monks, friars, sisters and nuns (some day I may discourse on the fine points of difference between all of these). We came from 20 different communities and in all sorts and manners of costume. There were people in black habits, there were people in white habits, there were people in brown habits, and in gray habits and in blue habits. There were even two people in a black and blue habit. There were nuns in very traditional veils, and sisters in modified veils and those in quite traditional habits but no veils. There was a Franciscan in a traditional habit with red and black checkerboard sneakers.

There were more different sorts of crosses than you can imagine.

And there were brothers and sisters in secular clothes as well - smartly tailored outfits with discrete crosses which are different for each Order, and much more informal clothing as well, sometimes in colors that indicated the community and sometimes just plain old clothes. And there were some sweat shirts and jeans, some with crosses and some without.

Some wore different things at different times, and there was no guarantee that different members of the same community would be dressed in the same way (though most were). The 50 or so of us who were gathered here made quite a sight.

We're much more comfortable with this variety than we were at one time. At times in the past, members of the Conference could be very touchy about who dressed in what and at what time. Now that concern has faded and we seem willing to accept the decisions that each of our communities has made about our dress.

That's not the only thing that has changed. I've been in and around these meetings for more than 40 years. They were not always occasions that one looked forward to. We've been through times when our sessions were very brittle and touchy. There have been times when there were subjects that couldn't be mentioned, and when the sense of threat and competition between communities was pretty high. I've been to meetings when a sense of superiority and judgmentalism reigned supreme, and meetings when the only things that could be discussed out loud were so deadly boring that it was hard to imagine why we went on with these sessions at all.

I wasn't part of the official meetings this time - other members of our community have taken over that. But I know many of the people who were here and have known some of them for a long, long time, and I know what I sensed as I talked with them at meals and socialized with them at other times. My sense was that this was a very blessed and creative time. The topic this time was the care of the elderly in our communities, and it's a topic that is of great importance for all of us. Most religious orders have more elderly members than can be cared for by the younger members of the order. Some have no younger members at all. How do we provide care with skill and dignity and still empower the the active members of our communities to engage in a vigorous ministry and a full exploration of their spiritual path?

This is not a small matter, and my sense is that the Conference pursued it in depth with very little defensiveness and no sense of hidden secrets. There was a gentle sense of cooperation and support about this meeting, and of people who were genuinely glad to be working together. The whole household had a very good feel to it this week.

To work together on a common issue which is of great importance to us all and on which we are not all agreed, and to do so with love and commitment to each other and a sense of support for each other - this is quite a task. It's even more of a task to succeed in such an undertaking. Our house was full of this during these days, and we were blessed. One could wish for such a blessing for the Episcopal Church, and for the Anglican Communion, and for all of Christianity. Wouldn't it be amazing for gatherings of Christians of very different sorts to be like this?

Those who participated in the meetings worked very hard. Those of us on the sidelines, who provided support services, and socialized and reflected together with the delegates worked hard, too. And when noon came today and they were all gone and it was just the 16 members of Holy Cross Monastery present for dinner, it seemed like such a haven of peace and restfulness.

We are very tired right now. We're even going to take some extra time off in the next couple of days. But I'm very glad this meeting happened, and that it happened here. The Conference of Anglican Religious Orders of the Americas has something to offer the wider church. Over the years we really have learned how to love each other. And we've learned at a deep level that our commitment to Christ is more fundamental than the things that try to separate us.


If you follow this column regularly you may want to know if I'm still bumping into walls. Thankfully, I'm not. There is still brain fog, but it's less. The antibiotic hasn't wrecked my intestines. I need more sleep than usual, but I'm up and working. And the terrible pain that affected my ankles and knees the last time I had Lyme Disease has not reappeared. So on I go. We'll see where I have gotten when a month of treatment is over. And my doctor is one of the people who developed the protocols for treatment of Lyme, so I'm in very good hands.

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