Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, an Australian community, in a worldwide religious congregation.
Jesus loved with a human heart: with him we proclaim his love to the world.
We work to discover through advocacy, healing and reconciliation, God's presence in our world.
We are to be on earth the heart of God. God has no other heart but ours.
- Published: Sunday, 06 February 2011 15:32
Abbott John Klassen OSB visited Australia in 2010. He reflects on the future of religious orders in the Church - and takes his views from the Prophets that our perspective should he hope.
Recall that the prophets not only announce to the people an end that the community cannot admit; they also proclaim a hope that the people can hardly believe. There are two dangers or temptations that arise in times of transition. The first is nostalgia, which is essentially a state of denial. The strategy of nostalgia denies that the loss has happened or is happening: with increasing desperation it attempts to cling to a way of life and of faith that are no more.
The second danger or temptation is that of despair, a stance that says that faith is no longer possible in this new situation, that all is lost (alles ist verloren), that no future possibilities are to be found here. Despair inevitably leads to resignation, cynicism, apathy, and spiritual death. Both the strategy of nostalgia and the stance of despair are present in our monastery and in the Church today.
Against desperate denial and fatalistic despair, we hear Isaiah the prophet announce: "Look! Pay attention! God is doing something NEW!" Against both denial and despair, the prophet announces hope, that is, the advent of a new future that is neither a simple rearranging of the old furniture nor a continuation of former ways in different configurations.
As Jeremiah proclaims, God will make a new covenant, but it will not be like that of old. Hope is the belief that things can and will be radically other than how they are now. Hope is the expectation of a new beginning that is as yet but dimly perceived. As Isaiah declares, "Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?" (Isaiah 43.19)
The images of hospice and midwife
Brueggemann maintains that among the ways that the prophets pierced the veil of the community's numbing despair and energized it with new hope was that of offering symbols and images that nourished an alternative vision. In that spirit, I want to offer an image that speaks to me of hopeful endings and new beginnings: the image of hospice. I want to suggest that prophetic ministry and service today requires a "hospice" mind set and approach to priestly ministry. I believe that monasteries today are called to be hospice ministers for the Church (and for ourselves).
Hospices prepare people to face endings that are unthinkable yet inevitable . . . and also prepare people for new beginnings that are unwanted yet full of life. Hospices do not deny diminishment, death or loss. But they facilitate the choice to live while dying, and they focus on preparing for the new by letting go of the old. So when one enters into a hospice, one becomes committed to the task of living fully while dying. Such a decision is an act of faith in the resurrection, which believes that one's end is but the gateway to a more glorious beginning.
I know that some will resist the image of a hospice for the Church today. I suspect that my resonance with hospice imagery stems from a conversation with a good friend, Todd. His mother was dying and she was a champion resister. She was dying long before she would admit it. She was a master of denial and bargaining, always looking for a second and third and fourth opinion, a new drug regimen, a better oxygen system. She claimed she listened to her doctors, but she heard only what she wanted. She actively and ingeniously skirted any discussion of entering a hospice.
When my friend finally pushed the issue and pressed her as to why she would not go into a home hospice program, she confessed, "If I do that, I feel that I'm just giving up and saying that God can't work a miracle." From some deep place within, Todd spoke words he did not know he had, and he answered, "Mom, I still believe that God will work a miracle, though it probably will be one that neither of us expects."
God will work a miracle, but one that none of us can expect. That is the kind of prophetic hope for the Church and this monastery that I am trying to express through the image of "hospice." As Todd described it, the hospice workers lovingly stood with his mother and family. With gentle firmness, they helped them to move beyond the futility of clinging to life as they knew it, encouraged them to accept the inevitability of loss, and enabled them to re-frame the dying process as an experience of living fully in the present while not holding it too tightly.
Once his mother entered into hospice, she began to live more calmly and freely. She spent her remaining energies engaging family and friends rather than denying and fighting her death. She even got her nails and hair done! The hospice nurses, aides, ministers and social workers helped Todd's family to tell his mom goodbye gracefully and lovingly. They enabled them to move into a new phase of life, one without his mother. It was indeed a miracle, though not the one they had been praying for.
God will work a miracle, but not the one that we expect. I'm not entirely sure what this means concretely for the Church or for our monastery. I don't have a "hospice theology" completely or fully developed. I take comfort in the fact that listening to the words of Isaiah and other prophets is more of a mindset and consciousness than a specific set of practices. But I suspect that as hospice workers we as monks are to stand with the dying, that is, with the Church and each other in hope, solidarity and love, in order to help the Church and one another to live fully while dying. For example, Todd remembers how a hospice nurse told them that his mother would have some good days during her final weeks, and that they should enjoy them to the full.
Similarly, we as monks can and should celebrate the "good days," that is, ordinations, professions and up-ticks in vocational recruitment and do so without denying the inevitable end of some things. With a hospice mindset, we also can accompany the Church in bad days, standing with it in radical, creative and critical fidelity, without succumbing to powerless despair.
At the least, a hospice approach to our Church and monastery means that we must help facilitate honest conversations of sadness, hurt, anger and even rage, for these are some of the inevitable and essential reactions to any transition or loss.
A hospice consciousness requires that we recognize that not everyone in the Church or in our monastery will be on the same page in dealing with the stress of transition. All of the stages of dying and grieving -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (and the spiral back and forth among these states) -- are to be expected both in our people and ourselves. A hospice understanding of prophetic priesthood or monastic life requires the virtues of patience and compassion, an ability to provide boundaries and resources for communities, and a sense of laughter and humor in the face of the unknown.
Ministering to a Church in hospice also requires deep prayer, that is, a contemplative stance of surrender to what we do not fully understand and yet intuitively sense is worthy of trust. Few things nourish this contemplative stance more effectively than a community gathered to worship and to listen together to the scriptures. "Hospice" as a mindset or consciousness frees us from the pressure of frantically trying to preserve the status quo at all costs, for hospice accepts the reality of death. And yet a hospice stance is full of hope. The denial of death is the denial of hope. Those who cannot accept the mortality of a particular understanding of Church or of this monastery also cannot embrace the promise of a new beginning.
I believe that a new Church is coming. It will be browner and poorer, more sensuous and feminine, less clerical and more collegial, less concerned about works of charity, and more conscious of works toward justice, more multilingual and polycentric than the one we know now. That Church will better reflect the diversity of God's Trinitarian life. It will be a new Church, yet it can come only with the passing of this one. I suggest that it is our task as a monastery to facilitate the present Church's passing in order to assist in the birthing of the new. Paradoxically, hospice workers are also the midwives of new life.
"See, I am doing something NEW." This passage gives us a key for discerning the prophetic voice. The prophet stands against both nostalgia and despair. Any voices that say: "All we have to do is go back to," or "If only we were more faithful, loyal, prayerful and obedient, then nothing would change," or, "There isn't a priest shortage, just a temporary maldistribution," or "Let's just put all the events of the past three years behind us and move on," are not prophetic voices but discourses of nostalgia and denial.
But in the same way, those voices that say, "It's all over; the priesthood is dead; the Church is finished; the monastery is finished; get out while you still can;" are not prophetic voices either. They are voices of despair.
Contrary to both denial and despair, the prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord: "See; I am doing something NEW." Prophetic voices express that hope which we articulate in the liturgy: "Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended." Priestly ministry, monastic life, ministerial service, and the Church's life: these are not over, but they are not, will not, and cannot remain the same. The image of hospice helps us to live peacefully in the graced promise of the new, even as we grieve the demise of the old.