“Rebel hearts”, joyful revolutionaries: investigation and experimentation are alive in religious life
Katie Gordon, left, and Benedictine sister Rosanne Lindal-Hynes at a Count Every Vote rally on November 4, 2020 in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Photo provided)
As I write this, I am in my corner office in Pax Priory, a small, vibrant community of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania. It is a room filled with decades of love, light, color and artwork. The sunlight is pouring in and one of Corita Kent’s plays comes to mind, “Let the Sun Shine In”. Next to Pope John XXIII in full clerical garb, the text on the image reads:
LET IN THE SUN
the creative revolution – taking a piece of the imagined future and putting it in the present – following the law of the future and living it in the present. Waskow
Corita did this in 1968 in the midst of a tumultuous and traumatic experience where Cardinal James McIntyre was in open conflict with his community, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, trying to control and prevent their Vatican II revival. With her colorful and subversive pop art, Corita has often been at the center of controversy, receiving the harsh reprimands of the cardinal.
This play by Corita captures the spirit of renewal: after centuries of institutional rigidity and patriarchal control in the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council opened the windows and let fresh air into religious life. Congregations around the world have been challenged to return to the charisms and visions of their founders. With a joyful and insightful spirit, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary embraced this invitation to change.
Corita Kent (1918-1986) was one of the many sisters, including Anita Caspary (1915-2011) and Helen Kelley (1925-2019), who led the cultural and social revolution of this community. The stories of this exceptional community and its leaders are told in a new documentary, “Rebel Hearts”.
I watched the premiere of “Rebel Hearts” with the four Benedictine sisters I live with at the Pax Priory. They are all 80 years old now and joined religious life in the 1950s and 1960s, so they too have gone through the transformations of the Vatican II renewal. Although the documentary focused on the particular experience of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, as we watched the Erie sisters laughed at how familiar this story was with theirs. As one sister said in the documentary, âObviously, we were in a boat in desperate need of rocking. “
Nuns and Nones, the organization I work with, is our emerging generation’s response to the age-old work of integrating spiritual life and social transformation hand in hand with generations of those who have come before us. At a time when social, economic, and political systems seem hopelessly immutable, in stories like those of Vatican II we see communities discerning and experiencing lasting transformation on a daily basis – even under the most patriarchal constraints possible.
The film shows how this transformation clashed with the status quo of the Catholic Church and how those in power were afraid of what this change would mean for their global institution. Through systems of control and repression, some male leaders of the Catholic Church have sought to stifle the visionary potential of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The bright colors of Corita’s artwork offended them; the liberating joy of the sisters’ religious celebrations disturbed them; women making decisions by and for themselves threatened the power of the institution. Using the hierarchical and patriarchal structure of the worldwide Catholic Church, they attempted to stifle this particularly radical renewal.
At one point in the multi-year battle between the sisters and the diocese, four bishops were sent to discuss the controversy and find a way forward with the community. The bishops suggested that the community publicly side with the cardinal while living quietly in the changes desired by the community. The sisters saw in it an invitation to religious hypocrisy. During this meeting, Corita asked the bishops and the community as a whole: âWhat would Jesus say? Many sisters knew at this point that following the life of Jesus might in fact require them to abandon the Catholic Church.
After this fateful meeting in 1969, the sisters received forms to dispense with their vows and thus officially release their affiliation with the Catholic Church. It was a particularly painful moment; over the years the sisters fought to maintain their dignity and their relationship with the church they loved. But in response, the hierarchy told them, âDo it our way, or go.
There were 560 sisters in the community at that time, and 327 dispensed with their vows and left. The decision was not taken lightly by anyone, and it split a community in two, shattering the spirit of unity that is at the heart of their faith. Corita seemed particularly heartbroken, took a sabbatical from the community and never returned. She continued her prophetic work and built a new life in Boston.
Katie Gordon, second from left, with the Benedictine sisters she lives with at the Pax Priory in Erie, Pa. In September 2020 (photo provided)
However, amid the heartbreak, a “community of hope” also emerged in its wake, according to the documentary. The sisters who have left the canonical structure of religious life have created a new form of committed spiritual life. In the words of one of their leaders, Anita Caspary, they were going to create a ânew type of community that could revive religious lifeâ. In another letter, she wrote that “an entire community has come out of what seemed like the momentum of a dream.”
In 1970, 220 of the 327 women who left the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary established the Community of the Immaculate Heart, which calls itself a âspiritual community without wallsâ. Over the past 50 years, they have continued to evolve and broaden their understanding of community life. Today, they have 114 active members who include people from diverse backgrounds, worship styles, gender expressions, sexual orientations, economic positions, as well as married and single community members.
Katie Gordon and her friends watch a sunset in August 2019 (Photo provided)
During the renewal of the 1960s, the sisters longed for the freedom to express all their humanity through their spiritual and social commitments. By leaving the canonical affiliation, they entered a freedom to, as Corita’s work says, “take a part of the imagined future and put it in the present”. They have become a vibrant and diverse community that still serves as a model for the happy revolutionaries today.
In my own work through Nuns and Nones – as well as in a larger experiential ecosystem comprising communities like Benincasa, the Center for Spiritual Imagination, and the Mystic Soul Project – many investigations revolve around similar questions: what engaged community structures can meet the desires and serve the needs of our time? What is the relationship between traditions of wisdom and new forms of spiritual expression? Is there something that can bring these two prophetic currents to dialogue and to collaborate? Finally, what do we need to let go or leave behind to enter a more liberating and liberating future?
This field of inquiry and experimentation is more alive than ever, and the history of the Community of the Immaculate Heart can inspire new expressions of prophetic commitment. In an interview on ‘Rebel Hearts’ with Global Sisters Report, current Immaculate Heart Community President Karol Schulkin said: âNo one knew in the late 60s or early 70s how long we would be. a community and where it would be But year after year we have lived in the future, and this is how we live the great lofty questions that surround the future of religious life: year after year.
Coincidentally, or perhaps out of sync, I recently celebrated my first anniversary of moving to the Priory of Pax. There is absolutely no way I could have seen how this last year would go. And yet, a year later, I can now see the small steps taken in a slow year and what this place has given me in a unique way: a place to sit in the inquiry and to experiment and evolve into the future. In the company of the Benedictine tradition dating back more than 1500 years, in a line of monasticism that expresses a timeless spiritual aspiration, I learn to become patient with this long moment of transformation. Living in my fractal of time, story, movement, all I can do is keep the windows open and let in the sun. Or maybe, like the Immaculate Heart Community, just get rid of the walls altogether.
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