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Letter from Alice
As some of you know I have been very taken with Sandra Schneider's new series of books on religious life. As I was reading the first volume "Finding the Treasure" I began to realize that the new form of religious life Schneiders was outlining incorporated several of Little sister Magdeleine's foundational ideas, and both of them have roots in earlier forms of religious life from the third century to the Beguines of the Middle Ages.
In my own way of thinking and talking about our community I emphasized our manner of living it, seeking out particular groups of lost sheep and living as poorly, materially speaking like them and with them. As American religious communities adopted a simpler close to the people lifestyle this distinguishing characteristic of our community became less remarkable and, in my own mind, our reason for being as a community less compelling. I began to think of the Little Sisters as a cultural fluke of the end of the war in Europe, that appeared unable to root itself in the culture and mentality of first world countries, particularly English speaking ones.
As I read Sandra Schneider's books I realized, with increasingwonder, two invigorating realities. First, that the essence of religious life in all communities is its contemplative heart. This contemplative heart, like our human heart, needs a particular structure and nourishment to thrive. Sister Schneiders points out how American communities lost this structure. She also outlined how individual religious strove valiantly to develop a contemplative dimension in their lives through personal retreats and development of different types of spirituality.
Little sister Magdeleine had the conviction and foresight to put the structure of contemplation in our lives and, to our credit, we have been faithful to it. Our fidelity to that structured contemplative dimension is, in my eyes, the single most important thing we have done and our treasure. This is the treasure of all religious life and we have it.
It is the nourishment part that, for me, has been a long voyage of discovery. First, through Native Spirituality as lived by the King Island people, then the psychology of spirituality via Carl Jung, touches of Celtic Spirituality in which I discovered parts of myself; the ongoing development of Feminist Consciousness; and, through all this I discovered my path was like that of the Labyrinth. A Labyrinth is always turning and the path leads you far away from the center. If you stay on the path, however, you will always eventually reach the center, the goal-Jesus the Christ. This is the "Secret Garden". This is what turns the "ordinariness" of our lives into the depths of the mystic journey-the relationship to the Christ. This has been my own contemplative journey.
The second reality, which has opened up to me a whole different way of looking at the community, is the realization that, far from being a cultural fluke, the vision of Little sister Magdeleine has given us both a unique perspective and mechanisms within our communityto respond to the spiritual malaise of the post-modern world. We are all familiar with the quotation from Little sister Magdeleine that when asked to describe our vocation in one word she replied, 'Unity'. She recognized that the basis of all injustice is lack of respect and openness to the "Other" as that person is in themselves. This core value of our community links neatly into the second part of "Finding the Treasure". In it Schneiders analyses the post-modern spirit of our time. As I read through her descriptions of this particular mentality I realized that our community and our spirituality directly address the events and culture of this time.
One of the marks of the post-modern spirit is what Schneiders refers to as the subversion of the Meta-narratives. By this she means that the cultural and physical isolation of the past kept each religious tradition in its localized sphere. Now, of course, there are no boundaries. People are aware of and adopt practices from very different belief systems and spiritual structures. Thus, while people practice elements of perhaps two or three different religious systems, they are not rooted in any of them. All systems become, in their minds, relative and, eventually, distorted by their lack of cultural context. The result, always according to Schneiders, is an alienation and social cocooning that leads to disinterest in a deep commitment to any spirituality. At the same time, any attempt to change a person's or peoples belief system or practices is regarded as Cultural Imperialism. How do we make our life comprehensible to this mentality?
Cultural Imperialism may not have been a term familiar to Little sister Magdeleine but she would have smelled it coming while it was still miles away. It is one of her strongest points to be open and accepting of other ways of thinking and practicing spirituality. Don't forget that she knew quite well that Brother Charles had his spiritual awakening through the observed practice of Islam. We, as a community, never were proselytizers. We just do not have that mentality. This, and the fact that we are not closely associated with church institutions, can give our community an open and freer aspect connection to the myriads of outcasts and spiritual seekers of the upcoming generations. We have a community spirit of acceptance that can lead to having women who are non-Catholic and, in Little sister Magdeleine's thought, non-Christian, become members of our community. Our manner of living our spirituality could be very appealing to the GenXs and GenYs as it mirrors, in a positive way, their own perceptions of spirituality. This non-doctrinal way of living our contemplative life could be a strong point in our approach to the young generation.
Another aspect of the post-modern mentality that Sandra Schneiders brings out is the loss of a unitary world view. Not only are religious groups in conflict with each other but for several generations now the scientific and religious worlds have been in intense competition and conflict for peoples' minds and hearts. This loss of a unitary world view leads to rootlessness and abandonment to an impersonal cosmos. However, the Little Sisters of Jesus are exactly the opposite. We live in an intensely personal universe. Our commitment is not to a theoretical system but to people. Not people in general but people next door and down the street. People whose name we know. We do not deal in formulations but in lives lived. This absolute concreteness is a point that could be emphasized and, I believe, could appeal to this post-modern generation.
Regardless of our personal political position on the war on terrorism it will be the conflict that shapes the lives of people for several generations. This is what will structure our way of thinking about ourselves and our government for years to come. As the United States exercises the position of the only super-power the commitment of our community to reach out to the "other"; to keep reminding people that the only real terrorism is the one that blinds people to the humanity of others; and to emphasize the greatness in each spiritual tradition is, as it has always been, our particular mission. While before I thought of this as an approach to particular minority groups it has become the central conflict of our time-and our community, particularly with our roots in Arab culture, is in the middle of it.
Read also about life in Nome: 'Life in Nome'
Little sister Alice has lived in Alaska for over 40 years sharing the life of local people and living in Community with two or three other Little sisters. Has this form of religious life a future? Looking back on her own personal journey she shares how the basic intuitions of Little sister Magdeleine are in tune with the needs of today.
Inspired by Brother Charles...