Giving up everything to follow Christ, back then and now

Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God Rule of Benedict

The letter from the Nauvoo Benedictines was clear: 18-year-old Phyllis McMurray, of Peoria, was to pack only the items listed as she began her new life as a Benedictine Postulant in 1963. Clothing (a white, mid-calf habit, scapular and veil) and shoes (white “Lazy Bones” oxfords) would be issued upon arrival.

Together, she and her mother assembled the items on the list:
* 4 white half-slips, cotton, about 13 inches from the floor
* 12 white handkerchiefs
* 1 pair bedroom slippers
* 1 housecoat
* Necessary toilet articles including face cream (if you use it) and no lipstick
* Sewing equipment (not a large basket)

Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), religious life in the U.S. might have looked more like a punishment to outsiders than a joyful lifestyle. Sisters and Brothers truly gave up everything to join their communities. Indeed, they gave up their very freedom – freedom to dress as they pleased, go where they wished, and work in ministries they chose.

Following their Postulant year – which was and still is spent with the Sisters, learning about Benedictine life - the Novice Sisters were eligible to be assigned to missions, mostly as teachers, across the state of Illinois. Where they went and what they did once there was not within their control.

“I remember sitting in chapel on Missioning Day, waiting to hear my name,” Sr. Catherine Maloney, OSB, says. “None of us knew where we would be sent. The mission names were read alphabetically, so if you were going to be sent to Atkinson, you’d find out right away and be able to relax for the rest of the ceremony. If you were being sent to Winona, you had to wait a long time. We were on pins and needles!”

The Missioning Ceremony took place at the end of the Sisters’ annual retreat. The Sisters – who had been instructed to pack their trunks as if they would not return to the previous year’s mission – left for their new assignments later that afternoon.

“I was sent to four different schools in three years,” Sr. Catherine says. “I didn’t question Mother about it, but it wasn’t always a happy experience for me.”

That authoritative approach began to change with the release of Vatican II’s document on renewal of religious life. It encouraged reforms within communities that resulted in “truly collegial ways of ordering their lives together,” Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM, writes.* “Dialogue began to replace unilateral assignments and collaboration became the preferred approach to shared ministry. … The titles ‘superior’ and ‘mother’ were quietly retired.”

In fact, the post-Vatican II approach to missioning is more reflective of St. Benedict’s advice to do everything with counsel, for the greater good of both the individual and the community.

“Missioning today is quite different from years ago,” Sr. Phyllis says. “It has become an opportunity to reflect on the community’s direction statements, to confirm each Sister’s happiness in her ministry, and to ask the retired Sisters to pray for the active Sisters’ ministries. We collaborate on choosing ministries that make the best use of our gifts while allowing full participation in the monastic community of shared prayer and life.”

Such freedom doesn’t mean you don’t still give up everything to follow Christ, Sr. Phyllis says. But whether you own more than one pair of shoes or wear lipstick is immaterial. What’s most important is your effort to give up your devotion to your own will.

“We all have the desire for power and wealth,” she says. “We all think we know what’s best for ourselves. That’s human. Discerning what God wants for us and being obedient to that is what we try to do as Benedictines. We give up everything, but receive everything too.”