Going through Joan Chittister's book The Fire in These Ashes for a second time in doing some work for my Franciscan community, the opportunity to review Bernard Lee's text stood as a welcome complement. Lee seeks to offer a series of reflections that provide "A worldly spirituality for active, apostolic communities." While the latter did not engender the same fire of enthusiasm as Chittister's text, Lee's book does offer some thoughtful challenges to move upward, out of the ashes.
The most challenging, and exciting concept presented by Lee comes early in the text and finds expression at key moments throughout. The author distinguishes between a community's charism and its "great story." The latter serves as the mythic history telling the story of how the community has and has not been a vibrant charism at different points in time. True charism requires more than repeating by word or attempted imitation the events of the great story. Charism arises when the community offers in its own time and place something vital to the world and church.
Lee correctly observes that in the renewal of religious life after the Second Vatican Council many communities linked charism to the founder and the deeds of the founder in her or his own time. For many a "return to the sources" failed to generate the insight that the needs of contemporary men and women may well not be met even by doing well what the founder had done. The charism of the founding was in meeting a genuine need in a particular time and place. The challenge for contemporary religious is to use their "great story" and respond in vital ways to some genuine unmet need in the lives of people today.
The Beating of Great Wings rests on solid scholarship, well documented by the author. Lee draws on process thought, other contemporary philosophies, as well as critical social analysis. It is not a quick and easy read. However, the quality of the scholarship strengthens the author's argument. Lee proposes not a thorough theological treatment of religious life or the vows. He proposes to offer a series of reflections, several revisions of earlier work.
Completing what he has proposed the text is held together with a repetition of the theme, the beating of great wings, but has a much greater coherence with the repetition of key ideas and select authors. Though the reader recognizes a certain "piecing together," Lee does provide a solid overview to each chapter, solid development of each theme, and good questions for further thought and discussion.
Taking on the contemporary challenges of individualism, corporate mission and forgiveness Bernard Lee offers a firm hope that religious communities can move well beyond surviving to actually thrive. That hope offers reason enough to read his text.