How bad is the current state of religious life in the United States? The recent canonical visitation of women religious suggested an almost imminent crisis. A rapidly declining and aging membership for both men and women in traditional communities shows little promise of reversal. Some people might find a bit of hope with Sr. Joan Chittester’s The Fire in These Ashes. Chittester writes of the ashes of a Celtic fire which protect the remaining embers until the fire can next be stirred to flame. The current task of religious, she proposes, is to tend the embers, to live religious life in this time and in this place as it is. Wishing for a different time or circumstance produces little yield.
Glancing at the index of Rapley’s book, one notices that she ends with the 19th Century. Here she writes of thriving communities of women and men reaching out as missionaries beyond the “New World” to Africa and Asia. At first glance, it would seem if one were to look for hope from The Lord as Their Portion, one would have to wish for a different time or circumstance. However, the expanse and detail of history that the author provides a hope grounded even more firmly than a solid image for the current circumstance.
Rapley has as her first intent to show how religious shaped so much of Western culture. The text explores the interaction of religious life significant cultural movements from the time of Anthony in the desert, through Medieval Europe, across the New World, and into the 19th Century missionary endeavors. The author gives the reader a vivid description of the broader context by flavoring her description with sufficient detail.
Though the book gives only a single chapter to the Middle Ages, the author captures well the significance of the friars, Franciscan and Dominican. She locates them in the context of other poverty movements and the general condition of the church. Within the same chapter, she offers a detailed understanding of the tensions within the Franciscan Order that would satisfy even the most curious scholar. In subsequent chapters Rapley details the foundation, suppression and re-birth of the Jesuits. She likewise notes the creative endeavor of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci in China with the tension he created within the Order and the Church.
For the 17th Century, Rapley devotes most of her attention to France. Toward the end of the chapter she explains her focus. Seventeen of twenty-two new male congregations and almost all new women’s congregations were begun in France. The author notes how war and grim economic conditions can stir up fervor for religious life. One example of Rapley’s engaging style within this chapter comes with her description of Vincent de Paul and the role of the poor in the reform of the church. To this she adds the work of the Daughters of Charity in nursing and the establishment of hospitals long before Florence Nightengale.
Following her pattern of a fine introduction and conclusion to each chapter, the reader gains an understanding of the impact of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars on religious life and the wider culture. Shifts in economics, reproduction and a high infant mortality rate lead to a time of decline in religious life. The 18th Century founder, Alphonsus Liguori, by way of conviction and charisma established a community of priests to serve the peasantry. As this benefited both church and state, their existence was tolerated in Naples by the crown. However, as in many other instances either the church or the government imposed changes upon the congregation. As the 19th Century would attest, religious life could thrive in adversity, with a truly secular France provided fertile ground for new congregations.
This provides an opportunity to suggest a value to this book perhaps beyond the author’s intent. As Rapley clearly states, an examination of history points out that religious life has waxed and waned through the centuries. Communities that adapted to new circumstances survived. Keying in on a particular mission for a specific time and place, these same communities would generally thrive. Success would breed its own problems – a certain “settling in” that would then lead to decline and often extinction.
This same history also demonstrates the heroic vision and determination of countless men and women who even in the midst of the most challenging times retained “the Lord as their portion” and rekindled new fires of religious life. Despite the virtual elimination of religious life in France by government forces, the same country repeatedly brought new forms of religious life to birth. The church, too, through the centuries sought to control religious life, especially for women. Popes and bishops imposed cloister on active communities, suppressed lay associations, and imposed canonical vows. Even when faced with such obstacles, women and men of faith found new ways to give their all to God. The Lord as Their Portion gives real hope for religious life today.