Sr. Veronica O'Reilly
EDMONTON — Sister Veronica O'Reilly reassures her fellow sisters that the loss, pain and fear being felt by many religious orders today will take them somewhere better in its own good time. In other words, that which does not kill them will make them stronger.
"We trust that God has a future for us," O'Reilly told religious women gathered at the Council of Consecrated Women's spring assembly.
"Our future will be determined based on how we live in this time of darkness. The way we live will be our promise for the future."
O'Reilly, a Toronto-based Sister of St. Joseph, gave four talks called Hope in the Midst of Darkness. The sessions were held May 13-14 at Providence Renewal Centre.
O'Reilly's ministry has focused on education, ecumenism, administration and historical research. Her talks included an historical perspective on women's religious orders from the Second Vatican Council until today.
She drew much of her inspiration from Carmelite Sister Connie Fitzgerald's thesis, From Impasse to Prophetic Hope: A Crisis of Memory.
The thesis delves into the idea of "an emerging theology of hope." The underlying message was that as the sisters confront a time of anxiety and ambivalence, they are preparing for a brighter future designed by God.
"Living in this impasse and darkness, something wonderful is actually happening, what St. John of the Cross called the purification of memory," said O'Reilly.
The phrase is rooted in the belief that the future builds upon the past. There are dangers in forgetting history, lest we repeat its mistakes.
Churchgoers, after years of trying to pray faithfully, after receiving grace and insight, come to a place where they experience in prayer, not presence, but nothing, said O'Reilly.
Rather than giving up on prayer, this is when prayer and contemplation are most necessary.
"What Fitzgerald is suggesting is that this time of darkness we live in is good in the sense that it will help us envision what future there is for us," said O'Reilly.
She gave the sisters a chance to get in touch with their darkness. As a reflective exercise, she had them write a five-line poem expressing their greatest losses, fears and pains.
Later, they wrote a poem expressing their hopes. Together, the poems represent a resurrection, an affirmative change that comes about after much anguish.
Fitzgerald, she said, argues that amidst suffering, the sisters can become a new spiritual species, with a renewed evolution of human consciousness.
The key is to maintain prayer and contemplation, allowing the Holy Spirit to make constructive changes.
O'Reilly said the current situation is full of uncertainty. "We pray and don't seem to get any bright lights."
But religious women must live with a faith that amidst the darkness, they are being purified, she said.
In ridding oneself of pain and tension as quickly as possible, the pain never gets a chance to mellow our souls, purify our hearts and bring us to a deeper level of compassion, she said. It doesn't get to do its purifying work.
The darkness, she said, has something to teach religious women if they remain steadfast in their willingness to learn.
One of the more consoling statements in Fitzgerald's thesis was, "This dark passage does have an arrival point."
"That's the good news. With any luck, it won't last forever. Both of these Carmelites, Sister Fitzgerald and St. John of the Cross, believe that this deconstruction and dispossession of our memory is a redemptive movement, and it's ongoing.
"Theological hope gradually displaces all that impedes new vision and new possibility. The end result is something worth living for."