The Place of the Religious Life in the 21st Century

| Present

Nuns and monks – perhaps not the first people who come to mind when you think of our modern culture. But quietly and steadfastly, many of these folks daily contribute to society from a standpoint of faith, spirituality and commitment. Here I want to highlight the lives of “my” sisters, the Episcopal order of the Society of St. Margaret, with whom I have been associated for over 25 years. There is much I can say about these incredible women, but I want mainly to point out how they, and others like them, can be important parts of the lives of Americans who are not necessarily “religious” in the traditional sense.

As is well known, organized religion in the US has generally been in decline for the past several decades. We now have two phenomena that bear on the religious sentiments of Americans: the growth of the “nones” (those with no religious affiliation), a category that can include atheists and agnostics, and the rise of the number of people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). While fewer people attend religious services on a regular basis (although this phenomenon would not be the case in some areas of the country), religion as a major figures prominently in such prestigious colleges as Princeton, Duke, Notre Dame and Stanford. Throughout the country, nearly 1,000 colleges offer religion, theology or related majors.

These trends mean, in part, that there is a thirst for a certain amount of spiritual depth and growth in our society, but the thirst is not being quenched in traditional ways. (I attend church almost every Sunday and find it fulfilling and fun, but I can well understand why millions of people have been turned off by the “church scene” over the past couple of generations. Between incomprehensible or irrelevant theology, boring and even judgmental sermons, the clergy sexual abuse scandal, and squabbles over women’s ordination, gay marriage and other social issues, it is not hard to see why good, intelligent people would be completely turned off.)

This is where convents and monasteries can come into the story. The primary activity of Christian monks and nuns is prayer, both corporate and individual. For centuries, many of these societies have prayed several times a day most days of the week; at St. Margaret’s, using the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the sisters (and any visitors) gather for Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Holy Eucharist (Communion), Evening Prayer and Compline. (Some orders also gather for prayer in the middle of the night.) What do they pray for, and what good does it do, one might ask? Prayer usually takes the forms of praise and thanks to God, asking forgiveness for sins, and petitions – for the world and its leaders, for those who love, for those who have died and those who mourn, for the healing of the sick, and for peace in the world. The sisters I know are not obsessed with the world’s dramas, but they definitely follow the news, and their prayers encompass the current needs of the world. Most of their services – plus periodic special services – are open to the public, and they welcome visitors.

As I have argued in Paranormal, there are many benefits to prayer. Prayer is a form of thought, and the souls of our loved ones in the afterlife communicate primarily through thought. Through prayer, we connect “our minds to our hearts,” in the words of medium James Van Praagh. Praying for others “directs energy away from the egocentric self and redirects this energy to others.” Positive prayers for both the living and the dead are never wasted.

In addition to prayer, most convents and monasteries also have certain specific ministries in their wider communities. Here is a sampling of what the Sisters of St. Margaret are “up to” or have been doing in the time that I’ve known them:

  • Those who live in the Motherhouse in Duxbury, Massachusetts (a few miles north of Cape Cod), are members of the Duxbury Business Association, among other local groups, and have been lauded for their “green” buildings . The Duxbury sisters (two of whom are ordained priests) are involved in local Episcopal congregations and lead retreats and workshops locally and nationally.
  • The Boston sisters serve urban parishes. One sister ministered in the men’s prison for decades.
  • The sisters in Haiti care for the elderly and provide scholarship aid to children. These sisters were on the front lines following the devastating earthquake in 2010.
  • In New York City, sisters are staff members at Trinity Church, Wall Street, one of the most prominent and active Episcopal parishes in the country. One sister was vitally important in assisting first responders following the 9/11 attacks.

So… What’s in it for a “none” or a “SBNR” in this day and age? Let me count the ways!

  • Hospitality is the name of the game at the Motherhouse. For a modest fee, visitors can stay in one of the beautiful guest houses, eat delicious food, walk the beach, sit outside and read, and browse the library. While guests are welcome to the services and participate in corporate worship, that is not required. All rooms are climate-controlled, and WiFi is available!
  • Small groups can find a quiet, peaceful refuge to gather together to think, explore, plan and push ahead in their work.
  • If you have never done a silent retreat and think it’s impossible, think again! Silent retreats can be the most refreshing few days you have ever experienced. (They’re not usually completely silent anyway: if you participate in the worship services, you will be praying, singing and chanting; and if you make arrangements in advance, a sister may be available for spiritual companionship.)
  • If you are turned off by organized religion but consider yourself a spiritual seeker, visiting the sisters may be a safe, comfortable way to “dip your toe” into religion. The Episcopal Church tends to be non-judgmental, open-minded and progressive theologically, and if you are new to ritual, you can sit in silence during services at the convent, absorb the liturgy, follow along and get a feel for the rhythm until you are comfortable. The Sisters of St. Margaret (and other religious communities as well) are extremely well organized, which people new to the scene might find helpful and even comforting.
  • Think about becoming an Associate. “Associates are people of faith whose sense of vocation draws them to be related to the Sisters of the Society of St. Margaret.” We Associates support the sisters in their work through prayer, participation, and monetary gifts.

In our chaotic, violent, and scary world, a convent or monastery can be thought of as a safe, beautiful, peaceful and highly ethical oasis. People who enjoy relationships with those committed to the religious life are blessed with an anchor in the storm – and that is one of the most important ways that religious communities contribute to life in the 21st century.


Assante, Julia. The Last Frontier: Exploring the Afterlife and Transforming Our Fear of Death. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012.

Miller, Lisa. Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.

Van Praagh, James. Unfinished Business: What the Dead Can Teach Us About Life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2009.