The term “unfinished symphony” comes from a quote by Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner:
“We are always playing the incomplete symphony of the glory of God and it is always only a dress rehearsal. But all the hardship, the always incomplete reform is not in vain, not senseless. It is simply the task of servants who sow in tears, so that God may harvest.”
Despite all our efforts in our respective ministries, we often feel a sense of incompleteness, a concern that we might have done more. This concern becomes more pressing as our congregations age and our numbers diminish. Some wonder about the legacy they have or have not left to the people of God. So, in many ways, the lives of consecrated religious are indeed unfinished symphonies. It remains for us at this moment in history to find ways to BE HOPE not only for each other but also to a world that is truly in need of hope in their search for meaning. Vatican II designated the church as “the pilgrim people of God” and one consequence of being pilgrims is that our holiness is always incomplete.
Many of us have had the pleasure of visiting St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome where we viewed one of Michaelangelo’s greatest works, the Pieta. But what many people may not know is that later in life, he created two other “unfinished” pietas. Like these works, religious congregations could also be considered “unfinished.” It would seem that God, the Divine Sculptor, is fashioning a new form of religious life in this new millennium but that form is still hidden in the marble. This is where we come in…as the ongoing incarnations of God in the world. Michaelangelo was able to transform marble into what appeared to be human flesh. Scripture tells us that God transforms stony hearts into hearts of flesh. We are recipients of this transformation and we are called to participate in the transformation of others. We are invited to assist the Divine Sculptor…to open the eyes of others to the presence of God in their innermo st being. Michaelangelo believed that the sculptor was an instrument of God, not creating, but rather revealing the powerful figures already inherent in the stone. When asked what he saw as he approached a huge block of marble, he said: “I see a beautiful form trapped inside and my responsibility is to set the form free.” Inside each of us and those we serve is a beautiful form as well. St. Paul writes of a hidden figure in each believer, longing to be set free. That figure is Christ in us. And it is this figure who can enable us to “BE HOPE.”
Theology tells us that from the creative moment on, God is present in the very core of our being and, at some point in our lives, we are meant to become aware of this truth. We are the only created reality that can actually come to know and believe that God dwells in us. We can have a conscious awareness of the treasure we hold within. But coming to this awareness is a process.
It would be fair to assume that many of us fall into the category of “cradle Catholics.” We were born into Catholic families, baptized soon after birth, and raised Catholic. So, we have been told about God dwelling in us from an early age. We have heard the mysteries of our faith again and again. Because of this, there is the temptation to be lulled into a kind of complacency about these mysteries and the scripture readings that announce them. We can take them for granted and fail to engage in the kind of profound reflection they warrant. In fairness, this complacency is a bit understandable due to our familiarity with the Christian story. But we forget that for the earliest followers of Jesus, being surprised and overwhelmed by God was a way of life for them. We have the luxury of 2000 years of hindsight. We know the story. We know that the cross was not the end, but the beginning. This was not the case for Jesus’ disciples.
Think about Mary Magdalene. She went to the tomb and was surprised by the Risen Christ. She did not recognize Jesus at first. Was it because he did not fit into her expectations? Mary had to let go of knowing and loving Jesus in one way in order to know and love him in another. Perhaps we too need to discover a new way of recognizing divinity. Maybe we need to adjust our assumptions about finding Christ in our midst, assumptions about discerning the presence of Sacred activity in the current status of religious life. After the crucifixion, the first disciples were lost and devastated. This was not what they had anticipated. They were crushed and they were convinced that the power and presence of Yahweh could not possibly exist in the tragedy they witnessed in Jesus’ death. In one of the Gospel accounts, when Mary Magdalen and Mary, mother of James, discovered the empty tomb, they were actually standing at the threshold of a magnificent new age…but they did not comprehend this at first. They went to that tomb, no doubt feeling hopeless. They were going to something dead, something from the past. But then the unimaginable happened. Instead of a dead body they were greeted by the angel with unbelievable news. In a fraction of a second their whole world had changed. Leaving the tomb, they moved out into a completely new reality.
And this transition would not be an easy one. They had no blueprint to follow. Their place of worship was a temple, not a church. Their stunning experience is meant to be OUR experience as well. Perhaps it might entail leaving behind previous perceptions and maybe even misperceptions about religious life in order to find the Risen Christ in the midst of a new reality. Many of us are familiar with the song Let This Be the Time, by Lori True, where we find the words:
Let us tear down the old ways and build up the new.
Be the God of our promise, all hope rests in you.
Let nothing distract us from you…let this be the time.
Joan Chittister has written: “God is waiting for us to find divinity where we never thought it would be.” As stated above, the disciples of Jesus were convinced that the power and presence of Yahweh could not possibly exist in the horrific tragedy they had witnessed at the crucifixion. Are there places in our own lives where we are sure we cannot possibly find God? In the many changes in religious life? In the empty pews at church on Sunday? In the disturbing uncertainty regarding the future? Whatever those places are, is it not possible that like Mary Magdalen and the other Mary, we too are standing at the threshold of a magnificent new age? If we are to BE HOPE in our world today, we must allow God’s creativity to permeate our lives. The call to tear down the old ways is not an insult to a previous model of religious life. Rather, it is a call to be faithful to the essence of the Gospel. Sandra Schneiders has told us that “ministerial innovation is not a mark of instability or infidelity to the charism of our founder. Such innovation belongs to the nature of the vocation as prophetic rather than institutional.”
Pope Francis speaks frequently about the need for reform and renewal. Recently, when addressing the Curia, he shared a quote from a 19th century composer, Gustav Mahler:
“Tradition is not the worship of ashes…it is the preservation of the fire.”
To preserve our fire, our charism, for a new millennium, we must remain open to the Risen Christ in our midst, to the manifestation of Divinity in our time. Like the disciples of Jesus, we too are struggling to see God working in our lives, especially when God does not act as we might expect…or hope. Maybe we are struggling because we are looking to the past, to the way things were, to a time when things were simpler. Maybe we miss the mindset of certitude about our faith and our vocations…when we were so sure we knew the mind of God. The Risen Christ is with us now in the very real and very challenging 21st century. There is no turning back. Pope Francis has said: “We need to devote the necessary effort to bring about a missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are.” (Italics mine) It can be daunting to believe in new life when we are so often surrounded by signs of death in the world around us. But we need to be witnesses to the resurrection, to the Divine promise to make all things new. We need to allow the Holy Spirit to help us to discover new and creative ways to be women of HOPE. We need not fear creativity. We need to receive the fire which Jesus kindled in the world along with the fire our Founder gave us and bring that fire to others. Our world needs hope…our world is hungry for meaning in their lives.
“Tradition is not the worship of ashes…it is the preservation of the fire.”
We remember the powerful words of Sr. Teresa Maya:
“The witness we give and the fire we bring to the world today will be genuine only if we step forward into life AS WE ARE not AS WE WERE. This requires a deep faith and an abiding hope in the promise God gave us.”
A promise seen in so many biblical quotes:
“I will not violate my covenant; the promise of my lips I will not alter.” Ps. 89
“Even to your old age and your gray hairs, I am your God. I have made you. I will carry you. I will sustain you.” Isaiah 46:4
“For you will surely have a future and your hope will not be cut off.” Proverbs 23:18
“Do not be anxious about anything.” Philippians 4:6-7
“You will call on me and I will listen to you.” Jeremiah 29:12
“Perhaps this is the moment for which you were created.” Esther 4:14
“These words are trustworthy and true.” Revelation 22:1
We know that, as a result of Vatican II’s Document on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, we no longer read the bible literally but these words must mean something!
“The psyche cannot live with everything changing every day, everything a matter of opinion, everything relative. There has to be a solid ground. There has to be a foundational hope, and for hope to be a shared experience there must be agreed-upon meanings and shared stories that excite and inspire us all.” [Emphasis mine.] (Richard Rohr)
The fact that our God is revealed as a God of Promise is central to biblical hope. We have been given something on which to base our hope. In this regard, author Max Lucado has asked: “The question is not: Will God keep God’s promises? Rather, will we build our lives upon them?
Religious congregations can truly be perceived as unfinished symphonies…perhaps because God is still writing our story and “we are allowing our hopes, not our hurts, to shape our future.” (R. Schuller) In Pope Francis’ exhortation on The Joy of the Gospel, he speaks of new avenues and paths of creativity opening up. He assures us that “God continues to be revealed and discovered.” The Incarnation did not happen once and for all 2000 years ago. No, divinity entering humanity continues. Laura Leming has written an article comparing Mary and 21st century religious…claiming that Mary was invited to allow God to take root in her flesh, enabling the Christ to come into our world. Her “yes” permitted God to be present in a new way. Christ still needs doorways into our world. Today, religious congregations are being called to new ways of being present to the world, to say “yes” to giving Christ flesh in our own day and time. Each and every change requires a new incarnation of the divine in our midst. Religious life will die ONLY if it becomes uncreative, tied to the past, unable to bring forth new responses in the present and, most importantly, if it fails to remember the God of Promise…the God who told us: “I will not violate my covenant; the promise of my lips I will not alter.” (Gregory Baum; Psalm 89)
We no longer read scripture literally but…these words must mean something!
It is important to note that this focus on the future does not erase or diminish our past. That past made us who we are at this very moment. Pope Francis has told us that “we are heirs to those who have gone before us and had the courage to dream.” And from Teresa Maya:
“In order to believe in the future we must call each other to sacred memory and dialogue with our cloud of witnesses…the great saints of our congregations who have gone before us. We need to tell and retell the stories that made us who we are: our pioneer stories, our founding stories, our stories of renewal and conflict. It is in those stories that we will find the seeds of hope for today.”
Earlier I included a quote from the Book of Esther. I am reminded of a reflection written by Catherine Hannigan, PBVM on this quote. Esther’s people were about to be victims of genocide and Esther is persuaded by her uncle to make a courageous move to save them, telling her: “Remember who you are. Perhaps it was for this very moment that you were created.” (4:14) Her uncle’s words could be spoken to all of us today. Remember who you are. Perhaps it was for this very moment that you were created. Remember too that we are not alone on this journey. We are accompanied by the God of Promise who has assured us:
I am your God.
I have made you.
I will carry you.
I will sustain you. Isaiah 46:4
Richard Rohr writes: “A new reality is emerging today but we cannot yet see beyond the threshold.” But we hope…and scripture gives us every reason to hope. We have God’s promise. Other women will take our place in the church. But this is OUR moment in the unfinished symphony. And our story will be told to those who follow us. How do we want to be remembered?
There is a Scottish proverb that I love: “Were it not for hope, the heart would break.” Our hearts are well cared for because we are Christians, a resurrection people and the story of our faith leads from a brutal crucifixion to a previously unimaginable new life. Can we believe that this story continues in our midst? (Tracy Kemme, GSR) Scripture tell us that it can.
One final thought…
“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness…a time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.” (Wangari Maathai)
“Tradition is not the worship of ashes…it is the preservation of the fire.”
At 3 pm on July 20, 1995 the Dominican Sisters of Hope were founded. On July 20, 2019, we began our 25th year since our founding. We declare a YEAR OF HOPE! In celebration, we will share a reflection on the 20th of every month. This is the fifteenth reflection in this series. Read all reflections here.
This reflection was written by
Dominican Sister of Hope Maureen Sullivan, OP
Maureen Sullivan, O.P. is a Dominican Sister of Hope from New York. She received her M.A. in Religious Studies from Manhattan College in the Bronx and her Ph.D. in Theology, also in the Bronx. She is Professor Emerita of Theology at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. Prior to her ministry at St. Anselm College, she served for two years as Academic Dean for Freshmen at Fordham College, followed by two years as the Associate Dean of the College. Sr. Maureen is a member of the Board of Trustees at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY. After taking early retirement from St. Anselm College in 2015, Sr. Maureen continues to be engaged in theology by giving talks on a number of theological topics at various conferences to Catholic school teachers, catechists, diocesan leaders, and Religious Congregations. The study of the Church is at the center of her theological research, with a special focus on the Second Vatican Council. Sr. Maureen has written two books on the Council: 101 Questions and Answers on Vatican II, 2002, and The Road to Vatican II: Key Changes in Theology, 2007, both published by Paulist Press.
Thank you, Maureen. There is much to reflect on here and much to challenge us.
I know this was written for vowed religious, but I found exquisite, beautiful hop here.
I have shared it with my fellow Protestant ministers and my Kay friends.
Thank you, Maureen!
Beautiful, Maureen. Thank you. I especially love the image of the Unfinished
Symphony. You have given us such a treasure here to ponder.