“The Lord as Their Portion: The Story of the Religious Orders and How They Shaped Our World” by Elizabeth Rapley. Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2011). 349 pp., $24.
In “The Lord as Their Portion,” Elizabeth Rapley offers insights into the story of religious orders against the background of the Catholic Church’s history. Beginning with the desert ascetics of the fourth century, the author describes 17 centuries of monastic and convent life, ending with the missionaries of the 19th century.
Rapley’s purpose is to inform modern people with either a vague memory of, or no knowledge at all about, vowed religious. Religious orders have diminished greatly in numbers and in visibility, but have significantly influenced our present world. Religious were the thinkers, writers, evangelists, explorers, teachers, hospital staff and welfare workers (even soldiers at times) that built the Christian world.
Although religious life has always been a personal call from the Spirit, inviting individuals to deeper life in God, groups of like-minded seekers have traditionally gathered to live their life together. But there has always been an element of ambiguity concerning their relationship to church authorities and official structures.
The book reveals a pattern of initial idealism begun by an inspirational leader who emphasized freedom of spirit over structure or law. Ecclesiastical powers who did not share the inspiration or vision of the founder, whose original intention was that the group be neither cloistered nor clerical, then reacted. In almost all cases, the group was ultimately required by church authorities to submit to following one of the rules of religious life similar to the Benedictine, the Augustinian or the Franciscan way. Rapley gives detailed examples of this process in the experiences of Francis of Assisi, Francis de Sales, the Ursulines and the Daughters of Charity.
The author shows how, at the time of Constantine when the Roman Empire embraced Christianity, the lines of authority became blurred. Kings gained control over religious orders, many governments sending members as missionaries with mixed messages of religious conversion and European adaptation. By the 16th century one-sixth of the property of Europe was in ecclesiastical hands, much of it monastery land. Kings appointed both bishops and abbots and therefore controlled both the monks and nuns and their property.
Rapley describes how the early preaching friars became a threat to the bishops through succeeding with the people above the diocesan clergy: “For far too long, parish priests had been appointed with little regard to training or moral worthiness and they had fulfilled those low expectations to perfection.” The growth, influence and power of religious orders later often threatened governments who then suppressed and dispersed the groups.
Major disputes took place when nuns began to seek active service in the world outside the cloister. In Italy and France both religious men and women were only tolerated if they were useful to society in practical ways. In the 18th and 19th centuries, religious orders were banned entirely, sometimes suffering violence from the government. In addition to external conflicts, internal disputes in individual congregations and between orders developed.
The author provides insights into the great influx of religious orders at certain periods, and also accounts for the diminishing numbers of both men and women religious today. For instance: The convent was a safe haven for surplus daughters of wealthy families at one time, as well as an opportunity for a professional life. Numerous younger sons, who did not inherit titles or property, could find status and stability in monastic or clerical life. Rapley also explores the influence of the ideals, theology, trends, beliefs and practices of the time as factors.
The book is well written, carefully researched, detailed and readable. It offers an absorbing history of the church as well as of the religious orders of the time.
Reviewed by Sister Mona Castelazo, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, has taught English for many years in Los Angeles. She is the author of “Under the Skyflower Tree: Reflections of a Nun-Entity,” published by iUniverse in 2005.