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City of Faith: Part Two

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THE SINGERS

There is a spiritual community in Philadelphia that is not affiliated with any parish or mosque, but springs from reverence for nature and centers around healing.

The ministers, musicians, healers and philosophers in this group attract people to their growing gatherings, perhaps because their services feature guest speakers from different faith traditions, and lots of pleasant music. It could also be because of the so-called "changes" they say are impending - a mass spiritual awakening.

Not that they dwell on impending doom. In fact, they say they are here to guide us beyond the present darkness. Reverend Rhetta Morgan, the founder of the monthly spiritual gathering  called Ecclesia, is part of this community. Her gathering celebrated its one-year anniversary on a chilly Friday evening in February.

"There's trauma, fear, anxiety, despair," she says. "We're born into this. And what happens is, we get amnesia. We get anesthetized."

Her service begins and ends with song, with plenty in the middle. She sings an invocation a cappella, her powerful voice ringing through the community room at the East Falls Memorial Church of the Good Shepherd, where she rents the space. She's backed up by a choir, guitarist and keyboardist on a call and response that has the semicircular congregation, sitting on their fold-out chairs, swaying, clapping, and stamping their feet. She leads a drum circle and people get up and start dancing.

Her flock on this night runs the gamut of diversity in Philly. There are children and senior citizens, buttoned-up types and earthy, feathers-in-their-hair types. The people are black, white, Indian, Asian, and shades in between. Towards the end of the service, she invites people to take the microphone and share their thoughts, Quaker-style.

"The beauty of a community like this, if you've grown up around a church, synagogue or mosque, holy places, people get together and remember," Morgan says. "The community can create these portals where we can come out of that field of anxiety and wake up and remember together. Remember how awesome we are, and that awesomeness is love."

Morgan's Ecclesia is a weft in the fabric of non-denomination, Earth-centered spirituality in the city. There are others, open to the public such as the Common Ground Fellowship, or internal, such as mystical drum circles and healing circles. The members of this community share their expertise with each other.

Eileen Santos, a healer, guides the group in a meditation on relationship.

Ecclesia use This.jpg"Relationships are mirrors," she says, quoting the Indian writer and spiritualist Jiddu Krishnamurti. "They cause us to see in ourselves what we actually are, what we need to heal and deepen spiritually. (Krishnamurti) says, some knowledge comes into being when we are aware of ourselves in relationship. It shows what we are from moment to moment."

"If one can just look into this mirror with full attention, and see what is, be aware without condemnation, without judgment, without evaluation, and one does this with earnest interest, then one will find that the mind is capable of freeing itself from all conditioning. It is only then the mind is able to discover what lies beyond the field of thought," she says.

Ecclesia takes a sharp turn from other religions in embracing the many spiritual paths available to the Information Age. "There's no one way to do it, according to this philosophy. There are many ways, and seekers can choose what resonates most with them. There is such a variety of beliefs and stages within the paths we are on," Morgan says.

The unifying principle is love.

"If you consider love vast, dynamic, majestic, mythic, grand, powerful, if we are looking at love from those eyes, then what on earth couldn't we do?" she says. "You know, we sit and watch TV, and, oh Lord, what's going on in the world? The world is waiting for us." She echoes the idea of mass consciousness-raising this year.

"The world is waiting for people who are not afraid to wake up! We are love, we were present in the first moment of physical reality. What can't we do? Look up at the sky and see that majesty and love, you are a part of it. What can't we do? There is nothing we can't do. Nothing! We just have to remember who we are and whose we are."

Today, one can pull up information on any religion and study its symbols, and upon scrutiny, they appear the same: the same shapes, the same animals, the same means and methods keep popping up: rosaries, geometry, myths and allegories, and prophecies. Another tradition the spiritualists revere, the Native American traditions, foretold an era of rainbow spirituality. Communities like Ecclesia try to fulfill that prediction by presenting philosophies of every path to those who come to its gatherings.

As far as spiritual awakenings come, Ecclesia is light fare, centering on opening hearts to love and getting people to make eye contact without discomfort again. Profound mystical experiences take more time and effort than Morgan's two-hour gathering offers. But it's a start.

 

THE SISTERS

They lead simple lives, built around community, prayer and daily Mass, tending to people of all faiths in their neighborhood and within the Catholic community in the city.

This small collection of Roman Catholic nuns, a local outpost of a French order, works quietly and is generally unknown to the world outside.

The eight nuns, whose convent is a home at 47th Street and Springfield Avenue, are members of the Sisters of the Assumption, an order founded in 1839 by Marie Eugenie Milleret, the daughter of a wealthy Parisian family, who decided to devote her life to education and social reform and founded the order at age 22.

The order has outposts in 35 different countries, but -- as with many religious orders of nuns -- their numbers have depleted in recent years, without being refreshed by new arrivals.  The youngest nun at the West Philadelphia convent is 59, the oldest is 93.

Sister Silvia is one of eight sisters living in the convent, which is across the from the towering Byzantine-style dome of St. Francis de Sales Church. She's petite and Ecuadorian, and like the others, she's aging. She needs help carrying groceries from the church to the convent. She collects food and distributes it to families in need in the neighborhood.

The order has four communities in the United States - Philly and Lansdale, Massachusetts, and New Mexico. At one time, it had thousands of members -- theSister Use This.jpg order once ran the Ravenill Academy in East Falls, the school which Grace Kelly attended -- but it has had to retreat from such large-escale missions. Today, there are 1,300 members of the order worldwide.

Sister Clare Teresa Tjader, the leader of the West Philadelphia convent, served as the order's Mother Superior from 1982 to 1994, at the order's headquarters in Paris. One of her duties in Philadelphia is collaborating with another sister, the French Sister Therese, to write a bilingual biography about the order's foundress St. Marie Eugenie, who was canonized in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI.

 "She didn't have much sympathy with the currents of the post-revolution Church, even though she was pretty much an aristocrat," says Sister Clare.

She wanted the sisters to decide their own course. "She was not sympathetic to the run-of-the- mill clergy, so in that sense, she pretty much stayed out of their way, so to speak. And ran into some conflicts.

The sisters who live in West Philadelphia attest to the global nature of the order. Delaware Valley native Sister Clare has served on three continents, Sister Silvia from Ecuador works with immigrants, Sister Therese, a native of France, works in Philadelphia's French community, and a sister from the Philippines does ministry work.

The sisters range in age from 59 to 93 - a population boding both well and bad. On the one hand, elderly nuns attest to the benefits of spirituality.

"In the religious life you live long, usually," says Sister Clare. "I guess it's a well-balanced life. It's a life where you have prayer and you have loving community and you have activity and reflection, and besides the fact that I think spiritual life is good for everybody."

On the other hand, life in a convent has gone out of style. Catholic writers have taken to calling today's nuns "The Last Generation" because there are so few to follow them. 

"The youngest sister in this house is almost 60," Sister Clare continues. "I think there are fewer young women interested in religious life because there have been so many sociological changes, for one."

In the past half-century, the Catholic Church has emphasized the "universal call to holiness," meaning a person can be holy as a lay person. That, plus the flux of women's roles, have resulted in fewer young women choosing the religious life. As the convent ages, the bridge between them and young generations gets wider.

"I don't think the average person should enter religious life before the age of 25, because I don't think a person under 25 really knows who she is," says Sister Clare. "When I was 25 I didn't know that much about myself, but life was just simpler. Choices seemed to be fewer."

At 22 she entered the convent, "Thinking they wouldn't keep me and would kick me out." But there's a point when people take their path. "I guess when I entered the religious life people did get married at my age and did make life-committing decisions."

Fifty years later, she leads her sisters according to one of the order's precepts: hospitality.

On Tuesdays they host a dinner, followed by a free video course and discussion group, called Alpha. On Wednesdays they host a group of young adults. And the sisters regularly take retreats.

On a warm evening in February, Sister Clare and Sister Therese drove to the University of Pennsylvania, to have dinner with students at the Catholic Newman Center. About 50 join the $3 fare of pasta, salad, and dessert. The sisters greet the students they know, asking them about their lives. Sister Therese asks a woman about her boyfriend, clasping her hands and saying in her thick French accent, "Oh, I wish everyone will have joy. Because my life is so full of joy."

Afterwards Sister Clare addresses about 15 people about prayer. A young man asks her if prayer is necessary. She pauses and thinks, and says, "Yes, I think it is necessary. Prayer is how we form a relationship with God. If we don't pray to him, we have no relationship."

The practice of faith hase changed since Sister Clare took her vows 50 years ago. Once, the question was whether to get married or lead a religious life. Today, the question is, why pray at all?

Sister Clare says that for women in the faith, there's conflict between monasticism and duty. Should nuns live the contemplative life, or should they be active?

"A young man looks at priesthood and knows what its about," she says. "A woman looks at nuns and she doesn't know what it's about."

 

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