New Monasticism: Sister Gemma Simmonds

Interview number five is with Dr Gemma Simmonds, from the Congregation of Jesus. Sister Gemma has a background in teaching, chaplaincy and student support and has experience in spiritual direction and leading retreats in the Jesuit tradition. Her role in the area of Religious Life led her to be a founding trustee with the Community of St Anselm – and I enjoyed immensely listening to her speak on discernment at Lambeth Palace.

Sister Gemma Simmonds, Congregation of Jesus
Interview via email, February 2017

1. Tell us a little about the community you are apart of, the Congregation of Jesus. 
My congregation was founded by an English woman, Mary Ward, in 1609, at a time of considerable persecution of Catholics in England.  She numbered 3 uncles killed in the infamous Gunpowder Plot.  The men in the extended family planned acts of religious terrorism. The women were far more practical & peaceful & were some of the earliest pioneers in the promotion of expanded roles for women in church and society.  Religious life in England had disappeared after the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII.  Mary had to flee abroad to realise her dream of being a religious.  At the time the only option for women was ‘aut maritus, aut murus’ – either a husband or a cloister.  So either way, it was a life of enclosure, whether in the domestic or the monastic spheres.  She made two attempts at being an enclosed Poor Clare nun, but found that God was calling her elsewhere.  Her experience doing apostolic ministry in the Catholic underground in London led her to realise that she & her sisters were being drawn to the Jesuit life: mobile, uncloistered and free for any good work.  It was revolutionary in the church & society of that time & though her congregation flourished & spread rapidly across Europe it was unacceptable to the Catholic authorities.  The order was suppressed in 1631 & Mary Ward imprisoned as a heretic by papal order.  She was released eventually & taken under the Pope’s personal protection but the ban remained.  We survived as a small, clandestine group, but you can’t keep good women down & we continued spreading until today when we number almost 3,000 in every continent of the world. Historically we were mostly involved in teaching but today that stretches from work in spiritual direction, the promotion of women, care of the sick, refugees, AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe, trafficked women in Romania, women’s co-operatives in India, indigenous groups in Latin America – all sorts, really.  We live by the same constitutions and vows as the Jesuits.

2. You lecture at Heythrop College, which areas do you specialize in?
I teach mostly Christian spirituality, including Ignatian spirituality, but also some ecclesiology.  I’m also director of the Religious Life Institute (RLI) and teach theology of religious life.

3. What other research or projects are you currently undertaking?
Two years ago the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation in America financed the RLI to do research on signs of vitality in religious life.  The project was a runaway success so they have given us further funding for two projects.  One is on the sustainability of religious life for women in Africa.  The other, which I am heading up, is on new entrants to religious life in the UK & Ireland since 2000.  I’m concerned that many of our congregations are trying to put together vocations strategies without really knowing who is out there & what they are looking for.  We have so little data & no reflection on experience.  In the UK there has been a 300% increase in new entrants to women’s religious life in the last 5 years, & we don’t know why.  It’s an exciting thing to be exploring.

4. Coming from a traditional monastic community, how have you found being involved in new-monasticism?
Well, I’m not in a monastic community at all, but one of the first completely non-monastic communities for women.  But we see ourselves in the Ignatian tradition as ‘contemplatives in action’.  This means that we have to find the energy & inspiration for lives that are often very pressured by work & activity in the small ‘inner monastery’ that we carry within us.  I came across new monasticism through meeting Ian Mobsby & reading some of his writing, but also through my involvement in the Community of St. Anselm at Lambeth Palace, of which I am one of the founder trustees.  Mary Ward heard that George Abbot, the archbishop of Canterbury of her day, had said that she ‘did more harm than 6 or 7 Jesuits’.  Taking this as a compliment she decided to call on him in Lambeth Palace (she had been sentenced to death for being a Catholic shortly before).  Our annals say that ‘it pleased God that his Grace was not at home’ when she called, so she took off a diamond ring on her finger & etched her signature in one of the windows before leaving!  Sadly the window has not survived, but it amuses me greatly when I walk into the palace for a meeting.  I told Archbishop Justin Welby this story & he immediately checked out my hand for rings…  I see the Community of St. Anselm, with its emphasis on a deep life of prayer, community and transformative work among the poor as having these elements of new monasticism which also resonate with the Ignatian vision of being ‘contemplatives in action’.  I see it as a wonderful pointer towards a future in which traditional monasticism & religious life becomes the springboard for new ways of profound Christian engagement.

5. How would you encourage traditional monastic communities to keep their charisms alive and reach younger people?
First of all, to stop looking for ‘people like us’ and to start connecting with the way that God actually is calling people, & the people being called.  In my own province, we have suddenly started receiving vocations again after a long period of drought.  Partly that is because we are communicating, through social media & other means, with people whom we have not previously considered.  Not all of them are that young, but if God is calling people in their 40s & 50s, who are we to say they shouldn’t come?  My experience is that many people are thirsty for spiritual depth.  It’s not on offer in many of our parishes, alas, so people are turning to the religious.  The same is true for some type of sustaining community in a world that is increasingly fragmented.  In the global north, one of the greatest growth industries at the moment is in Mindfulness & Self-Help programmes.  We’ve been doing this for centuries – we just call it something else.  I think true evangelization begins by entering into the space of the other, not demanding that others enter into our space.  We go into their space, learn to see things from their perspective and offer what we have.  People are often amazed – they don’t know people like us exist, and what’s more, we offer learning in contemplative living for free!

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