Elizabeth (Liza) Anderson is a Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute for the 2021-22 academic year. While in residence, she’s working on two projects, a short book on the overlooked season of Ascensiontide, and a book about the theology of impeded vocations. She’s finishing her seventh advanced degree, an MBA in Leadership and Change from the College of Saint Scholastica, where she was on faculty in the department of theology and religious studies from 2019-2021. She also has a PhD and MPhil from Yale in theology and medieval studies, an MDiv from Harvard, and an MPhil from Trinity College Dublin in ecumenical studies. She currently serves as the President of the North American Academy of Ecumenists and is a member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church. Susan Sink sat down with her in late fall to discuss her research and life at the Institute.
Tell me about the project you’re working on as a Resident Scholar.
So far, I’ve mostly been working on an ongoing project tied up with my own vocation.
My first and strongest sense of call is to religious life within the Anglican tradition. I’ve actually spent long periods of time living with two communities, but one of them no longer exists and the other has left the Episcopal Church. There are still about ten remaining Episcopal orders for women, but most of those have only a handful of members and haven’t had anyone enter in many years.
I also feel called to an apostolic or mixed life, and most Anglican orders now are largely contemplative, even though many were originally teaching or nursing orders. There isn’t really support for the idea of sisters working outside of the monastery. Now that women in the Episcopal Church are able to be ordained as bishops, priests, and deacons, the religious life has often been re-imagined as a purely contemplative vocation, and women who feel called to active ministry in the church tend to pursue ordination instead. Religious life is often looked down upon within the wider church as “second best,” because people associate it with a time when it was the only possibility open to women.
What kind of work are you looking to do within a religious order?
I’m not actually that attached to any one particular possibility. I really love teaching, but that was something I stumbled upon by accident when I began teaching as part of my doctoral program. I also have a longstanding commitment to ecumenical work and to research in Eastern Christianity. But I have pretty wide-ranging interests, so I’m open to the idea of doing any number of different things.
What happens when you are very clear about your vocation but are stopped by something?
Have you always felt this calling to religious life?
No, because I have not always been a Christian. I converted while studying abroad in Cairo, Egypt, my junior year in college. I went there as a comparative religion student to study Islam and fell in love with Coptic Christianity! I had always been very interested in religion, though. Even before college, I received a full scholarship to go to boarding school in New Mexico. The school is the United World College (UWC) and consciously brings together students from all over the world to live and learn together. With 200 students from 95 countries, it was an immersive international experience. I was not a Christian then, but did study different religious traditions. I was actually voted “most likely to found her own religion” by my classmates!
My own sense of call to monastic life really only developed when I first started living with a community of sisters. I originally went to them as a summer intern, helping to take oral histories of the senior sisters in the infirmary wing, but I kind of imprinted on them like a baby animal, and to my own shock I realized that I actually loved monastic life and wanted to stay!
Did you have an actual conversion experience in Cairo?
Yes, because of my encounter with the Coptic Orthodox Church. I have always loved going to churches, all kinds of churches. Not speaking Arabic or Coptic at the time opened me up to worship in a non-cognitive way. I could experience the liturgy and embodied rituals, like taking off my shoes before worship, lighting candles, kissing icons, and other embodied rituals that didn’t depend on speaking the language or having an intellectual foundation of the tradition to understand. Then I had to work out intellectually what happened later.
Because my conversion experience happened in the Coptic Orthodox church, I asked for baptism in that tradition. The bishop called up the Anglican bishop and said, “We’ve received this gift from God, but we think it is better suited to your tradition.” And so, I was “regifted” to the Anglicans! The largest congregation of Anglicans in Cairo was the cathedral, which had multiple different language congregations, including a sizable community of Sudanese refugees. Being me, I went to all of them.
Then when I got back to college, I changed my major to Christian history and theology to work out my own theological issues! In fact, that is how my academic career has unfolded.
How is all this playing out in your writing at the Collegeville Institute?
I’m working a lot on a book project on the theology of impeded vocations. Almost all books available on Christian vocation are about discerning what you want to do or what God might be calling you to do. It’s almost assumed that if you just figure out an answer to the discernment question, then the opportunities will be available.
But what about when vocations are impeded, when you are very clear about your vocation but are stopped by something? How do you make sense of that theologically? How do you live your life? When do you resist and fight to achieve your vocation and when do you give in or adjust?
I have been impeded in my monastic calling. But the book also grows out of teaching in seminaries where I saw students turned down for ordination every year, many of whom left Christianity completely, and not just out of an immature impulse. When your experience of a call is the most vivid spiritual experience in your life and when you’re told that it is not real, it calls everything into question. They legitimately believed God was calling them to something, , and whether they were right or wrong about that, they weren’t able to make theological sense of it when that sense of call wasn’t affirmed.
When your experience of a call is the most vivid spiritual experience in your life and when you’re told that it is not real, it calls everything into question.
In academia many people who felt deeply called to be theology professors, who were mentored and got doctorates and are talented, find there are no jobs available for them. I have seen this all around me. I felt like I of all people ought to have something to say to them because I have lived this.
But in writing, I found I had to rewrite part of the book because it was overemphasizing the external dimension of call over internal. You can be miserable going through the door that was opened. That you were hired does not have to mean you were called and don’t have a say in it.
In general, though, I think the primary mistake we make in understanding vocation in Western culture is to overemphasize the internal dimension of call. We can fall into the trap of thinking that we are infinite, that we can be or do or have anything that we want. But all of us have lives that are marked by limitations of various kinds, which can impinge on that sense of call.
We can fall into the trap of thinking that we can be or do or have anything that we want.
Most people find their vocation in what they are already doing. Most people, and pretty much all premodern people, had little choice in vocation, and that does not mean that they shouldn’t be where they are. Many people entered monasteries because they were members of large families, and that role was assigned to them. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have been there. Many vocations are assigned through cultural or family expectations, and many people make wonderful lives of those kinds of vocations. But in this culture, we tend to make a drama out of personal calling and choice.
Part of my own sense of call to teaching is something I discovered in the doing of it and didn’t know about myself beforehand. Monastic life was my end goal, but I found out I loved talking in front of a class of students about ideas and things I am passionate about, and I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t had to just try it. But if you try something and you’re miserable, you should listen to that.
Are you still working on Ascensiontide?
Yes, I have a short book in progress about the season of Ascensiontide. Ascensiontide is the ten days between the Ascension, forty days after Easter, and Pentecost on the fiftieth day. Since reforms of the liturgical calendar in the mid-twentieth century, it was dropped as a liturgical season in its own right.
During those ten days, Christ was absent from the apostles and the Holy Spirit hadn’t been sent yet. It was meant to be a time of waiting and longing for God. Now we go from feast to feast, Ascension one Sunday and Pentecost the next. We miss a rich experience of expectant waiting and wondering what that next thing is going to be. In some ways it takes the power out of the feast of Pentecost, which is more often just the end of Easter, not a revelation of God in the world after a period of feeling abandoned, something familiar to a lot of us in the Christian life today and normal in the Christian life.
To hear more about Liza Anderson’s ideas on Ascensiontide, click here.
Have you had any surprising or helpful conversations at the Collegeville Institute so far, in terms of your work or vocational journey?
In addition to the other Resident Scholars, it has been really wonderful to get to know many of the monks of Saint John’s Abbey. Although I have spent years of my life hanging out with nuns, I had never spent much time among male monastics. In some ways, it makes conversations about vocation easier, because they understand my experiences of monastic life, but since I will never be eligible to become a monk of Saint John’s Abbey, talking about vocation feels much less fraught than it sometimes can with women’s communities, where it can often feel like a mix between a blind date and a job interview! Fr. Columba Stewart, OSB; Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB; and Fr. Rene McGraw, OSB; have all been really important mentors for me this year, but it often feels like I have about twenty older brothers who do things like take me for walks in the woods, teach me how to knit, and help shovel my snow, which has all been really wonderful.