My heart swelled with resonance as I listened to the 2017 LCWR Presidential Address and heard Mary Pellegrino name the need to shift our language, attitude and living to create space for the “emerging narrative of communion" of religious life. If you haven’t read her talk, I encourage you to do so. As with all things that are emerging there are glimpses of clarity, moments of deep knowing, and many questions.
One of the questions that has surfaced for me often in the past 12 years of religious life has to do with the tension caused when old narratives bump into my current experience. Every time I run into the narrative of diminishment, the story that religious life is dying, I bristle. Interiorly, I ask why would God call me to this life if it is dying. It doesn’t make sense to me that our God of love and abundance would do such a thing. For many, the narrative of diminishment often evokes lament over the lack of large numbers of sisters entering each year, as was seen for a brief time nearly 70 years ago. For me, the narrative of communion invites different questions focused on life, abundance, and grace. One question I see as essential is:
What are the gifts God is offering us by calling communities back to “smallness?"
This question surfaced again this summer while on a retreat entitled: See! I am Doing Something New: Contemplating Religious Life in the 21st Century hosted at St. Mary by-the-Sea by Michelle Lesher and Julie Fertsch. I found this question resonated with sisters across generations and there was a desire to be in the essential questions, like this one, together.
I certainly don't have a full answer to this question but I can see some glimpses of clarity from my experiences. I am operating out of the belief that God is always at work: nudging, inviting, and beckoning us to the MORE. So God must be up to something by calling a few good women to so many different communities. I offer the following summary of the gifts of “smallness” I have experienced:
Space for something New: Perhaps the long gaps in women entering communities were creating room for God to work on something new. “This is how we’ve always done it” can’t work with such gaps. We are forced to rethink and reinvent for a new time.
Sisterhood across congregations: My whole experience of religious life has been intertwined with sisters from many different communities starting with inter-community candidate and novitiate programs. Today I am connected to my peer-age sisters through Giving Voice. When we gather there is a connection that allows for deep prayer, sharing, and dreaming. We have shared experiences that unite us in our joy and laughter and through the struggle and tears.
Unity in diversity: One of the blessings I have experienced through Giving Voice is a deep knowing that in our diversity of language, culture, dress, personality, theology, etc. there is unity in our Gospel-mission and sisterhood. It’s beautiful to see each person with the freedom to be her true self. In this space, our gifts complement one another. My weakness calls forth the gifts of my sisters and visa versa. We are better together. Something new can emerge that neither of us could do alone.
Vulnerability: “Perhaps the deep call for religious life is not to be powerful and strong but to be as vulnerable as the people we serve.” This profound bit of wisdom is from Sr. Carmen Sammut, MSOLA during one of the deepening group sessions at the LCWR Assembly. Smallness calls us to be to a little less secure and certain and a lot more vulnerable.
Connections and collaborations outside of religious life: It feels like a new crisis emerges every day. People are suffering in so many ways in so many places around the globe. The world needs a whole lot of love and creative solutions to the problems we face. Connecting people and ideas across disciplines, occupations, businesses, non-profit organizations, religions, schools of thought and more has a good chance of leading to the innovations needed to address the issues our world faces. Sisters could play a role as global connectors (even more than we already are).
All of these graces are a call to greater communion. What a wonderful guide we have in the Trinity as Constance Fitzgerald pointed out her in acceptance of the 2017 LCWR Outstanding Leadership Award. She urged LCWR leaders and members to turn their prayer and study to the wisdom of communion and relationality that the Trinity can offer us at this time in history. She implores us, “We have got to open ourselves to the challenge of living through Jesus Christ into the vibrant life of Trinitarian communion and allow this radiant pattern, this orientation toward relationship, to permeate and transform our consciousness.”
Attending to the narrative of communion will require us to ponder and pray our way through many uncertainties and questions. I invite you to name other essential questions for this present moment in religious life so that we many ponder and pray them in communion with one another.
Sister Jessi Beck is a member of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Dubuque, IA). She currently resides in Chicago where she serves as the Vocations Director for her community and technology teacher at Our Lady of Tepeyac Grade School.