WHEN I WROTE these lines more than 10 years ago for an anniversary of my religious community, my passion was doing charity and justice in a broken world. In fact, it was that passion—the first love of my life—that made me want to be a sister. Some people grow up, find the love of their lives, marry them, have families, and strengthen the larger community. The path that I have followed in celibate love has been different. Yet no less splendid.
THE PATH I have followed in celibate love has allowed me
to pursue my passion of doing charity and justice work–
the first love of my life.
At the time I wrote this poem, I had been a social worker in Newark, New Jersey for many years, working with families whose stories could keep you up at night. Then in the 1980s, in addition to poverty and addiction, these same families confronted a new struggle: HIV and AIDS. What was difficult work in a tough neighborhood turned impossible. Families abandoned infected sons or daughters; their children became orphans. Some of the dying young adults had children the same age they had been when I first met them in the parish school during times that seemed gentler. The government relief programs had strict rules about stopping Meals-on-Wheels to families the same day the infected person died. A mishmash of numbers and letters identified a person’s case record.
The individual and communal suffering was disheartening, but the punitive and inadequate response of institutions brought me to my knees. I felt I had lost the love for my vocation. And I knew I needed to return to that time when I first fell in love and breathe in again the desire and mystery.
The power of community
I was a child of the 1960s, years of great change, promise, and community. As I came of age, I began to see how I could be a part of the social justice movement. I worked in a migrant farm worker health program during my summers in college, rode buses to demonstrations for equal rights and fair housing, and learned the chords to every protest song I heard. I was in love—or perhaps only infatuated—with communal social change. My heart was moved. I knew where I wanted to be, and it was not a geographical location but a state of mind and action. I was swept along with words of scripture, of poetry, of friends who shared these same ideals.
The poet Marge Piercy captured that sense for me in her poem, “To Be of Use":
I found my group in the Sisters of Charity when I entered on the Feast of Saint Jude in October 1972. I had finished college with a degree in sociology and an appointment to meet with the sister responsible for interviewing applicants. Sister Elizabeth Marie knew me in her capacity as dean of studies at the College of St. Elizabeth; more often than not we were on opposites sides of the issues of the day. It was ironic to discuss with her my plan to join her team. I prepared by reading Toward Boundless Charity, the order’s constitution, drawn by its language of hope and challenge. After I expounded a little too long, I am sure, on the wonders of community, Sister Elizabeth asked me if it was a community or a commune I was looking to enter!
I could not articulate, especially in religious terms, why I felt I belonged with this group of women. But the “aha" moment came late in my senior year in college. One of the sisters who knew I worked in a migrant farm worker health program approached me about how I thought the congregation might begin a new ministry in South Jersey. The energy and power of community at that moment seemed a real invitation. Their dreams were my dreams. Joys would be multiplied and sorrows shared. I felt their longing, their search for the face of God in service alongside the poor. I would bring my own search and join with theirs, leaving behind other choices about how my life might unfold.
My decision to enter the “Company of Charity," as Saint Vincent de Paul often referred to the congregation, seemed adventurous. It was the beginning of a brand new relationship. First, fervor. I read the Beatitudes as promises of a lover to the beloved: “Happy are those who hunger and thirst for what is right, they shall be satisfied" (Matthew 5:6). I learned how I could respond when I read the prophet Isaiah (chapter 58) about the true nature of fasting: “If you do away with the yoke, the clenched fist, the wicked word, if you give your bread to the hungry and relief to the oppressed, your light will rise in the darkness and your shadows become like the noon."
Other words soothed me when I began to work in inner-city Newark: “He will give strength to your bones and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never run dry. You will rebuild the ancient ruins; build up the old foundations. You will be called ‘Breach-mender,’ ‘Restorer of ruined houses.’ "
The sacrament of friendship
I couldn’t have known in the novitiate (the training period for new nuns) that my ministry would take me to Newark, to New York City’s Loisaida, or to the South Bronx. I would begin a community-based organization, be director of a housing development association, a state senator’s aide, a bilingual social worker, and a poet. Maybe I would not have wanted to know the future because I did what was called for without knowing what would be involved. If I had known, it would have been harder.
There were times when the ancient words of scripture or poetic images were insufficient. Some days the psalms we read in community prayer seemed dated; the words rang hollow. Even Saint Vincent de Paul’s exhortation to his sisters that rising was our first act of fidelity to God each day was no consolation for days when real-life demands drained my spirit. I had to summon with urgency the promises from Isaiah about the sources of nourishment not drying out.
Relief has always come in the great sacrament I call friendship, the love of the sisters in community, and in times being apart in nature where I can regain perspective, heal, and return again. The stories of the strong women who founded our community are repeated and treasured. A teenage lace-maker from Skibbereen left Ireland and began hos-pitals and a college for women; sisters were suffragettes; a sister-nurse was once told by a doctor that, although they were shorthanded, she could not assist at a delivery because of her vow of chastity. She replied, “Doctor, you do your job and I’ll do mine."
We sisters embrace these stories because we have our own stories to live and leave behind. Among my own treasure is the teasing encouragement I get from my friends for my writing, particularly poetry. A favorite after-dinner tale is when the sisters came to Greenwich Village in New York City for my first poetry reading. What a mix of cultures! Neon hair. Blue suits. And all of us together putting up and taking down chairs. And when I got home there were flowers from the sisters!
A very personal call
There are people who believe our choice to live in community as celibates is foolish. To be a fulfilled, sexual person who generates life, in their minds, means having children and family. A celibate life may be countercultural, but there are other people besides priests, sisters, and brothers who use their life energies for the good of the world without directing that energy to care for a spouse or children. So great is the need in our world. As the poet Adrienne Rich writes, “My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed./I have to cast my lot with those/who age after age, perversely,/with no extraordinary power,/ reconstitute the world."
Today I listened to a radio interview with a nurse who worked with an international aid agency for many years, “specializing" in war zones. When asked if the cost had been great in not having married and had children, she said she had no regrets. In an understated way she said that she was busy about other things and so the time for having children passed her. She was glad for how her efforts worked to relieve suffering, and she continued teaching a new generation of health professionals, not just book knowledge, but the realities of nursing in the world’s hot zones. She could look back and see how many she lives she had saved and how many lives were lost. I understood her. I had chosen to spend my passion following the gospel proclamation: “The spirit of the Lord has been given to me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor . . . to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor" (Luke 4:18).
When I reread the words of our old vow formula to serve those “who for their shame conceal their need," it feels like a very personal call, one that I know now I will spend my whole life pursuing, letting go of other opportunities. I feel refreshed. The burdens of living day to day lift as I remember and share being in this “Company of Charity." Living the gospel is challenging for every Christian no matter the route of their journey.
I leave you with the ending of a prose poem I wrote a few years ago: