Community life: How the many became one

By Sr. Ileana Fernandez, C.S.J. Sharing and openness with the other sisters is built up little by little. In community we are not necessarily living with our best friends, so it takes time and a sense of growing in trust to share faith this deeply.

"There two or three are gathered in my name I am there in their midst." This familiar line from the gospels is at the heart of my experience of community life. When I entered my congregation, I wasn’t sure what community life would be like, but I had a gut feeling that I could live this way. I observed how the sisters related to each other, and I was struck by their sincere hospitality and the love they showed others and one another.

They expressed a humanity that when lived fully is nothing less than a reflection of the holiness of God. They respected one another’s prayer time in the morning and creatively prepared the common daily prayer and Eucharist. I was fortunate to live in the same house with Sister Helen Prejean, the death penalty opponent and prison minister whose book Dead Man Walking was made into a feature film.

Sister Helen was the novice director when I entered the community and became a novice myself. In those days she was not publicly known as she is today, but she was the same funny, loving, and dedicated religious she continues to be. There was and is a great sense of celebration in the community—celebration of small and great events. In many ways I feel we know how to celebrate life with all its delights and sorrows too.

My parents, who lived out of state, came for a visit shortly after I entered. The community insisted that they stay in one of the guest rooms in the community house. I had never seen them so in love with a group of sisters. That visit changed their mind about religious life and their attitude toward my being a sister. Sister Helen’s mother gave an Epiphany party for our community, and my parents couldn’t get over how much fun we had. There was conversation and storytelling, food and singing—a celebration in every sense of the word. Before that weekend, my parents felt that by entering religious life I was leaving the family and would be isolated and withdrawn from human relationships. Now they realized that they had gained many more daughters and a new family.

Learning to live with others
Many of us have experienced living with others within our families and later on in a dorm or apartment while in college. All those experiences are foundational to living in community. We carry with us these experiences, the good ones as well as the difficult ones.

Through them all, we hope to grow to know ourselves better and appreciate the value of being alone as well as with others. Mature self-love—that growing awareness of who I am becoming—adds strength, clarity, and confidence, all of which are the grounding for my love and care for others in community and ministry. In community we are challenged to change, reform, be converted, and thus respond to God’s constant love for us.

I have seen women with low self-esteem come into community and go about doing for others but not really loving themselves. After they have experienced mutual respect and love in community, a mirror of God’s unconditional love, they have become much more accepting of themselves and more compassionate ministers. In community life we come together because of a common desire to be the presence of Jesus in the world today. At the heart of the communal life of the first Sisters of St. Joseph in mid 17th-century France was the open and humble sharing of the “sentiments received from God in prayer,” which we also call sharing the “state of the heart.”

Each sister’s experience of God and her response to that experience helped to guide our early community to respond to the growing needs of their day. Our first six sisters were truly contemplatives in action—tending to the movement of God in prayer and in the world. Sharing the state of the heart with one another remains at the center of our community life. In community we are not necessarily living with our best friends, so it takes time and trust to share faith this deeply.

As we grow in our relationship with God and with one another, sharing the state of the heart becomes a gift that sustains our lives. Our communal life is built on the foundation of what God is asking of each of us. Then, together we share what God is asking in the life of the entire community. This sharing then sustains our service to others.

Expanded presence 
We believe God’s love has no boundaries and each of us shares our talents in different ways. As often as possible, we come together in the evening for a meal, prayer, and sharing the state of our heart. These experiences expand our own vision and presence. I am present through my sisters teaching in the classroom, comforting the prisoner on death row, counseling the unwed mother, serving food in the soup kitchen, accompanying a troubled young woman on her spiritual journey. I am just one person, but with my sisters we are many hands in loving service building a better world. The way we experience God changes, depending on what is happening in our lives. Besides knowing God’s love, we also experience God’s mercy, God’s healing power, and God’s providential love.

In difficult times together we depend on God to strengthen and protect us. All these moments point to the fact that community life is also our mission. Sociologists tell us that life is easier when lived in community; people who are isolated tend to live harsher, shorter lives. I have to agree with that. Somehow God gives different gifts to different individuals, so when we come together in community, the gifts are freely shared, respected, and appreciated. It takes maturity to see the benefits of community. Not all is hunky dory all the time. We have to work through relationships and with different personalities. In the end, it is only in faith and great love—knowing that it is God that we seek together—that difficulties and challenges are overcome.

Do I recommend religious life and life in community? Yes, I do, even though I know that not every person is called to it or has the gift to live community life. It is a grace. God’s grace empowers us to live this life fully and bring God’s love to the world. It is a grace we discover in the daily challenges, joy, and constant desire to be fully who God has created us to be, alone and together.
Sr. Ileana Fernandez, C.S.J. currently serves as the Sister Chaplain at St. Joesph's Academy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.




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