A searing presence

By Sister Jane Hibbard, S.N.J.M., as told to Brian Doyle Religious sisters, at their best, were never meant simply to be a labor force in the church but spiritually grounded women who respond vigorously to the needs of our time.

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JANE HIBBARD IS ONE OF A TRIO OF SISTERS leading the Oregon Province of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, and she is also the tireless nerve center for the Mary’s Woods project, a retirement and health care community built in and around the sisters’ provincial house near Maryhurst University that houses not only hundreds of senior citizens but also many of the older sisters. Before taking on these tasks, she was the principal of Holy Redeemer Area Grade School in Portland’s multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-cultural north district, a school so renowned and popular that students came to it from two states, educators visited by the busload, and the school established its first endowment.

After 16 years Hibbard took a sabbatical for a year—“reading ferociously and traveling everywhere and sitting quietly and listening to God.” As her sabbatical ended, she struggled to discern what God wanted from her this time, and she “was invited to discern a call to community leadership,” as she says. In other words, she and two of her fellow sisters were asked to be the province’s leadership team, at a time when supporting the province’s increasingly elderly population was paramount. She also continued to devote herself to a personal project of life-and-death importance: accepting her alcoholism.

What follows are her reflections on her call as a religious sister and Christian and on her sense of self.

DO ME A FAVOR. Close your eyes. Think about a nun who influenced your life. A teacher, maybe. A friend of your folks. Maybe she worked in your parish. Maybe she’s still living, maybe she’s been called home by God. Now think: She’s someone who lived the call to be a sister, who deeply affected who you are today. What was it about this woman that made her matter in your life? Bring her voice to your mind, imagine her speaking, listen to her for a moment. Think about her commitment. Think about the labor of her days. And then think about the commitment of the thousands of sisters who are still in orders.

We are the faithful remnant of what was. We have lived through more than 30 years of great change in the church. We are still here. We’ve said yes to a committed life, yes over and over, against all the tides pulling us away.

But how will sisters continue to grow in our own faithful response to God’s call? How will we be a better community? How will we attract new members? And most of all—central to every day of our lives and to our role and reward in the Body of Christ that is the church—who do we say we are? Who will we be now? Our ministry is changing faster than the speed of light—but unlike many who mourn what they see as loss, I cheer what I see as change, growth, and opportunity. The future is brilliantly bright for nuns. We can do anything. We can and do and will collaborate with all kinds of people in our new guises. Our ministries are expanding as fast as we can think of new ones.

The mysterious call of God
I was a dismal student, growing up in Eugene, Oregon. Highly unacademic, if you want to be polite. I spent more time playing football with my brothers than I did studying. But I was heavily pestered by God. I didn’t agree with him and I kept asking him if he was sure about this whole thing. I was loud, impetuous, and undisciplined—why would God call me to a teaching order of nuns?

But I was blessed with a deep certitude about my call to be a sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. I knew that was the order for me. The Sisters of the Holy Names was the only order I was familiar with and in love with. At that point I was attracted to the women, not the ministry or the charism. They had a long tradition in Eugene and had educated my mother as well.

The order, however, wasn’t quite as sure about the idea as I was. I think I was accepted into the Oregon Province of the sisters because the nuns loved my mother. I remember Sister Dorothy Ann saying, “Jane has a wonderful mother and a big heart,” and, mysteriously, they accepted me.

The mysterious call of God—don’t we all have a similar story? We were first called to God in Baptism, or experienced the grace of conversion, and the Holy Spirit began the great work of transformation in us. We have Catholic hearts and Catholic bones. Sisters and priests and brothers and laypeople are all joined in that common journey—more, perhaps than any of us realize: At some point we received an invitation, quiet or loud, to be Catholic, and we said yes. We had no way of knowing where that initial yes would lead us; we never dreamed we would be part of the chaos and opportunity of a changing church. But we are, and I believe we are all guided by the powerful spirit of God.

I was 18 years old when I started my career as a sister, and my early years were an uphill learning curve, you might say. The order I joined was very disciplined, and that was hard for me, though formative. We rose at 5 and were in bed at 9 and there were only two hours during the day when we were not silent—an hour after lunch and an hour after dinner. I forced myself to learn to study and slowly grew up. Two sisters influenced me particularly—one who told me I could write and one who taught me history in a way no one had ever taught me anything before, as stories.

By the time I was 20 I had realized that I could do whatever I wanted to do, if I set myself to it hard enough, and I began to teach first and second grade—first at Saint Francis School in Bend, Oregon, which is now a brew pub, and then at Saint Vincent’s in Salem, Oregon. I wasn’t a great teacher—I loved the kids dearly, but my classroom discipline was, well, less than wonderful. They reacted to my personality, of course, so we were all bouncing off the walls.

Then I went to California for a couple of years and earned a master’s degree in teaching learning-disabled children, and then God wanted me to be a principal. Me, of all people, the world’s worst student as a kid! So back I went to Saint Francis for five years, and then to Holy Redeemer, in Portland, for 16 years.

Belonging and responding
I remember two moments of defining grace in particular. One was when I attended a Holy Names reunion in Montreal. I had been minding my own business in Oregon, enjoying my work and not giving my Sister-of-the-Holy-Nameness much thought. A couple of days after we arrived in Canada, we were invited to the order’s motherhouse for tea and to meet the sisters who were praying for us. We entered through the front door to find dozens and dozens of sisters gathered, standing all over the stairs, clapping and cheering for us as we came in.

It was a moment of great belonging, and I believe that is what heaven will be like: All the people of God, clapping and cheering. I experienced that yes again, and I’ll remember that joy the rest of my life.

Belonging to a community, living and working side by side with women of diverse personalities and multiple talents, is the great grace of being a woman religious. We can do and be anything together. Learning to appreciate and count on this interdependence is the defining mark of belonging to a religious community and the reality that is most attractive to those associating with us.

A few days later we went to Longueil, to the cemetery where many of us are buried—generations of sisters who died much younger than I am, some who lived to be much older than I will. The shock of the terse accounting of their lives on gravestones was awesome enough. But then I went to the foot of a huge cross in the center of the cemetery and found there a second, much smaller cross, marking the grave of a young man who died of AIDS and had nowhere to go, even in death. Yes, I thought to myself fiercely, we are responding to the needs of our time.

Our great task
Sister Joan Chittister defines a sister’s life as “strong prophetic witness.” Religious life, she says—correctly, I think—was never meant simply to be a labor force in the church. It was meant to be a searing presence, a paradigm of search, a mark of human soul, a catalyst to conscience in the society in which it emerged. The problem may be that entirely too much emphasis has been put on the relationship of religious life to the mission of the church rather than on religious life’s relationship to the mystery of the church.

Our great message in this time is the value of being as well as doing. I think that our great constant worry about vocations, while utterly legitimate, should not be our primary concern. Our primary concern, our great task, is to be full of grace. We are full of grace or we would not be here. Each one of us has a piece of the wisdom of God. No one has all the wisdom. We need each other. Only together can we know and discern the direction of the Spirit in our lives. Young women will be attracted to who we are, not what we are.

Our ministry now
I finally faced my alcoholism near the end of my years as a principal. As my responsibilities mounted, I got more and more attached to alcohol to help me deal with stress. I enjoyed throwing parties, and drinking to take the edge off my day became a serious attachment. God watched over me and didn’t let me smash myself or someone else to bits on the highway. But I stopped drinking one day years ago when I was on retreat and began to pray and just could not get in touch with God. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t get there.

Soon after I started treatment—in Oregon’s stunningly beautiful wine country—and that was a hard and blessed and intense and lovely time. I learned how to live again. I learned how to just keep grappling with myself and my possibilities.

My great ambition and vow and struggle and work as a nun, as a woman, as a person of Christ, is to stay aware, stay present, stay open, keep listening to my heart, stay in touch with my best and deepest self. Everyone fights this battle, nun or not. Everyone is called to be open to God and to people, to God in people. Everyone has to work awfully hard to stay in touch with the possible.

There’s a great passage from the writer Marcia Allen: The spiritually mature woman “can quietly and faithfully hold together the tangled and disharmonious parts of her world with intention and with tenderness. She is open to changing capacities, attitudes, and self-knowledge. . . .” That is where modern sisters live. That’s the energy source. Isn’t this what people find so mysteriously attractive about us?

I hosted an auction brunch at our Oregon convent recently for several couples who have a great abundance of the world’s resources. They love to be with us. Why? Because we are, at our best, at our most possible, spiritually grounded women. There is a great truth here—a truth that might mean everything in the future of religious orders.

Our ministry used to be teaching children. We did that for almost two centuries. Now our ministry is finding new ways to connect to people, new ways to be in contact, new ways to work with all different groups of people. Now we are working with poor Hispanic women. Now we are working with AIDS patients. Now we are working in prisons, with the addicted, with the homeless, with the elderly. We go where the needs are. The need used to be in Catholic grade schools, and we went there, and now that’s all over for my community, and we are going all over.

The essential question for a young woman interested in the religious life is this: What does your deepest voice say to you? Because that’s God’s voice, you know. Joan Chittister says it very well: “We hear the question Why be religious?” but the real question is Why not be religious? Why not be committed? Why not be in a vigorous and creative group? For some people, religious life points the way that best calls them to their finest and most spirit-filled selves. It is not a better way, it is not a higher way, but it is the only way for some people to come fully alive to the will of God, in the spirit of God, for the reign of God.

Sisters have responded to God’s call for many centuries, and now God has chosen us to be sisters in this time of great chaos and great creation. 
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. He is the author of Credo, a collection of essays, and (with his dad Jim Doyle) of Two Voices, a collection of their essays.

2004 © TrueQuest Communications

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