An insider view of community
A speaker at a conference once claimed, “A proof for the church’s divinity is convents—that women can live together!” Indeed, some people assume that life in a convent with an all-female family would be difficult and rather dull. I have found the opposite is true.
What is it really like to belong to a community? Having been a sister for most of my life, I can attest that although it isn’t always easy, it is energizing and fulfilling, sanctifying and enjoyable.
When I was in school, my teachers, the Sisters of Notre Dame, attracted me not only by their total dedication to God but also by their camaraderie. Their special bond to one another made me want to be one of them, to belong to their sisterhood.
When I entered religious life, dozens of other girls were in the novitiate. I remember writing to my family that convent life was like being at a great big party where no one goes home. This idealized image, of course, soon gave way to a more realistic perspective.
Nevertheless, community life can be marvelous. As with any loving family, you might come home tired and stressed from the day’s work, and at supper end up laughing to the point of tears. Or you might face a personal or professional crisis, and a sister eases your panic with a word or kind act. Often you experience the joy of teamwork in joint projects, whether it’s planning and executing a weekend retreat or bailing water out of a flooded basement.
Some married and single women like to enjoy a monthly “girls’ night out.” As a religious sister, I don’t need one. I’m constantly with women and good friends who swap stories with me, listen to my complaints, give me advice, identify with my problems, and celebrate my successes. Don’t think that we always all get along, though. The convent is not heaven, and sisters are not perfect. Naturally there are personality and generational clashes. You can’t expect every sister to be your friend. The bottom line, though, is that my community is my family. We’re there for one another.
Recently, when one of our sisters was near death, the sisters in her house stayed with her through her final night on earth, singing, praying, and telling jokes. Another time, a sister was disappointed when she just missed earning her doctoral degree—and her community threw a party anyway.
Strength in diversity
Of course, a religious community is more than a glorified women’s club. We are called together because we have the same vision and values. Living with like-minded people spurs us on to live our commitment to Christ.
One sister in my community inspires me just by showing up at evening prayer every day. Another’s dedication to spending her summers teaching in the African missions motivates me to become the best writer I can be. Yet another sister, through her graceful acceptance of aging and illness, leads me to resolve to imitate her when my turn comes.
Our beauty and strength lie in our diversity, but this diversity also creates the challenge of community life. Each sister has her own opinion as to where to set the thermostat, what to watch on television, and how to cook. On a deeper level, not everyone in a community agrees on which prayers community members should pray and how, what today’s religious habit should look like, whether sisters should live alone, how new members should be educated, or what ministries to undertake. These differences make community life the school of virtue!
Rubbing shoulders with people who are different and who have weaknesses can make us holier people. Community teaches compromise, reconciliation, forgiveness, and peacemaking. Someone once said that community is like shaking a jar of rough stones until they become smooth and beautiful. It’s easy to say “I love everyone” when you live alone. In community, you have a chance to prove it.
Bonded to yesterday and tomorrow
My community is not confined by time and space. I am one of a long line of valiant women. One of my province’s most moving rituals was to gather at our cemetery to pray a litany to the sisters who have gone before us. As their names were read, we remembered the life of each sister, placed a rose on her grave, and responded, “Pray for us.”
Moreover, my congregation is international. I am joined to sisters of different races and cultures. What a joy it was to meet some of these sisters from foreign lands in Rome a few years ago. Immediately we felt a solidarity.
In Vita Consecrata, a document on brothers, sisters, and priests’ communities, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Consecrated persons are asked to be true experts of communion and to practice the spirituality of communion as ‘witnesses and architects of the plan for unity, which is the crowning point of human history in God’s design’ ” (no. 46). In other words, by living a good community life, sisters, brothers, and priests can be signs of what the human race is called to be: people of peace and love.
This unity is the vision Jesus has for his church, which began as a community of disciples who lived in love and shared all things. The church is meant to reflect, however imperfectly, that sublime community of love—the Trinity. When we religious share lives in peace and harmony, we point to the dream God has for all. Then, already on earth, we enjoy in part the community of love that is heaven.
Where one of us is, we all are
When you are a member of a religious community, you belong to and contribute to something much bigger than you. This is visually expressed on the wall of our provincial house chapel. It is covered with tiles, each decorated by a sister to represent her life. Together the tiles make a colorful mosaic that glitters with medals, stones, sunflowers, and shamrocks.
In the same way, we members join to create a powerful and beautiful force. In community, the principle of synergy is at work—that is, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I am more effective and have more clout in the church and in the world because I am a member of a community. Similarly, I participate in more good works. Where one of us is, we all are.
Therefore, I am in the Philippines starting a mission with Sister Niño; I am in Washington, D.C. directing the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association with Sister Susan; and I am in Cleveland’s inner city teaching fourth-graders with Sister Domicele. Likewise, all my sisters share in my writing ministry. We support one another with advice, encouragement, prayer, and money.
Just as each tile on the chapel wall is one of a kind, each sister brings her unique gifts and personality to the community. We are all mutually enriched. Our congre-gation’s constitution states: “In Him [Christ] we accept and reverence each sister in her uniqueness, each one called by God in His love. We will want to understand each sister, cherish her with genuine love and affection, and support her with sisterly concern” (no. 53).
A version of this article first appeared in Our Sunday Visitor.
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