Digging deep for inner peace

Presentation Sr. Inez Fernandes in the Nano Nagle organic demonstration farm in Kaoma, Zambia (GSR photo / Melanie Lidman)

When I think about what I have learned from the sisters over the course of 2015, there is one word that jumps to mind: deliberate.

Having traveled extensively to visit sisters across Africa, I know that I should not be making generalizations about all sisters. Generalizations often shore up stereotypes, or oversimplify the rich complexity of the work that sisters do.

But almost every one of the sisters that I have met throughout my time at Global Sisters Report has made an impression on me by being deliberate.

Every day, during communal Mass or private prayers, sisters are deliberately reflecting on their lives, their work, their spirituality, their relationship with others and with God. And this daily reflection means sisters are constantly examining their lives and then making deliberate choices about how to overcome their challenges or deepen their connections.

The fact that sisters have a specific time for reflection, a physical, spiritual and emotional place to examine their challenges and difficulties, means that they often broadcast a sense of calmness during the rest of their day. This space for reflection gives them a centeredness that I find so lacking in other interactions in my daily life.

Sr. M. Ivanna B. Ennemoser, a Franciscan Missionary for Africa sister who runs the Kariobangi Cheshire House for the Aged, serves destitute and disabled elderly people in an urban slum of more than 700,000 in Nairobi, Kenya. Despite the chaos outside and a barebones budget, the grounds are serene and beautiful. (GSR photo / Melanie Lidman)
Sr. Josephine Mulenga, the Franciscan sisters superior in Chililabombwe, Zambia, is known for her green thumb. She builds a beautiful garden in every convent where she lives. (GSR photo / Melanie Lidman)

Like most millennials, I am bombarded with constant notifications and beeps that seem to keep me deliberately off balance. Add to that a steady stream of social media drilling constant messages of fear of missing out and isolation.

What I have learned from the sisters is that when you take the time to reflect about your life and choices, these moments of silence help diminish indecision and regret. When you make these deliberate choices, in your work and your relationships, you exude a quiet confidence.

I have interviewed sisters who work day in and day out in some of the most heartbreaking situations: HIV-positive babies who have been abandoned, girls who have endured female genital mutilation, children with albinism whose limbs have been chopped off and sold to witch doctors, prostitutes who live in urban slums, victims of leprosy who must care for half a dozen grandchildren, farmers whose land has been poisoned by chemicals from big businesses.

Their work often seems hopeless. The despair around them is so great, and the challenges they come up against make it seem like they will never have any impact.

The only way to stay sane in the face of so much hardship is to have inner peace. If you are unbalanced inside, it is impossible to try to counter all of the negativity surrounding you on a daily basis.

When I come back to the convent at the end of a long day visiting sisters’ projects in dirty urban slums or isolated rural outposts, I always breathe a sigh of relief. No matter where the convent is located, crammed into the poorest neighborhoods or sprawling across the wealthiest suburbs, the grounds of the convents are always bursting with flowers, even if the flowers are sprouting in repurposed coffee tins.

The parish of Ewauso Kedong is located in the arid desert in south Kenya, totally barren except for scraggly trees. The Masai tribe living in this area are herdsmen, because the lack of rain makes farming impossible. The sisters living here have utilized drip irrigation to make the road to their home bloom with minimal water. Except for the colorful outfits of the Masai women, these flowers are the only color for miles around. (GSR photo / Melanie Lidman)

Because just the way that prayer and reflection give them the strength of inner peace, the sisters know that having a peaceful and beautiful home is also essential.

I know, it sounds silly. How could a few flowers in the midst of a slum give you the strength to face such immense heartbreak?

But there’s a reason we bring bouquets to sick people. When sisters have a place to surround themselves with beauty, it gives them the emotional and physical strength to face another day of difficult work.

Over the course of meeting sisters these past 18 months, I have learned many things that have changed the way I live my own life. Silent meditation has helped me start to find my own balance. And I have begun to understand how gardening can create a place of beauty within difficult circumstances.

This past year I moved to one of the rougher neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, a kaleidoscope of shoddy homes housing Africans who crossed into Israel illegally seeking asylum, migrant workers from around the world, impoverished “Eastern” Israelis, who came from countries like North Africa and Asia in the 1950s and experienced a lot of racism at the hands of European-descended Israelis, and young people desperately looking for somewhere to live amidst the city’s skyrocketing rents.

As a way to connect to my new neighborhood, I have joined a group called the Onya Collective, which is building a community garden in the Central Bus Station. The bus station is a monstrosity that has choked this neighborhood off from the rest of Tel Aviv — and become a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes — because the hulking structure stands 60 percent abandoned. By turning the concrete green, we are trying to insert a bit of beauty into this brutal environment.

Our garden is built in an abandoned entrance to the bus station. (Gabi Berger, courtesy of Onya Collective)

Through my contacts at Global Sisters Report, I’ve reached out to the local neighborhood Catholic community, which sprang up over the past decade to minister to migrant workers and asylum seekers. I always tell people that Catholic sisters are everywhere, but even I was shocked to learn that there are four sisters living six blocks away from me, two Filipina sisters from the Congregation of Saint Paul of Chartres and two Sri Lankan Sisters of Perpetual Help.

Unfortunately attempts to host a Christmas concert for their choir at our community garden fell through because we couldn’t get the electricity organized in time. But I am confident that in the future our garden will be able to host events for the Catholic community and for other diverse communities in this area.

Although I am Jewish, I have always had a special place in my heart for midnight Mass on Christmas. This year, instead of attending a large cathedral filled with other Israelis who forget to turn off their cell phones and talk through the service, I will be able to walk down the street to share the Christmas holiday with my new neighbors.

As we move into the Christmas season, I want to send a heartfelt thank you to all the sisters who have taught me so much over the past year. I’d also like to thank the wonderful editorial team at Global Sisters Report who makes it possible to share the inspiring stories of sisters.

I wish all of us a year of silence, of reflection, of beauty. And may we be deliberate in all that we do.

Children help with the watering duties at the Onya Garden next to the Tel Aviv bus station. (GSR photos / Melanie Lidman)

[Melanie Lidman is Middle East and Africa correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Israel.]

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