The other weekend, I met with my sisters from the United States, Canada and Lesotho, in preparation for the global gathering of our religious community. It was an exciting conversation, but also a humbling learning experience.
In today’s global world, many religious women dream of working for justice and peace together with sisters who live in other parts of the globe such as Africa, Latin American and Asia. Actually, women religious have worked for years on many issues – such as water rights, the education of girls, human trafficking – in the spirit of solidarity.
Then, what should our next spiritual task be? Perhaps it is to work more internally, to create a new global sorority among sisters, rather than merely globalizing the work itself. But for this, we must sit together and appreciate our sisterhood. We must be able to truly meet together as sisters, moving beyond cultural assumptions and even unconscious prejudices. If we cannot create a new sisterhood, global sorority will only be a phrase, not a living reality.
This precious weekend I spent with my sisters was like standing in front of a mirror in which I saw and appreciated all the sisters (including myself) as they were. This was a contemplative process. One of the most beautiful definitions of contemplation I have ever encountered is “a long and loving look at the real.” In this concept, contemplation is not just a quiet prayer offered to God in a desert or the mountain. This concept invites us to face reality – as it is.
How often am I able to look at anyone or anything with a long gaze, neither interrupted nor distracted by something or someone? This negates our societal call for “efficiency” or “multitasking.” It asks me to slow down and listen to the other. Our North American culture is very much driven by a compulsive and goal-oriented mind. We set up agendas, talk and make decisions for the next action item. If we do not agree on a decision, we do not feel content. What would happen if a meeting were as slow as a long gaze? This long gaze would bring quietness of mind.
Several years ago, I was walking back into a class that I had left in the middle of. I was in a rush to return, but the class was quiet and I wanted to come back in without disturbing the other students. The quicker I tried to be, the less I was able to quiet the noise I made with my shoes. Finally, I walked in slow motion. At that point, I found that as the sound of my walking quieted, so did my heart. In the same way, could we let the sisters from other cultures walk at their own pace, even if in slow motion? If we could just forget about outcomes and just let them feel at home – what would happen?
What happens, in fact, when we look at something or someone with love? Scientific experiments have well shown that words and even just a loving gaze can give life to a plant. When we give loving energy to one plant but hostile energy to another, with all other conditions being equal, the plant that receives the loving energy will grow better. If we can see people from other cultures or backgrounds through the eyes of love, our relationships will flourish. In a loving gaze, there is space for warm support and creativity.
Finally, if we look at others as real, we can see all kinds of goodness, beauty and truth that the other carries. In a sense, looking at the real indicates a stage or a consequence of a long and loving look. It also means being aware of and accepting what it is, and glimpsing the real through encountering the other.
In our “a long and loving look at the real” process, I found that we, as a group, needed much practice. In order to be able to share a truthful laughter, and not just nervous laughter, we needed to face our vulnerable selves. As a sister from the U.S., I had to be careful not to dominate the dialogue, while trying to create a comfortable space for sisters from other countries. American sisters are very positive and tend to jump quickly into dialogue, which can intimidate those from cultures that do not encourage expressing opinions. As such, whenever I wanted to express my opinion, I had to breathe and wait. In my early days as a Korean immigrant, I remember how tiring it was to listen to speeches in foreign languages. So here, I intentionally slowed down, checking the pace and speed of the speeches at our meeting.
One of the sisters from Canada expressed her concern about the loose schedule. I simply responded that it was “because it was a contemplative and fun-oriented meeting.” Through this process, I found that the sisters from Lesotho did not have the same technology that we have, and so we cannot ask of them the same speed or pace, in terms of Internet conferencing or phone calls. But this does not mean they are slow or less passionate for a certain project or topic. Postcolonial philosopher Homi Bhabha, in The Location of Culture, asserts that there is a time lag among cultures. That implies that there is no personal inferiority or superiority, but only difference. Once I am situated in a certain location of culture, I am generally conditioned by it. In this global world – and global sorority – we should stand on the idea that we are located in a certain culture. And as such, at every moment of global sisterhood, we should come to a common ground where the difference are explained and negotiated, in order to find a hybrid culture.
Then, what is the common ground for our global sisterhood? One of my Lesotho sisters said, “ I want to pray together.” When I heard her words, my heart trembled with yes. And when we prayed together, I felt a sisterhood deeper than at any other time. We willingly shared an experience of prayer and a spirituality of community. When we shared this core, I finally experienced being together and an embracing of the globe. In this common ground, we were – and are – indeed sisters. In this contemplative process meeting, I met my sisters in heartfelt laughter, shared prayer and meals and shared vulnerability. In this way, I trust that we will create a hybrid global sorority, which is life giving, creative, and even productive and effective.
[Sophia Park, SNJM, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Holy Names University. She has written numerous articles and chapters in books focusing on biblical spirituality, cross-cultural spiritual direction and religious life from a global feminist perspective. Her main interest is how to empower the marginalized in this global society.]