Bridges are built by individuals: Being sister across the divide

Sr. Julia Walsh and Sr. Mary Luka Brandenburg. (Provided photo)

Last summer, I sat in a small circle of with other sisters my age at the Giving Voice conference. We were praying in silence, integrating the question our speakers had invited us to consider: What sort of borders do we desire to cross?

In the quiet, I recalled a fear that had surfaced earlier, when I was discerning whether I wanted to make my final vows with my congregation. What if, I wondered, dedicating myself to this particular way of living religious life made it look like I was only saying "yes" to a certain type of Catholicism? What if my yes was heard as a no to other lives and ways of being a woman religious?

As I looked around this circle, I noticed that all of us looked like modern women; many of us wore capri pants, sandals and cross necklaces. I had a lot in common with these women, but I knew that we only represented a fraction of women religious in our age bracket in the United States. I strongly felt in my heart which border I wanted to cross: I wanted to have friendships with all types of Catholic sisters.

When I shared this desire with my peers, I discovered that many of us held the same longing. As our conversations progressed throughout the conference, we wondered how we could be in better relationship with Catholic sisters of all types as we move into the future.

When I first started being interested in religious life, I had no idea that there were some sisters who wore plain clothes and some who wore habits. But it didn't take me long to learn about the differences and hear Catholics and sisters express a range of beliefs and feelings — often impassioned — about what expressions of faith showed whether one was faithful and loved God and church.

As I understand it, the meaning of Catholic is that there is wide range of diversity among us, and it's a beautiful, blessed thing. There may be differences in our theological slant, or in the ways we express our faith, but we can still unite as one in Christ. We may have different opinions, but we are called to gather around the same common table, celebrate our common sacramental life, serve and share joy together.

In religious life in particular, we can learn a lot from those who live and express their faith differently, while we collaborate in building the reign of God. For me, the gift of this diversity is the joy of being Catholic.

After the Giving Voice conference last summer, I continued to pray about my desire to develop friendships with Catholic sisters of different types. How could I build bridges and increase peace? How was the Spirit calling me to live out the Gospel?

(Torsten Muller, via Unsplash.com and used under Creative Commons zero)

I eventually sent an email to Sr. Mary Luka Brandenburg, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr of St. George, with the subject line "question on my heart." I shared my desire to learn and grow, together with her.

She responded with a loving affirmation of my longing and hope. And, some wise insights that challenged my idealistic hopes:

We have to learn, in the Church, to see people, not categories, and I am afraid that, in religious life, we have spent an awful lot of time putting people in boxes. In order to do what you propose, there would have to be such a common good will that all of the history of the past several decades could be set aside. Maybe not ignored, but at least risen above. Individuals can do this. Whether it can be done on a larger scale I do not know."

At our first meeting we prayed together and talked at length about our shared frustration about the divisions among women religious and its impact on our ability to serve and minister. Sister Mary Luka is 30 years my senior in religious life, so she provided some grounded perspective for me from her lived experience. I put forth my ideas (Could we collaborate in ministry? Or plan a conference together?) and heard her sensible feedback. Not everyone is capable of dialogue; too many of us are defensive, hurt and angry. The wounds will color our conversations and attempts to collaborate in ministry. Many of us need to open our hearts and minds wider so that the Spirit can move through.

Although I dreamed of something big, we decided to start small with a more practical and realistic approach. What if sisters of different types gathered around something we had in common, like Scripture or a church document, and simply shared our faith and got to know each other better? Sister Mary Luka and I decided to meet regularly to read and discuss Vita Consecrata, with the idea that the document might eventually facilitate similar conversations among small groups of sisters from different congregations.

We met once a week throughout Lent. Pausing each week in the midst of our busy days to pray and share our faith together was truly awesome. We didn't make it very far into the document, but we certainly bonded and became friends. We discussed important topics for two women who have dedicated their lives to God: What is Truth? What does it mean that God is the Holy Trinity? What does vocation mean? How do our religious vows, like obedience, shape our lives? What does it mean to be in union with the church?

We spoke from our hearts about the similarities and differences between the forms of religious life that we live. Both of us admitted that human weaknesses — such as the temptation to be judgmental — impact our community life. And, in a way, we were able to be mirrors to each other, naming what we appreciate about the form of religious life that each of us lives. At one point, I was very touched by Sister Mary Luka's reflection that she sees me and my congregation as especially gifted at tending to the "disfigured face of Christ" (15); in doing social justice work, we care for the people who know the hurting body of Christ on Calvary through their daily experiences. I told Sister Mary Luka that I admired the rhythm of prayer that united her community.

Our sharing was a fruitful series of conversations that enriched our prayer lives and impacted both of our communities because we each discussed what we had learned with our living groups. We will continue to meet in the coming months and hope to maintain our friendship.

We hope that other sisters will consider having similar conversations, in order to build friendships, create peace and strengthen the church. The challenge, we have learned, is not to be reactionary, but to try to listen with an open heart and lovingly consider other viewpoints.

Through these conversations and in the building of my new friendship with Sister Mary Luka, an answer to my question, "How can I build bridges and increase peace?" had come. Individuals, working as pairs, can build bridges; gradually, then, groups are able to move towards each other across the divide.

[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]

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