"Good morning, Sister!"
As I walked into the break room yesterday, a recently-hired administrative assistant turned from the sink and greeted me with those words. Since I met her last week, she has addressed me only as "Sister," even though I introduced myself as Tracy. I wondered if she, understandably, had forgotten my first name after meeting so many new people. Perhaps she was using the same trick that I shamelessly employ when I forget the first name of one of the many sisters in our congregational nursing facility.
I replied, "Good morning to you, too! By the way, you can call me Tracy."
"Oh no!" she retorted quickly. "I don't think I'll be able to do that. To me, sisters have always been 'Sister.'"
So, this wasn't about her forgetting my name. I sighed inside. Sometimes, it is exhausting to confront prevailing images of sisters and leftover behaviors from outdated models of church.
"I get it," I said. "But, really, I mean it. We're co-workers. I prefer that you call me Tracy."
Beyond the fact that we are co-workers, this woman is many years my senior. I feel strange that she would address me in a way that, to me, hearkens back to deference and respect often afforded disproportionately to women religious in the past.
"Sorry," she persisted. "I'm old school. I'm also stubborn. You'll be 'Sister' to me."
I was a little miffed. If I had told her that my name is Margaret, but that I prefer to be called Peggy, would she have insisted on her preference of Margaret to identify me instead of Peggy, the way I choose to identify myself? I decided to seize a teachable moment.
"I have a question for you. If you don't mind telling me, are you a 'Miss' or a 'Mrs.'?"
"Oh, I'm a Miss."
"Okay, Miss," I smiled. "I'll now be calling you Miss when you call me Sister."
We both laughed, and then she tried to explain to me how that is different. The conversation reminded me that, more than 50 years after Vatican II, sisters may still be looked upon as a separate breed.
In honor of this National Catholic Sisters Week, I have been drawn to continue reflecting on my identity as a sister. In addition, Tuesday was International Women's Day. I found myself reflecting on my identity as a woman. I am both: I am a sister. I am a woman. What does that mean? How is it changing throughout my life? How do I celebrate it? What challenges and gifts do I experience? Being sister and being woman each bring their own sets of social constructs and histories. How do I feel called to live my multi-faceted, God-given identity?
I am a sister
Last week, I was in Washington, D.C., for "Sisters in Public Leadership," a training for women religious put on by Faith in Public Life and NETWORK. They coached us in media skills, messaging, and advocacy. One of the consistent themes was this, "Claim your unique faith perspective as a sister!" They reminded us that by virtue of our vocation, people often look to us for moral authority, and we should not be afraid to bring that to the public sphere. Gulp! I reflected on the plane ride home about the power and responsibility in that invitation. Part of me feels so unworthy to be such a voice. I never asked for such a position, I thought. I came to religious life because of a desire to serve. But here I am, making sure I am prepared to speak out in society. I felt God's assurance, though, through the training facilitators and in my prayer: I call you, and I give you all you need to respond to that call.
Something that I know does give us credibility as sisters is our nearness to the people. Throughout history, religious women and men have immersed themselves into people's lives, especially those on the margins. We know the faces and stories of those most oppressed in society. The title "Sister," to me, implies intimate relationship. My vocation calls me to recognize the whole world as my family and to live as such. That is an essential part of my identity, one that I claim with great passion and gratitude. If I am indeed called upon to speak as a moral authority, I know that what I say will be rooted in the real lives of so many people I know and love. My life commitment binds me inextricably to all of humankind and the rest of Creation. What a humbling and demanding privilege.
I know that being part of a community is essential to my identity as a sister. As a subset of my relationality with all of my sisters and brothers across the world, I am in special relationship with the women of my congregation and others' congregations. The bond is wondrous and difficult to describe. It is one that transcends time and space. I felt that deep and electrifying energy as I sat around the table with the other women religious in the training last week. We are working together, in different places and ways, to advance the mission of Jesus with our whole lives. The gift of sisterhood enriches the world, and it helps me to grow more fully into who I am called to be.
For me, personally, being a sister has nothing to do with pedestals, habits, or smacking wrists with rulers. Jokes, images, and assumptions that associate women religious with those misconceptions are harmful. Being sister has everything to do with being in right relationship with God, humanity and all of Creation. It is the particular way that God calls me to be love in this world.
I am a woman
One of my favorite lines in our congregation's constitutions reads, "We rejoice in our womanhood." Yes! Far from trying to cover up my gender or be seen strictly for my religious vocation, I am to claim being a woman religious.
As I reflected throughout the day on Tuesday, I found myself smiling. I do love being a woman. I don't spend enough time thinking about that. I realize that there is no accurate universal definition of "woman," and I don't intend to perpetuate gender stereotypes. But I do love being the woman that God has made me to be, and I am free, even encouraged, to delight in that!
I love my close, intimate relationships with dear girlfriends and with my Mom and Grandma. I love the bond of solidarity I feel with the Latina women at the parish where I minister. Although we come from different countries, there is an underlying connectedness we feel in our womanhood. I love to be creative, generative, and nurturing. I love to dialogue about important issues and learn about the world through different perspectives. I love to see other women succeeding and bring their gifts to the world.
As I've shared before, I am currently exploring what it means to be a young adult, celibate woman. For many of my friends, cousins, and my sister-in-law, the identity of being a woman right now includes motherhood. I am at the age where babies are popping up all around. It is wonderful! It also causes me heart ache. I witness the miraculous process of pregnancy and birth and the relationship between mom and baby or young child. I recognize that that particular journey isn't an easy one, and I don't mean to romanticize it. It is just strange for me sometimes to acknowledge that my body is anatomically capable of the same miracle, but I won't experience it.
As many sisters do, I feel called to give life as a woman in other ways. That doesn't take away the pangs of incompleteness and the occasional longing for motherhood. But, it is how I am called to be a woman. I am a new aunt to my adorable niece, Lucy Rose, and I will become her godmother in May. That is a wonderful gift. I give life by writing, and singing, and creating, and loving the families and children that I serve. A married friend of mine, who doesn't have children, and I make sure to share our "pregnancies" with one another. Sometimes, she is pregnant with a new idea in her ministry, and I might be pregnant with a new writing project. In this way, I feel connected to women all over the world.
I also know that being a woman has its struggles. This Sunday's Gospel is frequently termed, "The woman caught in adultery." My stomach tightens into an angry knot when I hear about the village people gathering around her to throw stones with no mention of the man. The laws were unjust then, and the world continues to oppress women today. Even in a country that claims to be progressive on women's rights, I recognize how much more forcefully I have to speak for men to really hear me. I have been dismissed or expected to fill certain roles because of my gender. And that is only a shadow of what women go through in our world every day. My identity as a woman motivates me even further to work for justice as a sister.
I am who I am
As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, "By the grace of God, I am what I am."
God has created me to be a woman religious. What a wonderful thing to be! I pray for the grace to embrace each part of my call and live it fully.
I am sister. I am woman. I am grateful.
[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog, Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She currently ministers at the Catholic Social Action Office in Cincinnati and as the Latino Ministry Coordinator at a local parish.]
Editor's note: Tracy Kemme was one of the seven sisters at the media training she writes about above who also participated in a roundtable discussion (via videoconference) with Global Sisters Report about immigration in the United States March 4. An edited version of this conversation, with photos of the participants, can be read here: Sisters urge reason, reform on immigration issues
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