Finding life and love in many places

Five years ago, on the brink of my entrance into novitiate, I was hit by a car. I had been riding my bike through South Philadelphia when a motorist, forgetting to check her side mirrors, made a right turn directly into me. Bumped and bruised, I emerged from the wreckage with minor injuries and a mangled bicycle. After the police finished gathering information, they asked me where I lived with the intention of driving me home.

When they discovered I lived miles away in a rougher part of town, they apologized that they couldn't take me that far and offered instead to drop me off at the closest subway station. I had been living with our sisters for almost a year and worried how anxious they would be if I called to tell them what happened. So, rather foolishly, I took my broken bike and bruised body and got on the train.

Pumped full of adrenaline, I navigated the way home and walked my bike from the station to the convent. About a block from the house, I met one of my sisters who was out for a walk. It took her a second to realize it was me before she scooped me up and brought me inside. There, surrounded by those I lived with, I knew I was safe, and soon tears came to my eyes as the many emotions I had been keeping at bay surged within me.

The sisters I lived with cared for me and made me feel safe. They brought peace to an otherwise chaotic situation and were kind enough to restrain themselves from returning to the fact that I hadn't called for help. Looking back, I can only shake my head at my younger self and wonder what my sisters felt and thought in those moments.

Now I realize they were teaching me a lesson in community living and what it means to call a people and a place home.

Later that night, as I sat in prayer, a voicemail buzzed on my phone. Somehow, word had traveled up the East Coast from Pennsylvania to Connecticut, reaching a former spiritual director who is now a dear friend. She expressed her care and concern about what had happened to me and lovingly asked me to call her back.

"I just need to hear your voice," she pleaded, "to know you're OK."

When I called her back to assure her I was safe, we shared a loving conversation. I never did erase her message, though, and to this day, I have it saved to my phone for the moments I need the encouragement and love it has to offer. Its presence reminds me that the communities we become a part of never leave us, even if we physically leave them.

That's the miracle and the mystery of community: that across time and space, we belong, and in our belonging, we find a place, a people, a space to call home.

That space lies deep within our being, an elusive sense that must be felt and can't be forced.

For as trite as it sounds, the old adage "Home is where the heart is" holds true. We carry home with us wherever our heart goes, and it is the communities we belong to that allow us to express and discover that sense of home in new, wonderful and sustaining ways.

When I consider my religious life, I can't help but think of the many sustaining communities I belong to. There are, of course, my religious congregation and the larger community of the universal church. In days gone by, that might have been where the list ended, but as I look to the future and consider the present reality of religious life, I know the need for a more expansive and varied sense of community and, with it, a more open and willing approach to finding home.

Today, community must expand beyond parochial boundaries. This isn't new. It's the universal reality of religious life today. Just as we expand our vision to welcome and minister to those around the world, so too is it necessary to understand that what was once served by a model of community that drew boundaries between congregations (and drew sharp restrictions from the world, family and friends) must change.

For newer members of religious life, this reality is particularly poignant. To sustain our communities (and the charisms we embody) into the future, it's essential to foster relationships — intracongregationally, intercongregationally and beyond.

When I stood side-by-side with 70 other religious sisters all under the age of 50 on July 6-9 at the Giving Voice National Gathering in New Rochelle, New York, this point was vividly illustrated. As a chorus of voices, strong and vibrant, joined together during liturgy, shivers ran up and down my spine. These were my sisters, even if we didn't share the same initials after our names. We shared something more, something beyond boundaries: experience of religious life today, faith in the future, and commitment to living the Gospel mandate of our vocations.

Our hearts united, and despite our short time together, I felt at home. Together, we were one, united in love. Setting out from the gathering, I knew a new community was helping to sustain me on the journey. Like the sisters who bandaged me up years ago or the sisters I live with in community day in and day out, these sisters, my peers, whom I sang with and shared with were now a part of my heart.

Together, we move forward into the future. We are part of communities larger than ourselves; communities that fill our hearts and feed our souls.

Sustaining communities is the work of the Spirit, work that employs each and every one of us. Our responsibility is to be true to our hearts, to sustain the communities that sustain us so that, in so doing, we might be available and energized to build communities that can sustain others.

Whether near or far, we commit ourselves to the work of relationship, trusting our own hearts and all they hold to the heart of God. In that trust, we live to love and learn to love more deeply. We do not journey alone, nor should we. We carry the communion of community within us, coming to the feast together, sustained by God and by one another so that, no matter who or what we encounter, all might be united in the love of God, sustained by the Spirit and at home in their hearts and the world.

[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she just completed her service as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia and will begin a new ministry in the fall.]