“Those who were in the dark are thankful for the sunlight . . .”
I chuckled quietly as we sang this line from “Behold the Lamb of God” during Sunday’s liturgy at Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery in sunny Phoenix, Arizona. Twenty-one sisters under 40 years of age had escaped more wintry parts of the country and traveled here for the annual Giving Voice 20s/30s retreat. We were, indeed, thankful for the sunlight! During Mass, the chapel of this beautiful Benedictine retreat center overflowed with our group and the regular Sunday crowd. Radiant sunbeams flooded the room, reflecting the warmth and joy of the community gathered. As we joined our hearts in prayer, I wished I could bottle up the moment – and the weather.
The liturgy came to life with beautiful scripture. In the first reading (1 Sm 3:3b-10, 19), we heard the famous call of Samuel, and in the Gospel (Jn 1:35-42) Jesus’ invitation for his disciples to “come and see.” Psalm 40 sings of a joyful response to God’s call, and the second reading from St. Paul to the Corinthians (6:13c-15a, 17-20) reminds us that we are temples of the Holy Spirit. Gratitude bubbled up in me as I savored God’s word standing among 20 “young nuns” who, like me, have taken Jesus up on his beckoning to “come and see” about religious life. These women have entered in ones and twos and often into undefined or evolving formation processes. These women have risked a joyful “yes” to a road not often traveled. Each woman draws strength from the Spirit of God within her. Each woman continues to say, “Here I am, Lord,” wherever she finds herself on the journey, from pre-novitiate to having professed final vows.
It was a profound weekend of praying, sharing and playing with my sister-peers. Inspired by Pope Francis’ statement that “the distinctive sign of consecrated life is prophecy,” we considered what it means to be a prophet. We drew on the wisdom of people that we look to as prophets and dreamt about how we might be called to “wake up the world” as they have and do. After a time of quiet reflection, we came together to share our insights. I was in awe at the depth that emerged. What wisdom! What insight! I was nourished and enlivened by the presence of each of my sisters.
We had fun, too! During kickball in the Saturday afternoon sunshine, we managed to get the ball stuck up in a tree, and a game of “How many young nuns does it take . . .” ensued until we dislodged it. There were jokes, stories, a card game, great meals and a quite hilarious round of Catchphrase. We laughed and laughed and laughed – easily and often.
At the close of this weekend that went way too fast, we gathered for prayer and to share what the retreat had meant to us. I shared that I felt normal. Usually, I am one of just one or two sisters with a group of peers, or I’m one of a just few young adults in a big group of sisters. In this group of young adult sisters, there was a natural understanding and a relaxed spirit. Women in our circle said they felt grateful, renewed, affirmed, energized, accompanied, strengthened and more. Sister Annie, a new canonical novice with my congregation, shared that although we may not have the answers, we all come with similar questions, and now we know we are not alone as we live into them.
Following from the first reading and the psalm, the offertory song during Sunday’s Mass was the well-loved Dan Schutte hymn, “Here I Am, Lord.” All of us young sisters sang the familiar words with fervor and clarity. Oh, yes, young nuns are a powerful church-song-singing presence! My cheeks hurt from smiling as the joyful sound enveloped me. In that moment, it felt like we were all reiterating our “yes” together.
As we sang, I thought back to another time in life when “Here I Am, Lord” had hit me in an especially profound way. It was July 2007, just before senior year of college. I visited a small Appalachian town where friends were volunteering for the summer with UDSAP, a program out of University of Dayton’s Center for Social Concern. The experience, although only a weekend, had a lasting impact on me. I had seen dire poverty, but never so close to home. I was moved, too, by the generous commitment of my peers, giving their whole summer to live simply in intentional community and to work for a better world.
On Sunday morning, we attended Mass in the tiny local chapel, and the communion song happened to be “Here I Am, Lord.”
When I arrived back to my seat after receiving the body of Christ, without knowing how, I began to cry. My heart was bursting with questions (that would eventually lead me to places I never imagined). At the time, I was figuring out what to do after graduation. I was considering law school, or maybe teaching. But something in my encounters that weekend tugged at my heart and made me wonder, for the first time, if I might end up doing something totally unconventional. Could I serve the way my classmates were serving here in Kentucky? Could I do something to help respond to poverty and suffering like what I had witnessed?
Just like Samuel, I was unsure what I might be hearing, but my unexpected tears, comprised of both wonder and terror, told me that something had been sparked. I hadn’t heard a voice, but perhaps this was God speaking to me! Whatever it was felt lonely and mysterious. I trembled a bit as I joined in singing, “Whom shall I send?” What might God ask of me? Would I be able to say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening?”
That was the beginning of a journey.
How different it was, almost eight years later, to ring out those very same words, this time encircled by young sisters, lifting our voices as one. Peaceful joy infused every cell of my being. As we sang, “Here I am” to our loving God, it seemed that we also avowed it to each other. We know that these relationships will sustain us and propel us into the future of our extraordinary, prophetic vocation. Far from being alone in the mystery of God’s call, we are bolstered by the power of community. “Here I am” has melted so sweetly into “here we are.”
Younger, newer women religious need these encounters. Of course, we dearly love our own congregations and all of our sisters. Nothing could replace that; the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati are my home. But there is a certain gift in peer relationships that cannot be found anywhere else. Caitlin, a pre-novice with the Marianist Sisters, commented on Friday as we walked in a group of about seven that this was the most sisters her age that she had ever been with. Ever! Being with peers in religious life, and I mean true peers, is indispensable for a young sister’s health – and exciting for the unfolding collaborative future of religious life. This is my plea to formation directors, leadership teams and congregations across the nation: Make it possible for your younger members to take part in these opportunities, every year, and generously support the good work of Giving Voice.
As each of us returns to our daily lives after the 20s/30s retreat, our hearts are full. Singing the words of, “Here I Am, Lord,” I took special note that while the refrain is sung in our voice, the verses are offered in God’s voice: a God who is of sea, sky, snow, rain; who hears our cry, bears our pain, makes our darkness bright; who sets a feast for us and gives us hearts for love; who is faithful. This is a God who says, “Here I am,” to us. First. Always. It is God’s “Here I am” every day of our lives that empowers our own response of great love.
We certainly sensed God’s “Here-I-Am”-ness as we shared in the warm Arizona sunlight. We carry with us the rich gifts of the weekend and press on, ardently desiring to wake up the world as young religious. Together.
Whom shall I send?
Here we are, Lord. Send us!
[S. Tracy Kemme is a novice with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog, Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She has a background in Hispanic ministry, having served both in Ecuador and at the U.S.-Mexico border prior to novitiate.]