Gathering a religious generation

Candles were exchanged by participants as a sign of the flame we each tend together. (Donna Smith)

"When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together…" (Acts 2:1)

For as long as I can remember, I've prayed with a candle in front me. Whether I hold a votive in my hand or watch the flicker of an electronic flame, there is something soothing to the way the light softly dances, be it on the floor in front of me or through my closed eyelids.

This past Sunday, the feast of Pentecost, I sat in a room with 35 other Sisters of St. Joseph, feeling the heat of the candle in my hands and the warmth of their spirits surrounding me. Prayer rose up around me, the presence in that place pure blessing.

We'd come from throughout North America, sisters from Canada, Mexico and the United States; all of us, the newest members of our communities, candidates and novices, sisters in first vows and those up to 10 years finally professed.

The aim of our time together was simple and yet deeply profound: to be together … in prayer … in process … in play … and in the process, to discover, dream and imagine where the Spirit might be leading us as individuals and as a group into the future.

For the first time in our history, the group had self-organized, taking what began years ago as a gathering planned and implemented by formation personnel and making it our own. To do that, we named our needs, called forth organizers from our ranks and set to work. The result was (and is now) a four-day biennial gathering entitled "Tending the Flame."

Sitting among my sisters on Pentecost, I couldn't help but marvel at the work of the Spirit in our midst. "We came as ones, as individuals," one sister marveled, "and we are leaving as one!"

And those around her nodded in agreement. Words like connection, joy, support and life rose up from the crowd. Our time together had fostered a sense of unity and commitment that each could have and hold into the future.

Most of the Congregation of St. Joseph Sisters gathered at Notre Dame Retreat House in Lake Canandaigua, New York, May 17-20 (Donna Smith)

Together, we were tending the flame not only of our individual vocations but also of our collective heart. That is part of the gift of gatherings such as this. God is the fire starter, the divine spark that burns within us, but it is our duty to tend to that flame. We don't do that by ourselves — we can't. We need to lean into God and into others for support along the way. The companions with whom we share this journey help to fuel the fire within, and it is times spent together — times spent away — that remind us that for a fire to burn steadily you need to provide space for the fire to breathe.

Like a flame, to be sustained, this life needs tending. Space must be made for the fire to breathe and for the burn to encompass our being. We must consent to being consumed. For each person, authentic tending looks different, but there is no doubt that to burn bright we each need the nourishing presence of God as revealed in unity with others on the journey.

To that end, generational gatherings such as Tending the Flame or those facilitated by Giving Voice or other federated groups of congregations, create grounds for union among newer members. They remind us that each of us is working at this life and, though separated by distance or living situations, we are living this reality together.

One day, we all may be one. For now, though, we know ourselves as united in spirit if not yet congregationally.

In the Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph (as in other congregations), this is particularly poignant since newer members share in a federated novitiate experience, which brings novices from various CSSJ congregations together for one year of their two-year novitiate. This shared formative experience creates bonds that last a lifetime and that are nourished and renewed each time we come together.

It is in the times when we come together that we can physically sense being part of something larger; rather than listening to the stories of the distant past and of realities that are not our own, we are able to have new experiences and make memories to carry forward. We are forging relationships and doing so in the fire of experience as we join together.

We've been formed and are being formed within the federation, understanding ourselves not as sisters bound to any one particular place but as Sisters of St. Joseph of the world and ultimately, of the universe.

Reflecting on questions like, "How are you intentionally tending to the heart of religious life?" and, "How do you name your place in this life today and moving into the future?" we are drawn into thick conversations. To speak in this way is to bare a part of your soul to another.

Such conversation facilitates, through vulnerability and honest, compassionate sharing, a feeling of being known and understood. Being with sisters who share in the experience of being newer members creates grounds for companionship and builds relationships that preserve and conserve hope.

Together we can trust not that everything will be fine, but that we do not journey alone. "We are thrust forward into the unknown," one participant stated, "knowing only that we travel that unknown way together."

Throughout our weekend, the palpable feeling of joy in union pervaded. Voices that "back home" would be drowned out by larger cohorts could be heard. From the strong singing voices at liturgy to impassioned pleas in group discussions, whether it was joy or sorrow being shared, the sentiment was heard and held, a witness to the gift of community.

Facilitated by Sr. Charlene Diorka, the group works through processes of discussion and dialog. (Donna Smith)

Like the disciples gathered in the upper room, we were reminded both that in the face of overwhelming fear, community remains, and that to be received, the language you speak needs ears to hear it.

To echo the words of Sr. Michelle Lesher reflecting a few years ago, "We must continue to consciously enter that upper room, that space of sacred patient waiting, and pray for the coming of the Spirit in our time. … Continued reflection on our life experiences will sharpen our capacity to see God in our midst, begging us to notice and respond in ever more creative ways. It is essential that we hear one another; for each member, when listening deeply from within, has much wisdom to offer."

As our time together at Tending the Flame came to a close, I watched and listened as that Spirit took action to draw forth such wisdom.

"What about those sisters who will age out of this gathering?" I thought to myself, thinking of the experience we'd shared and the joy I found in their company. After nearly 20 years in this cohort, they would surpass the 10-year perpetual profession cap placed on the gathering before our next time together.

Before anyone could broach the topic, they raised their hands to speak themselves. Reflecting on their experience, the sisters spoke of the deep value of these gatherings and their appreciation of all they'd been a part of and then they earnestly said "while all this is true, we know in order to make room for those who will come next, we have to go. Otherwise their voices won't be heard and they won't have the same safe space we've cherished for so long."

Their wisdom stemmed from a place of great freedom, love, and grace. To move forward, we must be both protectors and trailblazers; we must illuminate the path for others and be with the grief of what is lost and also the hope of what is to come.

Deep within all of this, the Spirit burns and beckons us to live the vibrant life to which we've been called. This means being free enough to be truly ourselves wherever we are and to bring the lessons we've learned to bear on all situations.

Fortified by the Spirit, we emerge from our upper rooms bearing the Christ light in what might seem like unbearable times. Generation after generation, we, women religious, have done so. Together we answer the call and move forward together, bearing the light within and trusting that in our living and tending, we never go it alone.

Srs. Kari Pohl and Meaghan Patterson position themselves on top of a human pyramid of finally professed sisters at Tending the Flame (Colleen Gibson)

[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as coordinator of services at the SSJ Neighborhood Center in Camden, New Jersey.] 

Check out the latest from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious 2018.