Growing in nonviolence together

by Susan Rose Francois

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“The lens of nonviolence brings new insights and commitments to all aspects of our lives together.” These words come from my religious congregation’s chapter commitment to grow in nonviolence. Over the past six years, this commitment has been both a gift and a challenge to me in my life as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace, as a daughter of an aging parent, as a friend and colleague – in all of my relationships really. It has become my touchstone and an accountability partner.

Truth be told, I often find myself putting on the lens of nonviolence in that “after” space. You might be familiar with the “after” space. It’s the introspective or regretful place I find myself after I have placed my foot in my mouth, stepped on someone’s toe or unnecessarily judged another person. It’s a figurative space decorated with wall-to-wall mirrors, and it can be uncomfortable, especially when one puts on the lens of nonviolence and comes face to face with one’s own lack of charity.

Yet our chapter commitment to grow in nonviolence is not one of regret or judgment, not even of our worst selves. Rather, it represents our best selves, our aspiration to be people of peace in all aspects of our lives. A chapter commitment is not to be taken lightly. It is the fruit of prayerful discernment by the entire congregation and a decision made by our highest decision making body. Chapters bring together delegates and other community members to set our direction for the next six years and to elect Sisters to serve in leadership. Ultimately, I’ve come to understand a chapter act as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

I was finishing my novitiate when I attended my first general chapter in 2008, just two years after joining the community.  After a presentation on nonviolence by John Dear – where he challenged us to live up to who we already say we are as Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace – a small group of us were tasked by the chapter to draft the language of our nonviolence chapter act. I will never forget the energy in the small conference room where we came together to put words to paper. It was a sacred space. We opened ourselves to the Spirit and the words came almost as a gift. When we presented our first draft to the chapter body, the sacred space extended to the assembly room. I suppose it is possible that my novice-self romanticized the experience, but I can honestly say that I have never before experienced anything like the moment when the chapter came to consensus and approved the chapter act. I now realize, in my case at least, that this was the easy part. The challenge comes in the living of it, day in and day out.

“As people of peace, we commit ourselves to nonviolence grounded in contemplative prayer and reflection.” All sorts of people practice nonviolence – Christians, Buddhists, Secular Humanists, and Atheists, with inspiration and motivation varying accordingly. As a Christian, I don’t think it is possible to grow in nonviolence without spending regular time with Jesus in prayer and reflection. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” the Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as saying to his disciples. Two thousand years later, we might be tempted to hear that as a platitude, but as a beatitude it is so much more. It is a recognition that making peace transforms our relationships with God, creation, others, even ourselves. It can be a struggle, but the blessing comes in the midst of the struggle and the transformation.

We commit to look with eyes of compassion, to relate with openness and hospitality, and to act from a center of contemplative prayer, peace and passion.” There are many reasons why I made the leap from my career as a mid-level government bureaucrat to become a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace. I was leading a double life of sorts, administering City elections by day and organizing Catholic peace and justice efforts at night and on the weekend. I discovered that leading a double life can be exhausting. I also had an inkling that there was a way to live a more integrated life centered on the Gospel, even though at first I had no idea how that might be possible. 

As is often the case, God surprised me. I discovered a community of vowed women religious and lay associates who share my heart’s desire to promote social justice as a path to peace. So, crazy as it seemed, I took the leap, and I have received gift upon gift, not the least of which is the witness of my Sisters.  These holy, faithful, and human women have helped me realize that it is in our everyday actions and relationships that we build communities of peace. I know what gracious hospitality looks and feels like, because I have experienced it in Sister Lucy’s kitchen where every meal is made with love.  I know what it feels like to be seen with eyes of compassion, because my community members have accepted my foibles and helped me through to the other side.  I know what it feels like to be surrounded by a center of contemplative prayer, peace, and passion, because I have joined my elder sisters for our weekly holy hour for peace and felt the palpable power of their prayer. It is their example that makes the impossible seem possible. They have been on the journey far longer than I have – Sister Louise, one of my role models, is celebrating her 70th jubilee this year – yet even they realize that this is an ongoing commitment which must be nurtured each day.

“We call ourselves to practice nonviolence in communication, reconciliation, and forgiveness.” On my own, I struggle in my attempts to grow in nonviolence. But thankfully, I am not on my own. I am a member of a religious community that has made this commitment together.  It is this commitment that leads me to spend less time in that uncomfortable “after” space and more time before in prayer and reflection with community. Sometimes, I even avoid the “after” space altogether. We all need people in our lives to hold us accountable and challenge us to grow into our best selves, whether that is a religious community, parish, or family.  We grow together, through the struggles and trial and error, into the blessing promised to peacemakers on that mountain top a millennium ago.

[St. Joseph of Peace Sr. Susan Rose Francois is a Bernardin Scholar in Ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Prior to entering religious life, she served in the City Elections Office in Portland, Oregon, for eight years.]