One key lesson I have learned from my life as a sister is that the work I do doesn't much matter. What matters are the relationships I share. I have had 17 different jobs throughout my 60-plus years as a Franciscan Sister. Each job broadened the horizons of my life with opportunities to grow through whole "card catalogs" full of experience and relationships. Since I retired, relationships in my life have taken an unexpected turn toward living and working with young adults who have entirely different "books" full of experiences.
There are 60 years of difference between the ages of these young men and women community volunteers who live in our house and my age of 82. I live in a new and unfamiliar world of today's youth. The language and culture of these young adults, the things that matter to them, are not in the same library as the one in which my history is stored. My work now is to build relationships with youth whose grandparents are younger than I am.
My novice director (novice mistress, we called her) is surely turning over in her grave if she can see what I now accept as a clean kitchen. I was stunned to learn one of our group didn't know how to use a broom. She had never swept a floor in all of her life. Those who do know how to use a broom don't see the need to do so. Who ever said, "Cleanliness is next to godliness?!" We all take turns preparing the evening meal with varying results. Dinner conversations often include questions from me, "Will you please tell me what you are talking about?"
I, who am finished looking for what to do next in my life, share my days with those who have taken a year to volunteer with non-profits so that they have time to determine what their next steps in life will be. They have made me realize that it is a blessing to get to live in the present moment! For those whose future lies unmapped before them, what education they still need, what work they will do, is of utmost concern. I pray their relationship with us will support them on their way.
Franciscan Community Volunteers come from all over the country, and they have added other lessons to what I have learned. I have learned to see young adults' appreciation of central Minnesota as they volunteer in our St. Cloud non-profit organizations. This is the 10th year of our volunteer program. After 11 months of service during this decade of years, most volunteers chose to move back home. Some left for education, even though Minnesota has some of the finest universities: Think of the school of medicine associated with Mayo Clinic. For whatever reason, they left Minnesota — what I call a four-season heaven — upon completion of their volunteer program.
However, this year, all three current volunteers are choosing to continue to live right here in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Amanda, from Montana, is accepting a job with the St. Cloud Catholic Charities Youth House where she worked her 1,500 volunteer hours. Kiera, who worked with Catholic Charities Hispanic Ministries, came from North Carolina and is choosing St. Cloud State University from among the schools that accepted her to go on for her master's degree. John Caleb, from Alabama, after volunteering with a Boys and Girls Club, chooses to stay in spite of having to shovel snow in Minnesota winters! All three from the east and west are now busy furnishing their apartments in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
So my own education continues. I add to the list of lessons I have learned from my life as a sister: Take a new look at the town in which I grew up. Look again where I attended high school — look through the eyes of these non-Minnesota men and women. So eager was I to leave St. Cloud when I moved to the Franciscans, I would probably never have seen how good my home town is without these out-of-state eyes shining light on it.
Whoever could have thought that 64 years later some 20-year-olds would open me to the opportunities and the goodness of life here? For heaven's sake, even the Mississippi River runs from north to south through here. Eagles nest in trees on the Mighty Miss' shores, ducks swim there, and everyone picnics in parks along her banks or simply sits on decks or docks enjoying the beauty of sunrise or sunset depending on whether they live in East St. Cloud or West St. Cloud.
This program calls me one of the "Franciscan Sisters on-site support community." I thought I was asked to come here as a retired sister to "help cook" and to be a Franciscan Sister presence. I see, however, that I am in a remedial Franciscan life learning program, and now I am having to rethink the question of who supports whom here.
Over the years of my active life, I thought I was living the basics of Franciscan religious life, and I focused on their meaning occasionally, perhaps during a retreat. Now I am being taught by young people who practice what I only preach. For example, one class in this program is called "Simple Living."
The Franciscan Community Volunteer program handbook states, "Simple living leads to spiritual growth. Voluntary simplicity is not poverty, destitution or deprivation, because poverty does not involve choice. Voluntary simplicity is a deliberate organization of life for a purpose." I particularly remember this simple living lesson taught to me by Anna, the volunteer at that time in charge of grocery shopping. I wrote "ice cream" on our grocery list. Anna said to me, "No, we can't buy ice cream unless it is on sale. It's not a necessity."
I'm not the only one still learning. I just checked our refrigerator and found a black banana and two hidden-way-back "not interested in that" leftovers. I wonder what the next lesson in life from the digital space perspective of young people will hold for me.
[Jan Kilian is a Franciscan Sister of Little Falls, Minnesota. Her past ministry includes being an assistant hospital administrator, motherhouse administrator and coordinator of the congregational office for Peace, Justice and Care of the Earth. She worked as a counselor in a sabbatical program, at a retreat center and a welcoming house.]
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