When I entered religious life almost 40 years ago, living singly was not one of my expectations. Having grown up in a family that taught me to share, persuade and compromise, I had a bit of a head start adjusting to community life and have grown to love and value it deeply.
When I was a child and adolescent, my parents would call an occasional "family meeting" when the daily tensions of life mounted in our home. We each found a seat as well as a voice and were required to stay in the conversation until the issues at hand were resolved. In the democratic process, we each had a vote (including my parents), but plenty of persuasion was needed, as we were an even number. Perhaps this early experience helped me survive convent "house meetings"!
While all walks of life are marked by highs and lows, with most times somewhere in between, living in community with my sisters over the past four decades has been no different. There have been periods of loneliness as well as companionship, conflict as well as solidarity, and challenge as well as support. Overall, I have found that life in community encourages me to live honestly and authentically. It has taught me a lot about differences as well as how to decide which issues are critical and which are best left alone. Perhaps, along the way, it has dulled a few of my rough edges, too.
During this past year, community life has shifted significantly for me and finds me living singly. The year has seen two moves within seven months: first to Washington, D.C., and then to Chicago. In one city, I found a community with whom I shared life for the interim period, while in the second I floundered in the search.
Hence, I write this reflection from a postage-stamp-sized space perched 15 stories along the Chicago skyline. What it lacks in size, it possesses in view: a panoramic view of some of the Southside shores of Lake Michigan.
Both searches for housing stirred resistance within me. In the first, I fought homesickness for the community with whom I had lived for the past 14 years. I longed for evenings in the community room and the easy familiarity of home. In the second, I struggled with fears of the unknown: a new city, unfamiliar geography, few connections, and no network. It was painful to have an unsuccessful search and it was tempting to turn inward with negative self-talk. What's the matter with me, I wondered?
Reluctantly, I settled on a small, furnished apartment in a high rise within walking distance to work. I've done my best to adjust and try to focus on the benefits rather than dwell on the deficits. Top among them is my view of the lake and my mornings spent contemplating it.
The lake lures me daily to pray. It draws me into its depths and across its expanse, whether it be lit by golden sun or dulled by gray clouds and fog. And when I travel, which I often do, I feel a gentle longing beckoning me home to this morning perch.
The view also reshapes my vision daily with its changing weather and seasonally with its accompanying shifts. In the summer, I looked out on treetops of various hues and shapes in the nearby park and lakeshore. The colors slowly rusted into shades of red, yellow and brown as the defoliating trees revealed their structures and shapes.
Now, in early winter, the vista is that of a black-and-white photo with a snow covering that edges the dark tree boughs and robs the color and variety from the line of parked cars, rendering them into a uniform row.
These days, the lake reflects the deep blue winter sky. Without the humidity of summer, clear days yield a cloudlessly perfect vista. Sometimes it is the only color in the black-and-white landscape. It speaks to me of longing, long for more: more color, more love, more peace, more justice, more God.
I still am not at peace in living singly and long for community and a greater sense of connection. Yet, within the resistance is a gift of morning contemplation that reshapes and recolors the rest of the day.
[Ellen Dauwer is a Sister of Charity of St. Elizabeth of Convent Station, New Jersey, currently living in Chicago. She spent 20 years in higher education, teaching educational technology and serving in administration. She recently completed eight years in congregational leadership and began as executive director of the Religious Formation Conference in January.]