Summer is jubilee time; in my community, we will celebrate 25, 40, 50, 60, 65, 70, 75 and 80 years. And with the celebrations at the mother/province houses around the world come lots of remembering and storytelling.
I always enjoy the personal stories of my sisters, especially those told with a twinkle in their eyes — because I know something once forbidden or long ago frowned upon is about to be shared. My sisters speak of patrons and spiritual themes and songs from their reception classes. Many of us newer to community don't have patrons or themes or songs — at least not spiritual ones — and we don't speak in terms of classes since we usually weren't part of larger groups.
The remembering and storytelling often includes the question "Who brought you to the convent?" Early on, this seemingly simple question gave me pause; I couldn't answer it. No one brought me; I didn't have or need a sponsoring sister or permission from my parish priest. Instead of thinking about "who brought me to the convent," my reflection has become: "Who keeps me in the convent?"
My earliest "nun memories" are from the choir loft. At the invitation of some parish sisters who had heard me cantor, I joined the sisters' choir before getting on the mailing list or even becoming a candidate. I sang for all kinds of community celebrations. The sisters sitting near me would lean over and explain what was going on, and they even translated for me the various languages we would sing. Florence and Bernadelle always made sure I knew the why of what was happening and what we were singing.
I miss them dearly as they are now part of a heavenly choir and not the group who climbs into the loft at the motherhouse. They "kept me." I remain in the choir and can count on one hand the number of times I've been on the main floor of our chapel.
During my early days in community, sisters were entering and leaving faster than I could count. It's part of discernment, I know that. During those times, there was inevitably someone who "kept me" by offering words of support, or a shoulder to cry on, or some perspective.
There were the sisters who agreed to accompany me through the stages of initial formation: reflecting with me on religious life, the vows, life commitment and the like. There were other sisters who opened their home to me as I learned what it meant to live community.
There was my spiritual director, the one constant throughout the entire initial formation process, who would eventually be an official witness at my final profession. And, of course, there were the official formation and leadership sisters who held the responsibility of evaluating "the fit" of the community with me and vice versa.
One way or another, all of them "kept me" even when things got messy, as discernment sometimes does.
Some of my schoolteachers also count among those who "keep me." My second grade teacher was gentle and caring and encouraging to a shy second-grader. When she left my school for another, we lost touch; years later, we reconnected and she was the other official witness for my profession.
Our relationship has evolved from student and teacher to community member and friend. We always manage to find each other at community gatherings and we pick up right where we left off.
The same can be said for my junior high school principal: to this day, she tells me she's proud of me and she always knows what I'm up to — in the best sense of that.
Others who "keep me":
There was the sister who reached out to me when I had to tell a member of my local community that she couldn't come home, that it wasn't safe, as Alzheimer's was taking her away. Two or three times a year, we shared a meal, sometimes with deep conversation and sometimes not. But she always checked in, as she knew how hard it was to watch the Phyllis I knew become someone else. (Phyllis had been in leadership as I transitioned from initial to ongoing formation and sometime later we were part of the same local community.) That sister came to be with me as the community welcomed Phyllis' body back to the motherhouse to say final goodbye — that moment could have been extremely difficult on my own. She "keeps me."
Then there are my sisters from other provinces. With our international headquarters in Milwaukee, I've been able to meet many of my sisters from around the world. Language is sometimes a barrier, but a smile and hug go a long way toward connection. Email and Google Translate help us stay connected across the miles. I'm among the youngest in my province, so meeting younger members from all over the world gives me much hope and it's another way I'm "kept."
There are others too! The other "newer" members who like me don't have a patron or theme or song or class. Friends from other communities, as many of us shared parts of initial formation, and we support and celebrate with each other. There are our lay associates who are committed to our charism and mission. There are our partners in mission: employees, benefactors, board members. And of course, there are our families, once restricted from too much contact. And so many, many more.
Jubilee this year will again bring the question "Who brought you?" and I will share some of "who keeps me." And if I'm courageous enough, I may ask my sisters who keeps them.
[Jane Marie Bradish is a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis based in Milwaukee. Her ministry has been in secondary education; currently, she teaches theology and is the academic programmer for a large, urban, multicultural high school.]