Each morning when I sit down to my desk at work, before I check voicemails or emails, I flip over a page on my de facto daily calendar. Just to the right of my computer and telephone sits this small, spiral-bound book containing all 100 Maxims of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
A friend gave it to me a few years ago, and I decided I would use it for daily inspiration — to remind me why I serve at a Sisters of St. Joseph-sponsored work, and how as an Associate of the Sisters of St. Joseph, I am committed to living the congregation's mission and charism.
When the French Jesuit, Jean Pierre-Médaille, founded the Sisters of St. Joseph in mid-17th century France, he wrote the Maxims to guide the women of what he called "The Little Institute." Popular in the Médaille's time, maxims were pithy sayings designed to assist the reader in leading a virtuous life. Whether it be faith, fate or serendipity — or some combination of all of the above — almost without fail, I find that each day's Maxim ends up being exactly what I need to read that day.
So today when I sat down for my daily ritual, I turned the page and saw Maxim 52: "Interpret all things from the best possible point of view."
This has always been one of my favorite Maxims, and in recent years, it has taken on new meaning for me as an associate. In fact, at the risk of overstatement, I believe that the Maxims and Associate life in general have helped me to become a better husband, father, mentor and teacher. I am fortunate that my wife and I are both associates and we work together in education at a Sisters of St. Joseph-sponsored work in Philadelphia. As associates, we commit to live in solidarity with the Sisters of St. Joseph, and try to embody the mission and charism in all aspects of our lives. Of course, these are ideals we strive for, and like all people, we succeed at times and fail at others — often multiple times in the same day. Yet, in Maxim 52 there is something so incredibly relevant to our relationship and our marriage in general.
Like many households where both parents work, sometimes the pressures associated with ensuring that everyone in the family is clean, fed, and to work or school on time mean that communication is fragmented or rushed — where a quick text message has to suffice when a longer conversation would really be better. In the daily busyness of loading the dishwasher, doing daycare drop-offs, and folding laundry, it is easy to become so focused on the tasks that are part of our daily routine that we can become easily frustrated, or misinterpret something.
Here is where this Maxim really comes into my life as a spouse. Though human nature might incline me to overreact — or worse, retreat into passive-aggressive silence — by recognizing that whatever transgression my partner may have committed might not have been an intentional affront to me, I am already on the path toward wholeness in relationship. In interpreting all things from the best possible point of view, I am one step closer to achieving unity and reconciliation, hallmarks of the SSJ charism.
Similarly, I try to model this behavior for my son. At 3 years old, he is a little sponge — taking his cues from us in quietly observing everything we do and repeating what we say as his world expands each day. I learned this lesson all too well a week or so back when another driver cut me off while I was driving my son to daycare, and several minutes later he repeated a word I wish I hadn't taught him. This got me thinking about how I overreacted to the situation and what that might be teaching my son. Was that other driver trying to personally offend me? Probably not. Perhaps that person was rushing to see a sick relative, or to pick up a child waiting alone at a bus stop. Rather than let it go and interpret the situation from the best possible point of view, I responded in anger, and through the mouth of my son, God brought this to my attention.
Obviously, as parents we want our son to be patient, kind and understanding. Knowing that he will mirror all of our actions and words, my wife and I try to bring the mission and charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph into our home, in hopes that he witnesses us being persons who create unity rather than division.
It was not until I became an associate of the Sisters of St. Joseph about eight years ago that these ideals were named for me. But in truth, I believe now that this mission and charism have always been part of my life.
A wise sister said to me a while back, "The mission has always been in you, you just have to uncover it." This is a perfect description of associate life. My wife and I are not vowed members of a religious order, but as Associates of the Sisters of St. Joseph, we feel called to live the mission and charism faithfully. It is not something we turn off and on, but rather a way of reframing our interactions with each other, with our son, and with all persons. Each encounter represents a chance for greater union with God and one another, and associate life challenges us not only to recognize these opportunities but to act upon them.
Maxim 52 has helped us to communicate better as a couple and learn to not sweat the small stuff. We are works in progress, part of God's grand design. God molds us each day to become better versions of ourselves than we were the day before. Yes, the mission might have been in me all along, but it was not until I discerned an associate vocation that I took steps to live this witness more fully.
Being associates has undoubtedly enriched our married lives and our lives as parents. We are not "junior sisters," but rather partners in mission doing our best to live and work so that all may be one. Perhaps the best way we can honor this commitment is by raising our son to be a unifier, a bridge-builder, and someone who always tries to see situations from the best possible point of view. This work is lifelong, and while we will never live it perfectly, I think we are doing our best with Maxim 52.
Now onto the other 99.
[Ryan P. Murphy is an Associate of the Sisters of St. Joseph and works as Director of Service-Learning at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. Ryan is also a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Temple University where he is researching the experiences of American Women Religious in the years of renewal after Vatican II.]