The global sisterhood: nowhere and everywhere

Editor’s note: Chittister’s column, “From Where I Stand,” appears on and in The National Catholic Reporter.
Global Sisters Report is pleased to host this essay, which she wrote especially for our launch.

It's a simple story. Some would say “simplistic.” But it didn't feel like that to me the night it happened.

I arrived at my destination in Australia on the last flight of the day. The program wouldn't start until late the next afternoon so, travel worn as I was, I wasn't really worried about either the land travel to come or my lodgings. After all, the sisters who were hosting the workshop would meet me at the airport. I would be in bed somewhere within an hour.

Except that no one was waiting for me at the gate. There was no one looking for me in the baggage area either. No one at the arrivals door. No one parked outside on the curb.

A few stragglers were still milling around inside the atrium, but not many. There was no time to stand around hoping for the car that had not come.

This was one of those speaking tours where Group 1 dispatched the speaker to Group 2 at their expense and through their own channels. Translation: I had no names, no addresses, no telephone numbers to go by. And I had no backup plans either.

The ticket counters were all but closed by the time I got back inside to the bank of pay phones, for which I had no coins either. The telephone book seemed to be arranged in alphabetical order, but there were none of the usual categories: convents, churches, schools, hospitals, motherhouses.

A man at the next phone supplied the money and found a couple entries that read “Religious of the Whatever . . . .” With the night watchman hovering over my back to hurry me out of the place, I started down the list. No answer. No answer. No answer. I was getting desperate now out here in the middle of nowhere. And then, with the clock showing midnight, I got a very quiet, very sleepy hello. A kind voice. A nun's voice.

No, they didn't know me. No, they had not heard about the workshop. No, they had no idea who should have picked me up at the airport.

But then, the solution: Listen, Sister, we will have someone there to pick you up in 20 minutes – and we'll work out the whole problem tomorrow. Don't you worry.

Click, and it was all taken care of: the car, the house, the lodging. With strangers who were not strangers at all.

Indeed, the Global Sisterhood in action is an awesome thing. Nothing is too small for its attention. Nothing is too much for it to attempt.

But what exactly is “The Global Sisterhood?”

At one level, there is no such thing as a “Global Sisterhood.” It does not exist at all. Women religious – “the sisters”– do not come together in one large umbrella organization anywhere. They do not live under any single Rule of Life. They do not own any kind of common property. They do not all do the same work. They do not all practice the same customs or even live the same schedule or wear the same common clothes.

But they do all come out of one heart.

They have all been formed by the Gospels; they all see themselves as followers of the one same Jesus. They are full of the zeal of discipleship that simply does not wane from one end of life to the other. And they recognize in the face of all the others a sisterhood of centuries. However many miles away, the same commitment to a life of spirituality, simplicity and sacrifice of the self for the sake of the poor makes them one. With the kind of people that Jesus called for in his Sermon on the Mount, they spend their entire lives.

For the very same kind of people Jesus attended to as he walked from Galilee to Jerusalem, they give themselves away. Like Jesus, they refuse to abandon the refugees that so many today call lepers. They, too, talk to women urging them on to be the best of themselves, no matter who reviles them. They raise outcasts out of the depth of their depressions. They contend to the end with those whose religion is more about legalism or pietism or ritual than it is of justice.

At this level, the Global Sisterhood has, for hundreds of years, been one of the strongest, clearest, truest institutions in the church. Everywhere these global sisters go they leave a footprint of care.

This common commitment binds them together as they go to those to whom Jesus went and do the work that Jesus did – healing, teaching, loving and raising people from the many deaths that weigh them down: poverty of soul, despair, disillusion, indigence, rejection, fear and powerlessness.

And so they recognize as their own every other one of their kind in the mission fields of foreign lands or in the midst of urban blight. They open the doors of their small houses and great monasteries everywhere to provide for those who in that same spirit are devoted to spiritual community building around the world.

The Global Sisterhood is an invisible network of impermeable steel forged out of mutual respect and the knowledge that when they themselves need something there will be another sister, other great communities, who will also be there for them, to help them up, to carry them on, to continue the work done for centuries by sisters who have gone before them.

We may not be present to one another physically, but we are together nevertheless.  As communities everywhere were together in the Philippines to rebuild it at the time of the storms. As they were in Africa in the midst of civil wars. As they are to this day in the barrios and ghettos and inner cities around the world.

The challenges to the Global Sisterhood of distance and language, of paucity of resources and cultural differences are many. But the rewards that come from this felt oneness of heart and wholeness of spirit and common care for the people all of us serve everywhere are even more.

[Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, a frequent NCR contributor, writes the online column From Where I Stand.]