Called to widen our tents

by Dorothy Fernandes


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The journey of life takes us through many vicissitudes, and in the process we are invited to respond to the many events that take place. In this year dedicated to the Consecrated Life, I begin to ask questions of what this will really do to me and how I can best walk in unison with the call given by Pope Francis.

Being engaged with people on the margins and trying to view life from their perspective, I am often stunned at their simple faith and their contentment in life with the little they possess. At times I begin to wonder how I am different in this big city. What is it that makes my life a tangible presence, giving meaning to the way of life I was called to and the generosity with which I was supported by my family in my response?

Along this journey of life, I have known one thing: Once we are open to life, so many unexpected things happen. At each phase of life, it is the response that determines the way forward. Documents, directions and policies are guidelines which enable us to respond and determine why we do what we do. I have often experienced how dangerous it is to live these concretely. As religious we spend long hours and huge amounts of resources debating what words should be written in our documents, but we often fail in really working out strategies for what we need to do to live them.

One of our recent documents at our 2012 Congregational Gathering of the Presentation Sisters invites us to widen our tents. For us in India, living with diversity is normal. We have diverse cultures, languages, religions, food, celebrations and dress. So, I’m beginning to connect to the invitation of Pope Francis for the church to be a church of the poor, where we can get the smell of the sheep and act on the documents of our Gathering.

Living singly and in a flat with people of mixed religions and communities is a big challenge and also a blessing for me.

This Easter was an unique experience when the two Catholic families and I decided to have a common lunch for all the families living in our apartment building. It was a small way of extending our tents, of being inclusive. It was also a time to explain the meaning of Easter. It was partaking in one meal as we shared in common, young and old. None were excluded.

My team members who work among the urban poor with me are my wider community and were also guests. It was yet another invitation to extend the tent and form communities with people.

Another remarkable experience was that the men present served us women first and attended to our needs. They ate last, breaking the usual rules of the home, where Indian women eat last.

From April 24 to 27, the earthquake which devastated Nepal had effects in Patna as well. Once again it was an invitation to widen our tent, to join together in the struggles of people as a community. We were in the heart of the city when we felt the tremors, and two successive ones compelled us to move out and sit with people in the open grounds of the city. We sat together for three hours, experiencing people’s anguish, feeling their pulse. It was a moment of bonding and also of deep trust in the Lord of the Universe; we were praying that this cup of suffering would pass, that not our will but thine be done – praying with Abraham, that even if there is one good person, you will have mercy on us and will not strike us down with destruction.

When we are facing a situation which is beyond ourselves, we hold on to the last straw of hope and we pray. The Hindu community performed a Havan (a puja, an act of reverence, wherein they implore the Almighty to let this difficulty pass us). On Sunday morning the Catholic community thanked God for another opportunity to live life.

Back home on Sunday afternoon, April 26, I was in my flat in the apartment as the news flashed on social media of new possible tremors. Concern was expressed as we all moved out to open spaces, calling everyone, ensuring that no one was left in the building. For me this is community, this is being good neighbors, extending our tents and caring for each other.

Living among mixed communities, there is a richness that we hold and experience, an invitation to participate in life and enjoy the whole of creation. At work this becomes all the more tangible as we continue to mingle with people of all faiths.

As consecrated people we are called to widen our tents, but often we get into our own ghettos, excluding people who do not come under our purview. The invitation to be the leaven in the dough, the lamp amidst darkness, is very important. It is what Jesus’s way of life is all about. Somehow we have gotten caught up with rituals and talk about this as spirituality. Spirituality is about communion, about throwing one’s lot on the Word that sustains and nourishes us. Often in my experience with people, it is this that people are seeking. Are we spiritual beings who give to those who come to us the God experience that we all need?

These days I consciously move among people just striving to give this God experience. People are yearning and longing for this. It makes sense when I have left my home thousands of miles away and have pitched my tent among a people I do not know. I try to imbibe their culture, find expressions of bonding, trusting and working. It is perhaps this struggle of holding the tension of the lion and lamb within that makes sense to me.

My hope and my dream for religious across the globe is that we dare to walk the talk. If the more than 120,000 religious women in India could be the leaven, we could be a power to transform our country. We could have unimaginable impact if we were but to go back to the essence of the life and message of Jesus the Nazarene.

Widening our tent is perhaps a new way of being religious. The diminishing numbers in religious congregations, and the complex problems across our globe are opportunities, invitations, to redefine what the call to religious is in this 21st century. Maybe a small band of religious women could offer to our world the newness that is being birthed. Maybe we could break through the form of religious life we have been so familiar with and pave the way for others.

[Dorothy Fernandes a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary from India. She presently serves as Vice Provincial of the Indian province while continuing to be deeply engaged with the urban poor of Patna, Bihar.]