When people meet me and learn that I am a Catholic Sister, some respond with surprise, excitement or intrigue. Others, I notice, shift uncomfortably as if realigning their filter to “only things I can say in front of a nun” mode.
Although I have no formal theology background, many assume my place in the world comes with a spiritual map and compass to help me navigate God’s nudges more easily than the average person. While I am grateful for the years of spiritual direction, formation classes, common prayer and relationships with wise elder sisters, I have yet to receive the aforementioned map and compass.
In fact, I am less formally qualified in spiritual accompaniment than many of my lay peers who have multiple theology degrees and serve in pastoral ministry for a living. This is why it surprises me when people approach me with spiritual questions, expecting I can whip out my Magic 8-Ball of godly responses. Over the years, this has happened with friends, family members, students, acquaintances and people I’ve never met, referred to me by friends .
Despite feeling underqualified, I appreciate these conversations when they arise and find accompanying others in their own spiritual questions a sacred, privileged place to be. I have also found a freedom in my responses to others that reflect my growing sense of a God that does not belong exclusively to any one faith tradition. I find myself asking people to be gentle with themselves, inviting them to try something new, take a risk or consider that the God of all may be bigger than they previously thought. I tell them that God loves their questions and that their genuine searching is beautiful in the eyes of the Holy One.
I sometimes end these encounters feeling a bit like Santa Clause in the movie “Miracle on 34th Street.” In case you don’t watch this movie every Christmas season like my family does, imagine a mall Santa who, rather than pushing for purchases at the store where he works, considers all the options to help families find the best price. The movie Santa Clause has the joy of each child in mind when she or he approaches his lap and also listens genuinely to their desires, not pushing for an assumed outcome or hurrying them along. The problematic nature of an old white man granting wishes aside, there’s something meaningful for me in the surprising nature of these encounters rooted in genuine desire for the joy of another. When I ground myself in the question, “What does God want this person to hear?”, the answer comes easily: God’s tenderness, freedom and loving accountability, no matter which church they might be found.
So when a member of my extended family called me last year because her sense of justice and equality had grown bigger than her conservative Catholic community, I heard myself say, “Maybe you could look at Episcopal churches in your area — the service is a lot like Catholic mass, but women can lead and gay people are welcome, too.”
When a friend I met through my community said his faith community felt too homogenous and he needed a change, I suggested he try a vibrant Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I had worked with. When a woman discerning religious life who I had been communicating with for several years informed me that she had found an Anglican monastic community where she felt alive and at home, I rejoiced with her, grateful she had finally found what she had been seeking.
As I look back over some of these exchanges, I realize that they grow out of my own experiences of others who desire my wholeness in generous and godly ways. This generosity comes from the Sisters of Charity who named the energy they saw in me to discern with the Sisters of Providence, although it meant in the end I would not be a vowed member of their community. It comes from my parents who cheered me on when I decided to attend an out-of-state university despite the fact that I wouldn’t be around them as much those four years. It comes from the Sisters of Providence who championed my move to Nogales Sonora in Mexico: although I would be less present to our mostly midwestern congregation, they knew it would give me and others life.
Of course to compare spiritual seeking to an encounter with a mall Santa who helps you find the best deal is oversimplifying the matter. Yet, I do wonder how the global Church would change if spiritual accompaniment were less about pushing our own agendas and more about deeply desiring the good of another.
What if, rather than clinging to our own closed sense of membership and “in or out,” we could accompany one another through the messy work of finding a spiritual home, knowing that God also desires us to be whole on the journey? Jesus did not abandon his Jewish faith or traditions, but he did stretch and challenge them in ways that were unthinkable for his time. And he did so with great inner freedom. Perhaps we should follow Him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tracey Horan is a Sister of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in Indiana and associate director of education and advocacy for the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora and Arizona. She has ministered with Latinx migrant communities in a variety of contexts for the last decade. She previously worked as a teacher and then community organizer and recently celebrated six years as a Catholic sister. Her hobbies include asking questions, hiking desert mountains and writing song parodies.