The holy work of tending to life

“Everything is work. We either accept it or we fight against life.” This was the declaration of the Mother Superior and leader of Regina Laudis, a Benedictine Abbey of 36 nuns in Connecticut offering their lives in prayer and cooperative work with God and all creation. This community raises beef and dairy cattle, makes cheese, raises sheep and chickens, cultivates a garden and compost operation, and even dabbles in pottery, weaving, artistry, leather making, and blacksmithing. The life of this community is one sustained by God’s grace in prayer and work. And it is a lot of work. All work at Regina Laudis is ordered towards the common good, to the glory of God.

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“Psalm 27” by Janice Little (image courtesy Greg Little).

After visiting Regina Laudis in June, I returned to my own community with a renewed sense of the connection between work and life.

God breathes everything into existence. All life is sourced in and aimed towards God. In our life together – whether that’s a group of friends, a family, a church body, an intentional or religious community – we are invited to participate in God’s life and to nurture and sustain life. This takes work. Sometimes this work is boring. Sometimes this work is fun. Sometimes it carries a sense of importance, and other times it is underwhelmingly mundane. Sometimes this work is difficult.

Part of this work involves our own inward discoveries and confrontations with pain and fear. The work of interior exploration, noticing, confession, and truth-telling opens up a new terrain for possibilities of love and compassion in a community’s life. The more our common life matures, the greater our capacity to accompany one another in this inner work. Our life is filled with mess ups and forgiveness, discovering our compulsions and strengthening friendships in the journey of receiving God’s grace towards freedom.

Another significant part of this work involves our daily, practical, tiny offerings of doing the dishes, naming hidden gifts, cooking with care, listening to one another, teaching children, bearing one another’s faults with compassion and a smile, changing air conditioning filters and light bulbs, committing to being present, confessing and forgiving wrongs, and placing flowers in a vase on the table.

I wonder what might happen if we explore the mysterious connection between work and life?  What if we work inside of community life as the holy nurturing that makes room for the gift of life to bloom and grow?

Sundays at 4 p.m., all of us who live at Corner House gather to talk about our week’s upcoming schedule and to-do chores. Janice organizes the refrigerator and refreshes our memory of leftovers. Miss T thoroughly washes the dishes and cleans up our coffee corner. Tony changes the sheets in our Christ Room and sweeps all the floors. Lee selects just the right album to play on the record player to lighten and enliven the mood and then cleans the washer or tidies the porch. We work together. We work for one another and for the unknown guests that will present Jesus’ presence to us in the upcoming week.

This pattern of coming together on Sunday afternoons is a place of vitality for our home. We remind one another, through this shared work, of the life that is given to us by God in our common life. We tend to that life, nurture it, and make room for it to grow. We open channels for that life to flow freely and fully.

And Sundays aren’t the only time for this. Bonnie starts our house grocery list the moment the previous week’s grocery run ends. All week long, Bonnie adds to the list when she sees something running low. Tony’s garden-tending is slow, deliberate and filled with wonder. In the last couple weeks, he emerges from the garden everyday with nine cucumbers or seven okra or 15 sun-gold tomatoes. Janice uses her eye for beauty to rearrange art on the walls and systematize our shelves and closets. All of this work is concrete, small, untethered to money, and terribly ordinary. All of this work attends to the gift of life given us by God. All of this work swims in the loving, active presence of God.

We are learning to work to sustain the life given to us by a loving God. We are learning to resist the temptation to say “no” to this work for other tasks we deem more “relational” or ”spiritual,” for God is present in all the mundane acts of care that make room for life to flourish more and more. In prayer, we are reminded of the source and goal of all life as we worship the One who breathes life into everything that exists. May we receive God’s grace to commit to the holy work of tending to life.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Greg Little

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Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia recently met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.

My celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love

On Valentine’s Day and every day, my celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love.

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Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration Sarah Hennessey, Julia Walsh and Eileen McKenzie sharing the love of community (image courtesy of Sarah Hennessey, FSPA).

What does it mean to live consecrated celibacy on Valentine’s Day? In a world obsessed with relationships and sexuality, what does it mean to give that part of myself to Christ?

I have been living religious life for 16 years now, and my walk with celibacy has changed. When I was first discerning vows I met a wise, older sister who told me that I would struggle with each of the vows of poverty, obedience and consecrated celibacy in their own time. So far, she has been right. Just when I thought I was totally comfortable in these vows, life changed and caused me to look at them in a new light. I made vows for a lifetime, but live them out day by day. Every day I choose to be a religious sister. Every day I choose to be celibate.

For me, celibacy is about relationship: my relationship with Christ and consequently the shaping of my relationship with everyone else in my life. I love fiercely. I am madly in love with Christ, but I also love my sisters in community, my friends and my family like crazy. And yes, sometimes I am attracted to someone. Sometimes I find myself riding that wave of emotion on the inside and choosing appropriate boundaries on the outside. Like anyone already in a committed relationship, I can balance between choosing constancy to my commitment while honoring my own feelings. For me, celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love.

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Many FSPA, including Sisters Sarah and Julia, celebrate community at a Post-Vatican II gathering. (image courtesy of Sister Katie Mitchell)

Surprisingly, central to my love for Christ is love for myself. For many years, as I struggled with depression, I also doubted my own self-worth. Self-hatred kept me in bondage. Slowly my friends and family loved me into life, and one day it all shifted. I stopped hating myself and began the process of learning to love myself. This has probably been the greatest shift of my life and a surprising challenge to my celibacy. Suddenly, the whole world was filled with emotion. I never knew that I could love so much. My feelings were new and raw. My love for God suddenly meant more than it ever had before. The change was so strong that I began to ask myself if I truly wanted to be celibate.  

Why am I celibate today, as I am, with my whole and beautiful self? I turn to seek the wisdom of those who have gone before me. I opened a journal I kept when I was first discerning vows and found some quotes.

Many if not most persons who are drawn to a celibate life are not celibate because they made a vow of celibacy. Rather, they are drawn to vow celibacy because of a strong internal sense of prior claim. They sense that celibacy is a given of their being … The reason for celibacy may always remain difficult to explain … But for them, the claim of God on their lives is such that to give their whole embodied selves in sexual union with another person would be a denial of their own inner authenticity and integrity.” – Elaine Prevallet, SL

I feel a prior claim. Though it is not always easy, I like celibacy. I like how it organizes my life around love without one primary relationship. I like the sense of authenticity and integrity it gives me. I think my vows in religious life help me to be more “Sarah.” I am most fully myself as I live this life. For me, this life is all about relationship. The words of Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM, speak to my heart.

Sometimes people ask religious how they persevere in a state of life within a church whose institutional corruption is so clear to them, and in which they may even be the objects of unjust persecution. Whatever answer they give, often the real reason is religious life is not, for them, a commitment to an institution, but a relationship with Christ that, in the final analysis, no authority can touch.” – Sandra Schneiders, “Selling All: Commitment, Consecrated Celibacy, and Community in Catholic Religious Life”

I love the church and the people of God, but when people wonder how I can stay in a church that often is so flawed, this is my reason. I am in love with Christ and Christ’s people, with my whole self today. This is a choice, one that I live every day. Even on Valentine’s Day.

As Mechthild of Magdeburg wrote in the 1200s,

“Lord, you are my lover,

My longing,

My flowing stream,

My sun,

And I am your reflection.”

Amen.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

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Sister Sarah Hennessey is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapel tour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.

“Done Made My Vows to the Lord”

Guest blogger, Sister Sarah Hennessey

Sister Thea Bowman sings the old spiritual song.  My vows have already been made to the Lord.  When I was around 12 I first began to really experience God.  That led me to become an active Quaker and to seek God through silence and service.  Somewhere along the way I had a distinct moment when I knew I had fallen in love with Christ and then when I knew I had fallen in love with the People of God.  Both have been essential to my journey.

Quakerism has been described as a religion which is communal mysticism.  Community is essential and I found my love for community soon shaping my choices.  From a Quaker college, to a year as a lay volunteer with Catholic sisters, to teaching at a Quaker boarding school I lived in small groups, prayed together, and sought God through communal means.  My love of Hispanic culture led me to Mexico, from there to the Franciscans and then into the Catholic church, which I experienced as a wider and more diverse community.

Sister Sarah at Mexican Orphanage
Mexican Orphanage with Sister Joyce Blum (I am on the left)

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At times I feel that formation has turned me inside out and then left me in my confusion to put myself back together again.  Now I look at it differently.  Incorporation demands conversion, but I am not alone.  My sisters are with me, at varying levels of intimacy and personal skill, to both challenge and support me.

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Together with Sisters Deb, Corrina and Joanne

I entered my Franciscan community after only being a Catholic for two years.  I struggled with the title of “sister,” the public notice and appreciation, and centuries of baggage that were all new to me.  A distinction during novitiate helped me name how I felt about becoming “a religious.”  Being on a pedestal is not helpful to me or to anyone else and some of this relational model still hangs over from our past.  However, I am called to be in a fishbowl.  I have made public vows to Christ and the church and people should be able to look at me and see that I am at least trying to live how I say I do.

Fear and Awe
I feel a prior claim to religious life.  I also believe that this commitment is my free choice.  I am coming home to Jesus, the People of God, and these particular FSPA women through my “yes.”  I believe to make perpetual vows is to live them and repeat them on a daily basis.

I find religious life to be deeply intimate.  Like the cross, the horizontal plane of relationship with others and the vertical call to deep union with God intersect daily.  I need to pause and listen deeply before making this lifetime commitment and I know that listening needs to happen in relationship.

Sister Sarah in Mary of the Angels Chapel
"Listening" inside Mary of the Angels Chapel, St. Rose Convent

When I meet other new members of Catholic orders I am always struck by how there is no fear around diminishment.  Yes, religious life will change drastically in my lifetime.  We have many losses, particularly at every funeral.  But I firmly believe that this is a dynamic opportunity for religious life to remain fed by its source which is Christ.

In making vows I feel my emotions most intensely, particularly fear and awe.  There is no little amount of fear as I commit my life not only to God, but to this community of women and this church.  But I have voiced my fears and they have heard me and they still want to journey with me.  Together “we done made our vows to the Lord.”

Sister Sarah will profess her final vows with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in 2011. This is her fourth guest blog entry.