I didn't grow up with religious sisters. I went to public school and my home parish was staffed by a group of priests and dedicated lay people. Even in all my ministry during college, both at school and during the summer, rarely did I ever cross paths with sisters.
It wasn't until I graduated and began my first job that I came across real, flesh & blood nuns. First it was subscribers to the magazine, then women out in the blog-o-sphere, and finally, sisters with minds and hearts for social justice. Truth be told, while those three groups are separate, in many cases, they are one in the same. To be most specific, it was that last group, with spirits overflowing with faith and hearts beating for compassionate justice, that landed me where I am right now.
Recently, there's been a upsurge in appreciation for religious women in America. After decades of under-appreciation (or at least silent admiration), the church has begun to recognize and acknowledge the work of the great women of faith. Even if it is the result of recent controversy (see: Vatican investigation of "quality of life" of women religious & the separate doctrinal assessment of the LCWR), this movement is welcome and seems to be strengthening communities, individuals, and the entire culture of women religious. This is long overdue.
Among the many articles analyzing and commenting on these events are a remarkable number of personal narratives and cries of gratitude. Each person who has worked with or been ministered to by sisters can recount what they've learned. There is no end to the list of lessons learned and blessings received.
I've officially been a part of the SSJ Mission Corps for the last month. The lessons I have learned are tremendous. Many I cannot put into words and many more are still in progress, coming to fruition as I live and work with the sisters and their spirituality each day.
This past weekend I had the opportunity to travel to New York City with a sister for a demonstration concerning the non-distribution of relief funds raised for the people of Haiti following January's devastating earthquake.
(Quick Reality Check- of the over 1 billion dollars that was raised for relief, only 38% has been distributed to people in Haiti, the rest is caught up in NGOs and is not going to benefit those who are still living in dire conditions without food or adequate shelter... OK, now back to the story.)
Since the demonstration was this morning, we spent last night at a convent in Newark, NJ. The women of this house showed us generous hospitality and, since the sisters were helping to sponsor the demonstration, a group of us ventured out together on our peaceful protest/journey from the Haitian consulate to the United Nations.
The lesson I learned though has nothing directly to do with Haiti or even social justice; it is a lesson that I noted over a year ago when I first visited the sisters and which has been continually, though I'm sure not intentionally, repeated throughout my time with them.
That lesson? I'm going to die.
Well actually, you are too. In fact, we all are. That's kind of how mortality works.
The thing that reminded me of this lesson was a conversation with the community of 5 that lived in the house. Over pizza, we shared stories and made small talk. One thing I have learned about sisters, especially Sisters of St. Joesph, is that they are remarkably and unapologetically real. They tell it how it is and by being genuine, they inspire those around them to be true to themselves and their beliefs.
As the conversation wore on I wanted to ask one of the sisters, originally from northern New Jersey, if her parents still lived close by and if she ever visited them. Before, the words could reach my lips another thought flashed across my mind: this woman is in her mid 70's, there is a good chance if you ask that question she may not have any family that is still living ::open mouth insert foot:: Yeah, death is a pretty big conversation killer. Luckily I caught myself, but that moment of realization stuck with me.
Kind of like the time I happened upon the congregation's cemetery- imagine long rows of gravestones, some only days apart, marking the final resting places of sisters from a congregation that, in Philadelphia alone, numbers nearly a thousand today (and which numbered in thousands in the mid-twentieth century.) Standing in that cemetery and sitting among (very much alive) sisters in Newark, I am reminded of my own mortality.
I am also aware of the mortality of this order. Any sister that I have encountered would humbly tell you that she is simply a person, a mere mortal. No religious title, congregational insignia, or set of vows can change that. Yet, it is these things that act as a outward sign of what to many sets these women apart. Really they are just like any one else. Their community, like any family, is made up of many parts. Each person brings their own gifts to the table, teaching others lessons and presenting an openness and willingness to learn. When they die, they will be buried alone; but really, a cloud of witnesses stands before them, a community that supports them before, during, and after their death. They are not alone at all. No matter the size of the order, they will live on in the lives they have lived and the lessons they've shared.
Per usual, the lessons we learn aren't always the easiest and most often they aren't what we expect to learn. Many times they come from facing things that make us uneasy and that we'd much rather avoid. Death is no excuse not to live.
I am going to die. The lessons I've learned can't change that fact; they can, however, enrich the life I live and allow me to give the life I have to others so that they might live better lives. I may be one person and have one life to live, but it is that life that is a blessing. If you have truly lived life, you will never be alone. Likewise, these orders of sisters will never die out. The Spirit that lives within them and that is in each one of us will live on and bring new life. Give gratitude for it and all the lessons that come with it.