The following is a reflection that I offered on the reading for this Sunday at a Congregational Assembly (see:big meeting of my nuns). While many of you who read this aren't Sisters of St. Joseph, I believe there is something for each one of us in the message of the reflection- our calling is to discover who we are and to live out of that discovery. That's what "being your vocation" is all about. I was graced to be able to offer these words to my sister, I hope that you will be graced by the Spirit that dwells within them.
At the beginning of February, a letter came for me in the mail at a convent I don't live at. It was addressed to Colleen Gibson, Novice, care of Mother Superior, St. Joseph’s Novitiate and had a return address of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
I don’t know anyone in Albuquerque and I didn’t know anyone who would send me mail via Mother Superior, so you can imagine my intrigue as I opened it. It began- “Miss Gibson, Never having written to someone in the Novitiate Program, I am at a loss for what might be the proper salutation, so I will leave it as is.” The writer, Bill* had read something that I had written and seeing in the by-line that I was a novice with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia had felt the need to write to me.
Bill’s story is older than I am… older than many of us in this room. It begins in 1936. That is when Bill became a Homey, as he affectionately refers to himself; that is to say, that that is when, at age 7, he entered St. John’s Orphanage and came under the care of our sisters. Bill explained that the sisters became substitutes for his deceased mother, they were the ones who cared for him and his siblings, the ones who worked in the laundry and struck up a relationship with the young boy and they were the ones who walked up and down the dormitory after 60 boys had knelt on their pillows to say night prayers, going from bed to bed to kiss each child ‘goodnight’. He would go on to join the Air Force and raise a family of eight, but he never forgot our sisters.
As he brought his letter to a close, Bill left me with these words: “I cannot know how you chose to enter your present path, but I wish you to know that you are associated with those who taught me what Faith is all about… a group that this Homey includes in his Daily Morning Offering.”
It might seem strange to talk about Bill’s story in connection with today’s readings. After all, Isaiah tells us not to remember the things of the past, not to dwell on the things of long ago, for God is doing something new. And Paul in his letter to the Philippians speaks of “forgetting what lies behind” so that we might strain “forward to what lies ahead” in pursuit of “the prize of God’s upward calling.” Add to that the woman caught in adultery and Bill’s story seems irrelevant (I guess that’s why you shouldn’t ask the novice to give the reflection at Assembly.)
But really, Bill’s story- our story- has everything to do with these things. In order to move forward, we need to look back. Look back. Observe. Learn. NOT dwell, reminisce, or recreate. Stories like Bill’s make us feel good, they show us that what we’ve done has made and continues to make a difference. More so though, through the Love that our sisters embodied and the Faith they lived out, Bill’s story speaks to who we are. That’s the question that we need to be asking: Who are we as Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia?
Everything that we do flows out of the answer to that question. We can talk about ministry and Cape May and a whole score of other things but if our conversation (and ultimately the lives we are living) aren’t grounded in the tangible understanding of who we are… not who we say we are or the words we use to describe ourselves, but the radical hope, faith, and love lived out authentically in intentional poverty, obedience, and chastity in Love with our God and our neighbors- if we don’t have a handle on that, then we have missed the point.
That is the upward calling Paul is talking about. It is the call we said ‘yes’ to; the call that surrenders all to Christ. It comes from an unshakable encounter with the Divine, an encounter that reduces all else to rubbish in its midst. Our ‘yes’ makes us realize that God will take everything if we are free enough to give it. It is a call that hurts. And yet, it is this call that we embrace. We come to it with a willingness to lose everything- all that we know and all that we love- so that we might be united to the One whom we would be lost without.
This is the One who looks with love upon us, even in times of pain; The One who nourishes us so we might live lives of praise; The One who sees our past, but does not condemn…does not cast stones, choosing rather to send us forth with the opportunity for new life.
We are being given that opportunity right now. We are being called to perceive the movement of the Spirit. We need to focus on what matters, not how much money we make, what we have been, how we do things, or what makes us comfortable; we need to listen to one another and to the Spirit in our midst as we ask:
Who are we and who is Jesus calling us to be?
Are we living our lives with authenticity?
Are we challenging each other on a personal level to do so?
Are we actively working to foster our membership in every generation?
Does the way we live pose a challenge and an invitation to women to share in our way of life?
And ultimately, what are we willing to lose and what would we be lost without?
These are the questions that accompany us as we move forward. As we prepare to celebrate Eucharist around this table, we pause, we know that the One who sustains us joins with us on this journey, and we acclaim ::sung::
You are all we have,
You give us what we need,
Our lives are in your hands, Oh Lord
Our lives are in your hands.