An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Pedagogy and Profession newsletter of the New Chaucer Society on September 14, 2020.
Many of us have experienced constricted forms of community during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some have looked to cloistered religious orders to learn skills for living in an “enclosed” context. A medievalist by training, I entered a congregation of Catholic women religious in July 2019 and spent the ensuing year living as a “candidate” (or postulant) in community with four sisters down the road from our congregational motherhouse. Unsurprisingly, the quarantine intensified my introduction to communal religious life. The experience has opened me to the gifts that this way of life, deeply rooted in medieval forms and traditions, has to offer society today, at least in a North American context.
My congregation, the Dominican Sisters of Peace, is not a cloistered monastic community but an apostolic foundation. Communities of apostolic women religious who serve in active ministry were only granted canonical status in the modern era. Although Dominican Sisters trace our heritage back to the first house of Dominican nuns founded at Prouilhle in 1206, the inspiration for our lives of contemplation and action is Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-80), a Dominican tertiary or laywoman member of the Order of Preachers. Catherine, after three years of living enclosed in a small room, completely devoted to solitary contemplation, was told in prayer that she must strengthen her love for God by going out to serve her neighbor. She emerged from her cell to nurse the ill during a time of plague. Famously, she tended a woman with leprosy whom no one else would touch.
Dominican Sisters, in more recent U.S. history, followed Catherine’s example by nursing the sick through cholera outbreaks and the 1918 influenza epidemic. They enfleshed the Dominican tradition of responding to the needs of the times with dauntless courage and imagination. Given this legacy of self-sacrificing service, it has been challenging for our sisters to stay home while COVID-19 wreaks havoc. The majority, however, are in their 80s. They reside in motherhouses and skilled-care facilities similar to the nursing homes hardest hit by the virus. For their own safety, the sisters find themselves strictly enclosed in the convent.
Such strict enclosure is abnormal. Like monastic houses in medieval Europe, convents today are places of hospitality. Friends, associates, and visitors regularly come to our motherhouse for liturgy, spiritual direction, and tutoring in English as a Second Language. Attached to the motherhouse is an outreach center that hosts retreats, art exhibits, citizenship classes, social justice workshops, and a girls’ summer camp. The convent is meant to be a place from which Sisters go out to minister and into which they welcome guests, whether family members or strangers.
The sisters have nevertheless devised ways to continue ministering in quarantine. They’ve made hundreds of masks for front-line workers and prison inmates, assembled food boxes for families in the neighborhood, and provided virtual pastoral care. Importantly, they sustain each other as together they navigate this new reality shaped by loneliness, frailty, and vulnerability.
I have not visited the motherhouse since it was closed to non-residents in March. Yet, as a member of the community, I have indirect knowledge of the mental, emotional, and spiritual impact that the quarantine has had on the sisters, who were largely confined to their rooms for the first three months of the shut-down. Few people my age, in their early 30s, have this kind of connection to the growing retired and elderly population of North America. The risk posed to their health has sunk into my subconscious: one night I dreamt that I was exposed to someone with the virus and unknowingly carried it to the sisters, infecting the whole motherhouse – a horrifying nightmare!
My experience of the pandemic as a younger sister has thus been one of deepening intergenerational solidarity. Living in intergenerational communities is an inheritance from medieval religious foundations. Yet it is a reality that has now become rare in the dominant U.S. culture. A person in her 30s does not normally live with people in their 60s, 70s, or 80s – even blood relatives. For women religious, however, developing the skills for living well in intergenerational communities is an important part of initial formation.
Fostering healthy community living that is mutually interdependent, not hierarchical, is a way of preaching with our lives. It witnesses to the Gospel mandate that, as members of one human family, we must learn from people of diverse backgrounds, caring for one another and prioritizing the common good. Any decision that one sister makes will affect the entire community, so we must risk being honest and vulnerable with each other. During quarantine, this has meant sharing our uncertainties, with respect for whatever emotions each person feels, and then discerning together the common good. Some days we work through this discernment process better than others; consequently, we practice forgiveness. It makes for an intense experience of shared challenges, frustrations, and joys.
When community is lived well, it bears fruit in real companionship and mutual trust. While staying at home, I have certainly not been isolated. Rather, I have been supported, not only by the presence of the sisters, but also by the established structure of our day. Working remotely during the pandemic, time easily blurs. For religious communities, praying the liturgy of the hours provides bookends for the working day.
More importantly, communal prayer helps us acknowledge self-concerns, and then turn our hearts to the needs of the world. Fewer sisters may be serving on the front lines today, yet we are still called to “pray without ceasing” for workers in health care, essential services, the food industry, and public office. Living and praying in community deepens one’s consciousness of our global interconnectedness. For me, the micro-level commitment to prioritizing the common good of my own house community impels me to seek the common good on a macro-level. How does our society protect the health and safety of all, especially the most vulnerable among us? Women religious strive to make choices that will benefit people living at the margins by advocating for equitable policies and educating church and society.
The greatest wisdom inherited from medieval tradition that religious life has handed on is the practice of contemplation. Opening oneself to Holy Mystery remains at the heart of religious life, both apostolic and monastic. Medieval classics on contemplative spirituality are still regarded as practical guides and sources of inspiration to professed religious today. Writings by Julian of Norwich, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and Meister Eckhart can be difficult for today’s readers to comprehend, perhaps because the practice of contemplative silence is so alien to dominant U.S. culture. Yet these texts, despite their historical contingency, teach skills that remain essential to human flourishing: how to find stillness amidst turmoil, to cultivate a sense of peace in the face of existential uncertainty, and to recognize one’s own powerlessness yet not despair of hope that indeed “all shall be well.”
I think it no coincidence that sisters in their 80s, who have practiced contemplative living over six decades of vowed life, can meet the challenges of this pandemic with grace and resilience. They believe they have something to learn from this new reality because they have spent their entire lives becoming more fully their authentic selves. This wisdom is needed in our world right now, and it is something that women religious, rooted in the medieval past, have to offer future generations.
Why do I love the Feast of the Transfiguration? On this day, we celebrate that Peter, John, and Jesus got to experience the real Jesus briefly. Haven’t we had those treasured moments, when we experience God, whether through seeing something, hearing something, or feeling His presence?
Do those moments inspire something in you – your truest self – to rise up and meet that Divine Essence? Don’t we need to express ourselves better so that our true self is ready to meet Jesus at all times?
On this day, then, let us celebrate our transgender brothers and sisters who have spent a great deal of time and energy discerning the expression of their truest self. In the face of difficulty and sometimes hostility, they claim their truth.
When I think of being in the presence of Jesus as Peter and John were at the Transfiguration, I see my family as our true selves, singing our praises to God. Our foster daughter is happy and carefree, the scars from her biological family’s abuse gone. And my trans daughter is relaxed, not on guard. My spouse and I no longer need to worry about them. We can all be God’s beloved children, with whom He is well pleased.
I want to introduce you to a song. Some of you will already recognize this song but I strongly suspect for many this is a first. I am providing the words of this song, the full lyrics of its three verses. I ask that you read them slowly, carefully. Reflect on the content, what is being said. When you have done that, you will be ready for my comments below. And at the very end of this blog, I am also providing a link to enable you to actually listen to this song.
OK – here goes:
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.
So, what do you think? Good song? Strong lyrics? Expressive of the American Dream? Filled with the acknowledgement of God as the true Source of our strength? Yes, I believe all that and more.
And for those who do not know this song, it’s title is Lift Every Voice and Sing, originally a poem dating back to the early 1800’s and eventually transformed into song. And today it is often referred to as the Black National Anthem!
Truth be told, there is no one “Black National Anthem.” Can’t be. Technically, every national anthem across the great continent of Africa and across the island nations of the Caribbean would be a “Black” national anthem. But this song has given voice to the longings, hopes and dreams of Black citizens of the United States. And as I contemplate the content of this song, these are rich and beautiful longings that capture the reality of history, words that make proper tribute to the Power and Presence of God. And now this song, probably unknown, unheard, unrecognized by so many is also upsetting so many.
The National Football League has decided that, if there is a season this year, it will begin with inclusion of this song. So, what’s the problem with adding another song to the beginning of a game? Well, some would suggest, we have only one national anthem. True — but — We are many people with diverse histories, background and traditions. That’s the beauty of America.
As a youngster, in a Slovak Parish and school, our public events were known to begin with the Slovak National Anthem in addition to the American. As a student in a mostly Polish college, the same held true for singing the Polish National Anthem.
When the Toronto sports teams or those from Montreal play games on our soil, we stand, include and even sing the Canadian National Anthem and when our teams are across the boarder, they afford us the same courtesy.
Bottom line – this is a good song, a beautiful song, a song of our brothers and sisters and now they want to share it with us. We can stand strong and tall and unified. We can and should stand together. And Lift Every Voice and Sing!
This is my second attempt at a reflection based on the Gospel passage for this Sunday – in the light of the racial tensions in our country.
The seed falls into the darkness of the earth – into the soil—and if the soil is good the seed will sprout forth – the plant will either blossom or bear things good to eat.
The other image that keeps coming to me over these weeks and months is a little different. Small children are seen as having a fear of the dark – not wanting to sleep in a dark room, being afraid of the dark. I keep thinking of this as a very deep rooted fear – perhaps rooted in primitive humanity. I remember walking with one of our sisters who was legally blind. She had recently returned from a workshop where she learned to use a white cane and also to read brail. Where we were walking was wooded and uneven ground – it was dusk so I asked her to lead the way with her cane because she could “see” better than I could.
As we have reflected on racism and the terrible events, the killings of dark skinned people I keep thinking that white privilege and the hatred white people show of people of color – I keep wondering — is it rooted in our primitive fear of the dark? Even our images of Jesus and Mary have been of white skinned humans. Only in more recent times have artists depicted Jesus as a member of other ethnic groups – Black, Native American, etc. This was brought home to me for the first time in the 1950’s. D.H.Holmes department store on Canal St. in New Orleans would sometimes sponsor art exhibits. One I will never forget was of paintings of Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles – all as Jewish people – neither black or white – more like a blending of the two. Of course you may think of the appearances of Mary in the various places as a native of that place. She appeared as one of the people.
Returning again to the fear of the dark — and fear turned to hatred of dark skinned humans. Our Liturgy – our Liturgical life is built on symbols. What if all who are pale skinned could begin to see dark skinned people as symbols of good soil? As that without which good cannot come to be rather than darkness to be feared and hated.