What I was looking for in community and what I found

What I was looking for in community and what I found

By Julie Brandt S.S.N.D.

I recently returned home from a provincial assembly meeting and found myself renewed once again by a sense of belonging to the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Strangely, in the midst of a weekend holding a great deal of tension and conflict, I found myself feeling very much at home. This was indeed the overwhelming emotion for me.

Reflecting on this experience helped me focus on this article’s theme: what I was looking for in community and what I found. After agreeing to write this article, I was struck by a fear that in doing so, I may be shunned by my community for what I would say. Or I’ve thought that I may be called to accountability for not living up to the things that I claim I believe and desire. My fear paralyzed some of my early attempts at writing.

And then came the weekend assembly. What became most real again was that in the midst of our struggle to come to some form of consensus or agreement, a deeper level of caring about one another shone through. In our discussions there was a willingness to stay with one another and talk about the differences of perception that existed. Although the topic did not come to a final resolution, there was a movement within the group to hold a value of caring for one another higher than the need to decide at that moment. There was also a sense of a growing challenge to look at what God was calling us to in this decision. Even as we journeyed through this difficult discussion, we could still come together as one community in times of prayer and celebration and be one with one another as sisters. Underneath the challenges of the meeting was a greater bond of faith, which unites us to one another as community.

This sense of working together for the common good is part of what drew me to community in the first place. To be part of a dynamic experience of communal discernment in action reaffirmed what I hold true about community living.

A “newcomer” for 15 years

I entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame community 18 years ago, and I recently celebrated 15 years of profession. Despite the years I’ve belonged, I am still considered one of the newer members by many in the community. Only a handful of members are younger than me. I fit right in the gap between being a late Baby Boomer and being one of the first of Generation X. I was born in 1962—a month before Vatican II began—and so my experience of church has been shaped primarily by the constancy of change. I remember little of the pre-Vatican experience of church. I was greatly influenced by my parents, who placed strong value on their faith and did all they could to assure that each of their four children had opportunities to grow in faith and religious practice.

My desire to enter religious life grew slowly out of a curiosity about the lifestyle of the sisters I had as teachers. While I never intended to be a sister, I found myself with a growing fascination about sisters. While attending a girls’ high school sponsored by our community, I became an astute observer of the sisters whom I admired as teachers. While fascinated by their lives, I was unable to admit until much later in my high school years that this could be a lifestyle I might chose. Then one day Sister Roxanne asked me if I’d ever considered being a sister. I think I was more shocked than she was when I answered yes.

Suddenly I was caught wondering what it was that I felt drawn to. Why did I say yes and know in my heart that this was the right answer for me? For one thing, these were women with a deep passion about something greater than themselves. They were very much alive and not afraid to be involved in life. Any notion I held that sisters led boring lives—working and praying all day—was slowly eroded. I came to see them as women alive with a common call and mission who also found time to enjoy a game or two of tennis.

While many of my college classmates worried about finding a career that would bring the most wealth in the quickest manner, I found myself searching to be about something more. I desired to make a difference in whatever career I chose. The “me centered” focus of my generation seemed repulsive. And so, community life and living the Gospel call attracted me because of their counter-cultural values.

As I continued to ponder where God was calling me, I felt a sense of restlessness, which would not be satisfied until I gave religious life a chance. My peers did not understand my decision, although I had enough of a support group among friends to risk what seemed like all to me.

One of the first things that hit me upon entering community was that living community life was not going to be easy. Over the years I’ve often had a conversation with my mother in which she claims she doesn’t know how I can do it—live with several other women peacefully. I find myself taking the other side of the argument—how has she been able to live with one other person for 45 years? Probably the thing that helps me deal with this reality is to remember that no life commitment is easy. Living an authentic life, which invites one to growth and some degree of intimacy with others, has its costs. I’ve grown to know that the effort is worth the cost.

Within my first few years of formation I also discovered that this process of entering into religious life would indeed continue to shape and change me. In order to live this life well, I would need to continue to grow. (Unfortunately at times I continue to be surprised that the project is far from finished!) I’ve learned to be gentle with myself in this growth. In my early years (particularly in formation, when it sometimes felt like all the eyes of the community were upon me) I often felt like the challenge to grow was there because I wasn’t good enough. So naturally I resisted growth. The more I see this as a natural process for all people, in whatever lifestyle, the easier the growth process has become. It also helps that others in the community are authentic about their own challenges to grow and develop.

At some time during my experience of living community life, I came to a realization that has remained critical for me. As I was considering the call to growth and wholeness, I came to believe that wholeness and holiness are one and the same call. When I enter fully into the process of living in a manner that leads others and me to wholeness, I believe that I am also on the path to encounter God.

Different formation for different generations

One of the real challenges of living community life has been that while I experienced a very strong self-growth style of formation, many with whom I’ve lived did not. For these sisters, formation focused on cleaning and manual labor. While many older sisters have developed skills to be self-revealing and open to new growth, many struggle with this facet of life. Here’s what I’ve experienced: sometimes when someone in community is able to express her own preferences or share from her own perspective, those who feel less secure in doing so will give over their personal power to someone else. This turns something as easy as a community decision about where to go to eat for a special occasion into a source of conflict. All too often I find some sisters unable to express a personal preference during decision making. Then later the very same people, through their passive-aggressive behavior, let us know we’ve made the wrong choice. This generally leads to indigestion for all! Such situations leave me feeling like I ought to take a defensive driving course for communal living!

An essential set of skills for community living is to be able to name your own needs or desires, and to be able to take part in the give and take of decision-making. Unfortunately what I sometimes see happening is that a new member lives with people who lack these skills. She doubts her suitability for living this life, and unless supported by others, she may end up leaving the community. At the same time, if others in the community are not able to express their piece of the truth, newer members who really don’t have the skills for living community life may be allowed to go unchallenged.

I experienced one very helpful tool during my years prior to final vows in this area of community growth. Our province required any community with newer members to have regular facilitation as a part of their community living experience. That is, an outside facilitator would help during meetings. This was a somewhat novel requirement at this time. None of my peers from other provinces or other congregations had such a requirement. While facilitation was sometimes very challenging, I certainly was glad that my province required it. The neutral facilitator allowed each person to be heard in the community. Listening to the struggles of some of my classmates in community, I realized that if facilitation were a regular part of their communal living, they might have had a much healthier experience. Facilitation enabled me to grow in my ability to express my own needs and desires and also to listen with reverence to others. This tool could benefit many community situations—whether or not the community has a newer member.

Tied to the ability to communicate and to be self-revealing is the desire and ability to participate in regular faith sharing. This was an area of growth for me throughout my formation experience, as I had little experience in faith sharing prior to entering. I feel it is essential we take time during communal prayer to share with one another how we see God acting in Scriptures and in our daily life. If we can=t share on a faith level, I wonder what the purpose is of living together. I’ve never felt that faith sharing is easy, as sharing God=s actions in our daily life can be very intimate. Revealing ourselves on a deep level requires a risk, which for me is well-worth the effort. I=ve come to believe I need this time to share with community to help all of us discern how God may be acting in our lives. For many reasons some sisters continue to find faith sharing difficult. Thus, one of the rubs of community for me has been when others are not willing to invest in this process.

Corporate identity gone fuzzy?

Another area that continues to be a source of frustration for me is our communal expression of corporate identity. For me what seems pertinent is the question, “How are we choosing to be about the mission of Jesus together as a community?” Maybe I emphasize that question because I entered at a time when I could have done any of my ministries on my own, but I chose community life because I didn’t wish to be a Lone Ranger. There is a greater strength and witness value in being about something in mission together. My experience since entering, however, is that we sisters seem to be becoming more and more independent in the way we choose ministry. Unfortunately I, too, can fall into this trap rather easily if not challenged by others to live differently. We seem to go where we wish to go more often than we respond to a call of the community to look at particular places of ministry or to minister where we as a community may have made a corporate commitment. We as a community seem to have lost some of the communal nature of this process of discerning ministry choices.

While I believe the blind obedience, which was called for in days past, may have been equally harmful, I wish that we could discover some middle ground on this issue. I believe our lack of a corporate sense of commitment to ministry is seen as a weakness for potential new members who are looking for a community that has a clear sense of mission. While it may not be realistic for us to all work in the same ministries in pre-designated places, I do believe that we would have a greater sense of mission if we wrestled with the question of corporate commitment. What would it cost us and what might we gain by taking on sponsorship of specific ministries that match the charism of our community? I think the gifts would far outnumber the cost. Additionally, I believe that when we call and invite each other to consider different ministry opportu nities, we affirm gifts and abilities in each other that may not have been recognized if we are always acting as free agents with regard to discernment. I know I was initially rather resistant to considering my current ministry with Native Americans. It seemed so foreign, I just didn’t know if I could do it. But a sense of being “called beyond” by the mandate of our General Chapter, and the encouragement of others that saw gifts in me that I didn’t see, enabled me to say yes to the experience. Through this I have found a richness of opportunity to stretch myself in a place I would never have chosen on my own.

Give younger members a voice

Another challenge is that there are fewer newer members in my community than in the past. While I was aware of this reality prior to entering, I do think that as a community we need to continue to be aware of the needs of our younger members to feel like they have a voice in the community. The life issues that I may be dealing with or the perspective I have as a member of Generation X differs from the older Baby Boomers and Silent Generation members of the community. When you are a solitary voice, it can be difficult to claim your own reality and go against the grain of the perceptions of so many others. I know I found myself wondering if I really fit into my community several years ago when our province named five directional statements for the next several years. While I didn’t specifically oppose any of the directional statements, I was aware of feeling like a minority when I did not hold the same passion as others for several statements. These directions simply were not the issues that compelled me to consider community life. I found myself without the passion to embrace them wholeheartedly. But at this gathering, our sisters of the Silent Generation had certainly found their voice on these issues, and the Baby Boomers were letting their perspective be heard with resounding clarity. Was I alone in lacking excitement for most of these directions? I certainly didn’t feel comfortable letting my voice be heard in the midst of this large group if I was alone in my thinking. It was only months later that I heard others, primarily of my own generation, share that they too lacked enthusiasm for the directional statements.

I believe a real challenge to community at this time in history is to provide legitimate opportunities for younger members to have a voice in the community— especially when looking at issues which directly impact the future of the community. It may be too late to start asking to hear our voice 20 years from now. While I am certainly willing to wait my turn in respect to my elders, I also believe that in community we must strive to listen to all the different voices who have a vested interest in the livelihood of our community. My experience within the Lakota culture has helped me to understand in a new way that each of us sees reality in a different light. While I may not always see things the same way as someone else, being able to hear and respect their perspective helps me to re-evaluate and refine how I perceive reality. This listening to one another in dialogue is a part of my understanding of our call to live the vow of obedience.

Surprises have also been very much a part of my experience of religious life. One of the most treasured surprises I have experienced has been the opportunity to develop significant relationships with sisters I never dreamt I’d feel so close to. It has been a gift to form intergenerational friendships. These have taken shape primarily through living in community with sisters of varying ages. While intergenerational living is not always easy, I have been blessed by some wonderful experiences. I continue to treasure the opportunity I had in preparing for final vows to live with two sisters who were both more than 40 years my senior. They were wonderful examples of the possibility of living faithfully the call to religious life. They also were great wisdom figures for me at a time that I was seeking answers to lots of questions. At the same time they gave me the wings I needed to continue to be the person I was at that stage in my life’s journey. Living with the two of them was a big reason I was able to say yes to this lifestyle—forever. Additionally, friends who are 10 to 20 years older have been mentors; they’re women I continue to look to as role models. I have been graced by their example of living this life well. Additionally, these are my sisters who have challenged me to become my best self. This gift of relationships in community is one I treasure most dearly.

Has community been what I expected? Have I faced unexpected realities? I think I could honestly answer yes and no to both questions. Yes, community has been what I expected and no, it’s not been. It’s usually been much more! What remains most true is that community has been a living, dynamic experience of growth into greater wholeness and holiness for me as I journey with my sisters in mission. It is for me the pearl of great price hidden in a field, which I have found and is worth giving my all to attain. Would I give it up? No way! I’m at home being a School Sister of Notre Dame.

Julie Brandt, SSND is a School Sister of Notre Dame from the Mankato Minn. province. She lives and ministers as principal of St. Bernard Mission School on the Standing Rock Reservation in Fort Yates, N.D. She has been professed for 15 years and currently serves on her province's vocation advisory board.

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