It feels like the “One Day More” song scene in the 2013 motion picture rendition of Les Miserables. In the movie, it’s the day before the revolution comes to a particular neighborhood of France. The camera pans to various key players as they give voice to the mounting anticipation through song. It seems that everyone feels varying degrees of excitement, fear, hope, resistance, expectation, longing, anxiety, joy and more.
And so it has been around the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati Motherhouse. After months of preparations of all kinds, we will gather this evening to open Chapter 2015. People are traveling from near and far for the momentous occasion. Last minute details are being ironed out. We are each filled with different emotions, and I’m sure each of us is pondering, “What will happen at this much-anticipated Chapter?”
For those not familiar, the General Chapter happens every four years and is the highest legislative body of our congregation. Over nine days, we will discern together the direction we will take for the next four years, and we will elect a new Leadership Team. The Sisters who are able fully participate as what we call delegates to the Chapter, and many other Sisters, Associates, and friends collaborate in other ways, especially offering prayerful support.
This is my first Chapter, and my heart is filled with that mixed bag of “one day more” anticipation. Throughout the process leading up to today, I have marveled at the way it all happens (see this article by Sr. Janet for more insights). How do a few hundred people come together like this to hear the voice of God and respond? It is no small task and at the same time a remarkable gift.
Each Wednesday for a few weeks, we’ve held a Congregational Holy Hour to pray together for that which begins today. As we sat together in that wondrous pregnant silence, we felt the prayers of so many sisters who have sat in that chapel through the years. Their witness of reliance on God points us toward surrender. The same generously loving God who carried them calls and carries us.
My housemate, Sister Carol, invited us to that trust when she shared a beautiful fable with our house community yesterday: The Tale of Three Trees, as retold by Angela Elwell Hunt. The story speaks of three trees on a hill that dream of how their wood will be used. The first tree, for example, aspires to become a chest that will hold treasure. Eventually, it is chopped down and taken to a carpentry shop where, to the tree’s dismay, it is fashioned into a feeding trough for animals. It seems that the tree’s dreams and hopes are dashed.
Then, we turn the page of the book, and – a magnificent twist! The parable tells us that one night, a poor, traveling couple enters the stable where the trough is housed. There is apparently no room for them anywhere else in the town, even though this woman is pregnant and going into labor. That very night, she gives birth to a baby boy, and she lays him in the feeding-box made of the tree’s beautiful wood.
The tree realizes that it is holding a more wonderful treasure than it could possibly have imagined as it stood on the hillside, dreaming, so long ago.
I had never heard this story before, and I definitely did not see that coming! A smile of delight crept across my face as I considered the infinite goodness of our God. How often have our best laid plans crumbled only to make way for the Spirit’s best surprises? As we move into Chapter, this story touches me deeply and calls me to something, calls me outside of myself into profound trust, radical hope, and willingness to let God be God.
Just as in Les Miserables and in the story of the three trees, we each will enter the Chapter room with our expectations and desires as well as our baggage and our blocks. I’m not naïve to the challenge before us. Even as we strive whole-heartedly to embody the charism of Charity, we are human. When almost 140 people gather to consider that which is most dear to us, our very life together, of course opinions will differ and tensions will arise. Honest, authentic, group discernment can be messy.
But I wonder if this Chapter could truly find our congregation at its best!
The other novices, Andrea, Annie, and I considered this, chatting after morning prayers yesterday. As we shared our pondering about this Chapter to come, we expressed hope that, as a congregation, we will be who we say we are. We owe that to our future, to the women in discernment, to the many wonderful women who are still to come. Even in the difficult moments of this Chapter, can we demonstrate love, prayerful listening, trust, courage, openness to the spirit, and a single-hearted devotion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
With God’s grace, we can.
None of us knows exactly what is in store for our congregation over the next days, but we know Who calls us. In this beautiful Lenten season, we can hear God’s beckoning: “Return to me with your whole heart.” In the words of scripture, we can sense the urgency of fidelity to the mission above all else: to release those bound unjustly, set free the oppressed, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and break every yoke (adapted from Isaiah 58). In this springtime of the soul, we know that new life is bursting forth, nurtured by and rooted in the richness of our legacy.
I ask each of you reading this to pray for and with us over the days of our Chapter, from today until March 7th. Fellow members of the Federation, fellow women religious, friends, family, collaborators, those who don’t even know us, please join us in prayer!
May we know that the One who calls us together is our God of Love who can transform a simple feeding trough into the cradle of the Savior. May we be worthy of the gift of the call we have be given. And may we dare to hope! Like a clear, expectant sky awaiting the glorious sunrise, may we make room for the dawn of our God of light and love who will splash us with brilliant color we never dreamed possible.