More Spiritual Reflections

Spiritual Reflections


Religious Life: The Call to be Border Crossers

Sr. Mary Persico, IHM
March 15, 2005

In November, I had the privilege of traveling to Rome to attend a meeting of more than 800 religious leaders, women and men from six continents. The gathering, entitled Congress 2004: With a Passion for Christ and Passion for Humanity, was about the future of religious life throughout the world. We all arrived on Tuesday morning, eager and anxious all at once. I sat with the others assigned to Table 15 and we began to introduce ourselves to each other. To my left was Elizabeth from Australia and to my right, Margaret from England. Across from us was Edith from Austria, Mary Vincent from India, Rosemary from Canada, and Maria Luz from the Philipines. So far what we had in common was that we all spoke English, at least enough to be understood, and that we were all women religious. Then the meeting began with a powerful prayer and I carry the moment in my heart. The music began softly and built to a crescendo. Six people, each representing a different continent, carrying a six-foot wooden cross high above their heads, moved through the room in solemn procession. The words to the music were these: Jesus Christ, you are my life, alleluia; Jesus Christ, you are my life, you are my life, alleluia. That was all. We sang it over and over again as if the repetition would force the meaning of those words to seep into our spirits. All of us, speaking many languages, some in native costume, diverse in every way, shared the deepest common bond of all in one simple sentence ~ Jesus Christ, you are my life!

I begin with this story today because the reality is no less true for us here in Northeast Pennsylvania. However, with the story comes a caution. There is a temptation to romanticize one's personal, private life with Jesus as its center when in fact, identification with Jesus carries with it a sacred burden of responsibility to the people of God. This relationship that allows us to say Jesus Christ, you are my life is meant to place us in the same precarious position where Jesus so often found himself.

Peter Phan, professor of religion at Catholic University, refers to Jesus as a border-crosser. A border, as you know, can be defined as a boundary. Jesus simply did not see boundaries. He looked beyond them and crossed over them as if they just did not exist. If you think about it, God stepped out of Godself, transcended time and space to become a human person. Going from divinity to humanity was extreme in border-crossing. And as a human being, Jesus was compelled by justice and compassion and right relationships to cross boundaries, freely and deliberately, at every opportunity. As an infant, he was born in a stable and crossed the boundary between rich and poor. As a Jew, he engaged in conversation with a Samaritan, who was a woman, and crossed cultural and political boundaries. As a teacher, he befriended a woman accused of adultery and crossed the artificial boundary between the righteous and sinners. As a preacher, he healed the leper and expelled the demon and crossed the sociological boundary between the clean and the impure. And even in dying on the cross, Jesus crossed the boundary between death and life everlasting. In everything he did, Jesus acted as though there were no borders or barriers. His refusal to acknowledge the borders created by society rendered them useless and unimportant. But even more than that, his border crossing created the new reality that it is possible to unite what appears to be

divided and to reconcile what seems to be irreconcilable.

There are people in our world like the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well, Mary of Magdala, Zaccheus, and the poor Lazarus who begged for crumbs from the rich man's table. It's easy to empathize with them and to identify them in the on-going human story all around us. There are also people like the Pharisees, the Levite, the money-changers in the temple, and Pontius Pilate. We can even put real names on them (but we won't). They are government officials, family and community members. They are co-workers and colleagues; they even work for the Church. There are people who live on either side of the boundaries we humans create. For example there's the innkeeper in Bethlehem with no vacancies and the hotel manager who goes out on a limb for a Samaritan to take in the man left for dead by the wayside. You can think of many more examples both from the Gospel and in contemporary life. But the point is where do we stand as women religious and how often do we reconcile the extremes by being border crossers? I recall the story that Cardinal Bernadin, when speaking for the first time as the Archbishop of Chicago, said to those present in the Cathedral; "I am your brother, Joseph." It was obvious that a Cardinal in the prominent Archdiocese of Chicago was not a person in the margins of society, and yet from his position, he leveled the playing field by identifying himself as one among a discipleship of equals. As American women religious of the 21st Century, we can fall into the trap of speaking from a place in the middle. We can speak from our middle class roots or from the benefit of education. We can speak from a position of ministerial strength. However, like Cardinal Bernadin, we have had experiences that move us from the middle to the margins. He was moved to the margins of suspicion when falsely accused of sexual abuse. Later he was pushed to the margins of skepticism and the disapproval of peers for his common ground initiative. As women in the Church, we have at times felt the same push away from the middle when excluded from decision-making processes in our Church or challenged for our positions of advocacy. Yet being pushed from the middle to the margins is at the core of being able to say Jesus Christ, you are my life because if we insist on staying in the middle, at the border, we perpetuate the artificial boundary which Jesus, the border-crosser, refused to acknowledge.

When we find ourselves in the margins, our vulnerability becomes a sign of hope to the world. What paradox! And yet I became firmly convinced of this reality in reflecting upon the final profession of one of our Sisters, a native of Sicuani, a small poor village located high in the Andes. Her profession took place on a bright sunny crisp day in the month of May. It was a perfect fall day in Peru. The little white church is situated at the highest point in the town so that when one is standing outside the Church it is possible to look down and around at the entire village. There you see the little homes, no bigger than our community or living rooms, each with its discreet garden and a few pens for raising chickens and rabbits for dinner on special occasions. There are no sidewalks leading to the church, just a few steep, dusty paths that turn to pure mud in the rainy season. An hour before the profession was to begin, the church bells rang as if speaking to the rolling hills and suddenly, an amazing thing happened. As I looked down into that sleepy village, it started to come alive as people from every place I could see began climbing the steep hill to the little white church. There were old women and men, mothers with infants wrapped in colorful ponchos on their backs, young men dressed in what passed for their very best clothes, all accompanied by many children with their scrubbed faces and scraggly dogs. During the Eucharistic liturgy and profession ceremony, they all sang their hearts out and afterwards climbed back down the hill to the courtyard of the small boarding school run by our Sisters there. The whole village was present. They ate the finest dinner they could ever imagine, all prepared by the townspeople. The children sang and performed and everyone danced into the twilight. I tell you this story because as I distanced myself from the event I realized that this religious profession of a young woman, barely five-feet tall, weighing 110 pounds who speaks Chechua, vernacular Spanish, and a few words in English, was not our celebration. It was a celebration of the people of her small village in the Andean countryside and in fact of the whole Church, a celebration of hope because one of their own could proclaim, before all the world, Jesus Christ, you are my life. The influence we women religious have in the margins is much greater than any power we try to claim by staying in the middle, on the border. It is there in the margins that our prophetic voice is heard. We don't have to travel to the Andean mountains to bring hope to people; the opportunity is everywhere.

Hope is not about making impossible things possible. Rather, it is about making what is possible real for the people we find in the margins. It is a temptation for religious women to give in to the mistaken notion that our ability to influence for a just world or to challenge the culture of war, violence, and self-righteousness in which we find ourselves, is diminished because of shrinking numbers or an aging membership. We can never be afraid of the power to restore hope to the hopeless that resides in every person. Marianne Williamson suggests an idea that might be worth our reflection:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, "Who am I to be [prophet, peace-broker, advocate, and meaning-maker]
(those words my substitution)
Actually, who are you not to be?
Your playing small doesn't serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
You were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

I might push that thought a bit to say that our religious profession is one of the greatest signs of hope that we can offer the Church and the global community because we are never satisfied with being in the mainstream of a culture that oppresses people. We cannot fear the power we have to be witnesses to God's presence in the world and we must claim and own that sacred responsibility. We cannot allow ourselves and the centrality of Jesus Christ in our lives to be rendered invisible.

It is out of the centrality of Jesus in our lives that we can approach this year of the Eucharist. The particular emphasis on Eucharist is much beyond pious practices and personal private prayer for us. This emphasis on Eucharist draws us into the heart of contemplation so that we can be Eucharist for others. As religious congregations of women, we stay at the world's table where we break bread in many ways, where people recognize the face of Jesus in our faces. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd, for example, have engaged their Congregation worldwide in work toward the elimination of the trafficking of women in the global community. IHM Sisters have spent time studying and working toward the eradication of racism wherever we find it in our midst. And each of you can tell us what it is in your congregation that speaks to your hearts of injustice and the need for healing and conversion. As Christians and Catholics, we believe that Jesus is real and present to us in our celebration of Eucharistic liturgy and that as a community of faith-fillled persons, we are a Eucharistic people. As women religious our profession requires us to give prophetic witness to the Eucharistic story in a way that pulls reality from ritual and offers hope to a suffering humanity.

Next Sunday we will commemorate with the Church Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. I am reminded of the words to the song, now some years old, Jerusalem My Destiny:

I have fixed my eyes on your hills, Jerusalem my destiny!

Though I cannot see the end for me, I cannot turn away.

We have set our hearts for the way; this journey is our destiny.

Let no one walk alone. The journey makes us one.

In many ways, I liken this song to the journey of religious life. Our eyes are fixed irrevocably on a destiny we cannot see; we do not turn away. After all, it was in Jerusalem that in a meal Jesus connected the Eucharist to an actual event. The event we call the Last Supper has much significance for all of us who call ourselves disciples. We see in the apostles the weaknesses we all bear: denial, pride, greed. We see in the institution of the Eucharist the origins of priesthood. But what in particular can we as women religious extract from this story of the Last Supper? This moment in our spiritual heritage points to the fulfillment of Jesus' mission on earth and announces the beginning of a new time. It is in this new time, some twenty centuries later, that we who have set our hearts for the way, continue to reveal the face of Jesus by breaking bread with students, the sick and hungry, those who suffer from HIV, the homeless and disabled, prisoners, parish communities, and all others who make up the long list of those we serve in the Emmaus places of our lives. Our lives are about transformation and hope; they are about the Risen Jesus, who between the Last Supper and the Road to Emmaus crossed the border from death to life.

Finally, gathered here on this Lenten afternoon, we recall the ways in which women religious identify with the life Jesus the Christ, with the Paschal mystery. It is not difficult to find examples to hold before us. On March 3, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament marked the 50th anniversary of the death of their founder, St. Katherine Drexel. The President of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament writes: "Katherine's great love for Christ in the Eucharist was the motivating force behind her service to the poor and oppressed Black and native American peoples". You will recall Katherine Drexel was a woman of wealth but her life took her to the margins where she found those who, in a crooked culture, are looked upon as the least. She was a border-crosser.

Within the last few months the longtime friend and co-worker of Dorothy Day, Trinitarian Sister Peter Claver died in Philadelphia at the age of 105. It was she who gave Dorothy Day her first dollar in 1933, and even to the age of 98, she continued practicing her works of mercy as she assisted in a reading program in the Pennsylvania prison system. Sister Peter Claver was a border-crosser.

On February 12 of this year, Dorothy Stang, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, was murdered in Brazil because of her efforts on behalf of local farmers to prevent loggers and large landowners to expropriate their lands and clear large areas of the Amazon rainforest. She gave her life crossing the border between corporate greed and the human rights and dignity of the poor.

Thankfully, most of us will not be called upon to give our lives literally in the name of Jesus the border-crosser. All of us, however, are called into the deepest places of contemplation where we will find the experience that will move us from captivity to freedom, from ennui to passion, and from fear to outrageous hope. For that is what the world desperately seeks and finds in us - the hope borne out of an Emmaus encounter with Jesus. Our profession requires us to break the bread of compassion with those who are burdened. It pushes us to break the bread of contemplation with those who are thirsting for God. It compels us to break the bread of courage with those who long to cross the imaginary borders that imprison their lives. Our profession allows us to sit at the table of communion with those in the margins. Never believe that you can't or don't do it with the witness of your lives. With the poet O'Donohue, I wish for you during these holy days before us: "May your heart be somewhere a God might dwell".

Our lives as women religious change the world day by day. Each day as we reflect upon the great privilege and awe-inspiring responsibility that is ours, let us not say with St. Augustine Too late have I loved Thee; rather let us have the hope to stand side by side with all the women and men religious of the world and sing in our hearts Jesus Christ, you are my life!