July 5-10, 2018 — Musings about our U.S. Chapter Experience by Sister Elizabeth O'Donnell, O.P.
When we come together as a group, the room is jam-packed with energy. We are happy to see one another, to greet, to learn, “How are you?” these three words contain multiple layers of meaning: how is your health? How is your family? Your ministry? What has happened in your life since we were last together? While we are currently living with one group of women, we have each lived with, grown with, ministered with many others in the room. There is much catching up to do with joy and delight, caring, concern and humor.
A Chapter addresses that which we most want to create together as we go forward into our future, together; “to facilitate the processes of communal learning, contemplative silence, and sacred conversations, in order to live a life of love, working for justice for others.”
In February 2017, our Chapter was officially convoked. Our theme for the Chapter was proclaimed as “Pilgrimage of the Heart: A call to greater love.” We named two topics for focus during these days: Lay Partnership and Missionary Discipleship and began study, reflection and discussion on these in the fall of 2017.
As we gathered on our first day, S. Cecilia shared reflective comments: “It is our hope that we become transformed by whatever the Spirit calls us to during these days, that we are open to this day, this age—as Mother Pia and all others before us—I declare our Chapter officially open.” She continued calling us to readying our hearts, minds, and souls for the work of the Chapter, “Are we ready to be transformed? Both within and among us? And what is it we most want to contribute to our history? What does God most desire for us at this time? What is happening in our world at this time and what are we called to in service of the Gospel? We call each other to three dispositions: open mind, open heart, and open will.”
Prayer always takes a central place in our Chapter days. We begin with Morning Prayer, end with Evening Prayer, and daily celebrate the Eucharist. This Chapter, our liturgies were simple, but spectacular in that they provided the appropriate rhythm, content and song lifting our hearts and minds to God, uniting us with the Spirit. Our morning and evening prayers provided time for contemplative sitting together and helped to focus us on the topic for the day. Daily, we were mindful of others in our prayer, particularly those around the world in great suffering.
Our prior study for the topics primed us, yet the presence of several of our lay partners was extremely helpful. First, eight men and women serving in leadership roles throughout Motherhouse departments, spent a day speaking candidly of their experience and insight working in partnership with us for the sake of our congregational mission. Their wisdom inspired greater awareness and understanding. In addition, three of our colleagues/ministry partners joined us and enriched us through their preaching and dance at prayer and liturgy. Blessed and grateful for the presence of these faith-filled men and women, we were transformed. We next engaged in conversation among ourselves discussing the “big picture” of these two topics and the impact of our new learning. We then worked to create an articulation of our hearts’ desires for our future direction in the form of three statements with respect to our Chapter focus. The process brought learning and growth, some letting go and further transformation.
While we worked hard during these six days, we also enjoyed some fun recreating together in evenings with board games, walks, and conversation. Two highlights were an opportunity to visit the new beehives on the Motherhouse groups with the added benefit of an explanation on bee-keeping provided by Sr. Barbara Hagel followed by a sing-a-long complete with guitar and tambourines, and S’mores at the fire pit in the Garden of Blessing.
I was particularly aware this Chapter of the generous sharing of gifts by so many of us: gifts of hospitality, transportation, and setting environment (flowers in every room when we arrived, a different daily theme with matching placemats in the dining room, to name a few). Liturgies offered with beauty from daily rotation of musicians and choir members carrying out what three sisters had carefully crafted through hours of planning over the past months. Preaching provided at liturgies by our own was quality and made me proud! A technology committee kept our visuals coming, photographers kept real-time captured, and secretaries kept our conversations recorded. One sister shared her talent giving a visual representation of what she had heard and experienced, while two others provided a verbal summation of our days together through their eyes. Others saw to snacks at breaks, successful communication and moments of fun. The days passed with a bountiful sharing of gifts.
At the closing of the Chapter, I am filled with gratitude for this special time of grace. While we go about our schedule moving from prayer into session, into mealtime, break and back into session, liturgy, prayer and meal, and drop into bed, all the while, the time is blessed. At the end of the days, we are united in the new direction we have shaped for ourselves (or really not, really by the power of the Spirit). Yet, there is more happening than just meets the eye. While the weather treated us kindly these past six days, the image that strikes me most to describe the experience is that of the summer evening sun lowering in the sky, painting the hills behind us and the Motherhouse buildings a beautiful golden. This golden light symbolizes the magic that comes during Chapters. Being together for these days gives us an opportunity to get to know the newer members, to catch up with one another strengthening relationships, to say goodbye to sisters who have passed away since our last visit to the Motherhouse, especially if we lived too far to attend a funeral. We room together closely throughout the campus, reminding us of our own common beginnings and of our one-ness. We rub elbows with one another at meals, in the Chapter Hall, and at liturgies and find inner movements of the heart moving us to reconcile past hurts and broken relationships or coming to know a sister in a new way.
All the while, God is with us, God is working within us—healing us, transforming us, strengthening us, calling us forward to bring the Good News of Jesus, the deep love of God for every person. So you ask what Chapter is about? This is the magic. We experience this love in our own lives, individually, together, we witness it to one another, and are energized anew to go out to bring our transformed selves—more healed, more loved, more on fire—to others. With great joy.