Chapters are significant events in the life of a religious congregation. Good Samaritan Sister, Pam Grey, captures some of the spirit of her congregation’s recent chapter.
BY Pam Grey SGS*
Earlier this year I was perched in a treetop hermitage at the Benedictine monastery at Jamberoo, New South Wales, enjoying the scents and the scenery. All was calm until my eyes returned to the book on my lap. There in clear print I read: “Give us, good Lord, the grace to work for the things we pray for”.
On this retreat I had been praying for relatives and friends, my sisters at Villa Maria, for my congregation’s chapter preparations, for asylum seekers, for people suffering during all kinds of natural disasters around the globe at that time. My reflection deepened, even plummeted, when I realised that it was the English martyr, St Thomas More, who originally prayed these words – the man who had said to his daughter, Meg, “I am not of the stuff of which martyrs are made”. From that moment my preparation for the twenty-fifth chapter became realistic.
Each day before the chapter we prayed that Jesus the Traveller would help us to journey lightly and eagerly towards chapter, discarding our prejudices and silencing our murmurings. We prayed that Sophia, holy wisdom woman would invite us to the kind of hospitality that welcomes the exiled parts of ourselves as well as the outcast who longs for a neighbour. We prayed that in our unity in diversity we may be like oil and wine poured into the wounds of our Church and world. We prayed and we practised over the months leading to the chapter and then during the chapter we were able to name who we are:
“As Sisters of the Good Samaritan we seek God who impels us to be neighbour”.
Short, easy to remember, but loaded. Written in the present tense, the tense of the daily, of the present moment.
Our founding community of 1857 knew what it was like to go out daily into the bleak backstreets of Sydney seeking out destitute women and their children and offering them warm hospitality. The first five learnt how to seek God by praying the psalms and practising the Rule set out by St Benedict – the Rule that can expand one’s heart and draw you into the mystery of Christ. And now it is our turn. At this twenty-fifth chapter gathering at Glebe in Sydney, 187 sisters sought and brought this vision into being. It is our turn to seek God and be neighbour in a ‘Pacifican’ neighbourhood of Kiribati, Timor Leste, Philippines, Japan and Australia.
How did we seek God during the chapter?
We sought the Trinity in Eucharistic celebrations. We celebrated the lives of the martyrs of the Philippines and Japan, Lorenzo Ruiz and Thomas Nishi. We joined our prayer to the joyful messengers from heaven to earth, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. We prayed that we could follow the way of Teresa of the Child Jesus who saw her mission to be love in the heart of the Church. And with heavy hearts, yet loving confidence, we prayed for our dear Sister Verna Holyhead who died in Melbourne.
We heard the songs of Christ when we sang the psalms each morning and evening and pondered God’s word to us in Scripture. Some days a phrase from the psalms would jolt me. During this chapter, Psalm 81 offered me challenge: “My people if only you would listen!” and paradox – “We heard a voice unknown”. God’s lament suggests that we earthlings could save ourselves a lot of bother if only we would be silent for awhile, then listen.
I find listening to be a mysterious act. What really goes on? I like Fran Peavey’s observation that listening involves immersing yourself within the sea of transactions that surround an issue. Your eyes and ears are turned to the deepest part of the person opposite you in each encounter, and there you look for the dreams and goals planted deep in the person’s heart.
How did we position ourselves to “hear this voice unknown”? We sought each other in ever-changing groupings at table conversation and in the breaks around the hot water urn. Our commitment deepened as we questioned each other about the non-negotiable aspects of Good Sam life. At one stage the whole assembly gazed upon the Chinese character for “hospitality” and our dim eyes could only see when the meanings were developed for us by one who knows. The gate in the centre of the character offers an invitation to call on the other and enter. But the gate has a yet deeper meaning. It is the call to listen with the ear of the heart. We also experienced “the voice unknown” by quietly entering the room called “The Dwelling Place”. There, unknown artists and poets had humbly placed their work for our attention. This act of dwelling offers a vision of a kinder world, but it also stirs us to realise that each minute is the last minute, that compassion is a commitment.
We sought God’s mission. What does God do? How does God act in the world? Where do we see traces of God at work?
We found our mission rippling out in wider circles as we explored the impetus and direction of the statement about God impelling us to be neighbour. This involved a tension for some involved in pastoral ministries where the value of the neighbour’s subjectivity, the neighbour’s essential right to choose her path is basic to their work. Those sisters involved in advocacy work clearly understood the energy of being impelled to be neighbour, to fight for rights, for justice. And other sisters understood the simple act of being neighbour as essential as the air they breathe. How can you not be a neighbour?
The conversations were compelling. It was like having those round mirrors on street blindspots that help you see around corners. I am grateful for these mirrors. It is through conversations like these that our vow of conversion of life draws us closer to God’s mission and closer to each other. They are heartening. Perhaps St Benedict offers us an umbrella, a unifying agency from his Rule when he says: “Never turn your back when someone needs your love” (RB 4:26).
Do chapters make a difference?
One of the extraordinary things about this twenty-fifth chapter was the large number of sisters who were nominated for leadership positions as superior or counsellor and who did accept the nomination. They knew they were ready to serve as leaders. How did this happen and why now? I look back to the chapter in the 1980s when we committed ourselves to be “a communion of equal disciples”. I did not know what it meant at the time, but we have worked with it for years. Initially it meant suppressing the provincial system of leadership and it withdrew the role of local community superiors. Confusion reigned but the sky did not fall.
Since then we have learnt the necessary skills of discernment, we have networked into area communities, delegation of roles and tasks is widespread and leaders have emerged. That chapter made a difference.
Some of our sisters with changing memory patterns made a difference this time as they regaled us with story upon story. The plot was somewhat standard – overcoming adversity with quick wit and using whatever is at hand. These sisters keep the charism aglow.
In the twenty-fifth chapter, “we commit ourselves to: the Work of God, partnership and creation”. Like the contents of a traveller’s bag these commitments need to be unpacked and used in the days ahead. We sense that this is our work and it was prefaced in our prayers of intercession at our closing Eucharist.
For our Church,
that she be open to mutuality,
that she be open to inclusivity,
that she be open to humility
For our world,
that respect for the neighbour be its quest
that it respect the interconnectedness of life
that it respect the diversity of its peoples
For our members, oblates and partners in ministry,
that we respond to the summons to trust
that we respond to the summons to patience
that we respond to the summons to hospitality
For our council,
that the grace of right judgment be with them
that the grace of generosity be with them
that the grace of compassion be with them
that the gift of discernment of spirits be hers
that the gift of fortitude be hers
that the gift of mercy be hers.
“Indeed, give us, good Lord, the grace to work for the things we pray for. Amen.”
* Good Samaritan Sister, Pam Grey, enjoys lively conversations, backyard gardening and long walks through the ancient river red gums of Epping in Victoria. Her main ministry is pastoral work with the elderly sisters in her congregation. She loves being engrossed in the literary analysis of the Rule of Benedict and Scripture, and then involving others in workshops.