Saturday, February 7, 2009

Challenges of Yesterday and Tomorrow

As part of our Centennial celebration, celebrating our presence in Idaho for 100 years, we are reading selections from our community history. The stories recount the challenges of founding a new monastic community in the “mission territory” of the Northwest starting in the 1880’s.

The stories are a chronicle of crises. In the latest installment the community, which wasn’t more than a dozen women, had four sisters die in the space of a couple of years. They needed to buy land for the convent and were faced with interest rates of 18%. In the next chapter we will hear about the priest who mounted a campaign of such slander and innuendo that they were finally forced to move out of town.

When reading these accounts I always come back to the question: what allowed them to survive and thrive in such circumstances? The question that then follows is: 100 years later how will the community cope with today’s challenges?

The obvious answer for how they coped is that they were women of profound faith. That goes without saying. The clear depth and strength of their faith in the face of insurmountable odds is astounding. But plenty of people have faith and yet their communities did not survive. We are women of faith today, but that doesn’t mean that we will be here to celebrate our bicentennial in Idaho.

I wonder whether the key is that they had a sense of vision and excitement about the future. These women from Switzerland, from a Benedictine convent founded in the 17th century, knew that they were part of something new. They were missionaries to a foreign country and architects of a new way of being Benedictine. They were being called to serve the people of God, to be a witness of monastic life, in a whole new way.

Of course this wasn’t clear or obvious at the time. It is clear that Sr. Johanna, the head of the new community, didn’t want to give up the way things had been done in Switzerland. She struggled with trying to balance the demands of ministry and the requirements imposed by priests who did not understand their needs. But the needs of the times, for teachers and catechists in small, immigrant communities impelled them to keep struggling, to keep going.

The challenge of being called into an unknown future is our challenge today, also. We are no longer called to do what we did 100 years ago. The needs are different and it is still hard to give up doing things the way we always have. But the future is still exciting. There is a hunger and thirst for God consuming people today. The need for spirituality, for balance, for prayer, for simplicity is as great in our culture today as the need for Catholic education was for the sisters 100 years ago.

Looking into our future is as exciting, challenging and scary as it was for our foremothers. We can’t and won’t be the same kind of community we were 100 years ago anymore than the original three sisters could be the same kind of community they were in Switzerland. There will be grief in letting go of the past and intense growing pains into the future. But something new is being born even as something old will die. Monastic life is simply people living out the call of the Gospel in their particular time and place. Together we struggle to listen, to discern the new thing that God is doing in our lives and in our community. And even when the challenges seem insurmountable we stop, pause and remember that we are our mother’s daughters. We, too, are women charged with the exciting task of bringing about the Reign of God in new ways, new places, with new people as we journey into the future. Their strength is in our bones.

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