By Sister Marcella Clancy
As a religious woman I often use the word community. Given the context, it has different shades of meaning: who we are as a whole, e.g. “Our community supports immigrants at the border.” Or our physically living together, e.g. “I live in community with another sister.” Or creating an experience of coming together in prayer, sharing, and/or celebration, e.g. “Our St. Joseph Day celebration was a good experience of community.”
COVID placed limits on our physical experience of community. Celebrations were cancelled. Our bi-annual or monthly gatherings were all by Zoom. All get-togethers ceased. We could not even gather to grieve and celebrate the lives of our sisters who died. No warm hugs, catching-up conversations over a meal or coffee break, no personal sharing around a table. I realize that we are not the only ones who have experienced the loss of physical presence and tangible expressions of love during COVID and that for many loneliness has been much more poignant. Though limited I have been blessed in the opportunities I had for interaction and physical presence during this pandemic and for the most part was not consciously aware of what I had lost until….
During the last week of July, I was invited to give a retreat to our sisters at our Nazareth Center. I was categorized as a “volunteer” and was thus able to give talks in our chapel and during the day stay in one of the guest rooms where I met individually with retreatants. Because of COVID precautions overnight stays or meals in the dining room with our resident sisters were prohibited. Yet I could peer into the beautifully graced faces of our sisters as I gave my talks and listen to the sacred stories of those who shared with me. Quiet, heroic stories of suffering, loss, fidelity, and love.
During this week, a profound awareness grew in me of the cumulative nature of community. I came to understand in a new way how much my life, my being has become intertwined, interwoven with these women. We have shaped and formed each other over our long years together. We have created community out of our shared hopes, desires, longings, our service to the dear neighbor, our fidelity through disappointments and suffering and our celebrations in joy and gladness. We have accompanied one another in our losses and sorrow and in our triumphs and successes and blessed each other with forgiveness over and over again. Our coming together of several communities as one congregation 14 years ago only expanded and enriched my experience of community as I discovered women who were eager to enfold other sisters from other founding congregations in the livingness of community and build together a new future. I became clearer eyed this July week that “community” is not a “thing”, an “entity” but a living physical reality. Gathering via Zoom was a gift during the pandemic yet the retreat week underscored for me the need to be in each other’s physical presence, to feel the blessedness radiating from the other, to experience the profound grace that binds us together, to encounter community and to know that we belong to each other.
I was amazed to find myself so excited when our Congregational Leadership Team announced a possible gathering in December when we can come together as sisters. I have never been so enthusiastic about a congregational meeting. COVID has made me conscious of how much I miss the physicality community requires, being in each other’s presence, experiencing each other’s kindness, challenging one another by our differences, inspiring each other by our on-going story of grace, building together a future full of hope.
Ministry flows from community. It is what we do. Community is the essence of who we are. I do not want to romanticize community. It can always disappoint, cause hurt, fail us. Forgiveness is constant requisite. We do not form community because we like one another, are like-minded or because we have a common charism/spirit or mission. The call to religious community is intimately personal. Each woman has her vocation story, a call, a lure, a drawing by God. The foundation of “community” is the intermingling over time of our unique faith journeys, of our individual interior movements toward God and our dear neighbor shared with each other. Through the Spirit’s urgings a living community is formed and has the extraordinary power to witness to God who is Love. “By this will all know that you are my disciples, by your love for one another.” (John 13:35)
I describe what I understand to be the journey toward community in the context of my life as a religious woman yet I recognize faith communities are present in several different forms; church communities, neighborhood communities, work communities, educational communities, and most importantly family communities where all of us are first formed in community. In our culture of individualism, may each of us discover anew our community or communities and commit to building together a future full of hope and be the living witness of God’s great love tangibly among us.
About the Author
Sister Marcella Clancy, CSJ, is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph and has degrees in theology and nursing. She has served in parish ministry, accompanied others in spiritual direction, and served as retreat director for many years. She has taught theology as an adjunct faculty. Currently she does some writing, spiritual direction, and gives presentations. She believes that the core of our life is moving toward love of God and love of our dear neighbor without distinction.