Our special practices
The Sisters of Providence have published a book about the fundamental practices that have shaped their lives and the life of the congregation since its beginning in France in 1806 and its establishment in Indiana in 1840. The book, Love, Mercy, Justice: A Book of Practices of the Sisters of Providence, published in January 2006, contains a series of “essays for reflection and discussion.” The idea for this project grew from a book, Practicing our Faith, edited by Dorothy Bass, who describes Christian practices as “…things Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in response to and in the light of God’s presence in the world.”
Love, Mercy and Justice opens with an introductory chapter about its purpose: to illustrate how the fundamental SP charism of belief in and dependence upon Providence has been expressed differently at different times in its history and continues unabated even today. Though the essays primarily describe the lives of Sisters of Providence, the practices are common, not only to many religious communities, but indeed to all Christians.
The fifteen essays describe how the following practices have been lived out daily: Prayer, Hospitality, Honoring the Eucharist, Sabbath Keeping, Honoring the Body, Feasting and Fasting, Discernment, Responding to Life with Humor, Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Home Making and Community Shaping, Singing our Lives, Honoring the Dead, Honoring Mary, Valuing Education, and Valuing the Arts. Each essay was written by a different Sister of Providence including: Sisters Ann Casper, Paula Damiano, Kathleen Desautels, Ruth Eileen Dwyer, Jeremy Gallet, Jeanne Knoerle, Bernice Kuper, Marie McCarthy, Rosemary Nudd, Barbara Sheehan, Alexa Suelzer, Ann Sullivan, Dawn Tomaszewski, Denise Wilkinson and Mary Alice Zander.
The essays invite us to reflect on the following questions: What are the fundamental Christian practices that shape our lives? Are we continuing these practices today? Have we become a bit lax (or perhaps a bit lackadaisical) about any of them? Why are we doing (or not doing) them? Are these practices essential to our lives or merely routine? Do some of these practices need to be re-shaped and re-vitalized and, if so, how? Are there some practices we think we do, but in fact, we don’t do? Sometimes we simply presume we do a practice because it is so deeply embodied in the Christian way of life, yet when we examine our lives, we see it only faintly there.
Clearly, these are questions relevant not only to Sisters of Providence, but to everyone who calls himself or herself Christian or Catholic. Therefore, the book is one that can provide valuable insights to readers whatever their circumstances or way of life.
The book was funded through a grant from the Valparaiso Project on Practicing Our Faith, at Valparaiso University. It is available online for $10 (plus $5 for shipping and handling). Just visit the Gift Shop at Providence Center link.
Our early rule said simply that the end of this Congregation is “to honor Divine Providence and to promote God’s merciful designs upon mankind by devoting itself to works of charity.” Charity or love, therefore, is the core upon which we have built our lives. Later we expressed this charism differently—and somewhat more expansively—as “to honor Divine Providence by devoting ourselves to works of love, mercy and justice in service among God’s people.” That is the definition of our charism found in our present Constitutions.
However, since those words were written, our understanding of Providence has continued to grow and be differently shaped — and differently expressed. Our deeper understanding of Providence has opened us to see that we not only receive Providence, but we have a role to play in it: to be co-creators with God of the world we live in. Today we speak of ourselves as “breaking boundaries, creating hope,” seeking — in the language proposed by the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice — “hope and healing for earth.” This perception is offering us a still newer lens through which to more clearly identify who we are as Sisters of Providence.
Clearly, the externals of any practice are not static. They change continually. Each period of history requires that we find new ways to express the truth of the mandates of the Gospel. Hospitality in the year 2005 is expressed very differently than it was in 1540 or 1858. We are no longer able to welcome total strangers into our home. The dangers of modern culture make that no longer feasible. Yet being hospitable to others — and to one another — continues to be a value that love requires of us; it remains a Gospel mandate. And we must find new ways to express it.
We cannot keep Sabbath in 2005 as we did in 1840. The demands of the contemporary work we are engaged in make that impossible. Does that mean we should not keep it at all, this obligation that was so important in the Hebrew Testament as well as in the Christian one? Clearly not. The question becomes, therefore, not what of the external actions of Sabbath keeping are essential, but what of its deep Christian meaning is essential and how should it be expressed today — and tomorrow? If we can find new ways to keep Sabbath in our own lives — ways that are consonant with the intense rhythm and often frantic pressures of modern society — perhaps we bring some semblance of peace and hope and leisure to a restless and unfocused world.
As we continue to reflect on the ways in which we have practiced our faith through the years, we find many facets of that faith that demand a different expression now than they did earlier. When culture changes and the externals of a practice no longer express the belief that an action was meant to convey, or when circumstances in society make it impossible to do the practice in the way it was done in the past, those externals are clearly no longer useful and a new way of expressing that still fundamentally important Christ-like action and attitude must be born. If we do not find new ways to express these vitally important values, our lives as Christians eventually stagnate and die. So paying attention to our practices is not a casual issue — it is life sustaining and essential.
Mother Theodore knew intuitively that, as Christians, as Catholics, and as Sisters of Providence, we are nested within several communities: our family, our religious community, the Christian community across the world, and the full human community wherever it is found. She reminded us constantly, however, because she knew it so deeply within her own being, that the fundamental energy that undergirds the practices of the Christian community is love — that love is the most powerful force ever unleashed in the world.
Love has drawn us as Christians into a special relationship with Christ and with one another. The marvel of that love is shown in Jesus’ words: “You are in me and I in you.” In other words, when any one of us acts, we act as Christ. Therefore, when we practice our faith, Christ practices that faith within us and through us. This message of union permeates the Gospels, its truth growing and unfolding more clearly and undeniably in our time. As we fully absorb that truth, it provides us with a powerful incentive to practice our faith in every community of which we are a part and with everyone that community touches.