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Asking questions: Feast Day 2012

A couple of years ago, two sisters provided me with something to smile over, puzzle about, and learn from.

At the time, we Sisters of Providence were in the midst of making an important decision. As always, there were different points of view. As always, these different points of view were articulated with the passion and intensity characteristic of women who love the Congregation and have invested lifetimes in its continuation and well-being.

One particular morning, I arrived in my office at my usual time. I had no sooner taken off my coat and started to get organized for the day, when a sister knocked on the door and asked if I had a minute.

We sat down, and she expressed her opinion on the decision to be made. She ended her conversation with this assurance to me: “I know Mother Theodore absolutely would not want us to….” We bade each other good day.

Not ten minutes later, another knock on the door. A second sister wanted to know if I had a minute. We sat down and this sister expressed her opinion on the decision. It was the polar opposite of the sister before her. However, this sister assured me with great certainty that “Mother Theodore would want us to….”

This experience proved valuable for me. It has made listen to how I (and we) invoke Mother Theodore’s words and memory, how I (and we) tell her story, what I (and we) emphasize and what I (and we) don’t.

I’ve noticed about myself that I rarely ask questions of curiosity about Mother Theodore. I rarely wonder about an incident related in Journals and Letters but rather read or hear it read in a way that I hear a family story told and retold over the years.

It’s familiar, comforting in its repetition, connecting me with the past and present. But wonder about it? No.

By way of example: Mother Theodore’s ability to love Sister Basilide confounds me. Basilide betrayed Mother Theodore, sought to supplant her position in the community, allied herself with Bishop de la Halandière – the bishop who locked up Mother Theodore to prevent her return to Saint Mary’s, the bishop who excommunicated Mother Theodore. This is the man with whom Basilide chose to side.

The story tells of Mother Theodore’s return to Saint Mary’s after the bishop’s harsh treatment. Everyone came to greet her except Basilide who was hiding. Mother Theodore asked, “And where is my Basilide?” When she appeared, Mother Theodore embraced her warmly, in front of all the sisters who knew what Basilide had done. What a lesson for the assembled sisters! What a lesson for Basilide! What a lesson for me.

I love this story. But do I ask questions? No. What could those questions be? How about: how did Mother Theodore prepare her heart to be so forgiving? Did Mother Theodore feel angry about the betrayal? Wouldn’t she have to? If so, what got her to another place in herself?

I have to admit I avoid the questions because I don’t want to deal with what I suspect would be asked of me as it was asked of Mother Theodore.

And, maybe most important, what does this story of forgiveness ask of me – right now?

I have to admit I avoid the questions because I don’t want to deal with what I suspect would be asked of me as it was asked of Mother Theodore.

As to what I find myself emphasizing – or not – when I think about, talk about Mother Theodore – it’s very clear to me. I steer away from all of her references to the cross – and there are many. Here are two:

“Hail crosses, great and small, spiritual and temporal, exterior and interior, hail!” To me this sounds as if Mother Theodore is greeting a beloved friend. I can’t imagine these words escaping my lips!

Listen to her words as she advises sisters of Ruillé desiring to come to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods:

“If your hearts waver, if you are afraid of the cross, of poverty, of humiliations, do not leave France; you would not be suitable for our little Community”

Can you imagine receiving this letter from her and facing the decision? Yet, no doubt her words are as true today as they were then. Our times do call for embracing the cross on our way to refoundation.

While I’d prefer to ignore all her teachings concerning the cross. I’m beginning to suspect I do so at my peril. The cross is part and parcel of the paschal mystery lived out in our lives day by day. Deal with all of it, I say to myself.

Why? Because I do love that Mother Theodore was a real, human, passionate, loving woman of God; and I’d like to be her daughter in more than name.

The cost of being so is clearly spelled out in the reading from Sirach. Mother Theodore did “come forward to serve God.” Did she know the temptation that the biblical writer assures us will beset the one who follows God?

I think so. I wonder when she might have been tempted to take an easier way, to do less, be less.

Certainly she “set her heart right and [was] steadfast.” What words of hers convince us of that? What actions of hers assure us of this? What or who kept her steadfast? What or who keeps us steadfast?

Don’t you wonder about the many changes she experienced in everything from language, to customs, to geography, to spirituality, to worship, to food, to living conditions, to educational practices?

How might those changes have ‘humbled’ her; what were the positive outcomes of those changes, humiliations? What changes have humbled us, or could have had we been willing? And what’s so good about being humbled anyway?

Indeed, our Mother Theodore was “tested in fire.” I’d prefer to avoid this kind of testing myself. Yet I’m forced to ask “For what or for whom would I willingly step into the fire as she did?”

“Trust in God,” Sirach admonishes. This we know she did.

How many words of hers do we quote –sometimes glibly – about trusting in God’s providence? She trusted before, during and after the many trials and sufferings she endured. She seems to have done so joyfully.

Do we merely repeat the words or do we believe them? Do we trust as she trusted “in that Providence that never fails?” What or who would help us grow in trust?

On her feast day, let’s each of us take another look at Mother Theodore. Let’s none of us assume that she agrees with me on everything, has the same opinions I do on important or unimportant matters.

Let’s be attentive to what we’d rather not hear from her. Let’s love her in a way that mirrors how she lived and loved God, how she followed the Gospel mandate of all-inclusive love.

She did tell us how to go about this life-long task of learning to love:

“What must we do to become saints? Nothing extraordinary; nothing more than that which we do every day but do it in the love of God.”

As we approach the table of Eucharist, let us be mindful of one another and of our desire to be daughters and sons of Saint Mother Theodore, of our desire to help one another be saints, doing all “in the love of God.”

In this way, let us celebrate her feast day – year round!

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Sister Denise Wilkinson

Sister Denise was the general superior of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods from 2006-2016. She previously served as a high school teacher, college administrator, postulant/novice director and director of advancement and communications for the Congregation. Currently, Sister Denise serves the Congregation in various volunteer positions.

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