The Practice of Homemaking and Community Shaping
(Chapter from “Love, Mercy, Justice: A Book of Practices of the Sisters of Providence.”)
Home is a word and an experience as ancient as civilization itself and as rich, meaning-filled, and new as today’s dawn. Images of home abound — in songs, literature, sayings, book titles, and in the sacred scriptures of all peoples. Many of these readily come to mind: Country Roads, Take Me Home; Back Home Again in Indiana; I’ll Be Home for Christmas; Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Coming for to Carry Me Home; Home is Where the Heart Is; You Can’t Go Home Again; All Roads Lead to Home; Home is Where We Start From; Even the Sparrow Finds a Home and the Swallow a Nest; I Will Lead you Home; How Could we Sing the Lord’s Own Song in a Foreign Land?
The Experience of Home
Home! The very word stirs countless images, memories, and feelings in us. What is home? It is a place of welcome, a place of warmth and safety. Home is a place of comfort and of celebration. It is a place of familiarity, a place where we are truly known, a place in which we are not the stranger. It is a place that can hold us and let us go, which can launch us and receive us back again. Home is a place where we can come to renew and refresh ourselves, to rest from the fray, to remember who we are and whose we are. Home is a place that claims us. At least in our ideals and in our dreams that’s what home is.
All too often the reality falls far short of the ideal and home becomes a place of disappointment, pain, wounding, sometimes even terror. We have only to pick up the daily paper or listen to the evening news to experience the harsh reality that many homes are wounding, many homes are broken. We read of neglect, abuse, violence, terror. Our homes are no longer safe. And our society is filled with homelessness. There are hundreds of thousands of persons displaced by war, ethnic cleansing, and natural disasters who no longer have a homeland. Hundreds of thousands more on the streets of our cities have no roof over their heads, no place of safety and shelter, no place to lay their heads. And still more are psychologically, emotionally, or spiritually homeless and have no place to lay their hearts.
Homemaking and Community Shaping
Homes and communities don’t just happen. They have to be made. We have to engage in the activity of making a home and of making a community, adopt the practices that create the experience and the reality of home and community for ourselves and for others. Both of these are soul-making activities. They create the environment in which a soul can develop and flourish. Without a home, without a place and a space in which we can be seen, recognized and cherished, without a community in which we are safe, in which we are challenged, in which we are appreciated, we perish.
From its earliest days, homemaking and community shaping have been central practices for us. From the beginning, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods was known to the Sisters of Providence as home. And the practice of “coming home” began early in the history of the community. In 1851 Mother Theodore wrote to her sisters, “Once more I have the pleasure of calling you home for our retreat. . . .” From the foundations of the Congregation we have returned together as a community to this sacred place to be renewed, refreshed, grounded and strengthened. Our souls have taken root and grown out of this soil that we call “home.” This place, a place of physical and spiritual sustenance, has shaped our community.
Many of the stories captured in our community history are stories of homemaking and of community shaping, of preparing feasts and observing fasts, of offering hospitality, of creating space for shared silence, and of sharing song and laughter together. We were taught the skills of homemaking — cooking, cleaning, canning, sewing, recreating and celebrating — from the moment we entered community. We learned to make our dwelling places homes where body and spirit could rest, where community was shaped.
More importantly, in our life in community each of us has known profound experiences of being-at-home, of having others make a home for us, and of making a home for others. We have learned to create, not just physical space, but emotional and spiritual space where another’s heart and soul can be held. Mother Theodore, herself, openly and unabashedly loved Sister St. Francis, finding in her a soul mate. And in an era when the ethos and spirituality of the time made friendship suspect, she gave us, through her example, instruction in the art and blessing of being friend and soul mate.
From early on we learned how to care for each other in little ways, how to sustain each other even without words, how to help each other endure through hard times. From very early in our history, a portion of everyone’s summer would be spent at the Woods studying, working, praying, enjoying each other’s company on long walks, and making retreat together. These weeks together cemented and developed lifelong friendships and identified us with Saint Mary-of-the-Woods as a place of shared experiences and shared community.
By the mid-1970s the practice of having everyone come home to Saint Mary’s for six weeks in the summer had come to an end. Newer members have not experienced this extended time during summer months sharing their lives with a large number of community members. Thus their sense of the Woods as home has been formed differently. They may call it home because that is what every Sister of Providence calls it. But their lived experience of Saint Mary’s is different. Today we continue the practice of spending a foundational year of canonical novitiate at the Woods surrounded by the wisdom and care of many of the elders in community. And we have initiated the practice of gathering at the Woods in the summer for several days of meeting, reflection, prayer, and sharing with one another the deep meaning of our lives. In this way we continue to create a place of home that is both soul making and community shaping.
Preserving and Renewing the Practices of Homemaking and Community Shaping
This particular moment in our world and our history as a Congregation calls us to preserve and renew our practices of homemaking and of community shaping. In the harried and hurried climate that surrounds us, taking the time to shop, clean, prepare and share a meal can create a welcome space where souls can breathe again. In a world of superficial, broken and fragmented relationships and of increasing isolation, taking time to be with each other, to share real presence, to listen and to allow friendship to blossom can provide the home we need to sustain us as we strive to be a providential presence in the world.
Community shaping presents different challenges in the 21st century than it did in the 19th. Newer members come from widely varied family backgrounds, with practices and customs quite different from those that were common in the early to mid-1900s. Until the mid-1900s children often shared a house with a medium to large group of familial persons — mother, father, several siblings, and perhaps a grandparent or aunt or uncle. Today, with much smaller families the norm, and older persons often being cared for in assisted living complexes, children grow up with many fewer persons in the house. This sets up a natural expectation of having one’s own space with few, often no, other persons sharing that space.
Even those of us who grew up in larger family groups have become accustomed to sharing our space with as few persons as possible. In the United States, at least, living together is much more counter-cultural than it was in the past. Given the busyness, complexity, and harried pace of our lives today, we often have a felt need for more time alone to recoup. U.S. culture says quite clearly that living singly is a good choice.
There are some losses that accompany this newer pattern of homemaking. Among other things it provides fewer options for intimate interaction with others with whom we share living space and fewer opportunities for growth in humility and acceptance of persons who have very different temperaments from ours. It also provides us fewer experiences on a daily basis of looking more deeply beneath the outer shell of those with whom we live. When we do that we see the potential goodness beneath that surface, and grow in patience as we are forced to shave off some of our own warts, accommodating and adjusting to the needs of others. Unlike the past when we were assigned to a mission, choosing how, where, and with whom we live has become a time of deep soul searching and discernment. To do it well, we need to spend considerable reflective time thinking and praying about our individual expectations for homemaking and community shaping and about the practices that are necessary to achieve them.
For a variety of reasons the pattern of living for active sisters in our community is now predominantly — though certainly not exclusively — one of living alone or with one other rather than in a group with other sisters. This pattern requires different skills to shape community, different choices of ways to keep our sense of community alive and vital. For instance, we have divided into groups called Local Government Units (LGUs) that meet three times a year with a common agenda and provide time to talk, pray, laugh, and eat together. We have several cluster groups of sisters who live close to each other and meet often to share prayer and meals. We have established a regular pattern of summer meetings at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods for all sisters, and of annual meetings in various parts of the country in order to spend time together to discuss common issues and concerns.
These new patterns, like everything in this period of history, are all changing as our times, our needs, and our culture change. What remains constant, however, is our desire to make a home and shape a community. It is that deep desire for home and togetherness that makes us a community. At the same time that desire requires us to pray and reflect about the ways in which we are called to do this — and to understand, accept, and live with the deep differences in perceptions of home and community that exist among us.
In response to our growing awareness that Earth is our home and needs our care, some special practices of homemaking are moving into the foreground today. As we engage in various practices that promote sustainability — healing our land, reducing, reusing, recycling, spinning, knitting, weaving, simplifying our lives — we participate in some of the most urgent homemaking activities of our day. And it is a homemaking that is soul making not just for ourselves but also for our world.
Our lives in community have been marked by homemaking and community shaping activities. Some of our most grounding, perhaps as well as some of our most distressing, experiences of homemaking and community shaping are likely to have occurred together. As we take time to reflect on the practices of homemaking and community shaping, the following questions may assist in this process of deepening our understanding of what it to means make a home.
Questions for Reflection
1. What are the experiences of homemaking that have been soul making for you?
2. In what ways has your experience of homemaking changed throughout your life?
3. Many of the other practices written about here are practices that, in fact, help create a home or shape a community. Take some time to reflect on how Singing Our Lives, Valuing the Arts, Sabbath Keeping and Hospitality have been a part of your experience both of making a home, finding a home, or shaping a community.
4. What are some of the healthiest and most nourishing ways in which the art of homemaking is practiced within our community?
5. Are there ways in which we need to renew the practice of homemaking within our communities?
“Love, Mercy, Justice: A Book of Practices of the Sisters of Providence” is available for purchase in the Gift Shop at Providence Center at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.