Habit forming dialogue
“Ok, let’s get in groups,” our facilitator announced.
The thirty of us adjusted into clusters, one for each generation present: millenials, gen-x’ers, Baby Boomers, the Korean War generation, and a smattering of wisdom figures from the World War II generation. Then the conversation began.
As canonical novices, Sister Anna and I have been meeting with this intercultural and inter-generational group of 20 men and women in formation and their directors in St. Louis almost weekly. We know this program as our Inter-Community Novitiate, or ICN. Each week at ICN brings a different topic, a different speaker, and deepening conversations as we get to know one another. This week’s topic was on the culture of religious life – both the culture we each bring with us and the culture of the community we are joining. Considering that about half of the novices grew up outside the U.S., you can imagine we’d have lots to talk about!
Once in groups, we were asked to discuss the way our generation relates to a variety of topics – technology, clothing, communication, and social issues, to name a few. Before long, our group took up the topic of clothing. The discussion led some novices from eastern traditions to question why some of our communities chose not to wear a traditional habit. After all, from their perspective a habit allows for greater simplicity, saves money and closet space and levels the playing field for a community, as far as dress is concerned.
At this point, I should mention that the “habit” question is one that has elicited emotional responses for me in the past. I know many sisters who do amazing work in communities and feel that wearing modern dress has opened doors to relationships that might otherwise not have been forged. I have witnessed sisters passing on clothing to one another, either personally or through creative systems like our very own “free rack.” I have heard some of these same sisters talk about how they have been dismissed or looked down on by people who didn’t consider them “real” vowed religious, simply because of their external appearance. For me, this is a personal issue.
But, with a spirit of honesty, a desire for understanding, and a quick invocation of the spirit, I responded. I explained that after Vatican II our sisters decided, like many communities, that the traditional habit no longer fit its original purpose – to emulate working class poor of the day. We live the vow of simplicity in a variety of creative ways that, for the most part, do not include a uniform habit but do involve spending very little on clothing.
What followed was not the defensive response I expected, especially considering that the group included several sisters in habits and several brothers accustomed to wearing habits in their home countries. Instead I experienced a gift of this generation – a propensity toward openness, a desire to come to greater awareness about differences. One sister shared her gratitude for the diversity of women religious, and the way women with different passions and lifestyles can be attracted to a vowed life lived in different ways. Another shared her experience that habited sisters, too, can be tempted to accumulate different versions of and accessories for their dress. Even habited sisters are not immune to having stuffed closets, she said! We talked about the struggles and gifts that come with these differences, and how women in religious life often deal with the same increased emphasis on appearance that exists for women in broader society. As we sorted through our questions and experiences, I could feel my anxiety fading and my sense of connection with the group growing.
In light of recent acts of violence around the world and expressions of fear and intolerance in our own country, I find in this experience a small circle of light, a glimmer of hope. Among my peers, I found genuine concern, a desire for understanding, thoughtful questions, and an ability to embrace the gift of our diversity. I experienced in a small way the big potential that exists for men and women religious to model dialogue. I heard a sister in a habit say, “Your way of life is beautiful,” to me, a sister donning jeans and a pullover. What would happen if we expanded this small circle of light to bigger conversations? What if we could find space in our hurting world to say, “Your way of life is beautiful” to the Muslim family down the street, refugees across the world, a co-worker in the next office we often dismiss?
As I continue my formation as a Sister of Providence, I am grateful for the space to grow alongside other novices. I am aware of the sacred questions and conversations that shape who I am and who I am becoming. I am hopeful that this time will embolden my peers and me to love radically even when, as Mother Theodore said, “all appearances are against it.”