Language barriers, smiles and unexpected gifts: Sister Denise Wilkinson reflects from France
I have been in France for two months living at la Commnauté de la Providence in Ruillé sur Loir.
It was here that Saint Mother Theodore Guerin completed her formation as a vowed member of les Soeurs de la Providence.
It was from here that she was sent to teach in various schools in France.
Perhaps most importantly for those of us who love her, it was from Ruillé that she traveled to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, to continue her ministry as an excellent educator and to share her practical, wise and loving way of living the gospel.
I first visited the motherhouse of Ruillé several years ago. From that moment on, my mantra became “someday I am going to work in the gardens at Ruillé.” Understand that the main garden of Ruillé is their entire “front yard.” Their front yard is at least a block long. (I still measure distances the Chicago way.)
When the opportunity to go to Ruillé presented itself, Sister Martine, general superior of the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé, welcomed me very graciously – even though I had asked to stay for four months. Now that’s hospitality!
I had never tried to explain to myself or anyone else why I felt such a strong desire to be in Ruillé; but I had to fill in something on my sabbatical request form. I wrote something like wanting to absorb some of Mother Theodore’s spirit by spending time in the place that had so shaped who she was, who she became and who she is to so many today. As often happens with me, it is through writing that I come to hidden insights.
I did want to come to Ruillé to absorb Mother Theodore’s spirit as influenced by this place of beauty, this place of living faith shaping two centuries of religious life and ministry. But I didn’t expect the time here to be what I didn’t expect.
The first morning the unexpected asserted itself. Who knew I’d be drinking hot coffee out of a bowl? Who knew I’d be so discombobulated as everything each person said sounded like one long word? Who knew I’d go to liturgy and feel (day after day) it was my first time? What part of the Mass were we on?
The first couple of weeks I was thinking and feeling that I had made a big mistake. Mostly it was the language. It was and is so frustrating not to be able to ask the simplest question, say the most common of greetings, or get to know the stories of the sisters with whom I am living. Oh, and the history here of the earliest days of the congregation who founded ours … I am so curious.
After a time, I decided that I’d never know what my longing to be here was all about until I just waded into the water that seemed so deep.
Just speak French, Denise, (or your version of it) and see what happens. As I did expect, the sisters here are gracious, sympathetic and very patient. We do communicate by speaking slowly, repeating, and lots of sign language – a cross cultural game of charades. My expectations that only perfect French or perfect English would insure effective communication has been dashed, thank God.
Did I expect I would spend hours in Holy Family Chapel – the chapel where Sister St. Theodore professed her vows and from which she and her companions took their first steps toward Indiana?
While sitting in the chapel, did I expect to spend time wondering where the altar had been when she was here; how the chairs had been arranged; what liturgical art decorated the walls when Mother Theodore worshipped here?
Could I ever have expected that every time I am in this chapel, I would ask the floor’s marble tiles to free the energy of all the faithful who prayed and pray here? I so want that mighty, holy energy to renew me.
Did I expect my almost daily walks on the motherhouse grounds to delight me? I think so. Did I expect to feel so at home because of the honoring of Earth, the spacious grounds, the surprises of home tucked in every crook and cranny? (Ste. Anne’s chapel looks just like ours! Well, probably ours looks just like theirs.)
Did I expect that these otherwise wonderful women don’t have the custom of celebrating St Patrick’s Day? What? No shamrocks? No Irish soda bread? No wearin’ of the green? Nope! And they are as interested in why we do as I am in why they don’t.
Now I know that having waded into the water, I am enjoying whatever each day brings.
Smiles as comfort
I am getting to know each sister by paying attention to her expressions, her voice, her walk, her greeting of others. I notice her desire to communicate with me and her frustration at not knowing English.
Most of all I notice smiles. I didn’t expect smiles as comfort, joy, wordless compassion. Right now that’s what they are for me and I hope for the sisters I encounter.
In retrospect, I expected some new, spectacular and spiritual connection to be forged with Mother Theodore the saint, the “woman for all times.”
In the now of this moment, not a day goes by that I am not aware of her as an immigrant. Of what must have been her frustrations, her hesitancy, her ignorance of how to do anything that came so easily to the people she had come to serve.
Between now and the end of May, I hope I am given the gift of knowing our Mother Theodore on the way to becoming who she was – a saint of God. I am asking for that gift; but I’m not expecting it. I’m content to receive the unexpected gift.