Fresh eyes on Sisters of Providence Annual Meeting
Letter Circular, July 5, 1855
My beloved Sisters:
The longed-for time of our annual retreat has come once more. The voice of the Lord calls you to your dear solitude of Saint Mary’s not only that you may rest after a year of painful labors, but especially that you may purify your hearts more and more in communion with God and acquire new strength and fervor for the time to come.
Put everything in good order in your establishments and in your employments, and come as soon as possible to give me the consolation of seeing you all, fervent and united, which is the greatest happiness that I can have in this world.
Your truly devoted
Sister St. Theodore,
Though specific forms have varied throughout the history of the Sisters of Providence, the annual coming together of all sisters has been an important tradition for the community. Last week, I got to participate in my first annual meeting.
Our time together kicked off with the celebrations of Jubilees and Vows and then moved into four days of meetings. The meetings involved significant informational presentations and table discussions. Providence Associates joined us for the first day of meetings. We tackled issues such as climate change, how we approach memory care and care of our aging community members, sexuality and the vow of celibacy, and our images of God through contemplative dialogue. Presenters offered significant information on the Congregation’s financial standing and projections for the future. And we had conversations around our governing processes.
This time together has been a priority for the Sisters of Providence since our founding, I’m told. It creates the space for sisters to form and engage in the relationships that are the foundation of what we do. As an apostolic community, being on mission can separate us physically from each other in our daily lives. Yet we live a common bond and a common mission. Being together helps us to reconnect with all that we hold in common. For that, especially as a new member, I am grateful.
The week provided so much material ripe for fruitful reflection. I want to choose a few topics to focus on a few specific themes that struck me from my first annual meeting:
‘I thought I knew the question, but I guess not”
We engaged in a day and a half of contemplative dialogue on our images of God. With four or five sisters at our table and sisters who presented to the whole community their images of God, we began a process of contemplative dialogue that started around images of God and ended with a series of topics and questions that our sisters thought would be useful pieces for further community-wide reflection. Instead of answers, we got hundreds of additional questions for further discussion.
Process may be more important than results
Contemplative dialogue as we practiced it begins with a period of pause to prepare ourselves to listen to the group member who is speaking. One at a time, each group member has a set amount of time to respond to what the person has said without any interruption. Another pause allows those who listened to sit with their feelings and identify what resonated with them. Another timed period allows for group members to ask clarifying questions of the original speaker. A final pause before moving on to the next speaker allows all members of the group to let what they’ve heard sink in beyond an intellectual level. The process allows for the building of relationship and helps to avoid the debates that seem common in our public discourse today, debates that prohibit relationship-building.
As for my group, one sister whose geographic location affords her a different perspective on a hot-button issue was able to share that perspective. Though I would have likely been very resistant to this perspective in many other situations, I was able to hear and respect the perspective of this sister due to the process of building relationships. And because of seeking my own inner peace through the 20 minutes of contemplation that kicked off each day and the shorter moments of contemplation built into the process.
Living into an unknown future
Sister Lisa Stallings, vicar/general councilor and treasurer, and Traci Tucker, Providence Associate and Chief Financial Officer for the Sisters of Providence, presented on the financial state of the community. Among the projections that caught my attention was that by 2031, which will be 15 years after my entrance, we expect there to be 111 sisters in the community, nearly 1/3 of the number when I entered. Seventeen of these sisters will be “active,” that is able to be engaged in full-time paid ministry.
Additionally, with the joining of two new postulants from Asia, the composition of the women in initial formation (those who have not yet taken final vows) will be equally split at five between those born in Asia and those born in the United States. Several of our sisters in Asia have been unable to come to the United States, even for formation. Some of them were able to video conference during last year’s general chapter, but very few members of our community located in the U.S. have had the chance to meet them in person.
How will this impact the future of our property holdings, our community governance, our ability to care for each other’s needs, and our ability to relate to each other?
Living the questions
As we leave our annual meeting, I’m a little excited about exploring ways to engage these questions more deeply as a community.
As poet Rainer Maria Rilke says,
“Try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”