Learning from the sisters

Children in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, carry containers for water Sept. 6 as Hurricane Irma races across the Caribbean. The hurricane was scheduled to hit the island later that night. (CNS photo/Ricardo Rojas, Reuters)

"Gail, you must learn so much from the sisters," family and friends often say.

Indeed I do — and never has that been made clearer than in the past few weeks. Since emerging from the Spirit-filled, protected space of the annual assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious just a month ago, our nation has been ripped raw over displays of bigotry and racism in Charlottesville, Virginia, watched as strangers came together to help each other after Hurricane Harvey battered Texas and Louisiana, and now faces a monster Hurricane Irma that threatens to decimate South Florida, where I lived and worked as a journalist for many years and have a wide network of family, friends and colleagues — whom I worry about and am keeping in prayer.

So what have I learned, and how is it helping in these most challenging of times? At Global Sisters Report, we are blessed every day to witness the remarkable fortitude and deep faith of women religious around the world. They go where others fear to tread: helping marginalized and forgotten people regain dignity and respect; challenging corporations and governments to respond to social and environmental needs; and setting an example through their selfless work to the rest of us to be less selfish.

But it's even deeper than that. Since becoming editor of Global Sisters Report in January 2016, I've observed some common patterns in how sisters approach their ministries and missions. While individual congregations and communities rightly honor and incorporate their specific charisms, their spiritual foundations, into their work, these characteristics I've noted transcend those — and hold keys to behavior and spiritual growth I'm learning from.

Listen first: When approaching a need — whether rescuing women from the streets of Pattaya, Thailand, helping families in rural Alabama, or empowering women who pick through the trash heaps of India — the sisters don't come in with a solution. Instead, they observe, listen and reflect — in some cases up to a year or more — discerning how to inspire and help those in need to find and achieve the solution themselves.

As the oldest girl in a family of five, I am learning to curb my "big sister" tendencies and realize I needn't offer advice or think I know best when family or friends call with a problem. I don't have to fix the issue — my role is to help them do so. I am trying to listen more and opine less.

Be patient — and persevere: There's a determination in so many sisters we've written about that goes beyond the usual adjectives of "steely" and "tough." Instead it comes from an internal assurance of mission, a conviction that they answer not only to those they serve, but to the God who called them to serve. Given that, they just don't quit. Despite obstacles too numerous to list, they keep going, overcoming challenges that would discourage even the strongest-hearted. The U.S. reaps the benefit of the sisters' individual and collective determination through their creation of some of the largest non-profit hospital networks, a host of Catholic colleges and schools, and social and ecological ministries serving millions across the country.

While I can look back on achievements and successes gleaned through dogged determination, I also admit I am too often too easily discouraged. I have an internal impatience that gets in the way of the other "p" — perseverance.

Be patient and slow down: While sisters come in all personality types — extroverts and introverts and all combinations of the Myers-Briggs spectrum — I have noticed even the extroverts evoke an underlying patience. They generally don't interrupt; they speak thoughtfully, act deliberately and minimize wasted human energy. I attribute this to their regular practice of contemplative prayer. Indeed, the LCWR assembly's use of contemplative dialogue — which would seem an oxymoron in the newsrooms and corporate settings I'm used to — is a natural evolution of this proclivity.

I was born two months early (weighing less than four pounds), and the family joke is that I've been in a hurry ever since. It's true. I think fast, talk fast — even walk fast. While I may think I save time doing this, I remember with chagrin the advice of a Bahamian attorney I once interviewed who told me kindly that I would actually save time by speaking more slowly as I'd repeat myself less often. What I didn't incorporate from his advice I am gleaning from the sisters' example.

People wait in line to purchase propane gas in Boca Raton, Florida, Sept. 6. Hurricane Irma is scheduled to hit the Sunshine State Sept. 9. (CNS photo/Joe Skipper, Reuters)

Cultivate kindness: Sisters aren't saints or superheroes. Yet most I've met exhibit a quality of unfailing kindness, an almost unconscious, automatic consideration of "the other" in a situation — from Starbucks baristas to restaurant wait staff to homeless men and women. That to me qualifies as a saintly, superhero characteristic in today's world, where even civility and politeness are in short supply.

I try to be kind. Many times I succeed. Yet when hurried or under stress or annoyed, I too often let kindness slip. (Try driving in Washington, D.C.) I'm learning to be kind first. Then somehow the hurriedness, stress and annoyance disappears.

Practice "presence:" Sisters speak often of a ministry of presence. I was puzzled about this at first — but came to learn it means they accompany people through pain. Often those are natural disasters — floods in Peru and Vietnamfires in Chile, earthquakes in NepalEcuador, Haiti and, now, Mexico — and ongoing hurricanes in the Caribbean and U.S. It's more than being a listening ear — it's being a sharing soul.

People often need to tell their stories, to recount tales of survival — of gratitude for what was saved, and sorrow for what was lost. Recovery workers are too busy with logistics and practicalities. Neighbors and friends have their own tales of woe or may not fully understand, trying to be helpful by offering phrases like "but at least you survived." That's where sisters come in — to be a calming, comforting presence.

I'm learning to develop my own sense of presence — to really listen and be fully attentive. To be mindful of the "space between us" and how even thoughts and unspoken words can affect that sense of presence.

So as I and millions of others wait and watch as Irma barrels relentlessly towards Florida, I am praying for all those in her path.

But I am also saying a prayer for myself — that the lessons I am learning from the sisters will help me help family and friends in what sadly will be many devastating losses and a long and painful recovery. But in another lesson from the sisters — who stay to minister to disaster victims long after others have moved on — there is an assurance that there will be a recovery.

In a word what am I learning from the sisters? It's simple really: Grace.

[Gail DeGeorge is editor of Global Sisters Report.]

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