Sing out, young sister!
"O Lord, we pray that they may see what must be done
And gain strength to do what they have seen."
With my daily devotional propped on the airplane tray, I read the collect for the day's liturgy. In a few hours, I would land in Phoenix and assemble with 32 other sisters in their 20s and 30s for our annual Giving Voice retreat.
This collect seemed to stretch off the page toward me, beckoning my attention. I sensed it was God's special urging to us young sisters. I changed the pronoun from "they" to "we," and it became my prayer for our gathering: O Lord, we pray that we may see what must be done and gain strength to do what we have seen.
Our retreat leaders chose "Cultivating courageous hope" as the theme. Before even delving into the content, hope billowed among us. It's not every day that newer, younger religious get to spend time in large peer groups. With each new arrival came joyful parking-lot hugs and a palpable shifting of energy. My being breathed a sigh of relief.
This was a circle of mutual understanding and shared Gospel commitment. The life and possibility in my heart recognized reciprocation in the hearts of my sisters. This, indeed, was a place to cultivate courageous hope.
The next morning, mounting warmth tingled on my arms as I squinted into the sun, enjoying the gentle bounce of a rocking chair in the meditation garden. We were taking this hour for personal pondering of our theme.
My right hand held the retreat booklet, but I cocked my head back, thinking nothing in particular. The eternal azure sky and sweet-smelling desert plants lulled me into stillness. Eventually, my wordless prayer materialized into a simple question.
"What do you want to say to me about cultivating courageous hope today, God?" I offered silently.
Just as silently, responses arose in my awareness.
"Courageous hope is hope that acts," I realized. "Cultivating courageous hope involves actively creating the future that one desires and knows to be possible."
There it was again, God's urging to seek what must be done and do it. As the insight took hold of me, I was invigorated. I had been praying the question from a place of global concern, but this hit me personally. I am in a moment of unexpected discernment about ministry and study, and the message fell upon my heart as fresh rain of affirmation and encouragement. I pictured God's eyes of love peering into mine and assuring, "You know my call in your life. Own it. Live it."
I opened the retreat booklet, and my eyes landed on a quote from John Paul Lederach in The Moral Imagination:
"To deeply understand vocation as voice, we must go beyond what is initially visible and audible, to that which has rhythm, movement and feeling ... Literally and metaphorically, voice is not located in the mouth or on the tongue where words are formed. Voice is deeper ... Where you find that meeting place, the home where heart and lungs gather, where breath meets blood, there you will find voice. When you find your way home, there you will find yourself, the unique gift that God has placed on this earth. You will find the place from which your journey begins and to where it returns when the road is confused and hard. This is the deeper sense of vocation."
This quote surfaced often when we gathered to share. Something about it spoke to us as we find our way as young women religious in these evolving times during which our voices are often in the minority and our passion for mission may be overshadowed or stifled by business as usual. I don't think it's any coincidence that the wise founders of Giving Voice chose that name.
Gathering with religious life peers allows us to come home to that meeting place deep inside. It catapults us into the heart of our vocation. As we listen deeply to one another, we get in touch with the God beating in each of us and among us.
The physicality of the Lederach quote led me to think about singing. Impactful singers are also deep listeners. The most powerful song springs from deep within an opening abdomen and expanding lungs that make room for the movement of air, to the backdrop of a beating heart and prayerful soul.
It is best to dance with music long before singing it, to ponder the words and patterns and meanings. When singing, one must listen to the accompaniment, to the director, to the spirit of the music, to how the voice sounds, to the musical instinct inside, to emotion, and, if possible, to other singers. In fact, the best singing comes from training with others. In a rehearsal, as singers pay attention together, playing off of and blending with each other, the individual and collective sound grows richer.
Our Giving Voice weekends, then, are big choir rehearsals. We dive deep to dance with the music of our lives, to ponder the movements and the cues that our Composer has embedded. Listening to each other's voices helps them to grow stronger and more authentic for whenever we use them: sometimes solo, sometimes in small ensembles, and sometimes as one. Through all we shared, my love and admiration for my sisters intensified, and so did the conviction that the world needs our song. I am sure of it. God is urging us young sisters: See, and do what you see! Listen deeply, and live what you hear!
And so, I am emboldened to ask important questions and answer honestly: What is stirring within me as I begin this year? What do I see that must be done, really, and what strength do I need to do it? Am I living my call as I had hoped? When I look back on this part of my life, is there something I will wish I would have said or done? How are my life and work different because I am a sister? How is the world different because I am a sister? What would it mean for me to live courageous hope? How am I being urged to a more authentic living of religious life for the Reign of God?
On the last morning of retreat, we each took a turn sharing what we take away from the weekend. I remembered our annual game of kickball from Saturday afternoon and our laughter-filled dance party from Saturday night, and I began jokingly, "I'm taking away some aches in muscles that I'd forgotten I had!" I rubbed my lower back as we all laughed. But then I continued, saying that these muscle aches were pointing to a lesson: "When we gather, we use muscles we don't get to use very much elsewhere."
At Giving Voice, we play, laugh, dream, speak freely, and share ideas that might be discounted as crazy elsewhere, because here, we know we are understood and taken seriously. We rekindle the fire of the call that brought us to this life. We are silly and sincere. We are honest about reality, and we dare to believe our deepest yearnings can come to be.
There's no "we've always done it this way." New members don't have to subconsciously "earn" the right to lead or serve in the way they feel called. Among us, there is great power for visioning and doing, for listening and responding, for cultivating and acting on courageous hope.
We must exercise these muscles! We must play, we must dream, we must listen deeply, we must ask the important questions about our vocations and live the answers, even when we are together only in spirit. The word we have to speak is God-given, and it is meant not for us but for our communities, congregations, and the world.
Fellow younger, newer sisters, own your voices and let them ring. May we see what must be done and gain strength to do what we have seen.
Author's note: One way young sisters are "giving voice": They have written a collaborative book about religious life! Called In Our Own Words: Religious Life in a Changing World, it is due out Feb. 15. Preorder here.
[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is passionate about religious life. She currently studies theology at Xavier University and serves as bilingual pastoral minister at a local parish.]