The gift of perspective

When I first joined the Xavier Community, I could not sit still. A recent college graduate, new to Kansas City and to my job at a local non-profit, I was eager to get involved in as many things as I could. Instead, I moved in with three Sisters of Charity and a few other young women and encountered stillness for the first time.

Settling into the convent across the street from a Catholic cathedral in Kansas City, Kansas, felt like a sudden shift into slow motion. When the noisy excitement of my move quieted, and I started getting used to the practices of the community — sharing meals, prayer and household tasks — I often found myself frustrated by how much community life was keeping me from my own pursuits and to-do lists.

This is not to say that everything about our little community moved slowly and quietly. The sisters — Therese, Vicki and Rachel — embodied a spirit of service, volunteering at hospitals and schools, organizing summer camps, participating in church activities, and providing spiritual direction. Right away, I noticed their commitment to serving those in need. Just as evident was their devotion to young people — "People of Hope" as they liked to say — especially in empowering their social justice endeavors and encouraging their spiritual growth.

But after long days of serving others, the sisters would return home for dinner and prayer as a community. This was harder for me to understand and emulate. Dinner and prayer with the sisters slowed everything down, and I frequently found myself at the edge of my seat, anxiously tapping my foot. I admit that many evenings, despite showing up in body, I did not show up in spirit. I was not present to the conversation, instead lost in my own head. Sometimes, I sat through prayer too consumed by my own thoughts to hear a word of it.

Rachel, Vicki and Therese, however, had ways of gently reminding me to slow down and be present. Every evening between dinner and dishes, we kept a tradition of sharing something for which we felt grateful. Concluding our meals this way meant pausing enough during the day to notice small but life-giving interactions and relationships to which I wouldn't otherwise be awake. Vicki, outspoken and practical, reminded me to slow down in more obvious ways. "Pace yourself," she'd say. It was always that simple. She recognized my energy and desire to always be on the move but also had the perspective to remind me that the pursuit of all good things often happens slowly and steadily.

Even so, there were nights when I arrived home after a full day with my fingers nearly crossed that no one would be around, so I could retreat to my room because I was too exhausted to talk to anyone. Many of those nights, Rachel, Therese or Vicki would be in the kitchen.

"How was your day?" they would ask, an invitation to pull up a chair at the kitchen table and share my time. After all, that's part of community — sharing space, sharing belongings, but most especially sharing lives. I resisted these conversations much of the time I lived at Xavier and did not truly come to embrace this aspect of community until the last few weeks I spent there. It took me too long to realize that the sisters wanted to share in my life's joys and challenges, but when I finally did, my perspective changed. I grew to value the wisdom and silliness shared around the kitchen table. And as the stubborn grip I had on my own agenda loosened, I think I learned how to be more generous with my time, laughter and grace for myself and for others.

The community, and especially the intergenerational relationships I developed within community, gave me this gift of perspective over and over again. I am so grateful I didn't have to face the real world for the first time in a vacuum. Instead of blindly following my own pursuits and interests during this transitional time in life, I got to be part of something bigger than myself: the spirit of community. There were moments of meditation in the prayer room and, even more often, moments of laughter around the dinner table and in the kitchen, when I felt this Spirit fill the room, connecting us to each other.

Of course I am perpetually relearning and remembering how to cultivate stillness and how to be present, but having spent eight months with the sisters makes that remembering so much easier. I can reflect on our shared delight and sadness convinced that it was in those times of reluctant stillness that I encountered the Spirit, which always surprised me with its suddenness, shaking me from my reticence and creating space enough in my heart for me to say to myself, "Everything else that is distracting you, everything else keeping you from communing with these women, right now, does not matter."

Now, when I am tempted to side-step opportunities to experience community, I try to remember all the Spirit-filled moments at Xavier, and I take a deep breath with this brief meditation: today, I will linger longer around the table. I will be still, and I will listen.

[Virginia Davis is an artist and entrepreneur. She works at Unbound, a Kansas City-based non-profit that sponsors children and families, and will soon be celebrating a year of new communities and friendships here.]