Silence, Solitude and Simplicity: An Interview with a Franciscan Contemplative Sister

allegany motherhouse
Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, New York Motherhouse

Along with the three other women who are part of her “community within a community”, Sister Carol participates in  morning prayer and Eucharist  along with my summer community (students and professors of the Franciscan Institute.) This is how we have gotten to know each other.  I first met Sister Carol in the summer of  2004 and have enjoyed little visits and conversations with her here and there over the years. In addition, I have spent several Thursday afternoons standing in the town square of Olean, NY with a sign around my neck that says, “Praying for Peace” as part of their weekly vigil.  My own life has a lot of transition so I like seeing these same women in this same place, summer after summer, with their kind smiles, hugs and warm welcomes.  Their constancy and stalwartness are a comfort to me.  After morning prayer last week,  I sat down to interview her and to  learn more about her life in the “Ritiro”. I think you’ll enjoy learning more too.

Sister Carol at the Ritiro
Sister Carol at the Ritiro

The Ritiro is a place set apart for those who feel called to a contemplative lifestyle within an active congregation. Sister Carol told me this is one of few Ritiros in the United States. I should back up and say that it is part of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany. The Ritiro, then is like a community within a community. Living the way of life of the  Ritiro is a core group of women. Their main activity is prayer. The Ritiro began in the 1950s when it was noticed that many sisters of the congregation were attracted to the contemplative life. As Reverend Mother Jean Marie oversaw the building of the new Motherhouse in Allegany, NY, she made sure it had a  space set apart for those who wanted to live out the contemplative lifestyle (kitchen, chapel, etc.). In the beginning, it was a strict cloister,  containing all the elements and practices of a cloistered community including a window through which Sisters would visit with their families occasionally.  With Vatican II’s encouragement to communities to get in touch with their founders, they rediscovered the practice of the contemplative lifestyle as lived out by St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare of Assisi and allowed that to shape and inform their life together.  Theirs is different from Poor Clare communities, which is a monastic form of life.

Joining the core community of four sisters, other Sisters come to the Ritiro for a day, a week or a month.  It is a life of “friendly silence” (they speak when necessary).  It is a life of solitude, although they do live together. There have been times when the Community has called individuals away from the Ritiro for a time. After 13 years in the Ritiro, Sister Carol was called out to serve as  novice director for her Community. She attended a nine month training for Novice Directors then set to work. She told me that all of the novices at the time were chronologically older than she was. One had been widowed and one had served in the U.S. Navy. She says that serving as novice director  was “difficult, but wonderful” as they learned how to discern God’s call in their lives together. In total, she spent 10 years away from the Ritiro, first serving as novice director and then working in pastoral care. She studied Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and worked at her Congregation’s hospital in West Palm Beach, Florida, offering pastoral care to the sick and dying and to their loved ones.  Sometimes, in the midst of these family tragedies, she felt paralyzed with fear. She prayed and trusted God and found the right way to respond to people.

The Ritiro is “just little” she told me. Four women are a part of it and a guest room houses those Sisters who join them for temporary stays. She says, “It may sound weird, but it is simple. Like falling in love. Follow your heart and just listen”.

I hope you enjoyed learning a little about the life of Sister Carol. At the end of our interview, I asked her to share some advice for those who may not know how to pray or for those who find it hard to pray.  She sat back, as she did many times during the interview. closed her eyes, rested her palms on her legs and was quiet for a moment. Here’s her advice: “Prayer is as simple as breathing. Listen with your heart and hear God say ‘I love you'”.

 

+++++++Bonus Content+++++

Sister Carol shared  a copy of their Statutes for the Franciscan Ritiro. I will include some short excerpts from it here. There is also small webpage you may be interested in seeing: http://www.alleganyfranciscans.org/fsaritiro.html    Using italics to set them apart, I have added little reflection questions for you to consider as you think about how the Statutes of their Ritiro may have something to say to you as you shape your own life of contemplation and action.

You’ll find their contact info on the webpage listed above.

 

Under the section “Nature and Purpose”

[The Ritiro] is an integral part of the Congregation and gives specific witness to the primacy of prayer in the Franciscan way of life through the special means of silence, solitude, penance and simplicity of life.

Question written by this blogger  for you to consider: In what ways do you presently incorporate silence, solitude, penance and simplicity of life into your daily life?

Under the section “Governance”

Realizing that the Holy Spirit is operating in each member, community decisions will in some way incorporate the essential insights of all the members who are striving to reach a synthesis through sharing.

Question written by this blogger for you to consider: Think of the family member or co-worker who has the smallest voice in your group’s decisions. How might you listen better as they voice their thoughts?

Under the section “Admittance and Readmittance”

 A temporary assignment, for example, a few months to a year, may be requested. After consultation with the Ritiro community and the sister’s Regional Minister, the General Minister acts upon the request with the consultative vote of the General Council.

Question written by this blogger for you to consider:  If you had the opportunity to be assigned to the Ritiro for a few months, what shape do you think your time there may take?

Under the section “Ritiro Lifestyle”

The particular lifestyle of the Ritiro serves the personal and communal life of prayer. The basis for this lifestyle is the traditional Franciscan Ritiro, which was a center of intense prayer life that overflowed into the active apostolate.

Question written by this blogger for you to consider: Currently, what does your personal life of prayer look like? What about your communal life of prayer? What can you do this week to enhance both?

Under the section “Community Life”

 The Eucharistic Celebration is the source and summit of the whole Christian life. The sisters extend this praise throughout the day in coming together in common prayer. In this way, they pray to God in the name of the Church and the Congregation for the whole world.

Question written by this blogger for you to consider: When will you pray for the whole world?

 

*****************

Thanks for reading this post. I’d love to read your feedback.

 

 

Better Late than Never: An Interview with a “Late Vocation” Franciscan Sister

Toss out the images you have of Catholic sisters. Especially if they were formed by cartoonish images or cheesy wall calendars full of black and white photos with speech bubbles inserted. You’ve got to meet Sister Anne Marie. She’ll be making her final profession of religious life on August 9th and has walked a unique road to get to this point.

She is in her 60s and has been in formation for seven years.

She told me she is surprised and delighted by the wide range of people who want to be there on August 9th. These include her former boss in Washington, DC, a retired military officer. She says she is humbled by the number of people who “want to see that happen”. Her mother is 99 and lives nearby. Hopefully, she’ll be having a good day and will be there to see it. I have a feeling she will. Guests will enjoy a reception afterwards, which may feature “Friar Cookies” an innovation whose popularity has helped the food pantry at Syracuse’s Assumption parish stabilize financially

She knew when she made her temporary vows for the first time, seven years ago, that she would be making final profession one day. When I asked her how people can know their gifts, she told me people should think about the times/ways they feel satisfaction in what they are doing and whether they feel a sense of appreciation from others—or not. It’s how one feels inside that really matters.

A highlight of the liturgy will be a dance given by a Hawaiian sister who is 82 years old. It will be given to the sound of John Michael Talbot’s “Prayer of St. Teresa”. The Litany of the Saints will be sung to the same tune as “When the Saints go Marching In”.

Sister Anne Marie, like me, is a proponent of second career religious vocations or ‘late vocations”.  In the 1950s and 1960s, a typical age for people to enter religious life (or marry for that matter) was right after high school. Of course, it is up to God’s timing to call whomever he wants, whenever he wants from wherever he wants. She knows her life experience helps her be a better listener as she talks to people from all walks of life. Her earlier jobs included serving as a graphic designer in the Pentagon. She designed the original logo for the DoD department called “Force Health, Protection and Readiness”. More recently, she designed the logo for the newly formed Conventual Franciscan province “Our Lady of the Angels”.

Catholic Sisters played a huge part in building the infrastructure of the United States. Hospitals and schools served immigrants and pioneers early on. It seems that for many religious communities, the time has come to pass responsibility for these great institutions on to others’ care. In many cases, this transfer yields a fund by which other ministries helping the poor are supported.

When I asked Sister Anne Marie what she might say to those who may be wondering what this is all about, who may have no context for what we are even talking about, she said,“You have to search inside yourself. You can’t fool yourself and you can’t run away from God”.

You have to search inside yourself. You can’t fool yourself and you can’t run away from God.