Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Bundt Cake and Bananas

Dominican Volunteer Hannah Abalos shares community with the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose at Immaculate Conception Priory.

I get a lot of strange looks when people learn I live in a convent. And almost every time without fail, they have the same question for me: “Do you have a curfew?” To which I smile and tell them about my first week in the convent, when one of the sisters gave me a big wink and told me to go out that night, have a good time, “and don’t come back till 1 AM!” If that doesn’t assuage their skepticism, the fact that I get free room and board certainly does. In San Francisco, that’s solid gold.

Of all the DV communities, mine is the largest. I live with seventeen other women—fifteen religious sisters and two other Dominican Volunteers. Our community is multicultural: we have Mexican sisters, Irish sisters, a Korean sister, a Polish sister, and of course, American sisters. Many of the sisters are San Francisco natives who have seen the city transform before their very eyes. Our community is also intergenerational: being in our early twenties, we DVs bring the average age of the convent way down; the sisters, on the other hand, range in age from 32 to 89.

In general, community life has been good. I've matured immensely as a result of an intergenerational community. The sisters bring so much wisdom from their experiences in life and ministry. They have so many stories to share, from seeing John F. Kennedy the night before he was assassinated, to the much humbler story of Fluffy the (spoiled, beloved) cat. Years from now, I know I’ll think fondly to the times we gathered around the dinner table, simply enjoying each others’ presences. (I’ll also miss the five-second commute to my ministry at Immaculate Conception Academy, but that’s another story.)

Because our community is so big, there is almost always conflict. Personalities grate, for one thing. And things aren’t helped that nearly everyone has a packed schedule between ministry and social life. We recently had our April Community Chapter, where we convened to continue our discussion on Becoming Community. In our meeting, it was brought to our attention that in the hustle and bustle of spring, one sister felt that we seemed to have forgotten what it meant to be part of a community. To participate in common life—especially with regards to housekeeping.

“For example, this morning in the kitchen,” recounted the irate sister, “we had a mango bundt cake out for breakfast. And you know what? There were crumbs left all over the counter. Just left there, for someone else to clean up! And I know that many slices of the bundt cake were eaten, which meant multiple people took a slice and didn’t bother to clean it up! So thoughtless!”

“And here’s another good example,” agreed another sister. “The bananas. We know we’re a community of monkeys based on how quickly the bananas go. But sometimes, someone will take the last banana and they won’t replenish the supply—even though as we all know, there are bananas just waiting in the kitchen closet!”

Galvanized, various sisters started sharing other foibles they had noticed: the community room door left open and unattended—dangerous, in the city; or a sharp knife left in the dishpan, almost causing one sister to cut herself. Sometimes, the culprits even admitted their guilt: “That was me,” said one sister unabashedly when the butter dish was brought up. “All me.”

Some of these points might seem overly fastidious. Fussy, even. But in an intentional community, it’s these little annoyances, born from complacency, that build up and cause friction. They are a manifestation of a shift from a “We” mindset to an “I” mindset. It is perhaps an inevitable shift—but thankfully, not an irreversible one.

From my seat in the community circle, I couldn’t help but notice that the conversation taking place before me was almost exactly the same conversation that had taken place back in September, at my very first community chapter. One might be tempted to look at the two community meetings as evidence of a failed community, thanks to human nature and the impossibility of change. But perhaps there’s a way to look at the situation positively.

If there’s anything that living in community has taught me, it’s that we as humans fail. Constantly. No matter what goals we aspire to as a community (and believe me, we set pretty lofty goals this year), we will always fall short, leaving our community to deal with bundt cake crumbs and hair in the shower drain. It may be age, or forgetfulness, or even selfishness. But whatever the reason behind absent bananas or overflowing garbage bags, what gives me hope is that there is always an opportunity for an act of charity. For redemption. That act of charity might be cleaning up the crumbs myself—or it might be gently confronting my housemate to let her know what she has forgotten. Either way, if I take this opportunity to act with hope, mercy, and patience—and not just turn a complacent or disgusted eye the other way—our community wins. And together, we grow only stronger. In a way, this struggle is holy, for it is not unlike our own dynamic relationships with God.

In the three months I have left here, then, I’ll continue to do my best to be a member of my community. Together, we DVs and the sisters will continue to become community. And, while I’m at it, I’ll make sure I replenish those bananas when I snag the last one for “breakfast-on-the-go”

Hannah and some of her community

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