Jennifer Doering serves as a Dominican Volunteer at St. James Elementary School in San Francisco California.
In our latest blog post, Jennifer reflects on living with Sisters in a religious community and her own personal growth from that experience.
For Lent this year, I gave up both Netflix and Hulu. It has been a struggle, but I’ve been reading a lot more books in my newly free time. I’m currently reading The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young, and although it’s not really a theologically “accurate” representation of Catholic belief, it really challenged me to think about my understanding of God and our mutual place in the universe.
For those of you, like myself, who have never read The Shack, it is about Mack Phillips, a man who’s gone through terrible trauma and is angry, furious, with God. He goes to a shack in the woods and spends a weekend with the Trinity, represented by “Papa,” a black woman, Jesus, a Jewish man, and Sarayu, an Asian woman. I’m about halfway through the novel, and I just finished with a chapter on relationship that really reminded me of religious life. Mack sees the three speaking over breakfast and is fascinated by their easy relationship. He asks God how they don’t have issues of power and authority, really asking who is at the top of the “chain of command.” After some confusion and laughter, Sarayu explains that, “We have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command ... What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power” (126). The three go on to explain how the presence of power in a relationship is a truly human limitation, is a barrier to true relationship, and is almost at the core of all our world’s problems. This struck me as real truth. I had never thought about relationship as a power struggle, but it really is. Even our pop culture recognizes this: in How I Met Your Mother, the token couple, Marshall and Lily, have an episode where their main struggle is deciding who is the “reacher” and who is the “settler,” i.e. who “settled” for a less attractive partner, thus having more power in the relationship. Our family, school, romantic, government, political, workplace, societal structures are all based on power. We live with it, and accept it, but never really think about how it could be different. But I was reminded of people who did, once upon a time: the founders of religious life.
Yes, religious life isn’t perfect. There is still a “chain of command” and someone in charge. But living in community has taught me that religious are more in tune with living in true relationship, like the Trinity, than most people in the world. They try really hard to work together as a team and see the good in every person and every situation. Yes, they are sometimes passive aggressive and petty, but who isn’t? They’re still human. But the difference between sisters and the rest of us is that they choose to dedicate their lives to living in community. They dedicate their lives to living with a large group of other women, with all the problems that that entails, and still live in communion and loving relationship with each and every one. Just last night, I experienced this love. Every Friday night, the San Francisco community has a Happy Hour and Movie, where we drink cocktails, eat light snacks, and then watch a rented movie together. One of the sisters had received a gift of special Irish cheddar cheese for her Feast Day (akin to birthdays in religious life) and chose to share it with us all as part of the snack table. Another sister had purchased the movie Coco for herself and graciously offered to share it with us so the members of our community who hadn’t seen it could experience her favorite movie. While neither of these actions seems like a huge deal, they are a representation of the true love and community that are fostered in religious life relationships. They are a representation of the relationship of our triune God that religious sisters try to emulate. They are a representation of the joy of religious life.