Dominican Sisters’ Conference
Sister Cecilia Murray, OP (Hope) and Dominican associate Conni Dubick (Peace) wrote about their experiences at the DSC convocation. More photos from the convocation can be viewed on the DSC web site.
Claim the Center, Walk the Edge
We descended, 645 Dominican sisters and associates, on the Chicago Westin North Hotel Columbus Day weekend to begin a new entity. Born from the former Dominican Leadership Conference and the Dominican Sisters Federation, this gathering was the first convocation of the fledgling Dominican Sisters Conference. According to the Mission Statement we discussed Friday afternoon, the purpose of this expanded grouping was to unite ”the sisters and associates of U.S. Dominican Congregations in their mission to preach the gospel of Jesus, standing as a clear voice for truth, justice, and peace.”
Contemporary conferences have themes. Ours was “Edgewalkers: Unfolding the Fertile Unknown.” The first unknown was “Just what is an edgewalker?” That answer came with keynote speaker Judi Neal (teacher, consultant, author of “Edgewalkers: People and Organizations that Take Risks, Build Bridges, and Break New Ground”). Judi’s career focus has been on helping groups large and small attend to the issue of faith and spirituality in the workplace. Applying the concept of edgewalkers to religious—they are the ones in the congregation who see the possibilities of the future, walk between the worlds of what is now and what could be, build bridges between the edge and the more cautious center, and live with passion and focus.
The average organization appears as a bell curve with a large center of “hearth tenders” (those who keep the status quo going) and a very small percentage of forward-looking edgewalkers. The DSC on the other hand, according to an online survey of participants, has a quarter of the membership as edgewalkers and a second quarter flame keepers who honor traditions, but are open to change. These numbers are unusually high, showing that Dominican Sisters Conference is on the forefront of what organizations need to be like in this world. Congregations should honor their edgewalkers, continually asking them “What do you see that we don’t?”
Saturday morning brought a paper by our brother and former Master of the Order Timothy Radcliffe. Since health concerns kept Timothy from joining us in person, his paper, ”Women Religious as Edgewalkers,” was presented by Sister Anne Willits. Our brother gave us a quote from Thomas Merton, urging us to be “like God whose presence is at the center and whose circumference is nowhere. Dominicans thrive best on the edge, but must claim their place in the center, which is the Church.” This balancing act can put us between a rock and a hard place, but that is the space Jesus occupied “and what made him such a disconcerting chap.”
The Dominican concept of obedience—listening to God and God’s Word—involves us with the teaching authority of the Church. This means the hierarchy, but also theologians and indeed, all Catholic teachers. Timothy urges us not to engage in expressing contempt for the Pope and Vatican Officials, saying we “cannot build a Trinitarian Church by rubbishing other people.” In the end, obedience to the hierarchy draws us into the Center, while obedience to the voices of the poor and disenfranchised catapults us back out to the edges. In all of this, let us be “people of calm and quiet.”
Afternoon was occupied with a presentation by three of our Dominican Justice Promoters: Sisters Margaret Mayce, Lucianne Siers and Pat Daly. Their formal title was “Not Too Hot to Handle: New Energies for Preaching Truth to Power.” They focused on the issue of climate change which “affects everything else” in the justice spectrum. After their informative input, we wound up discussing practical steps we might take to lessen the amount of greenhouse gas emissions which are destroying the atmosphere in which we live and breathe.
Like the other presenters, the justice team was escorted to the stage by a pair of Dominican dancers in bright colored capes. The dance troupe’s graceful movements enhanced prayer services and Sunday Eucharist. What the dancers did for the eye, convocation choir and instrumentalists did for the soul through their music, under the direction of Sisters Jo Ann Timmerman and Margaret Palliser.
On a material level, consumer instincts surfaced at every break as we negotiated The Market Place set up in the halls surrounding the meeting room. Every imaginable Dominican product or craft was offered for sale. Dance, music, art, books; we reveled in all of them.
A Time of Courageous Thinking, Joyful Engagement
I joined the Planning Committee for the first Dominican Sisters Conference Convocation as a Dominican Associate of Peace with enthusiasm for the opportunity to contribute to the celebration of 20 Dominican congregations forming a new entity. After attending the event, I am overwhelmed by the depth of the courageous thinking and joyful engagement that I experienced each day. I share this brief reflection of the sung and spoken words which lead me to personally affirm the proposed DSC Mission Statement: “The Dominican Sisters Conference unites sisters and associates of U.S. Dominican Congregations to preach the gospel of Jesus, standing as a clear voice for truth, justice, and peace.”
“God is still speaking: blessed invitation. God is still speaking: listen and draw near.”
The “planners and organizers, the thinkers and dreamers, the artists and visionaries, the youthful and the wise” responded to the invitation to meet as edgewalkers, flamekeepers, hearthtenders, and sometime placeholders and guardians at the first Dominican Sisters Conference Convocation. Their challenge was to use their giftedness to listen, reflect, and process insights as “Edgewalkers: Unfolding The Fertile Unknown.”
The meeting space for sisters and associates was filled with profound prayer, reflections on the Word of God, preaching in words with nuanced meaning as well as the direct questions that need to be asked and sharing stories from the heart. “O Word of God, come into this space. O Word of God, come send us your grace. Open our minds; show us your truth. Transform our lives anew.”
Simultaneously artists added music, dance and visual arts to coax the “edge” to emerge allowing participants to be both at that edge and at the center.
Dr. Judi Neal pronounced in word and song that edgewalkers are “people who have learned to walk between the visible and invisible worlds and who are bridge builders who link different paradigms, cultures and realities. Edgewalkers believe that the greatest creativity comes from walking in different worlds and blending different paradigms, which is what creates your leading edge.” In other words, Judi declared that humanity is evolving, universal humans are growing and that Dominicans are called to the edge. But, she quoted Rumi: “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell. Don’t go back to sleep. You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep.”
Timothy Radcliffe, OP through the voice and heart of Ann Willits, summoned to mind the recognition that “being on the edge is where Dominicans thrive best because we know the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere. Jesus walked on the edge as a difficult, disconcerting chap. He claimed the center while living on the edge. Dominicans perched on the edge need to be people of calm and quiet , waiting for God to speak.” “There’s a still small voice that I hear when I’m silent and it speaks to the depths of my soul—and I know that if I take time to listen, then I won’t be the same anymore.”
Margaret Mayce, OP, Lucianne Siers, OP and Pat Daly, OP summarized the call for justice by asking “What is the earth asking of our Order? We stand at a critical moment in earth’s history. Is it too hot to handle or can we speak truth to power?” They reiterated the 2006 Genesis Farm statement that: “We stand in awe before the Mystery and beauty of existence. We believe this is a graced moment, and that we have the capacity to transform ourselves and our cultures.” The conclusion of the discussion was that the Dominican charism must be the leading edge at this time of “great peril and promise for one human family, one community, and one destiny.” But the challenge remains for Dominicans to answer: What is it that we have not done yet?
Mary Hughes, OP proclaimed “that Jesus turned the cultural edge upside down by recognizing that at the edges you don’t see the edge but only wholeness and interconnectedness. Dominic was preoccupied with preaching with God or about God, and Catherine entered unexpected places like hospitals, jails and papal corridors. Dominican women everywhere find our center through the people on the margins in our ministries of health, the arts, elderly, rainforest, sexual identity, wherever there is need.” She challenged all to be edgewalkers who play with gravity and turn everything upside down.
“There is a voice that speaks from the flame: I am for you, I am for you, I am for you is my name.”