This year the Collaborative Dominican Novitiate celebrates its 25th anniversary. On February 1, 2013 we gathered at Aquinas Institute for evening prayer and a dessert reception. Below is the script for the preaching I did on Mark 4:26-34.
We are grateful to all who have made this collaboration possible and we thank you for journeying with us. Have a blessed Lenten season.
A few weeks ago, during a session on self, family and community, Mike Pollard, our facilitator, asked the Intercommunity Novitiate Group to reflect on how our families functioned, how our houses were built. In particular to look at whether we had gates and/or fences around our properties. And what type of fences. As we shared our experiences, we pointed out how much our identity is influenced by boundaries or lack thereof. For example. I grew up in a Romanian-German village. The houses are almost glued to each other and yet the gates are almost as high as the houses. Most families have a small farm, and all land properties surround the village but they are all open fields. No fences between properties. When time comes for planting or harvesting or any of the in-between labors, everyone goes out into the fields at about the same time. You can see whether someone needs help carrying heavy loads or if they need to finish the work as rain starts, and you go and help them. And because all this work is in the open, you help each other even when you don’t feel like it. When the fields are open, people exchange the fruits of their labor much more easily. If you don’t have many apples but plenty of grapes, you exchange with the neighbor who doesn’t have enough grapes but has plenty of apples. These farmers see themselves as a group sharing the same mission and vision: sustainability. For themselves and future generations.
I am not a farmer. But at different times in my life I have shared a mission and vision with various groups. For the last three years I have been working in the fields of Dominican life. In August I came to St Louis with Alexa, Jenn, and Renee. We each brought a bag of dirt from our congregational campuses. We put it all in one pot and planted different plants that Joye and Megan had prepared for us. We trusted that the St Louis dirt that was at the bottom of the pot will nourish our plants. This hasn’t been just our hope. It has been the hope of CDN’s founding mothers and the sisters who saw tremendous potential in opening the congregational fences. I can only imagine the trust it has taken to put human and material resources together for the sake of the mission. To labor in open fields. To share gifts for the mission of Jesus.
Today’s Gospel reading invites us to use our imagination. To picture the kingdom of God as a mustard seed. A garden plant that spreads so fast that it takes over the garden. Have you seen any plant like that? Any plants that as much as you try to remove from the garden, you can’t? Somehow they just keep coming back and spread? I can’t help but wonder how we would have reacted if we had been there with Jesus. What would we have said to his challenging invitation to look all around us?
I probably would have given him a look. One that showed my surprise. A look that my community knows by now. Maybe I would have told him that I had never heard of a powerful empire to be compared to something as ordinary as the mustard bush. After all, the cedar tree would have been the image everyone expected as the symbol of power. The image of the cedar tree as God’s kingdom would have given them hope. I imagine I would have started looking at the mustard bushes growing all along the Sea of Galilee. I probably would have wondered how something so ordinary, how something as ordinary as me can say something about God’s kingdom. Maybe you can relate to that too. Maybe you would have been surprised as well.
The other day I was looking at the plants the four of us novices planted, and I wish I could tell you that they all grew into beautiful plants. However, remember, I am not a farmer, and obviously not a gardener either. At least not yet. Two of our plants did not make the transition from the first to the second pot. And by the way they look today, they might not make it to the middle of June. But who knows? When I looked at the plants the other day, I was struck to discover not the two plants that had survived but 5 branches. One of the plants broke into 3 different branches that, although look quite the same, are of different lengths.
I thought to myself, I wish they were more ordinary. I wish they were more like the mustard bush. Then they could have spread without us being in charge of their growth. But then I saw the pot. And I saw the walls. How could they ever spread in a pot? The walls did not give them enough room. I think next time we’ll try planting them outside so they can grow strong roots and spread all over the garden. And I think next time I will ask for help. I will ask someone who is gifted in gardening to come take a look at our garden. It will probably be wise to ask someone who knows our neighborhood. Someone who knows the soil around our house.
Our Dominican sisters had the wisdom to do just that. Today we celebrate 25 years of laboring in the fields of mission. Side by side. No fences. No walls. We celebrate ordinary lives that have been growing branches in God’s kingdom. In 1987 formation directors and sisters in leadership from 19 congregations of Dominican women came together to start plowing in the fields of collaboration. They dared to imagine that a nationwide collaboration in the formation of canonical novices was not only possible but also worth pursuing. As is the case with any collaboration, they had concerns, they had hopes, and they had dreams.
25 years ago they formed a circle of wisdom. When time came to move from their circle into the fields, they first had to stand and give their YES. Since then 16 congregations have been laboring together for the sake of the mission of Jesus. With them came 14 co-directors, 160 novices, board members, formation directors, and CDN presenters and facilitators. Today we know that when novices come to the CDN, we don’t run off to other congregations. Quite the opposite. We ask more questions because we want to know how to follow the seasons that take us in the fields of mission. We want to understand ourselves as new members of the Dominican Family. We embrace a new layer to our identity, and we do this by entering into dialogue with one another, the broader Church, and the extended community.
The current CDN community has 6 members from 6 congregations: Alexa from San Raphael, Jenn from Blauvelt, Renee from Sparkill, Megan from Grand Rapids, Joye from Peace, and I from Adrian. However, our community has not been working alone in the fields of mission. We have been the fortunate recipients of generous support coming from our diverse neighbors: our Franciscan sisters, our Dominican brothers, Sisters of Providence, School sisters of Notre Dame, our OMI brothers, Sisters of Charity, Alexian Brothers, Daughters of Charity, the Aquinas community, the people who have welcomed us at our ministries –Catholic Charities, Children’s Hospital, Women in Transition, and Interfaith Legal Services for Immigrants. As you can see, collaboration has grown like the mustard seed, and
Today we praise the God who called us to open congregational fences.
We bless the people who listened to that call and became mustard seeds for more branches.
We preach the good news of Jesus Christ: God’s kingdom is all around us.
~Adela Langa, Dominican Sisters of Adrian