Being each other's keys: Reflections from the Pilot Residency

We strolled about the room in silence and suddenly came to a halt.

A dozen Millennial “seekers” and women religious came to stillness, each looking in a different direction, each in their own place.

“It’s only through the wisdom of the collective, with all of our different perspectives, that we can actually see the entire room,” said Christina Tran, leading us in a grounding activity one month into the Nuns & Nones Pilot Residency at the Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA. We were kicking off several days of connecting, dreaming, and planning with a national team of sisters and seekers, asking our questions together. “What’s here?” “What’s calling?” “What might we be moving toward?”

And here we were, embodying the inquiry: sisters looking forward, seekers looking back… seekers looking forward, sisters looking back.

There were many paths to that moment, but perhaps it’s simplest to say that we were all in the midst of a search -- a search for a different way of life, for something both very, very ancient and not yet seen.

As part of the “nones” in Nuns & Nones, I was hungry to create the enabling conditions for deepening in commitment to community life, to spirit, and to what justice looks like in these times. The six-month residency was a chance to find those conditions, or learn more about what it might take to create them.

We came to the convent seeking companions and examples to follow, knowing that sisters have long been practicing on the prophetic edge: Intentional community. Collective social justice work. Personal sacrifice aligned with values. Democratic governance and economic models. Spiritual formation and discernment. Dedication and attunement to place. Living-out an ethos of care.

We came to get a taste of a way of life that prioritizes very different values than the “way of the world.”

We hosted weekly shabbats with sisters and friends, a salon series on the sisters’ vows, ice cream socials, conversations about spiritual practice, a workshop on prophetic imagination. We found ourselves in dozens of spontaneous and synchronistic “events” --  the vortex-like quality of the experience was sometimes baffling, like the place was bending time and space and drawing crowds of people near.

“Am I isolated and exhausted, or exhilarated and accompanied?” a resident wondered aloud. In some ways, it seems like we’re all still sorting ourselves out after the experience. And that feels like a good thing.

While the learning from our experience continues to reveal itself, and as we share further reflections on the vows, bridging cultural divides, and shared sensibilities about the world that’s possible, it’s already clear that the “little taste” packed a punch for all of us.

It turns out, seriously exploring this way of life is a threat to the life one already has…which, of course, is the whole point.

“My heart in freefall.”

“Signing a blank check to Spirit.”

“A spiritual ski jump… people land on the other side, right?”

These were some of the words the other residents used to describe the felt experience -- of just the first month.

In our openness to the possibilities, we found ourselves in surprising new waters. Straightforward learning opportunities became mysterious, vulnerable, mutually transformative. This wasn’t about picking up some tips to bring to my Berkeley co-op. This was about breaking down my own walls, bringing a new level of curiosity, letting the veil be thin and draw me closer. It was about risk. It was freely saying yes without fully understanding what the “yes” might mean.  

We learned that this commitment was inspiring sisters, as it allowed opportunities to reflect on their own, on the “yes” that has defined so much of their lives.

“You’re seeing the fruit of decades of labor,” one sister pointed out, in a conversation about spiritual practice. She reminded us about their years of rigor, conformity, and discipline -- when, as novitiates, they had to be in the chapel for morning prayer at 5:30am. Many joked about how they’d sit on their habit veils to keep their heads aloft -- a defensive measure against nodding off.

The room audibly exhaled in hearing this. We had been attracted to the depth and power of the sisters’ spiritual foundations, without fully recognizing the cost, the sacrifice, hard work, and commitment.

In moments such as these, we are learning each other’s stories, each other’s language, each other’s prayer. We are unlocking secrets we long to understand, and we have each found the other to be holding a key.

So, keys in hand, what are we willing to say yes to? What commitments do these times ask of us? What risks are we willing to take, without knowing where the path will lead?

We are scattered about again, now, each in our own place. Sisters looking forward, seekers looking back; seekers looking forward, sisters looking back. Still listening, still looking for the answers, but with much more ground to share.

Sarah Jane Bradley was one of the residents of the Nuns & Nones pilot residency. Her reflections are the inaugural blog post of our #surpriseweresoulmates storytelling campaign, highlighting the many instances of alchemy when our communities combine. Follow #surpriseweresoulmates highlights on our Facebook and Instagram accounts!