by Danielle Medearis
I’m not sure exactly where the vague preconceived image of religious life I possessed before coming to work as an intern this summer at the Jeanne Jugan Residence originated, but after a month here, the one thing I’m positive of is it was quite wrong. Perhaps from a combination of old movies, Sister Act, and the Sound of Music, my idea of a nun before traveling to the Bronx to work with the Little Sisters of the Poor was a woman with a solemn face, grave eyes, constantly carrying around a ruler and reminding others not to sing in the abbey.
This idea was quite wrong.
From the moment the Little Sisters picked me up, discussing traffic problems in New York accents and shaking their heads at the construction they had had to get through on the Whitestone Bridge, I understood that I really had no idea what the true nature of religious life was like. My summer here with the Sisters has taught me it is one of profound joy. Rather than a life of restriction and sacrifice of freedom, the Sisters here live as freely as anyone I’ve ever met. They possess true freedom, which is the ability to not simply do what you want, but to be able to do what you ought.
To me they seem to have this radiating joy, which touches everyone around them and gives them, too, a taste of this freedom par excellence. People become better around the Sisters — happier, kinder, and more prone to charity. It’s like you can see God’s love flowing out of them into the lives of those they come in contact with, and from there you just watch as that Love transforms. I had the privilege of going to the Hunt’s Point produce market with the sisters this past week, and it was lovely observing the faces of the men who gave freely and regularly to the Sisters when they approached, and equally lovely to see the Sisters speak to the men with such affection and personal attention. Some men asked for prayers, some joked that they hoped this extra box of food would help propel them to heaven, and some welcomed the Sisters with a laugh saying, “Look it’s my best customers!” (The Sisters, as part of the order, beg for food for their residents, so all of the men whom they did business with were providing the food for free). The sisters may not have given anything of monetary value to these men, but it would be a completely untrue statement to say they did not receive anything from the Little Sisters, because the Love of God was flowing through them at every stop; you could tell immediately when it reached the men, because their faces just lit up.
For some reason I had it in my head that the sisters would not laugh much, and be quite serious most of the time, but instead they laugh at everything, and are constantly joking around and kidding with one another. Sharing meals with them has become a weekly highlight for me, because they remind me so much of my family at home during dinner, discussing the day and telling jokes, recalling past funny stories. Strange and simple as it is, what struck me strongly during my first few days with the sisters was how, well, normal they were. They did regular people things like play card games and drink coffee and eat chocolate cake, and they didn’t seem like they were deprived of any happiness; quite the opposite, the sisters have happiness in everything.
I think that’s again part of the freer, not less free, discovery I made.
Being around so many living conduits of God’s love and compassion, it’s no surprise that I’ve enjoyed my time here thus far at Jeanne Jugan Residence. Each day brings new opportunities to practice this art of letting God shines through in every action you do, in having joy in every small task you undertake (and I undertake many, many small tasks). And due to the fact that I find most of my days are devoted to the task of finding more ways to put joy and love into them, I think it’s no surprise that I am happily looking forward to the rest of my time here.