The New Year, 2018 began. My first trip in the new year involved heading for Dominican Sisters Europe Gathering in Gjørstads, Oslo. One new year’s resolution was, be positive! The thoughts of going needed to be banished from my mind and the attitude was set to being upbeat! Name the tensions, name the fears, name the letting go of the last couple of days of holidays for this and just get on with it-this was the chat in my mind.
Arriving into Oslo airport, three of us hopped into a taxi and headed for Gjørstads. The first notable feature of Oslo for us that evening was the brightness of the stars that decorated the homes and those that were hanging along the motorway. Their glare, artificial as it was, took from the Norwegian darkness. Anxiety about coming lessened with the ease with whom I travelled and also knowing a number of sisters whose hospitality we were about to enjoy. Another bonus was that there was snow everywhere!
Having reached our destination we settled in. The community of Dominican sisters in Gjørstads consist of ten sisters, involved in various ministries. They live in a block embedded in a whole complex of apartments and the living area is made up of the cloister, a set of guest rooms and accommodation for third level students. While sharing a light supper with them they explained why they believe their being there is of importance. Only 2% of the population of Norway is Catholic therefore while these sisters also have ministries outside of the house, they have guests who come for a couple of nights and students for a longer time while they are at university. These sisters believe that they may be the only Catholics that people meet so they hang around creatively , after their day’s work, allowing others to witness to their life together in community. Yes, they wear habits but freely go in and out of them. It seems to happen with great ease and the commitment to the group is apparent, not without its difficulties, I’m sure.
The First day
Morning prayer was at 7.45am followed by mass, this was the holiday timetable. Their chapel is in the basement, simply designed and the warmth of the wood and gentleness of the lighting enabled an atmosphere of quiet and stillness as we gently woke to the day! Again because of the lack of daylight of this time of year and awareness that we were leading up to the celebration of the Epiphany the concluding prayer of that morning remained in my thoughts throughout the following days,
“The Light of the new star in heaven heralded the saving love of God. May the light of God’s salvation dawn in our hearts, keeping them always open to the life-giving grace of God”.
As we, Liz, Miriam and myself, arrived a day before everyone else we headed off after breakfast into Oslo, which was a short tram journey. A boat trip to see the fjords was a great idea, cold but different, amazing and beautiful. Following that the Nobel Museum was the other activity to be completed, along with a couple of stops for coffee and pastries!
Returning to the community that evening, those attending the gathering increased as sisters arrived from Prague, France, Vienna, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Great Britain and Ireland. Reconnecting was an enthusiastic aspect. That night we sat and chatted, getting to know each other more and sharing the life of our Congregations with one another.
The talks begin!
The first piece of input was from Sr Marie Laure from Toulouse. She herself teaches physics in a school and also has 10 students preparing for pilot, flying, licence! Her paper was on Jacques Maritain and Human Dignity- the idea of common good as Maritain taught and wrote on. She began the topic by putting Maritain’s writings into the context of his time, where he lived, the love he and his wife had for each other, his scientific and philosophical mind and his criticism of capitalism and Marxism. The philosophy of Maritain, as reflected to us by Sr Marie Laure calls for a complete conversion, being open to the spiritual dimension of human life. To become a spiritual being we have to be in communion.
The following day we had a day of input from Sr Helen Aalford who lectures in the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) Rome. Her overall theme was an “Overview of Dominicans and Catholic Social Thought”. She aimed to make a link so as to connect the spiritual dimension of the Order with the social aspect and she based it on two projects which produced two books, The Preaching Justice I (2007) and Justice II (2016). Helen’s words and input touched on drawing on the spiritual heritage of the Order with its action for social justice. The people she referred to in her talks were people who didn’t stay in the abstract, they held the importance of study but they integrated it into their lives thus helping the lives of those around them. She connected the two books by reflecting on them through the mysteries of the Rosary. She referred to the Congregations present and others and it was great to hear reference to our Congregation and our sisters’ involvement in action for social justice. Helen also asked if we could imagine a spirituality of technology?
Helen’s presentation displayed her conviction of the need to have the stories of these Dominicans recalled and written down as good Dominicans help us to live a more integral life. Vocations decreased in Europe in particular, in her opinion, because we seemed to lose sight on the social aspects and only put our focus on the core business of Theology and Philosophy. The tradition on drawing on the spiritual heritage of the Order with its action for social justice needs to be upheld, particularly among the younger Dominican religious in Europe, this seemed to be a call that was being instilled in us at this event.
All the chat, reading, inputs, prayers, meals, fun of these couple of days integrated and thus for a few moments made sense and pushed us forward in thought! And so the Feast of the Epiphany came and I rejoiced in being enlightened to wake up again to our call to live an integrated life, to remember the stories of the sisters of our Congregation who have lived and continue to live faithfully their Dominican call. I appreciated the reminder of Sr Helen Aalford giving us so many examples of the testimonies of Dominicans who situate us at the heart of Saint Dominic’s compassion.
I conclude in remembering new year’s resolutions and our upcoming Chapter of being in a time of hope and the reminder that Helen Alford gave to us to act on the need to think and speak of justice and to put into our context and its relevance for me in the Irish situation to name but a few; the many faith traditions that we now encounter in Europe, those coming to Ireland seeking new chances to live in peace, how in Ireland we have been recently reminded through the recalling of the Kerry baby case of how women were treated in our recent past, the Dublin man sentenced for his exploitation of young girls on snapchat and skype and how we debate the present position of the 8th amendment of our Constitution. And knowing that next week there will be more pain encountered. This, the constant call to situate ourselves at the heart of Saint Dominic’s compassion and as the light of God’s salvation dawns in our hearts may we keep our minds and hearts always open to the life-giving grace of God and so take responsibility ourselves to think and speak of justice as is our Dominican call.
Edel Murphy O.P