A New Monastic Community within a Traditional Community

An article from the Anglican Religious Life Year Book 2018-19
by Sister Constance Joanna SSJD

Companions on the Way is a unique expression of new monasticism within an established community, the Sisterhood of St John the Divine in Canada. It hopes to speak to the next generation of Christians in an innovative way, and is significant for the life of the ‘Ancient Future Church’ that we are called to renew.

The Birth of a Vision

In September 2015, the Sisters of St John the Divine launched their new “Companions on the Way” program for “millennials” – women in their 20s and 30s. An invitation went out to them across the Church to consider a year’s immersion experience in forming intentional Christian community within and with the support of a traditional monastic community.

This was a natural development of a value that has shaped the Sisterhood over the past 133 years. We were founded in 1884 as a pioneering community, creating an opportunity for women in Canada to live the monastic life in an uncloistered community that had no single charism but rather a desire to be “open to the needs of the church and the contemporary world” as our mission statement says, and to be open to adaptation as the church and the surrounding society changed. They have long had a large extended “household of God” which includes Associates and Oblates (dispersed but often present in the houses of the Sisterhood) and Alongsiders (women who live alongside the Sisters and assist in their ministry).

Two major factors influenced our vision for Companions: first, the realization that young people long for a spiritual connection that they don’t often find in church, and a desire to offer a “way in” to Christian spirituality and spiritual practices. Second, with an increased average age of Sisters entering the community (reflecting the demographics of the church as a whole) we started looking to the future and the necessity, if we were going to continue to thrive, of incorporating younger women into our sometimes-dispersed, sometimes-resident extended family, for a year or longer.

Discussions began in 2012 when the SSJD Chapter made the decision to develop a program for younger women who may want to spend a year in God’s rhythm (a phrase we coined before anyone knew of the St. Anselm Community at Lambeth!) – learning to pray, serving others, and studying while living in and developing intentional community. It would be a community-within-a-community, a new-monastic expression within a traditional community.

The Planning Journey

Because of other demands on the time and energy of the Sisters (including the merger of their hospital with another Toronto hospital), the program was delayed for a couple of years

In the spring of 2015, the time seemed right to begin planning for “Companions on the Way,” and a steering committee was formed including Sisters and some people associated with Wycliffe College in the Toronto School of Theology (University of Toronto). They included a former student, a current student, and the college registrar. In addition, the Principal of Wycliffe offered encouragement, support, and ideas for courses.

As we planned for the first cohort to begin in September 2016, the Sisters spent creative time together working out the various possibilities which included the numbers (we decided on 5 as an ideal number for the first year), where the Companions would live (in the enclosure with the Sisters or in the Guest House – we settled on an extended part of the enclosure); the finances (we wanted the program to be free so we applied for a grant from the diocese), the study and formation program (we planned a curriculum offered partly in-house and partly at Wycliffe College), and potential work assignments for each Companion as well as volunteer opportunities in the community.

We developed a team to work with the Companions, which would be made up of Sister Constance Joanna (Companions Coordinator), a Lutheran pastor and Alongsider, and a student intern, with additional assistance from a visiting Sister of the Chemin Neuf community in France. They have weekly individual mentoring meetings as well as facilitating various group sessions including lectio divina, theological reflection, and other group-formational gathers. In addition to the team, other Sisters are involved in presentations and classes for the Companions on various forms of prayer, living a Rule of Life, and related topics.

Not everything was decided before our first cohort arrived! As we have gotten to know the Companions and learn more about their needs and interests, we have planned other formational opportunities – for instance workshops on Appreciative Inquiry as a method of corporate and individual discernment, and workshops on Healthy Community Living (which includes raising awareness of the way projection, transference and counter-transference can affect the Companions’ relationships with each other and the whole SSJD community). We are fortunate in Toronto to be well-resourced in terms of theological education, psychological support, and spiritual support, and we are also providing opportunities for cultural exposure including art, music, and drama with the assistance of donated tickets!

The Companions are Launched

In September 2016, five women in the twenties and thirties arrived at St. John’s Convent in Toronto, eager to begin praying, working and studying with the Sisters, sharing their gifts in the Sisterhood’s ministry as well as volunteering in the local community, discovering and developing new skills, and gaining tools of discernment and spiritual formation which that they can take back into their lives outside the Convent.

Their diversity is both a challenge as they form community together and a great blessing. They come from a wide variety of geographic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds (including Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic, Mennonite, Christian Missionary Alliance, and Anglican). Their educational/professional backgrounds are equally varied: some are launched on careers, some are students who are taking a gap year from university.

The Companions live “in God’s rhythm,” following the Sisterhood’s rhythm of life with the daily office, Eucharist and private prayer. They join the Sisterhood for daily conference and share in Community Time most evenings either within their own circle or with the Sisters. They attend classes both at the Convent and at the Toronto School of theology in spiritual formation, monastic history and tradition, group dynamics and leadership, conflict management, and mission – how to share the love of Jesus in the emerging church of the 21st century. Those who desire may receive academic credit for aspects of the program through Wycliffe College. Along with the Sisters, they have a weekly Grace (sabbath) Day, monthly and annual retreat time, and four weeks’ holiday.

What do the Companions Think?

Here are a few quotations from the Companions’ blog (ssjdcompanions.org):

In becoming a Companion I find I am able to slow my pace of life. I am in the beginning of introducing myself to me, to find out who I am and what I need and want out of life. But most importantly being able to reintroduce myself to God and be able to understand God’s needs, wants, and plans for me.

I am reminded of the words we use at baptism: “I sign you with the cross, and mark you as Christ’s own for ever.” Does it show in my interactions with others, in the choices I make, in the way I live my life, that I am Christ’s? I might never know what mark I will leave here, and it is too early to tell what mark this place and the people with whom I share this life will leave on me. But already I feel that this daily rhythm of work and prayer, study and rest, time with others and time alone, is changing me.

It is safe to say that I am very new to this regular time of silent prayer together, but I am discovering more in the process and simultaneously feeling there is much to learn. I am eager to see how praying in silence can be a powerful experience. I am so grateful to be a Companion this year and learning about new ways of experiencing the love of Jesus in community.

After my bout of illness and being cared for in the Sisters’ Infirmary I mentioned to one of the sisters how I tend to feel guilty when people do nice things for me. In response, she asked me, “Do you know what the opposite of feeling guilty is?” My mind drew a blank and I said, “No.” She said, “It’s gratitude.” I smiled because I had achieved some enlightenment!

As a university student I generally insisted upon a great deal of free time in my day and I’ve missed that here. However, God has reminded me that decadent amounts of leisure time haven’t actually benefitted my relationship with God because of a lack of the very self-discipline I came to the convent to develop. Recalling this, I can breathe properly again, and am hopeful about the changes this year will bring about in myself and the other women on this journey with me.

The Sisters’ Perspective

The Sisters (needless to say!) love having younger women living in our community, sharing their experiences, their hopes and dreams with us. Their energy and willingness to help in our ministry and in our community life together is inspiring. Their compassion for the poor, for social advocacy, and for creating a better world enlarges our vision. The Companions provide us with an opportunity to reach out to young women who are serious about following Jesus and who will take monastic values of a balanced life back out into “the world” as they pursue their lives as students, professionals, and above all followers of Jesus in an emerging church whose future shape we cannot easily predict.

We believe that the ancient practices of prayer and community, silence and solitude, work and study, rest and play, are still the most foundational for the church of the future. Young people long for a deep sense of connectedness in the midst of a society that alienates, and we trust that each of our Companions will continue as a Companion of Jesus after they leave the program, sharing the values of prayer, community, and service in whatever arena of life they find themselves.

Looking Forward

Women in their 20s and 30s who might want to explore a year’s immersion in deepening their prayer life, serving others, and finding inspiration for their future are invited to apply. For more information, please visit the Becoming a Companion webpage and the Companions blog.

The Sisterhood of Saint John the Divine is a contemporary expression of religious life within the Anglican Church of Canada, founded in 1884. The SSJD is a prayer and gospel-centered monastic community, open to the needs of the contemporary church and society, bound together by the call to live out our baptismal covenant through the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. ssjd.ca