My Life with God,
God's Life with Me
I always tell people that I was a sister from birth. My mother taught us a lot about a loving God who loved everyone equally. That was more than fifty years ago, so I never had to struggle with a God of justice or a God who punishes. I had School Sisters of Notre Dame in grade and high school and after half a year of college – an SSND college, I joined them.
When I was either five or six years old on Good Friday, I was alone with my mother in the kitchen who was preparing lunch. That was most unusual because we were nine children. Two might not have been born yet, but I can’t figure out how I could be alone with her. I was sitting in a high stool looking at the clock and I could tell time. I was sitting there waiting for twelve o’clock reflecting on Jesus’ death on the cross and his love for us. I know that’s a little unusual, but I was very aware of that. She died later that year, which is why I might remember it so vividly.
I taught grade school for a few years and then asked to go work with the poor in Mississippi. I’m sure my love for the poor also came from my mother. I tell people, everything I learned, I learned from my fifth graders. All the children were black and mainly Baptist. They were not accepted at the white Catholic school. Anyway, after a few weeks one of the girls talked to me and said that I should get my ears pierced. We were in regular clothing by that time. I told her sisters didn’t do that and it would hurt. A month or two later she said, “You should get your ears pierced because God’s women are beautiful.” How’s that for a fifth grade theologian?
That summer, my SSND group had six weeks of a renewal program and after that, because I loved being a woman and a religious sister, I got my ears pierced. I went back to Mississippi and when Caroline saw my little earrings, she said, “Sister, that won’t do, you have to flaunt it.” Earrings are a big part of my religious life.
Another time I was talking to Hughey, also a fifth grader and like a lot of adults I asked, “Hughey, what will you be when you grow up?” I don’t remember what he said, but then he asked me, “Sister, what will you be when you grow up”? Without thinking I immediately said, “I’m going to be a two way radio.” I had no idea why I said that, but about fifteen years later I realized that I was a two way radio because I brought people to God and God to people. I have done that all my life – help people realize that God loves them unconditionally and how to listen to God talking to them in the experiences of their lives. I’m very good at that.
God is not a judging God, but God is a God of justice. That has been a big part of my religious journey. One does not become a just person by studying justice. One becomes a just person by doing justice. I’m passionate about most everything, but I am most passionate about justice. I was formed in my late teenage years by the Black Power movement and Civil Rights movement. Racism at that time was awful and the TV pictures of the brutality of that time were horrific. I think that’s why I asked to go to Mississippi and work in and all black school, but I also visited the many Mississippi towns where black people were jailed and beaten and young college students were killed because they came south to try and get voter rights for black people. Those pictures too, are still very vivid in my mind.
I live, and breathe, and teach social justice, but also stretch my students to get involved in working for justice. That’s something even more important today in our divided, and somewhat hate filled society today. We may not be as brutal as we were in the 1960’s but our racism is more devious. So that, too, is one of the most important aspects of my religious life – to help people work for justice.
I love being a religious sister and cannot imagine any other kind of life. God has given me the gift of being a teacher, easily being able to help people experience that they are loved by God – that God sees them as God’s beloved son or daughter and that they must practice that in return – not to relate to God as sinner, but as God’s image and likeness. Wouldn’t our world be different if we could all relate in that manner? It would put a stop to all the violence in society. That is my prayer and that is my message to my students.
Marie Vianney Bilgrien, SSND, email@example.com
El Paso, Texas