PeerSpirit Newsletter – The Owl and the Tree
April 2021


Living the meaningful questions of Now

by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea

In the first decade of this century we had the immense privilege of working with several communities of Franciscan Women Religious. They wanted to learn The Circle Way to assist them in facing challenges of aging, diminished numbers, and a lack of upcoming generations of sisters. They had a need for archiving their lineage, legacy, and contributions within the larger Church. No shortage of conversational topics! Embedding circle practice provided a way for each voice to be heard, for leadership to make informed and consensus-based choices, and for the community to mirror back to itself the journey of their lives. It was an honor to support the lifework of these dedicated women. As we imparted our practice of circle, we were humbled by the quality of their inquiry.

Over and over we said to them: your determination to face this level of change with compassion and consciousness, admitting that loss is ever present, that less is necessary, and tucking in a way of life that seems to have completed its cycle, are all gifts that will be needed by larger society. You do this out of necessity for yourselves, but in ways we cannot yet see, this is also as a donation to the near future for us all. You are making a path. You will leave a map for the future to find. Please do not doubt that this, too, is part of your charism and contribution to the wisdom needed at this time.

A decade-plus later, and here we all are, emerging slowly from a year of pandemic isolation, strain, retreat, and the necessity of carrying on essential tasks under difficult circumstances. There has been tremendous privilege combined with tremendous suffering, hardship, illness, death, grief, confusion, political travail and power mongering. There has been altruism and compassion and uncountable gestures of outreach. And here we are…

In her widely distributed poem titled “March 9, 2020” that went viral on the Internet, Italian poet Mariangela Gualtieri wrote at the beginning of this pandemic cycle:

“I’m telling you this/ we needed to stop./ We knew. We all felt it/ that it was too furious,/our frenzy. …We needed to stop/ and we couldn’t.”

So we were stopped. Remember that a year ago Italy was in total lockdown, informing us about health care systems at a breaking point and inspiring us with opera from the balconies. (And as we write this, Italy is again in lockdown.)

A year has gone by. We are tired of all this, and for people benefitting from the systems as they were there is a longing to “return to normal;” but Gualtieri’s words still ring true: “we needed to stop.” We did stop. And amidst all the newsy noise, life in our bubbles, and Zooming around, many people accessed a thread of introspection and reëvaluation that can serve us as we step into the “nextness.”

April 2021 and we are two vaccinated seventy-something women who just spent a week with our grandchildren; the first people in our home, except a plumber and the furnace guy, since February 2020; the first unmasked open-armed hugs. We have committed ourselves to a Colorado memorial/reunion in Ann’s family in late June and a Minnesota wedding/reunion in Christina’s family in late August. We know we are privileged that we can make such plans. We want to resume the activities we most value while still following the map of conscious willingness that the nuns laid out for the world. We are committed to acknowledging how the past year has changed us and question our way forward.

Two tangible gifts of the sisters come into our hearts, mind, and hands at this moment. The first artifact is a small paper wheel of four puzzle pieces each posing a question.

The right question at the right moment has incredible power to unlock the wisdom in a group. The illustration created by the sisters is a map of inquiry that profoundly activated and guided their deliberations and actions. They sent us home with this gift of questions. The wheel seeded our own conversations as we have aged out of active trainings, supported the next generation of circle trainers and practitioners, trusted the legacy of circle itself, and clarified the questions that arise about lineage.

–  What can we sustain?
–  What can we protect?
–  What can we release?
–  What can we welcome?

In this pivotal moment—for us personally and for the greater human family—these are questions to guide us, to keep us conscious, and to provide a framework for conversation. We have moved the little disk from the back office, not occupied so much these days, to the dining table where we regard it with new eyes and consider its gift to help us pivot.

Another artifact we are moving from the office into the hearth of our lives now is the charge that the Wheaton Franciscans gave themselves; that in their time of huge transition they would “Return only Blessings.”

At first glance the slogan can seem innocuous, a nice sentiment appropriate to a community of nuns. But as we’ve lived with the phrase we realize how important a challenge it poses to a world of hurt and injustice in need of restitution and restoration.

We are in the beginning of a huge cycle of return. We are returning to share public spaces, returning to expanded touch, to a vulnerable sense of stability, to work. Outbursts of grief and trauma, confusion and anger flare within and around us. It’s been a very difficult year. In ways we cannot yet determine 2021 needs to be a life-changing year. How can we practice returning to one another and to our ordinary lives with a sense of blessings?