More than 10 months after a group of young women began living with members of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine (SSJD), the inaugural Companions on the Way program is drawing to a close—an experience that left a major impact on sisters and companions alike.
The sisters officially commissioned five companions in September 2016: Christine Stoll, Sarah Moesker, Amanda Avery, Hanné Becker, and Alisa Samuel, though the latter three were unable to stay for the entire duration of the program. During their time at the SSJD’s Toronto-based convent, the companions joined in living the monastic lifestyle of the sisters, devoting their days to work, study, prayer, and spiritual contemplation.
A typical day for the companions began at 6 a.m. with two hours of personal prayer. After eating breakfast, they attended morning prayer in the chapel before devoting time to various work projects.
Afternoons were filled with study and rest. The companions each took part in two courses at Wycliffe College during the fall and winter, and also pursued independent studies. Occasionally companions would contribute to a blog documenting their experiences. Dinner and cleanup preceded evening prayer and rest time.
Work of the companions
Reflecting their diverse backgrounds, each of the companions had a unique experience at the convent.
For Stoll—previously a teaching assistant in mathematics at Douglas College in Port Coquitlam, B.C.—work experience included gardening and carrying out tasks in the chapel, such as filing papers and refilling the oil lamp.
“I think living here, for me, it’s been good and healing,” Stoll said.
“In terms of discernment, I wasn’t expecting to have everything all figured out at the end of this year,” she added. “But I think I have a clearer sense of what it is I need to do.”
Having spent recent weeks debating what to do after the program ends, she is leaning towards returning to her work as a teaching assistant.
“Maybe the thing that surprised me about myself is that leaving here, one of the things that I’m thinking of is that I would like to live in a community, which for me is not something that I was expecting,” Stoll said. “I’m not planning to live as a sister … but to live in some kind of community.”
Moesker, a student at Canadian Mennonite University, described her time at the convent as “good, but hard”, noting the amount of work that is required of participants. At the same time, she added, “Working hard isn’t a bad thing. It’s really satisfying and fulfilling.”
During the first half of her stay at the convent, Moesker spent much of her time working in the kitchen. The latter half saw her providing pastoral care at nearby Sunnybrook Hospital, visiting patients and gaining a sense of their varied spiritual needs, as well as taking care of simple tasks such as delivering newspapers and watering plants.
She described her time at the convent as “stabilizing” and clarifying her post-graduation plans. As she concludes the program, Moesker takes away a renewed sense of spiritual discipline, appreciation for the value of closing her day with prayer, and improved skills in navigating relationships with others.
“I think being here and sort of being forced to interact with the same people constantly—somehow it makes it a safe place to figure out healthy boundaries, to figure out communication,” she said.
Convent life was particularly impactful for Amanda Avery, director of the Ready-Set-Go program for low-income children in Halifax and an Atlantic School of Theology student who is seeking to become an Anglican priest. She described her time in the program as “exciting, stressful … yet joyful”.
“It has been a roller coaster of a ride … The experience has changed me and has given me new insights and new ways to look at not just God, but myself and my community and the people that are in my community,” Avery said.
The majority of Avery’s time was spent at St. John’s Rehab with the sisters and the Rev. Joanne Davies, who serves as chaplain to the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. During this time Avery visited patients and took part in the hospital’s therapy program.
She said the experience tailored her to look at a different kind of ministry than that of a parish priest.
“Something I really haven’t thought of was chaplaincy,” Avery said. “The time I spent at the hospital with the sisters and with Rev. Joanne has changed my thinking of faith in the hospitals, and so I’m definitely looking in that direction … It gave me insights to looking at the broader view of ministry.”
Reflections from the sisters
For the sisters, the experience of living alongside the companions was a positive one.
“I think it brought us a lot of good energy, living with younger women, and opening us up to living with younger people,” Sister Elizabeth Ann Eckert said.
Eckert believed that the companions gained an appreciation for the nature of “a life faithfully lived, and the transformation that happens when you’re in one place or in one vocation for this many years.”
“I think it was a good experience,” Sister Elizabeth Rolfe-Thomas said. “Even though all of them didn’t stay and some of them had some difficulties, it added greatly to our choir. It was so lovely to have some younger people to relate to. We still have a lot to learn about how best to help them. But I enjoyed their energy, and each of them helped us in different ways.”
The degree to which the companions integrated surprised even the sisters. Though the companions were originally allotted time each morning to hold a conference amongst themselves, they ultimately chose to join the sisters at that time—an arrangement that “worked much better,” Rolfe-Thomas said.
“It was a little different from what we had in mind,” Sister Wilma Grazier said. “The idea was that they would form their own community within a community. But as it was presented, it didn’t work out that way from their point of view.”
Highlights for the sisters included the evening prayers put together and formatted by the companions, as well as an Agape supper chiefly organized by Avery but in which all the companions helped out.
“They all took part in [the supper], and it was a wonderfully profound experience,” Rolfe-Thomas said. “They put so much effort into it.”
Future of the Companions program
With the successful completion of the first Companions on the Way program, the SSJD now plans to take time to evaluate the experience. The sisters meet in chapter annually, and Companions on the Way is slated to be a major topic at their August chapter meeting.
For the 2017-2018 season, Companions on the Way will be folded into a similar SSJD program, Alongsiders: Living in God’s Rhythm.
“We feel we need a year to evaluate the [Companions on the Way] program and see if there are changes we want to make in it, rather than just flowing from one to the next,” Sister Constance Joanna Gefvert said.
Nevertheless, Rolfe-Thomas said, the Companions program will “go ahead in some form”.