This past weekend I gathered with seventeen other women for the last session of a nine month program I had participated in, the Women’s Leadership Institute at the Hartford Seminary. Once a month since September, on Friday night and all day Saturday, this group had come together in prayer, study, discussion, and shared experiences.
The heart of the course is applied spirituality: how does what we believe affect our work and the way we live our lives. Because it’s a program specifically for women, much of the content focuses on the uniquely feminine ways faith manifests itself in women’s lives, and in the particular ways that women express their faith. And because the seminary is an interdenominational institution, the women in the course represented a number of faith traditions: Catholic, some fallen away, Congregationalists, Muslims, a Quaker, a Jewish woman, Methodists, Presbytarian, and a few “nones.”
One of the things that had attracted me to the program to begin with is that it’s led by Miriam Therese Winter, a Medical Mission sister who became popular in the 1960s and 70s writing songs such as “Joy Is Like the Rain,” “Zaccheus,” and “It’s a Long Road to Freedom.” She’s still composing and singing, although in the past 30 years she has been most known as an academic after receiving a Ph.D. from Princeton Divinity School in the 1980s.
But WLI is not as much about scholarship as it is about the experience of faith. In that regard, we prayed regularly, told stories of our lives and our struggles with faith, related the joys that faith brings into our lives, and turned around many questions, many “Whys.”
We delighted with the Sufi dances of our classmate from Senegal, and marveled at the beautiful artwork that a young Congregationalist minister uses in her work. We sang songs from many traditions, but especially resonated with the gospels songs led by the Methodist minister in our group. A Muslim woman offered a water ritual from her village in Indonesia, and we joined in a Shabbat service led by one of our Jewish members.
As the only practicing Catholic besides Miriam Therese in the group, it was a pleasure to speak about the beauty of our tradition and its practices. I related my experience of celebrating the Feast of the Presentation (February 2) with the Dominican Sisters of the Monastery of St. Cecelia in Nashville, and noted the sense of absence I felt this year when circumstances prevented me from attending the Easter Vigil at our parish. At 75, Miriam Therese could offer a broad spectrum of Catholic experience to the class, many of whom were unaware of the richness of this faith.
Most of all, these monthly sessions became a place of our own, where we could unmask and unwind in a safe, welcoming environment. Souls were revealed, hearts unbound, and thoughts long hidden came out into light as we came together in God and in faith, supported in love and mutual respect.
On the last day of classes, as it always must be, we were sent out. From this place where we grew together, shared, and were challenged, our little band of eighteen goes forward into the ground of all being, stronger in our mission to live out lives of faith, hope, and God-like love.