GENEVA: Sister Pina Sandu says that in her Orthodox monastery, in the mountains of Romania, they practise “touristic spirituality”. With a resort built up around the monastery, “like it or not” the tourists “hear the bells, hear the services three times a day… They hear, they feel, they know that something is happening.” As a result, their curiosity leads them into the yard and into the church – “small, sure steps towards something beautiful.”
Sister Pina and five other sisters – two each from Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant orders – are providing a similar subtle but radical witness at the Ecumenical Institute Bossey outside of Geneva, Switzerland, for students and visitors alike.
The sisters live together, coordinate the worship and prayer life at the Ecumenical Institute, participate in classes – and embody a sense of “ecumenical spirituality” in daily life.
Their presence alone, in their striking habits, is noticeable to all who use the Institute for meetings and events. Visitors come from church or development groups to secular organizations like Rolex or the regional Swiss television company, all of whom are invited to take part in the prayer life at the Institute.
But their main role over their year at Bossey is to provide pastoral support for the students. Rev. Emmanuel Twahirwa, a graduate student coming from the Anglican Church in Rwanda, appreciates their worship facilitation.
“When you come, you find yourself lost in academic study, you may end up forgetting your spiritual life,” he says. “We have to balance the two.”
Even more, he appreciates their presence: “Sisters from different denominations, living together – it is important for us to learn from them.”
Dealing with the tensions generated in the classroom is one way the sisters model ecumenical relationships. Sister Pina describes how after heated discussions, they would walk from the classroom to the kitchen for a meal, and the sisters would smile and talk.
“It is a very delicate way of knowing which is the border between academic discussion and spiritual relationship or friendship,” she emphasizes. “I hear about Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants. It is totally different when I meet a Catholic, when I meet a Protestant…. The person makes me love what the person does.”
The sisters themselves were uncertain how it would work living together. Sister Sperancia Mulashani Thadeo, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, reflected that she had met other Roman Catholic sisters but “could not imagine” how it would work living with them. “I thought perhaps they would stay in other parts,” she says ruefully.
The reality she found was that it is possible to live together, and the “happiest of times is sharing about our life, what we are doing and our spiritual life.”
“For us,” says Ivy Athipozhiyil, a Dominican sister from India, “ecumenical spirituality is living together. We are sharing everything, laughing. This we offer, without knowing, to others, like the students. For them it is a sign.”
Their tangible witness is noticed not just by the students. Sister Ivy recalls overhearing a member of the Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches, who were meeting at Bossey. “One bishop looked at us walking together, and he said [to another participant], ‘we are talking, talking, talking – and there – you see!”
“What I have realized is that when we talk about unity, it doesn’t mean to change somebody’s faith,” states Deaconess Agnes Simbo Lema, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania. “It means to sit together, to share, to love each other and to accept each other.”
Maria Elena Romero Molina, a Missionary Dominican sister from Guatemala, states it most simply, “Ecumenism is not a concept. It is a way of life.”
Sister Pina reflects, “The motto of the life and work commission, back then, was doctrine divides, service unites.” Now, she states, “I could say doctrine divides, spirituality unites.”