Lord, send out your spirit / And renew the face of the earth...” - Psalm 104
In the late 1990s, as a lead-up to the new millennium, my parish took part in a program called “Renew 2000," in which the faithful who wanted to participate were assigned to small faith-sharing groups. Each group met in someone’s home, and followed the readings and discussion guidelines presented in booklets, published by the Paulist fathers, that the parish provided. In this way, the anonymity that accompanies membership in a parish of hundreds or even thousands of families was broken down, and the weekly one-hour allotment of worship at Sunday Mass was extended into the week, as well as beyond the literal and metaphorical doors of the church. Small, intimate faith-sharing groups, after all, describe how the early Church was nourished and sustained. By returning to our roots, Renew 2000 worked some wonders in our parish and in many other parishes. Some of our groups extended their faith-sharing time into works of community service, and a few groups continue today to meet and share, a decade after the official close of the program.
As pastoral leadership changed, however, our local parish experienced strife and inner turmoil, the result of which was the exodus of many previously active parishioners from parish involvement. Some attended Sunday Mass only. Some even stopped doing that, going to Mass at other parishes or joining in services at other denominations. My own faith life was sorely lacking, as I had resigned from my employment at the parish and withdrawn from much of the ministry that had so enriched my sense of spirituality. It was at this low point that a woman whom I had enjoyed working with in detention ministry approached me in the church parking lot one day and asked if I might have any interest in participating in a small spirituality group for women. Without hesitation, I said yes. I think what I said sounded more like: “YES!!!”I could actually have wept in gratitude at this invitation, so hungry was my soul for real food. Thus, at this urging of the Spirit, was our six-member women’s spirituality group born.
We meet twice a month at each other’s homes, and we choose a thought-provoking book, usually by a Catholic author, to read and discuss. We sometimes joke that we are a remedial bunch, because it can take us a year to read one book. Sometimes we are slow because busy lives require the cancellation of our meetings, but mostly it is because we dissect and devour each page, allowing ourselves to go off on relevant tangents when the Spirit moves us. We also make time for communal prayer, for catching up on each other’s triumphs and tragedies, and for coffee, tea, and plenty of good food. Once or twice a year, we go out to dinner and leave our books at home. Maybe once a year, we bring our husbands along.
We spiritual soul mates have prayed our way through the declines and deaths of parents, the marriages and moves of children, and the unexpected curve balls thrown by life. We have shared the joys and troubles of womanhood and motherhood and Catholicism. We have held each other through the indignity of job losses, the pain of physical infirmities, and the dark nights of crises of faith. We have praised and mourned together. We are soul sisters.
The crisis of leadership in our parish has passed, thanks be to God. Presently, we are capably shepherded by a kind, smart, funny, thoughtful pastor. But we women still meet, a testament to the wisdom and power of the small faith-sharing group. One of our original members moved out-of-state. The beloved member who took her place died recently after a brave fight against cancer, and we are again five. I feel a tribal devotion to these women, who have taught me and loved me and inspired me in so many ways. My women’s spirituality group has shown me that the face of God is often feminine, and the presence of God is always right on time.
Valerie Schultz is a freelance writer, a columnist for The Bakersfield Californian and the author of Closer: Musings on Intimacy, Marriage, and God. She and her husband Randy have four daughters.