‘In the first half of life, we are really creating the text of our lives. And in the second half, we are creating the commentary’ – Richard Rohr
Sister Ann Billard, OLM has spent the last 15 years of her life traveling all over the United States, Canada and Australia to provide transformative aging retreats and workshops for women religious communities. Her joy is in watching sisters come back to life.
“There is a sense of renewed hope when I see a gleam in a sisters’ eye after going through one of my retreats. It’s not so much about being out there and doing – it’s about answering the call that God has for us, which involves inner work.”
It all began when Sister Ann was a doctoral student of pastoral counseling. She enlisted 300 sisters in her research study looking at how spirituality and spiritual transcendence affected aging Catholic sisters.
“The results were fantastic – we found it significant that spirituality contributed to women’s emotional well-being. I was talking with a sister in the study, and she said ‘Ann, you have found statistical support for what we all believe, that spirituality does contribute to an individual’s emotional well-being. What can we do to help our sisters move beyond the regrets of the past? The grief and the experience of letting go of active ministry?’ It dawned on me that I had a lot of those answers in the data I had accumulated from the sisters’ part of the study.”
Bringing her life experiences in teaching, business, social outreach and pastoral counseling together, Sister Ann developed a workshop for retired sisters that is known today as Saying Yes to the call of Aging.
Using personal stories, images and the scriptures, Sister Ann leads sisters through the process of letting go of an old identity to enter into and allow God to bring forth the person that God created them to be. She encourages her participants to:
1) Commit and surrender to the aging process
2) Review their lives with someone else
3) Let go of the ego’s aspirations and dreams to let God’s dreams come forth
4) Move beyond the self (self-transcendence) and let go of grudges
5) Develop new rooting in the true self
6) Reclaim the wonder and delight in life
7) Share their legacy
This process requires much grief work and self-reflection. What has been the gift of the journey? How can I now share my life story with the younger generation?
“The metaphor I use for that is the one of the caterpillar to the butterfly. The caterpillar goes into the chrysalis like we go into this transformative process, and in that cocoon that caterpillar breaks down into ooze, and for some that’s how it feels when you’re learning how to let go of that old identity. God breaks us down internally, and yet in that cocoon the cells are re-clustered and God uses all of it, like God uses all of us, and eventually that cluster emerges as a butterfly.”
As she helps sisters re-envision aging as a call, she says that the company of older sisters is not only life enhancing, but spiritually enhancing, and she is ever grateful to the sisters for that.
“The elder sisters are the root of life. They have so much wisdom in them that they can claim and can share with the next generation. They feel that there’s no purpose and they’ve been put on a shelf, and when they start claiming it, there is new life.”
Sister Ann asks sisters to consider how they want their ministry to be completed here on earth. She asks that they search for the deeper invitation to become closer with God.
“God has a purpose for us, and that purpose does not cease when we are no longer part of active ministry. There is still meaning and purpose in this contemplative part of life. We are called to share in the mission of Christ by baptism, so we never really retire from that. When we retire from active ministry, we still say yes to our call every day.”
Sr. Ann Billard, OLM is a Sister of Charity of Our Lady Of Mercy and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.