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A Lived Experience with the ICM Sisters in PDH

A year ago Hanne Ghesquire stayed with the ICM sisters in Texas. This was her reflection of her stay with them.

A Lived Experience with the ICM Sisters in PDH


Penitas, Texas

September 2, 2013

Dear Sisters,

I am Hanne, an anthropology student from Belgium. I have spent more than two months with the ICM sisters in South Texas, and I would like to share my experience with you. Why? Because it changed my understanding of religion, and therefore, my understanding of Self.

After school tutorial

I was born and raised in a Catholic family in Belgium. I have received all my sacraments, and I went to Catholic schools. Until I was 13, I joined my parents to church every Sunday. Every time, I tried to focus on the voice of the priest, and on the message he tried to bring across. However, it felt as if his message had no relevance in my life. I could not relate to what he was saying. To me, his words only seemed to have relevance within the walls of the church building. Usually, I counted down the minutes of standing and sitting, standing and sitting, while reciting - mumbling - the prayers. Actually, I have always felt puzzled by the word 'viering' ('celebration'), as we call mass in Belgium. Mass never felt as a celebration to me. I always had the impression people were mourning instead. There was no enthusiasm in their voices and actions whatsoever. Sometimes, I even wondered if all these people actually realized what they were saying, or if they just said it because they had said it hundreds of times before. Above the altar, there was the eye of God, saying 'God ziet u' ('God sees you'). It always felt as if He was looking straight at me, seeing all my actions and thoughts, and condemning me for all my 'religious incomprehension'. I always felt relieved when the priest uttered his final words 'Gaat nu allen heen in vrede' ('Now all go in peace').

Of course, this is all very subjective, and I am sure not everyone will agree with me, but I pictured and experienced God as a stern and punishing God - and with God as the big punisher, church consequently felt like a punishment to me. (Or maybe it was the other way around? Maybe because I experienced church as a panoptic prison, I pictured God as the big 'prison guard'). Undoubtedly, the religious leaders of that time also did not do any good to my growing revulsion against the Church. The people in the Vatican seemed 'out of this world', stuck in the past, condemning many of the current issues in the world - in my world. When my parents gave me the freedom, I decided not to go to church anymore, and for a while, I rejected almost everything that had to do with religion.

I went looking elsewhere for truth and meaning in my life. For a long time, my friends and family have been the ones who made my life meaningful, but I could not ignore the feeling of incompleteness - the feeling that something fundamental was missing. As Saint Thomas Aquinas said, without faith, no explanation will suffice.

At a certain point in my life, I had to acknowledge that there is 'something more'. I felt it, and I allowed myself to open up to that feeling. I realized that I was not undertaking this journey of 'life' on my own, but that there was someone - or something - there, constantly walking with me. I was willing to call this feeling 'God', but I just could not associate it with the Church as I had experienced it in my childhood.

When I first heard about the possibility of living with the ICM sisters for two months, I was very hesitant. I immediately pictured myself getting involved in a 'church-like' environment, living with people who honoured this punishing God. However, some of my friends convinced me that I would be surprised by 'these nuns'. "As missionaries, they will not be living in an ivory tower", they said. "They know what is going on in the world, and experience their religion 'on the ground'", they argued.

When I started corresponding with the ICM sisters, I was very surprised indeed. It only took me one phone call to the ICM unit and Heverlee, and one email to the sisters in Texas, to realize that these people were different than the religious people I had met in my youth. Their hospitality and willingness to help me, was of a kind I had not often experienced before.

After having been here for two months, I can honestly say that my view on religion has changed. Here in Texas, religion does go beyond the walls of the church. Religion is not as much about securing your place in the afterlife, as it is about securing your place in this life  - literally, securing your ability to live worthy as a human being. In fact, improving the everyday realities of the people living here, is one of the main tasks of the sisters - and yes, life can be very bitter in south Texas. The sisters not only empower the people materially and intellectually, but they teach them how to empower themselves as a community - and this, I think, is one of the greatest value of religion. Through the ICM sisters, I have learned that religion is not isolating yourself in prayer and in church, but that it is in fact the opposite. Religion is a way of relating to others, and a way of being in the world.

Another thing I was struck by, is the ability of the sisters to think 'outside the box'. During conversations, I always noticed their acceptance of difference and their openness to the world, which was so contrary to how I had experienced religion in my youth. The sisters do not claim a monopoly on truth through God, but realize that their knowledge is incomplete. In the past, missionaries have often been criticised of condemning and wiping out other spiritual realities in their desire to bring 'light into the darkness'. Here, I experience very little of this condemnation. As the sisters themselves often say: "We realize that our wisdom is limited, and that we do not own the entire picture". What have dream catchers, singing bowls and revolution to do with Catholicism? The ICM convent in Texas is very much in this. Their openness towards other religions and ways of spirituality is striking to me, and I can only admire the way they include this otherness in their daily prayers and thoughts.

Am I falling into blind admiration here? No, I do not think so. But I do confess that I can agree with many of the things that are being done by the sisters, and that I see very little harm in the way religion is experienced here. Here, religion is a source of strength and empowerment, and God is a joyful and loving God - just as I experience the 'energy' accompanying me on my path. Here, I have come to realize that religion is not so much about all the restricting rules I learned in my childhood, but that it is about freedom and faith - faith in yourself and in the world and people around you.


Hanne Ghesquire

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