Nomadism, a foundational intuition

Reflection by the Little sisters living among nomadic peoples on how to remain faithful to this foundational intuition.

Ngovayang, CameroonNgovayang, Cameroon

From the very beginning of the foundation we have been encouraged to live among nomadic people as well as among the least accessible, forgotten or despised minorities... (Cf. constitutions, art. 8 and 99)

This question continues to challenge us today. How to keep and update this so important orientation of our charism in the present situation of the Community ? When we spoke about this key intuition of Little sister Magdeleine we were struck by the profound link between the two poles of our charism: contemplative life and nomad spirit. We also wanted to answer the question : Who are the nomads of today ?

Many little sisters living among nomads wrote back. Here are a few excerpts from their letters:

'Little Sister Magdeieine met and lived with the nomads of the Sahara. She also befriended gypsies whom she met on the fringes of society, rejected and living in poverty. Since her childhood, her heart had been drawn to them like the heart of God. From 1939 to 1945 the whole Community was turned towards the nomads of the Sahara and following Brother Charles, towards Islam. Her first love was always present in Little sister Magdeleine’s heart and often she reminded us of it. When we hear this call again today, we must remember that in the opening our communities up to the whole world, little sister Madgeleine gave priority to marginalized and despised populations.

Algeria El AbiodhAlgeria El Abiodh

We perhaps have to revise the words we use: nomads and nomadism. Kathryn Spink wrote : ‘In a sense a nomadic life in a tent encapsulated all little sister Magdeleine's intuitions and dreams. It was a life of extreme simplicity, lived among some of the most forsaken people, in a relationship of reciprocity, in which if anything the little sisters were to find themselves even more vulnerable than the most marginalized. It was a life devoid of barriers with only the thin woven strips of camel and goat hair to separate the little sisters and the Sacramental Body of Jesus, from their Muslim friends and from the great contemplative silence, of desert and sky. It was a life of total dependence on and surrender to the will of God.’ ( Kathryn Spink. Little sister Magdeleine of Jesus, The Call of the Desert, 1993, p. 126.) and I would add, dependence upon others, dependence on the neighbours. The essential is not to be mobile but to be close, being concretely close, close to those who are far, to be interdependent.’

'Nomadism is often an expression of our identity and a way of living: It is what comes naturally or built up through events and sometimes through the history of generations. A nomad is a person who has received his being from his family. It is a heritage which he lives and transmits to his children from generation to generation. The whole family is involved, and moves together with their caravan. They move their home from one place to another: to see the family again, for work or a pilgrimage. Often a nomad has a place where he (she) was born, where his parents are buried, where they stop from time to time, where they like to come’

'Someone who for one reason or another is obliged to settle, remains a nomad in his way of being and talking. He keeps his culture. He remains different from ano'ther sedentary person who is not a nomad.'

'These minority groups are often ignored and forgotten in the Church and in society. They are not recognized for who they are and their history is forgotton. Most of the time, they are mentioned when their presence is disturbing or because there are robberies. Often, they are not displaced people, but rather they have been driven away or marginalized because of their mentality. Often they are unable to adjust to a stricter, sedentary and individualistic vision of life. Their values are different.’

'For those who travel with the circus, the artists and the managers (often former artists), nomadism is not a problem. In this they are not like immigrants who are looking for work. Nomads are a people, a people who feel at home wherever they are, who can live in a place for a few days as if they had always lived there, and for whom the grounds on which they find themselves is theirs, as truly belonging to them. For nomads, by choice or by birth, their house is always with them. While travelling and on the road, their journey is their ‘home’ and it where they are truly themselves. God is on the road with them, not at the end of the road. They live as a community where they can share their talents with others. They do not expect a more normal life, they are not grieving because they are on the road like displaced people or refugees. They do not regret it, they celebrate it. I see ‘nomads’ as people, persons, for whom nomadism is in their very bodies, their flesh and blood, and in their minds. It is in there hearts and even in their nervous system, in their breath.... It is inside and outside.’

Vargas Circus USAVargas Circus USA

‘It seems to me that there is a very clear difference between displaced people and nomads by choice and birth. Today quite a few people, entire populations, are displaced because of war, lack of work, political or religious persecutions or famine. This is not a new situation, but now it is a world wide phenomena, on a that planetary level. Our community is surely called to respond to this urgent situation. The approach will be entirely new because migrants are also very different from forgotten and inaccessible nomad minorities.’

‘The intuition which drew our community from the very beginning towards nomadic people involved being drawn to groups who were on the move. At the same time it meant reaching out to minority peoples, those not easy to reach or who were forgotten or even despised. This concern for people who are marginalized and voiceless, whether they are nomad or sedentary remains at the heart of the vocation of our Community, and even more today when cultural and economic globalization wants to engulf every country and society.’

Among the RomsAmong the Roms

‘If I look at the experiences we made in Crotone [Italy] we found ourselves with a group of people who had escaped from war, people who had had their houses burnt or occupied and who were not able to return to their country. In Crotone these people was ethnically Rom. We went to them, not as refugees, but because they were Rom. And I believe that, from what we could realize by living together, that their Rom identity prevailed upon the fact of being refugees, even if some of them have asked and obtained political asylum. We must not forget this minority people who with its long history of persecution, often reduced to slavery and compelled through all kinds of methods to be assimilated into the localpopulation. Still today they are despised and marginalized and yet they continue to exist as a people, keeping a very strong sense of their identity.’

‘When we live for a long time with people on the move: gypsies, fairground workers, circus people or in a tent, we are fashioned by the people whose lives we share.’

‘To ‘live with’ is not the same as 'to be one of them'. To live in close proximity with very little privacy is very demanding. One’s home and doors are always open requiring great availability and accepting to be constantly disturbed. It means accepting a great interdependence and not to be master of events. It means welcoming the present moment with flexibility. It involves using poor means, non-power, patience, taking the time needed.’

‘To live with nomads has fashioned in me a way of living. Perhaps this openness to the other is connected with a life surrendered to the other, the other as different, a life upset by the other, upset by ANOTHER, the Lord’

‘Our lives mingled with theirs, their lives mingled with ours. Very often, we were handed over into their hands. All this FASHIONED me.  I can no longer live what I lived with my nomad neighbours because my body does not follow anymore but I can keep on living something which I received living among them and that is trying always to be welcoming to the other, to be welcoming to what happens each day.’

'To live with' presupposes being sent by the Community and hearing a special call from the Lord. We said 'yes' to becoming nomad little sisters who have chosen to consecrate their lives as a priority to marginalized people, to live among them in community. (Constitutions. Art.99).’

Saint Dizier, FranceSaint Dizier, France

‘We live our life among marginalized people in community. The community comes first and this is our strength. It allows us to adjust and decide the direction we want to take. Community life however is demanding. It asks a lot and also brings alot. We are aware that today it is often not the whole community but rather one little sister of that community who is able and ready to become involved with those on the fringes. The 'to live with' seems to me to changed into a 'come and go'. The little sister who is alone must find a balance between the milieu towards which she is sent and what her community is living.’

‘The whole community of the Little sisters lives the nomad spirit of the foundation, but there is a great difference between 'living the nomad spirit', which is a spirituality and can be lived everywhere - and living with nomads, which is a presence among a certain group of people.’

‘Sharing life is the charism of our community, a gift of God to the Church. It seems to me that our community has not been founded so we could live the spirit of nomadism, but to reach nomad people so they could recognize with us the love of God in their lives, despite rejection and misunderstanding.’

‘Where can we learn this nomadic spirit ? Shall we learn with them this wisdom that the nomadic people have acquired through centuries of living on the margins of society? Nomadic people have influenced us from the beginning of our foundation. How can we keep this influence alive ? I think it is only possible to perceive this special note if you have experienced it, even if only for a few days. Surely it is not only a perfume from the past?

‘One of the basic intuitions of Little sister Magdeleine is to have perceived how the presence of the Church was absent from this little handful of people: people without a fixed parish, people who were seemingly forgotten, a minority group outside the daily concerns of others.  It is my experience that for the families of the circus, we have become their 'Church' because they do not have any other.’

‘My wish is that nomad people remain a priority, in the breath (spirit) of the foundation. But I am confident that the future does not belong to me and that the spirit of Little sister Magdeleine will continue to guide us. May those who request to go and live among nomadic people be encouraged and supported to do so. May they be encouraged to carry on this life, living side by side with our nomad brothers and sisters of all countries.’

‘It is obvious and normal that the world has changed and that we have to adapt in order to bring new life.’

‘We, the little sisters of the first generations, European like Little sister Magdeleine herself, have followed her closely with enthusiasm and with passion. We have lived in a certain way among nomadic people as we saw best in our particular circumstances. Is it not the time now for these same intuitions of Little sister Magdeleine to become international? And it is precisely this that is happening. Challenged by these same intuitions, the little sisters from Africa, Asia, Orient, North and South America will now make new choices and reinvent 'styles', that are in harmony with their culture, their sensitivity, their Gospel vision of the world.’

Vargas Circus USA erecting the big-topVargas Circus USA erecting the big-top

Through this sharing, we hope to reawaken the desire to reach out concretely to these people who have been entrusted to us since our beginnings.