THE WORK OF SISTERHOODS
The Origin of the Charitable Organizations of the Church--When the first Hospitals, Asylums, etc., were begun--Character of Work undertaken by our Sisterhoods--Suggestion as to the Wisdom of each Sisterhood having its Special line of Work--Choice of a Sisterhood--Objection: Could not the Work be done by Those living in their own Homes?--The Church's Answer--The Advantage of Organization--Need in some Cases of identifying One's self with Those we would Help--Difference between Philanthropy and Christian Charity--The Sister an Instrument through which Christ most successfully Works--The Life of a Sister most Effective because a Public Witness to the Life of Christ.
FROM the earliest times the Church has been engaged in works of practical benevolence. Her heart from the first was stirred by the wants of her poor and suffering ones. In the days of her pentecostal fervour each Christian was so dear to the other that they had all things in common. When this became impracticable, at least there must be due provision that none should want. Immediately the needed offerings were made, and the means for their judicious distribution were established. Out of this necessity of supplying bodily needs there was born the spiritual order of Deacons. The gnawings of coming hunger were felt by the Church, and moved her prophets to declare the future famine, that for it provision might be made. The barriers between Jew and Gentile were broken down, and all seemed so near to Christ that from remotest regions alms were sent to supply the wants of sufferers at Jerusalem. And it was not for her children alone, the members of her own household, the Church so maternally cared. When the era of persecution passed away, and she, obtaining freedom, was able to go forth openly on her mission to the world, then for all she sought to provide. She came to men her lips full of blessings and her hands full of gifts. For it must never be forgotten that ere she came, however Roman amphitheatres might ring with plaudits at such sentiments as those of the Latin Dramatic Poet:
"Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto,"
it was sentiment only. One might walk from one end of Rome to another without finding a public hospital. But just so soon as the Church was free to do so, she began publicly her ministrations of mercy. From a sermon of Canon Liddon, who cites for his authority Mohler's "Kirchengeschichte," we condense the following interesting account:
"The first hospitals and houses of refuge of which we have any notice date from the second half of the fourth century. Sebaste, in Pontus, about the year 355, has the honour of furnishing the earliest hospitals on record. But such like institutions could but quickly become common; they spread rapidly over Christendom. There were boarding-houses for travellers, hospitals for the sick, almshouses for the old and for the poor, orphan asylums, and foundling hospitals--all creations of the Church, and conducted on strictly religious principles.
Pre-eminent among a multitude of these works of charity was the great hospital founded at Caesarea, by S. Basil, about A.D. 372. How deeply he was interested in the welfare of this house may yet be seen by his extant correspondence. Every kind of sufferer was welcomed at the gates; especially the lepers, for whom no provision had been made in heathen times. It was, St. Gregory of Nazianzum says, like a little town; and, indeed, became the model for other houses of the same sort throughout the East. St. Chrysostom imitated these in his works at Constantinople; and Alexandria soon abounded with hospitals for the old and infirm. The Emperor Justinian, in another generation, converted into a hospital a building which he had destined for a palace, while Justinian and Theodora were patrons of a penitentiary for fallen women. At Rome, Pammachius impoverished himself by building a vast guest house in which the poor and sick were received, and Fabiola spent much of her time and strength in ministering to the crowds who filled those hospitable walls. At Cyzicum, Bishop Eleusius founded an almshouse for widows; on the Euphrates, the hermit Thalassius set up the first blind asylum of which there is any record. And in the fourth century, as now, the Church's ministers of mercy were chiefly those who had devoted their lives to God's service by a formal self-dedication to Him and renunciation of the world."
It is into this splendid heritage of self-sacrificing labour that our Church, by the revival of Sisterhoods, has entered in our day. The argument once urged against them, that they were of mediaeval or Romish origin, or were an imitation of Rome, is dissipated by the fact of their existence in primitive times.
We may dismiss, then, this old obj'ection, and turn now to another matter. In what work will a person be occupied when she becomes a Sister? An aspirant should have some knowledge of the various charities undertaken by Sisters, and of the special work to which this or that Sisterhood is devoted. Also she should seek to learn something of the spirit of its rule, the general character of its devotional life, and the special type of holiness it seeks to develop. It will greatly tend to her spiritual advancement and future usefulness to enter a Sisterhood for which by education, gifts, strength, and spiritual aptitude she is adapted.
A Sisterhood is not a mere humanly contrived machinery for an economical dispensing of charity, but a creation of the Holy Spirit. The Common or Consecrated Life, as it is sometimes called, has always existed in the Church. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit new societies are ever coming forth to meet the new needs of the age. The wind of the Spirit breathes upon the garden, and the spices flow out. When these spring from some real necessity, each new religious society coming to do its divinely ordered work is a creation and gift of God. It is the outcome of some special movement of Divine Providence calling souls to some special work, and of the Spirit inspiring some grace-conforming souls for its accomplishment. The Church now watches with kindly regard all new beginnings, and gives her approval to them finally, when, by the wisdom, stability, and fruitfulness of the work, it is seen to be of God. Sisterhoods devoted with loving affection to their own institute are thankful to God for all the new manifestations of His grace, and rejoice in the rise of other bodies to love and serve Him. Nevertheless, each Sisterhood has, or ought to have, its own peculiar work and spirit and definite character. Its usefulness and stability depend much on the exactness and fulness with which this is expressed in its rule and constitution.
In fairness it ought to be said that the Anglican communion has labored under some disadvantage in this respect. When the revival of the Religious Life began in her all traditions of it had died out. The good persons who first were led by God to give themselves to the work had an arduous task before them. The only sources of information concerning the technical details of the Life were such as could be found in books. They had no living authorities to whom to appeal in questions of difficulty, and through whom they might obtain the long-treasured wisdom of the Church. They had no Bishops to support and succour them; for in the beginning the Bishops not only stood aloof, but actively opposed the revival. There was much devotion and a great deal of learning on the part of those saintly men and women (now at rest with God) who were connected with these first efforts. Yet to a considerable extent the formation of a Sisterhood, its government, its methods of training novices, was an experiment. Besides, there were many new problems growing out of the altered relations of the Church and the world, with which former founders had not been forced to deal. The lost piece of silver, the Religious Life, had to be found in the Anglican Church by some holy woman rising in the night and lighting her candle and sweeping the house diligently till she found it. She could not have swept thus diligently without raising a large amount of annoying and perhaps self-blinding dust. We do not wonder that with us, as in the Roman communion, as if it were a law of their birth, every society should be formed only after much suffering and partial failure. And no wonder that human mistakes accompanied that which was the work of God, since it was the case even in the times of the Apostles. Those who forty years ago laid the foundation have admitted this fact.
There is, however, only one mistake which it comes within the scope of a treatise like this to point out. It is one which Sisterhoods are gradually rectifying, but which ought meanwhile to modify criticism. What years ago devout persons felt the Church needed was the work of Sisters; and, if in a large town a Sisterhood was but begun, it might be called upon for almost any description of Christian labour. This at times led to the mistake of a Sisterhood undertaking several works of a widely different character, thereby running the risk of injuring the unity of the spirit of the society, and in some cases lessening their power of training souls in the spiritual life.
Let us try to make this more clear. The Religious Life has sometimes been solitary. It had this form in its earliest days, when the hermits peopled the Theban desert. Then it became organized into community form, and was active or contemplative or mixed in its character. Then, in modern times, it has become more external and aggressive in its charity, carrying the spirit of the cloister out into the highways and hedges that it might compel the Lord's lost children to come in. But it has, at least, as we may see in the Roman communion, kept certain kinds of external work distinct. There it has not been found expedient to combine those which require very different hours of service and a different sort of training. We see this, for example, in one Roman religious order giving itself to penitentiary work only. It is, indeed, something most noble. This, we may observe, was one of the first ideas of Sisterhood work in the English Church. Bishop Armstrong wrote with almost imperative earnestness in its behalf. But this work requires on the part of the Sisters a special training, and houses for the penitents adapted to their purpose. It cannot be mixed with other objects. The Sisters who are best fitted for this work have a calling almost exclusively their own. So it is to a considerable degree with other great and most needed departments of Christian service, such as nursing, secular education, and parochial mission work.
While the exigences of our times have in part brought about or necessitated a mingling of various labours, yet the growing experience in our Religious Communities is rather in favour of a somewhat similar separation to that which has been found wise in the Roman Church.
But, having said this, one advantageous consequence of this combination of works should be noted. An aspirant is likely to find in any of our Sisterhoods some department suited to her capacity, whatever it may be, though each Community may have branches of work especially distinguishing it.
The rule and work of some Sisterhoods requires more physical strength than that of others; a matter an aspirant of delicate constitution should consider, as also to what kind or type of the Religious Life she is drawn. Our Sisterhoods are all excellent; each having its own special points of interest and attraction. Every one must appreciate the nobly heroic work done by those who devote themselves to the care of the sick and suffering in hospitals or their own homes, and by those who give their lives for Christ's sake to the self-denying and laborious task of the school-teacher, and of those especially who do penitentiary work. The Church readily realizes the value of these services, and also of Sisterhoods whose object is to aid the clergy in what we may call parochial mission work. But in consequence of the different character of the outward work of each Sisterhood there must exist to some extent a difference in the course of training, in the spiritual ideal, in the way of expressing the Life, and also in the habits of devotion. So that, besides her natural gifts and fitness for the external labour, the aspirant should consider whether she be drawn to an especially devotional life--one of reparation, of intercession, of seeking to make known the Faith and win souls to Christ. If so, a Sisterhood having this as its chief object would be more suitable for her; and there are to be found in England, Scotland, and America those which, so to speak, emphasize this side of the Religious Life.
It would be easy to fill many pages with a list of the number of institutions, orphanages, homes for the aged, hospitals of various kinds, penitentiaries, schools, etc., now under the care of Sisters, and with the accounts given by disinterested persons of the good deeds done by them. The extent and excellence of their work is very commonly admitted. Yet, in view of it all, and even of the Church's exigences, when the practical question arises--Why should I not give myself to this work, or allow those under my care to engage in it? a further query sometimes presents itself: Could not these things be done by those living in their own homes?
If persons wish to devote their lives to the service of God, and to practical benevolence, what need requires them to leave their homes? Is there not work enough lying right about them in their own families and parishes which is equally necessary, and which can be done in a more simple and unpretentious fashion? What is the benefit to the Church, or to the individual, in leaving home hi order to give one's self to the service of Christ?
So far as the Church is concerned the question has been answered many times, and perhaps no more forcibly and earnestly than in the words of the report to the General Convention of the Church hi the United States by the committee to whom the matter of Sisterhoods was referred in 1871, and which report was adopted.
"The prejudice which identifies every such movement with the false and pernicious system of the Church of Rome, and would forget the pure and living Church of the early ages which adopted such instrumentalities for the great work of charity she was sent into the world to do, has too long kept the Church in apathy and quenched the spirit which has been poured out upon her daughters yearning to consecrate themselves, as the Phoebes and Priscillas of Apostolic times, to the labours to which the love of Christ constrained them.
"Your committee believe that no plan or method could be devised for organizing women into Sisterhoods that would not meet with some opposition, and that there is no better way of overcoming this prejudice than by the practical exhibit of the wonderful fruits that attend that labour of love. That prejudice, we believe, is fast passing away under the deep and growing conviction of the need of such organizations. There is a vast work of benevolence among the masses that women only can do. There is need of their gentle and God-ordained sympathy in every city, village, and hamlet in our land. In the training of the young, the care of the sick and the destitute, in all those offices which require deep interest, delicate tact, and untiring devotion, woman has been endowed for the work; but amid the manifold duties and distractions of ordinary life she cannot devote herself successfully to this great work of ministering to the needy. She needs to be exempt from domestic cares, or her life and labours in this cause will be uncertain and unreliable. Entire self-consecration to Christ and His work is an essential requisite to her efficiency. Nor can she work effectually while alone, separated from that general sympathy of consociation with those whose common voice and interest would help to guide, sustain, and comfort her. Thousands of devoted women in the Church are left in cold and cheerless isolation of unaided effort, and often waste precious powers and labours, which, if gathered into an organized agency, would redound to the holy joy and success of the worker; and, more, to the glory of God and goodwill and blessing to men."
The advantages of organization need not be dwelt upon in our day, nor that of skilled and trained labour. While living in her own house any devoted unmarried Christian woman may engage in much Church work, but it must be admitted that she becomes a far more efficient instrument for Christ's service when entirely dedicated to it and a trained member of a Christian community. Yet the strongest element of her efficiency, and that which she cannot possess at home, comes from the very fact that she does leave home, its comforts, and its society, to give herself, as Christ did, to those she would help in His name. She comes down from her position to help others. This mark of sacrifice is unmistakably stamped upon her life. The poor, the suffering, the distressed, instinctively feel this, and the heart-doors of the inner life are open to the Sister. She embodies something of that spirit and its power that moves to elevate mankind.
"How probe an unfelt evil? Wouldst thou be the poor man's friend? must freeze with
Test sleepless hunger, let thy crippled back Ache o'er the endless furrow; how was He, The Blessed One, made perfect? why, by grief--The fellowship of voluntary grief--He read the tear-stained book of poor men's toils, As I must learn to read it."
So reading and so learning the Sister becomes an instrument of blessing she cannot be while at home. Hers is not a life of worldly, calculating philanthropy, aiming at a maximum of result at a minimum of personal cost. "Philanthropy," as it has been said, "begins and ends with man; charity begins with God, and loves and blesses man for God's sake. Philanthropy is a social principle, while of Charity the motive is exclusively religious." The Sister's work springs from her love of Christ, and of humanity for which He died. A lady once offered herself and services at a well-known institution, and was asked by the pastor what was her motive in doing so. She replied that it was love and pity for suffering humanity that induced her to wish to help her fellow-creatures. The answer did not satisfy him, and he declined her application in these words: "When I can meet you at the foot of the Cross of Christ, and find that love for Him is the ground of your wish, then, and not till then, we can welcome you among us."
Coming for love of Christ, and giving herself to Christ, the Sister works for Christ, and so He works through her. His work does not confine itself to the recipients of the Sister's acts of charity. He speaks through her to a wider audience, and His word, embodied in her life of sacrifice, goes forth with power. The Church needs Sisters, not merely for the work they do, but because through them are preached the most effective sermons. "Perhaps," wrote Voltaire, that great scoffer at Christianity, "perhaps there is nothing greater on earth than the sacrifice which a delicate sex makes of beauty, youth, and often of high birth, to relieve in hospitals those human miseries of which the sight is so humiliating to pride and so revolting to delicacy."
"Sisters of Mercy," says Canon Liddon, "are by the very force of their outward habit of life a standing proclamation of the supreme importance of the eternal world and of all that bears upon it. If they did nothing else, they do this: they advertise prominently before the eyes of men the claims of religion, the interests of the human soul. . . . Many a man asks himself the question, as he notes them quietly threading our streets on their errands of love, why this or that lady of his acquaintance should retire from society and devote herself to prayer and ministries of mercy; it may be against the remonstrances of friends, and certainly in spite of contemptuous and avowed dislike of the general irreligious public. One answer is that she deliberately thinks God's service a serious life-absorbing thing, and that she is willing to venture this world for the sake of the next. He may not agree; but, if he is fair and reasonable, he at least respects her. His own faith is much too feeble a thing to warrant any such efforts after the kingdom of the unseen; but he does'justice to a stronger faith than his own--he recognizes its consistency; he is too generous to depreciate a virtue which as yet he does not mean to imitate. Now and then, perhaps, the question presents itself to him: If the eternal world be a reality, may not her line be the line of common-sense? What if, after all, she should be right?"
That she is right no Christian parent can doubt. Why, then, should she not, if really suited for the Life, and if she be truly called to it, be allowed to serve Christ in the most effective way possible on earth for her, and have her special place of glory when the Ever-Blessed One shall come, in all the magnificence of His final triumph, to give to all His dear ones, those who have laboured, and those who have given labourers to Him, according as their work hath been?