Shortly before beginning my discernment with the Felician Sisters, I made two spontaneous purchases: an energetic dog from the pound and a bright teal mountain bike. Both brought me immense joy, and while my dog recently passed away, my mountain bike remains. Everywhere I have moved, the mountain bike has come with me. I’ve ridden it on dirt trails, highways, through the hills, and in dried up riverbeds. My favorite rides, though, took place during my first couple of years in Southern California, on four-mile roundtrip excursions to work.
While Pomona, California, is not known for high safety ratings, I couldn’t resist the urge to make my commute by bike. The high school in which I taught was only two miles from our convent. I found a route through neighborhood streets that would keep me off the main road and happily made that my routine every morning and afternoon.
It didn’t take long before I started to become familiar with people along my route. “Dave” would see me ride past his house in the afternoons and would call out a friendly “Hello” whenever he happened to be on his front porch. Sometimes I would stop and talk with him, occasionally accepting a cup of coffee before continuing on. If he had gone to church that week, he would gladly let me know, or he’d ask my prayers for struggling friends and family members. Even with those years long gone, the updates and prayer requests still find their way to me.
On one of my precious sunny SoCal days, I woke up later than usual. It was no secret that I frequently wrestled with those early morning days of education, but on this particular day, I woke up right when the first bell would have rung. My heart jumped out of my ribcage as I jumped out of my bed. I got ready in less than five minutes but felt heavy as I rushed around, knowing the convent cars weren’t available and my bike ride was going to add a healthy amount of time to my tardiness. I pedaled as fast as I could. Just as I was about to exit my neighborhood to cross into the next, a neighbor who had never greeted me before called out, “Have a great day!” The perfectly timed kindliness startled me, but I gladly returned the greeting, smiling all over because I recognized God smiling at me.
Parents and students also enjoyed my chosen form of transport. They would say, “It makes my day to see you out there,” or, “I smile every time you go by on your bike!” Sometimes it even gave them a chance to be part of my commute, since not every day offered good weather, and not every event ended in time for me to get home before dark.
When I think about why I enjoyed those rides, or the fact that others became so much a part of them, I realize how accessible they made me. While a convent car was available most of the time, none of those interactions would have ever happened had I been behind the comfort of a windshield.
In reading stories about the lives of the saints, and vowed religious in particular, I find a common theme which draws others to them: their radical availability. In her research paper written on religious sisters and their vow of poverty, Rosie Davila says about women religious, “In every aspect of their lives, not just the vow of poverty, they serve as prophetic witnesses to another way of life that isn’t focused on consumerism and capitalism, but rather on community and generosity.” It is a generosity of self, I believe, that characterizes those who imitate Christ in Gospel living.
Little did I know that riding a bike would be an embodiment of that generosity of self. It makes sense, though. With the current physical distancing measures taking place as a result of the pandemic, I see now that physical availability is also a type of self-giving. To be at the side of a sick or dying loved one; to celebrate the gift of life at a birthday party; to visit the home of a friend who needs some cheering up; all of these are a way to offer one’s self to another. Simply breathing the same air with a cherished friend is a gift I took for granted; for breathing the same air – even in exchanging greetings with a neighbor while passing by on my bike – says, “I am here. You are not alone, and neither am I.”
As a gift toward the end of my time in California, I received a coaster with a teal bike on it that said “Life is a beautiful ride.” My bike rides may no longer be as frequent as they once were and I may not be able to visit the homes of those I love right now, but life is still a beautiful ride. There are still ways I can be accessible to others, and while I grieve the loss of so many ways I could once be present, I seek the grace to be open to other forms of saying, “I am here. You are not alone, and neither am I.”
By Desiré Findlay, CSSF