How to Say Goodbye

Being able to speak for those I served.

“’Morning Kenny,” I call when the guests start streaming into the soup kitchen dining room.  Kenny is always the first one in the breakfast line and doesn’t need any coffee to be this peppy.  I lean on the serving counter between us as we chat for a minute about the latest Star Wars book he’s borrowed from the library before I go back to the stove and continue working on breakfast.

From the back of my kitchen I call out to people I recognize, and some whom I don’t know just smile and wave at me while I stir the giant pot of oatmeal.   I look out through the large window cut into the wall dividing my kitchen from their dining room.  The bright morning sun floods in through what used to be stained glassed windows glaring down upon the wide-open space which no longer houses stiff rows of pews.  Now folding tables fill the room, and the guests start pulling plastic chairs around as they call out to their friends.

I walk to the far left of my kitchen to catch a glimpse of one table in particular pushed into the front corner.  I look for some of the guys I know, Shorty and Rich are always friendly to me.  They are putting their bags down, claiming their little plot of real-estate before they even get their first cup of coffee.  Breakfast is prepared and we’ll serve the meal soon, but for now I have a minute.  I grab the decaf coffee I brewed in my own little coffee pot and head out the side door into their dining room.

A moment with a long time volunteer.

Keeping the light out of my eyes I turn my back on the windows.  I chat with some of the people I know, and simply smile and nod towards one of the many unfamiliar faces in the crowd.  I keep to the front of their dining room, near the kitchen and the industrial sized urn of coffee.  Through the kitchen window I watch as the volunteers finish getting ready to serve breakfast before I lend a hand serving.  I greet everyone who comes up to the window.

“Hey, any day on the right side of the dirt is a good day,” I chirp for the hundredth time.  It always gets a laugh.

After breakfast it quiets down and the guys who were outside all night start to curl up for a nap.  They lean against the walls or slump down over the tables and shield their eyes against the bright sun.  No one disturbs them while they rest.  I saw George curled up too, the hood of his old gray sweater pulled tight over his head as he slept at the table.  It was a guest who first noticed he wasn’t sleeping anymore.

“Hey, I need some help!”  He calls out to the supervisor who came running to his table in the back corner.

I watch through the serving window, isolated in my kitchen, as the EMTs arrived.  They check his vitals, but he had been dead for several minutes by now.  Everyone stands quietly aside while they put him on the gurney, his face as gray as his sweats.  Slowly they wheeled him out, the dining room oppressively silent.  The rest of the day is somber, and the weeks that followed too. 

Death connects us.  We’ve all had experiences of death, we will all experience death ourselves sooner or later.  It is the great equalizer.  As I soak in that reality, the truth of our mutual mortality, I find myself drawn out of my kitchen into their dining room.  At first, I am simply afraid someone else will be found dead rather than asleep.  I don’t want to see death; I don’t want to lose one more person. I want to hold onto them all as tightly as I can, as if anything I could do will hold them in the relative safety of the dining room. 

Not sure I can accomplish anything I leave my kitchen behind and spend time walking between the tables, subtly checking for any small movement in sleepers curled up in their chairs.  I venture further and further into the sea of tables leaving the security my orderly kitchen behind, finding any excuse to go into the dining room to check on people.  My intrusion is not always welcome.  Suspicious glares meet me; I’m an intruder in their space, their home. 

Today, things are quiet in the kitchen and I find myself ahead of schedule.  Without anything pressing to take care of I decide to take a lunch break, a rarity, and I actually sit down to eat.  I fill my paper plate with chicken and veggies, go out into the dining room and quietly sit down at an empty table near the kitchen door.  No one talks to me so I just focus on my lunch.  As I munch on my food the gentleman across the table reaches over to hand me a napkin.  I had forgotten to pick one up when I had fixed my plate.  I smile and accept it gratefully.  We chat for a few minutes while I finish my lunch, just making inconsequential small talk, but slows down for a moment as we sit in the warm glow of the afternoon sun. 

I make a point of taking lunch breaks now, and as I go past the walls of my kitchen the guests started to let their walls down too.  They welcome me into their lives, and little by little we learn more about each other. 

The send off was touching!

I’ve had four years like this, working for and with the guests at the soup kitchen.  I leave for the last time and it is a little like leaving home.  So many people here have become a part of my life and I feel how connected we were despite our differences.  I walk out of the silent dining room now empty of guests.  All the chairs neatly stacked against the walls; the light now dim as the sun has passed to the other side of the old church.  I had said my goodbyes at lunch, but now I say one last goodbye to the dining room which had become a home for me too.  I bow in a reverent namaste before I finally leave, and move on to find a new home.

What Do You Know About God?

A friend of mine recently pointed out a reality which I have experienced, but had not yet named for myself. Sisters are expected to be theologians. It is an unspoken expectation, but present nonetheless. She expressed frustration with this because it was not her training, and I can sympathize. I have often felt unequal to the task when these encounters arise. People in all areas of my life have asked me difficult questions more times than I can count; questions about life and death, grief, faith, God, morality, the Church… the list could be endless. Yet, I am not a trained theologian, spiritual director, ethicists, liturgist, church historian, or cannon lawyer. I do wish I could provide better answers for people who are honestly seeking an experience of the divine in their lives. However, my response to these searching questions can only come from a place of my own lived experience of God.

Often times, when I dig into my own understanding of who God is, my responses to these myriad questions are based on God whom I understand to be Love. This may be a very simple understanding but this is what I have to go on. Also, humanity knows so very little about God, and I less than many due to my lack of study, but I know who God has been and continues to be for me. I look to Jesus, the Healer and preacher of peace, and I look to the Spirit who is our Guide and Advocate. I look into my understanding of the Creator who has made a cosmos of balance, abundant life, and wonder.

This is my theology, and my own personal salvation history. I can’t explain why bad things happen to good people, or why God does not prevent harm in our world. I do know that Jesus came to show us how to live, how to be better humans. I do know that God did not create us for suffering. I do know that our relationship, personally and communally, with God can become the road map to navigating difficult life choices, and that God will never leave us alone to face these hard moments.

There have been so many times in my life where this role has been reversed, and I have received the gift of another’s experience of God. Sisters, parents, family, friends have all been theologians for me in the sharing of their faith. It is fitting that no one has a corner on the theology market, you do not have to stand in a pulpit to say, through word and deed, who God is for you. Together, all of God’s creation, speaks of God and teaches us how to 8f59d02ccecc97b03224a11f9af53770live abundantly and in reverence for all life.

So when people ask me for answers I frame my thoughts in the context of a God who is Love itself, a life that is meant to exists in balance, and in God’s perennial invitation to personal and communal healing and wholeness. Perhaps one day I will be better able to articulate a fuller understanding of God. Until then, I must rely on my own faith in these moments when I am asked to be present to a person’s lived reality of loss, suffering, and confusion. I hope that my own experience of God’s love, healing, and guidance will be enough.

How Do You Find Healing?

Recently, I was asked to participate in a promotional video for the diocese of Bridgeport. I’ve been ministering there as a soup kitchen chef for nearly four years now. This has given me time to get to know and serve the guests who come to eat at the center. Developing relationships with the regulars has been a deep and meaningful experience for me. I’m glad I was able to share a bit of this gift during the interview.

For this video interview I was asked to speak about my ministry and experiences in the context of Mathew 25. I had to look up the verse because like most good Catholics I don’t know chapter and verse for anything. The passage says that whatever we do for the least of our sisters and brother, we do for God. The communications team hope that sharing my experience in this context will inspire more people to come and serve.

img_3057I’m an introvert so now that some time has passed I can say what I wish I had said. I wish I had shared this Swahili proverb I encountered reading James Martin SJ’s book, This Our Exile: ‘When the guest arrives, the host is healed.‘ Serving the poor and the outcast, the leper’s of our day, is important and sorely needed work. However, it is also important life changing work for the one who ministers. Through my relationships with my guests I have learned so much about gratitude, blessing, and grace. It has taken years to seep in to my soul but it has changed how I see the world, and God in the world. Every morning at least one of my guests tells me s/he is just glad to be alive, and glad that the sun has risen again. Many are grateful to be, “on the right side of the dirt.” This has been a daily reminder for me to practice gratitude in my own life. As a result I tread more lightly through life, thank God more frequently, and pray more often throughout each day. Also, a friend recently told me that I laugh more than I used to, and laugh more frequently than most people she knows. Laughter can also be a gift from God.

I’m glad I was able to share the joys and necessity of serving our sisters and brothers as well as the call to do justice in our world today. But what people will have to come and see for them selves is that serving the least is a way we can all “walk humbly with our God.”

Incase you haven’t seen the video yet here is the link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=YJDzPauQmMY&feature=youtu.be

A Need To Encounter

Recently I travel to DC with a sister in my community to participate in the world youth day event held in the capital. Giving Voice sponsored our trip so that we could be present with the young adults celebrating world youth day. Here is the article I wrote about our encounters during that day. Click here.

Food truck where we blessed a child.
Sharing #malemercyreal bracelets.
Encountering new and old friends.

How Do You Find Community

I was recently at a community meeting where we began to talk about who makes up our local community.  Some sisters talked about those they live with, or near.  Others framed the idea of local community in terms of regional geography.  Others talked about “local” community as any sister with whom she shared her life, near or far.  

I must admit that I often find my community in that third paradigm.  Some of my closest relationships are geographically distant and in different religious orders.  The beauty is that despite these barriers we are Sisters, yet barriers exists and that means more effort is needed to maintain and develop these relationships.

Thanks to technology- when it does in fact work- connecting long distance is possible.  Groups of Sisters meet and talk on-line and on conference calls, for fun and for meetings.  We have video chats for faith sharing and book clubs.  These connections meet a real need for me and for many people I know.  Yet, something is lost when we are not able to be in the same room together.

Some of the things that get lost are easy to quantify: lagging behind the conversation when you call into a meeting, not being able to read the body language in the room, not greeting good friends and Sisters with a hug.  Somethings are more difficult to name though.  Something is lost when we cannot pray in the same room together.

For me, when I begin a faith sharing video call, I ask God who resides deeply within me and in each person I am about to pray with, to bridge the spaces between us.  This helps me feel more connected on a spiritual level with the people I cannot meet with in person, and it helps me remember that we are all one body and one human family.  This way I am more mindful of our togetherness than I am of the things which keep us apart.

Renewal of Vows

I also depend on the significant relationships I have geographically nearby, which for me can still require a commitment to travel an hour or two. These relatively nearby friends and Sisters help me stay grounded in community in ways my long distance relationships usually can’t.  Long distance relationships are wonderful connections.  Yet, those relationships I have with nearby Sisters are often the ones which challenge me to grow.

Getting to know, and be known, by Sisters who live nearby challenges me to deepen my tolerance and sense of self as I get to know everyone’s’ little quirks and idiosyncrasies; and vice versa I’m sure.  One person described this slow lifelong development as having our sharp edges worn down to smooth curves over years of bumping elbows.  I am grateful to be in a place, and a life, where I can enter into this personal growth which complements my spiritual journey.  

All three kinds of local community provide me with their own perspective, and unique life experiences.   One is not better than another, and no one way provides a smoother path than any other mode of relationship.  We are all humans seeking God together in the best way we know how.  My friends keep me real and share my reality in Religious Life.  I am so grateful to have so many people on this journey with me both as guides and companions.

To Have Loved And Lost

 

When I first thought about religious life I had a vague idea of what it might be like as sisters in a community, and I had no notion of what the age gap would be like.  Yet, cross-generational living has brought me so many gifts. My sister-friends have showed me their wisdom, patience, good humor, and perspective.  As sisters our shared charism- our passion for the work of Mercy, the history of the community, and our foundress Catherine- give us a common language, culture, and identity.  This common ground has provided the basis for fruitful relationship with sisters who have walked in Mercy decades longer than I have.  Those who are able to enter into this walk of mutual vocation and friendship are special people indeed.

Last June I lost one such person.  I first met my dear friend Sr. Elaine when I was discerning religious life.  She walked with me as a vocation minister through the first few years of discernment and entrance into the Sisters of Mercy.  Her friendship, courage, and character impressed me from the start and we became close friends.  One of her great gifts was the total acceptance of everyone who crossed her path.  It didn’t matter if you were in prison, a coworker, young, or old.  She met each person as they were, and loved everyone in her life- myself included.  It has been such a privilege for me to have such a great relationship with my mentor because she embraced me in a mutual friendship despite the four decades separating us.

At Elaine’s funeral I looked at the array of photos from across the years of her life. I heard her friends reminisce about her early years and I found myself wishing I had been there too. I could only recognize my friend in those old photos by the tilt of her head and the strength of her presence. I knew her for the last nine years of her life, and there have been other friends with whom I have had even less time. When I began to answer this call to religious life I did not think about the losses along the way.  I took these relationships as part and parcel of community life without contemplating the losses ahead of me.  It has been a shock to loose so many friends at my age, but these relationships with my sisters have been precious and worth the pain of saying goodbye.

These sisters who, like Elaine, have welcomed me as both friend and sister are the ones who have taught me the most about life, and helped me grow.  I am so grateful to these women who have welcomed me into their lives.  I look back on my nine years of friendship with Elaine and know it to be such a short time.  I will continue to carry Elaine’s love and friendship in me, in the woman she helped me become, and in the Mercy community she loved so dearly.

 

How You Can Be Compassion

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Recently I spoke on a panel about the new book “In Our Own Words.”  Several people asked if I my speech would be available so here it is!

When I was about to be received as a candidate Sister Elaine, my dear friend and mentor, told me to “rock the boat.”  I laughed off this advice at the time, but I think of her words fondly now as I consider the importance of our counter cultural witness as women religious.  We live in the world, but are not of it (in 17:16).  Our world today moves fast, is chaotic, troubled, and yet holds great potential for the future.  This is the world in which we live our vowed life, minister, pray, and love as Jesus loved.  Jesus’ example calls us to follow him in his compassionate stance.  Perhaps we would have wished for something simpler, calmer, easier; but this time is also a gift and as sisters we are impelled to answer the needs of our time.

When I think of the needs of our time I think of our many diverse ministries as women religious, and I think of some of my friends who have been arrested at social justice protests.  I also think of a moment at my community’s chapter when we took some time for personal reflection.  Many of us went outside to the hotel’s patio to enjoy the nice weather as we prayed.  People passed by on the sidewalk and a few stared at us as we sat prayerfully.  A couple of people even stopped to ask what we were doing and who we were because they were so struck by our contemplative sitting.  This prophetic moment was unplanned and unintentional, yet something about our way of being as a religious community answered an unnamed need in the passers-by.

There are many needs which call us in our world today.  Yet, whatever our ministry, compassion is paramount.  We follow Jesus’s example in our expression of compassion.

31284970_1905721572795033_1844834392325750784_oJesus was a teacher, a healer, a miracle worker but these mighty deeds and profound teachings do not over shadow the moments of compassion which punctuated his day.  The stories of  Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, “Peter do you love me”.  These stories are just some of the moments when Jesus was simply present, and his gift of presence was all the healing that was needed.

Being present isn’t that easy, especially with the pace of our world.  In a news cycle that never stops, when tragedy follows tragedy, when our phones are ringing, and our inbox is full it is hard to stop and be fully present to another person.  We all know how hard it is to connect with someone while one, or both, are multi-tasking.  Our world praises this behavior, people put multi-tasking on their resumes, but somehow I don’t think Zacchaeus would have turned his life around if Jesus had been texting a disciple during their encounter.  So, like Jesus, we have to put aside the world’s priorities and do things a little different.

As women religious we make time for community, prayer, and meditation.  These are all lifestyle choices which help us to live contemplatively even in a busy world.  As we minister and live in this contemplative stance we can hold each of our encounters in our inner quiet.  We behold God’s wonderful creations and with God we too can say that they are good (Gn1:31).  We meet all sorts of people in our day: the good, the bad, the ugly…..politicians; and each one is a theotokos carrying the Divine into the world. Holding each encounter in the silence of our hearts and seeing the Divine in the other is one way we  live into the sacramentality of each life in creation.

This call to sacramentality in everyday life reminds me of a prayer I came across during my research for this chapter.  Julie Collins writes that when we encounter a person we can ask God to help us see the true inner-self within them.  This can be a helpful prayer practice for getting to know someone dear, or someone difficult.  Collins suggests asking God for the grace to see with God’s own eyes so we may better know and be with the other.  I connect this to the traditional Hindi greeting, “namasté.”  This greeting, which means ‘the Divine in me recognizes the Divine in you,’ reminds me that God dwells in the inner space of each person, an indeed in all of creation.

Like many people I often struggle to see God in myself.  It is hard for me to recognize the Divine within.   Yet, the more time I spend with God the more God reminds me  that God dwells deeply within me. Learning to go into our inner space and find the Divine within is a life long practice of incorporating our vulnerability.  As women religious vulnerability is an important skill because we must be authentic to ourselves and our community’s charism if we hope to teach the world to be compassionate, but in order to be open and vulnerable we must be in touch with how God sees us.

Steeping ourselves in God’s loving gaze gives us the courage to bring our authentic selves into our lives and ministries.  We can be a living example for others of a compassionate way of life if we know ourselves to be Beloved of God.  Henri Nouwen writes in his book Life of the Beloved that we have each been “seen by God from all eternity and seen as unique, special, precious beings.”  If we spend the time with God to drink this into our heart of hearts then we can carry this reality within ourselves in everything we do, and thus model a culture of loving compassion.

Any one person could go on this journey, in fact God calls all people to know that they are God’s beloved.  However, women religious get to focus more on spiritually than the average person, and we have the incredible gift of our corporate reality.  I don’t mean corporate in the business sense but rather as Sandra Schneiders uses the idea when she identifies women religious as “one organic life form” in her essay Tasks of Those who Choose the Prophetic Lifestyle.  Sandra points our that our shared history, lifestyle choices, and public vows unite us in the world as a prophetic presence.  Together we have a prophetic voice.  We can use this voice to share and model God’s love and compassion to a world in need.

And the world needs compassion, but even more it needs sisters to prove that there is another way to live.  God opens this compassionate life to all but few are taught how to enter into it in today’s society.  We have been given the gifts needed to do this, and as we walk into the future of religious life we can lead the way for so many others.

Listen Dear Heart

Listening BenedictNew members in my community gathered over St. Patrick’s day weekend for a workshop. The weekend was all about the vow of obedience.  I’m sure you can already hear the sounds of moans and groans in your head.

In the weeks leading up to this class I think I must have heard every sarcastic wisecrack about this vow.  “Yeah, you need that!” “Oh, good luck.”  This vow, more than the other three professed in my community, always seems to el icit the most eye rolls.  On the surface, it also seems the most simple and straight forward.  Obedience is just saying, ‘yes’. Right?

In a nut shell the vow of obedience could be summed up as simply as being able to say yes to both God and to the community.  Most of the times people bring this vow up in the context of responding to the call to serve the community as elected leaders.  However, this weekend with my peers was spent exploring another dimension.

Obedience is more than being prepared to say ‘yes.’ This vow is the practice of listening with the ear of your heart to the heart of God. That is a scary statement right there. What will our God, who is Mystery, ask us to enter into today, or next year. The truth is we never really know, yet we make this vow at one particular moment in our lives and promise to God, and to our sisters that we will try to listen for that still small whisper of God’s regardless of what wild and daring things God may ask.

Saying yes in the spirit of obedience is not the hardest part of this vow for me. Listening is where I stumble. Listening to my sisters isn’t so hard, they are physically present as individuals, friends, and leaders who keep me anchored in love. Listening to God is a little harder, but there are many prayer practices which can be helpful- not least of which is having a relationship with a spiritual director. Listening to my self, and knowing my own heart, is one of the areas I struggle with most. If I do not pause to listen and know my own heart then I cannot live one crucial aspect of the vow of obedience: speaking my own inner truth.

Inner truth is not one crystalline concept, rather it is an individual’s most authentic prayerful response to the moment. This is why the vow of obedience cannot be limited to saying ‘yes’ only. “No one has a monopoly on listening to God” and we all have a grave responsibility to show up and listen contemplatively especially when we are impelled to say ‘no’. Remember, prophets sometimes disturb the peace by saying ‘no’.

Disturbance can be a healthy and holy initiative stirred up by an obedient ‘no’. If life is always smooth sailing then there is no initiative for growth, and little need to depend on God. Yet, if we courageously step into a disturbance and listen with our hearts we can move through discomfort to new opportunities and missions. So, at times saying ‘no’ might be the most obedient response.

Sister Cyclists Go The Extra Mile

This has been National Catholic Sisters Week (March 8-14), and back in the fall I applied for one of their eighty five mini grants.  I proposed a crazy project, The Sister Cyclists.  Sisters from around the country responded and we each committed to biking in a one hundred mile relay ride to raise awareness of religious life.  To spread the word we all made videos of our rides and interviewed sisters in our area.  These videos have been posted on Facebook here are shared with thousands of viewers across the country.  We’ve received such positive feedback from people both in person and online.  Here is my video of ministries in Bridgeport, CT.

 

Courage and Hope

IMG_2032I just got back from a weekend retreat with some of my Giving Voice sisters.  This retreat happens every year in sunny Arizona but this is only my second time attending.  I’m so glad I went because it was just the weekend with God and community that I needed.

The weekend retreat is peer facilitated.  As participants we were free to engage small group sharing, large group sharing, private reflection, ritual, and prayer.  The first evening opened with a check-in process where we all shared how we were as we began the weekend.  Some had positive things to share, many had difficult things going on in their lives, but all of us were grateful for the time to be and pray with our peers.  As we each placed an object from home in the center of the circle we shared how the item symbolized our hope.  I brought a bronze relief depicting Jesus breaking bread on the road to Emmaus.   This little bronze reminder has hung on the wall above my desk since it was given to me as a gift when I was received as a novice.  Being reminded of that ceremony and the wonderful year I had afterwards always fills me with hope for the future.  Also, this image was my symbol of courage and hope because the story of Emmaus talks about how people can walk through fear or loss, and find hope in God.

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Like the couple traveling to and fro on the road to Emmaus, I think of my vocation as a journey.  Sometimes I run away like the couple, and sometimes I turn back and return just as they did.  As a woman on a journey I began to think about traveling lightly during the second day of this retreat.  Sisters shared their reflections from Saturday morning and I began to hear what I needed to hear: “Authenticity” “What is it that I really need?”  “You Only Live Religious Life Once.”  As I prayed about my own journey I realized I was holding onto things that no longer served me.  I tend to hold onto supposed-tos,  should haves, and what-ifs.  These are the things that weigh me down on the road back from Emmaus.  These are the things I thought about letting go of during our prayer service Saturday night.  I wrote what I needed to let go of on a paper and stood with my sisters as we burned our slips of paper in a campfire.  I prayed for the grace I needed on my journey as a sister anointed my hands with oil, and we lit candles to symbolize our hope.

Two more words of wisdom came to me on this retreat: “Grief does not stop who we are” and “Hope is a way of life.”  As my journey takes it’s ups and downs I pray I have the grace to let go of what is no longer needed so I can make room for what God is giving me now.  For now, this weekend with my cohort has refreshed my hope and shown me courage.

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