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.

 

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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.

Finding God Within

dbf30df3dd3e44bf6050bcff29e04b25I once read that coming to knowing God is like walking around a sculpture. A photo of a sculpture cannot provide the same depth as seeing a sculpture in person where you can walk around it and see it in new light. Each vantage point provides new understanding. So it is with my relationship with God. The more I experience of life and creation the better I know my Beloved God.

One area in which I struggle to know God is within myself. While I believe God dwells in me deeply it is hard to be present to this communion with my God on a daily basis. I try to reflect on this during my early morning commute. My long drive gives me plenty of time to pray about the previous day and reflect on where I have noticed or missed God. I do this almost every workday yet I can rarely say I noticed God in myself. I’m sure many people share this experience . It is easy to see God in the good, beautiful, and meaningful events of my day but not so simple to see God in the ordinary such as myself. This may be in part because we often hear God discussed as out there or, more commonly, up there. Another road block for some is the common masculine metaphor we usually use to describe God. Yet any image we may come up with for God is just that, an image. It is hard to wrap our minds and hearts around our God, Creator and Mystery, so it is only natural to develop metaphors which describe some aspect of God.

I have found the female metaphors for God to be very helpful for me. Some familiar feminine Biblical images for God include: mother, hen, the woman with a lost coin, and Sophia. It is easier to see God’s movement within me when I can imagine God as She. This was reinforced for me at a recent new member workshop with my community. We spent the weekend studying feminist theology. We covered several key topics from feminism to some theological writings. We also had sometime for reflection. One such opportunity during this weekend was time to reflect on ourselves as images of God.

During this prayer period I recalled the words of a theologian who wrote, “God is not beside me but dwelling deeply within me.” I can’t recall who wrote this but it has stuck with me for sometime as a strong reminder of the deep communion God maintains with God’s own creation. This weekend workshop reminded me that this relationship isn’t anything I need to earn. We are all inherently worthy and loved by our God. We are all made in God’s own image. We are all made in love and for no other purpose than to be with God who is present in all creation, including myself.

 

A New Chapter

You may have noticed the new title to my blog, “Stainless Steel Sister”.  You are still in the right spot!  The pirate chapter has closed, and I have taken the page formally entitled “I’m a Pirate After All” down.  I am very fond of the pirate metaphor so it is posted one final time below just in case you missed it.

I always thought I was going to get married.  That’s not how most people would think discerning religious life would start, but that’s how my journey began.  I was in high school when a teacher, who was discerning the diaconate, planted the first seed when he said, “If you’ve ever ruled something out, just keep it on the back burner.”  I have no idea why I took this to heart except that it must have been an act of God because once I’ve made up my mind I can be kind of stubborn.  Fortunately, God kept nudging me and throughout college I began to slowly move toward the Sisters of Mercy although I didn’t know it at the time.

I wish my decision to pursue religious life was a single moment that I could describe to you but I grew into it, or maybe it would be more accurate to say it grew into me.  Either way it was a gradual process that was helped significantly by a group of students I met with in college.  We gathered together often and simply shared what was on our minds; the things that scared us, and the things that made us so excited for whatever God had planned for us!  I never knew I could feel both of those things at the same time and it was so much easier to be with people who were figuring this out as they went along just like I was.

It was during this time that I went on Mercy Challenge with others who were thinking about joining Mercy.  We spent the week in service to the poor of Sacramento, but the memory that sticks with me the most had nothing to do with that.  My vocation minister happened to be on this trip and one day she was showing me around the mother house when we happened upon an elderly sister who was lost.  She couldn’t remember where her room was, and seeing the care that my minister had for this sister that she had never met before has always stuck with me as a true example of what it means to be a sister, and to be merciful.

As I spent more time with the Sisters of Mercy the feeling of coming home became undeniable for me. The love and support I have received as I transitioned into community life, ministered as a chef at the local soup kitchen, and navigated the last few years has made me realize how wonderful and strong this family of women is. Now, as I look forward to the novitiate I value that support more than ever.

I have decided to start this blog to share my story, however strange and grammatically incorrect it maybe, in the hope that someone will find my experiences, and mistakes helpful in their own journey.  Oh, and the pirate thing… well I’ve always liked the sense of adventure and the desire to be counter cultural which just happen to be two attributes I see in religious life.  Not to mention the great hats!

Human-Becoming

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Awhile back I asked my ministry if I could have two weeks off and people politely inquired where I was going on my vacation.  I laughed and told them it was no vacation but rather a two-week meeting with my community in Buffalo!  I am here with my community volunteering on the hospitality committee, or as I like to call it the ‘fun and games commission’.  This is my first experience of Chapter since this meeting only takes place once every six years and last time I was a first-year candidate.  As Sisters have asked me how my time here has been and what I think of the whole process I reflected back on where I was in my discernment and incorporation six years ago during the previous Chapter.  Looking back to who I was as a candidate I realized how lost in translation I was then and must laugh at the image of me partaking in that Chapter.  Sometimes I still get lost but now I am not shy about asking for context or history, and people are always ready to fill in my blanks and share the ongoing story of my community. 

From my point of view this Chapter depends a lot on history since we are sitting with a document produced three Chapters ago.  As my unofficial table of support staff Sisters discussed the discernment questions we came upon the image of transparencies.  I may be the last generation who knows what those even are!  Nonetheless, I have found it to be a good metaphor for our discussion as we sat with our Critical Concerns.  We placed the transparency of our discernment question asking where our God of Mystery and Wisdom is calling us now along with the transparency of our impertive to deepen our integrety of word and deed.  In this light my table saw that the destructive dynamics of pervasive power were fundamental to all of our Critical Concerns.  The next piece with which to overlay these layers was not completely clear for us but we do feel called to, in someway, let our lives model a new way of being and becoming which counter this pervasive power. 

There is some sort of gray space between our ministerial lives of service to the materially poor and the ministry of our lives as Gospel women committed to prayer and community.  My unofficial table began to discuss this space which we have dubbed the space of becoming: as in I am not a “human-being” but rather a “human-becoming” on this faith journey.  The witness of our lives as one community within this human family models the lived understanding of the interconnectedness of all beings in creation.  This modeling may be one way to fight for equlaity, the environment, and peace.  We have been doing this all along yet I feel called now to go deeper and seek this level of connection with every moment, and fiber of my being.  Who knows where this next phase will take us, but I can confidently and comfortably say that whatever is next I believe we will continue to be faithful to our call and will depen and widen our understanding of who God is as Love.

Live from the Thomas Merton Center

Here is the video of my live interview in cased you missed it.  Feel free to ask questions by commenting on this post!

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