Breathe and Be Yourself


img_0788bMy ministry’s environment can be rather hectic most days; full of activity and lots of people.  The day is on the short side, just seven hours, but between breakfast and lunch we serve an average of 300 meals a day and I depend on a lot of volunteers to get this done.  I’m also an introvert so socializing with volunteers and guests all day requires a lot of energy for me.  With all that goes on at work I began to notice I was holding my breath while cooking and would have to consciously think about breathing for a moment, attentively releasing all of the breath from my lungs so I could take in fresh breath.  I’m grateful for all those yoga classes I took where I learned this and other breathing practices which helped in the moment but had not really changed my general experience of work-place stress.  Cooking has often been a special meditative activity for me which I treasure so I wanted to do something to address the root causes of this stress in my work place and return to what has always been a rejuvenating process for me.

secretsI happen to be taking a class on prayer which uses the book, “Secrets of Prayer” (Nancy Corcoran, CSJ), and around the same time when I began to notice my troubles at work I was into the section about praying with our five senses.  In this chapter Sr. Nancy discusses Thich Nhat Hanh’s bell meditation which is the practice of stopping what you are doing when you hear a bell and becoming mindfully present.  I thought that I would give this a try at work to see if it helped so I began to consider what sound I would use as my “bell”.  The doorbell is wired into the kitchen though you can hear it almost everywhere in the building, it’s just that loud and obnoxious like an old fashioned fire alarm, so I chose this sound for my practice.  I liked the idea of taking an annoyance and transforming it into something peaceful.  For this meditation I cannot stop during my day as Thich Nhat Hanh recommends, but when the obnoxious door bell rings I bring myself mindfully to the moment and fully attentive to whatever action I am preforming, or I at least take three mindful breaths.

This could not have worked better for me.  I no longer find myself holding my breath while I cook and just the other day I was running around wishing someone would ring the obnoxious doorbell.  The gift I did not expect with this practice is that I am more myself during the day, the more at ease I am the more authentic and patient I am able to be while I relate to my volunteers and guests. My days are just as hectic as ever, and just as full of extroversion, but I am learning to be still in the rushing pace of life.







Savoring Without Undue Haste

The first time I went on retreat I was beside myself with nerves.  Eight days- eight days of silence, no phone, no internet, nothing.  What would I do with myself for eight long days!  I really didn’t know how to handle the idea having never been on a silent retreat before.  As with most religious communities retreat is an important goal in our constitution so as a candidate I was required to go.  As it turned out my fears were mostly unfounded.  Since I had only experienced youth retreats which were full of activities, late nights, and junk food I was unsure of how to settle into the rhythm I noticed in my fellow retreatants.  I especially struggled with the silent dinners; while others lingered and savored the experience I was over and done eating in ten minutes!  

I use art journaling frequently, especially on retreat.

I use art journaling frequently, especially on retreat.

Over the years I grew to love retreat especially as I diversified my prayer style and deepened my yoga practice.  Now, six years later, I crave retreat.  I long for the time away from the world to be quiet and still, and just to listen to God.  

The first few days of my latest retreat were spent simply in gratitude- grateful to have the time off from work, to be in a lovely place, and to be given the gift of slowing down.  As my retreat progressed I realized the extent of the state of hurry I had been living in over the past year or two.  Hurrying from one thing to the next, checking off tasks and listing accomplishments.  Sometimes I even approached prayer that way, as if praying was like going to the gym and all I have to do is work at it.

 I remember Teilhard’s famous quote:”And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste.  Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.”  Why should I always be in such a hurry, why not savor each little moment with God?  There is a logic to this thought which 
flies in the face of our western culture.  I gain more by slowing down than I could ever hope to gain by rushing ahead.  Now I only hope I can remember that back in the fast pace of real life.

Creation Creating

In culinary school my bread instructor encouraged us to mix the dough with our hands and not to “worry about the mess” when we are baking bread.  I like the feel of bringing the dough together with my hand as water and flour are transformed.  This moment of transformation caught my attention during Holy Week as I prepared the bread we would eat for Eucharist during the Triduum.  I love baking and find that there is something so wonderfully prayerful about baking bread from scratch; I think it is because you are physically immersed in the creative process and From the womb of the Earth to the mill- and beyond- the seed that makes bread is a living creature.therefore somehow personally connected to our Creator, or at least that is how I experience it.  This batch of bread I was making for Holy Thursday was special though, not only was it a contemplative activity as bread baking so commonly is for me, it was also a poignant moment as I considered where this bread was heading and how it would feed others.  On Thursday I was asked to carry the basket of bread into the chapel, which felt slightly awkward since I do not like to be in the spotlight, but I am glad that I did it because in that moment I not only presented the bread I also brought the gift of who I am as a creation of God to the table.  As I saw my bread blessed, and for the second time flour and water were transformed, I wondered how something I put out into the world could come back to me in such a special and intimate way.  We are all gifted and that can be so hard to admit for some people; sometimes it seems as if we have been trained to downplay our gifts.  On Holy Thursday I realized that if I am not willing to accept and celebrate my giftedness as a child of God than I cannot hope to see others, and in fact all of creation, in this light.  Even the flour and water, twice transformed, are God’s own creation and now that creation is transformed once again in all who shared that Eucharistic bread.

You Are How You Eat

I was alone in the kitchen keep-calm-and-eat-mindfully-5in the morning since I arrive at my current ministry an hour or so before the cook does. During my time in the novitiate I have had the opportunity to experience ministry at a women’s’ shelter called Our Lady’s Inn. I started preparing some side dishes, and while I was cutting up carrots I found my mind wandering through other things. I was not frustrated, but rather amused at how easily I get distracted, even from things I am passionate about, like cooking. As I called my mind back to the present I wondered about what is so spiritual about food. I have often wondered this and occasionally think I might enjoy studying food anthropology. There seems to be a significant connection between us and our food. This moment in the kitchen when I connected with the carrots was a very peace-filled one for me.

I once heard Chefs Duff Goldman, Alice Waters and Anthony Bourdain speak on a panel. During the discussion Goldman said, “If you are rotten, your food will be rotten.” This sentiment of good intentions and mindfulness is common among famous chefs. Thomas Keller, for example, is known for his mindful connection to the foods he prepares. In one of his cookbooks a coworker at his restaurant relates how Keller insisted fish be stored in the position they would have swam in, for better texture and respect. Keller also talks about the emotional journey of food being the essence of a good meal. There seems to be so much more to cooking and eating than the mere ingredients used.

Edward Espe Brown wrote that when you have cooked mindfully and taste mindfully you will not only be aware of every subtle flavor and texture but of something that is beyond things, which he names virtue. Chef Alice Waters also cites mindfulness as a quality that makes a good chef not just in the kitchen but in the whole food chain, from seed to table. If you aren’t paying attention, said Waters, then you will not be able to notice all the flavors in the food you are preparing or be able to coax the most flavors out of your ingredients.

As I was reflecting on my experience in the kitchen I thought of one of my favorite passages where Jesus meets Peter and the disciples after the resurrection with breakfast (John 21). It is not written in the story how Jesus, the fish, or the fire came to be there. I like to imagine the scene, however, and picture Jesus appearing on the shore just before dawn, sighting Peter’s ship out fishing and lovingly gathering the fuel for the fire as he waited for them to return. I picture Jesus as he cleans and prepares the fish and lays out the meal. I think it’s important that Jesus invites the disciples to add the fish they had just caught to the fire before they shared in the meal. From what I read as I perused various anthropology articles on food there seems to be a common virtue among most civilizations that food is to be shared, and this ideal is certainly a component of the Middle Eastern practice of hospitality during Jesus’ time. Inviting the disciples to be hospitable to Jesus by sharing their catch is a sort of communion, just as the disciples eating Jesus’ breakfast is a reconnection between Jesus and Peter in the wake of their broken relationship.

Food has always allowed people to connect and share their lives. I think we are losing this in our culture today as eating alone loses its taboo, and fast food and TV dinners are on the rise. Simply eating next to someone does not mean you are eating with them. This reality reminds me of Anthony Gittins’ imperative that ministry must be an act that is with others, not over them. My ministry then is not only to put a meal on the table but to be mindfully present as I prepare it, to share it with others by eating with those I serve, and to ask for their input about it. I’m glad that I can connect my desire to be more mindful in general to an activity I enjoy and feel passionate about. I’m happy that I can practice this form of spirituality and hospitality in an arena that is a common aspect in everyone’s life.


Living in Community: “a daring and not quite rational undertaking”

They say that “young people” today are seeking community, but no one really talks about what that means.  There are two ways to look at community according to Sandra Schneider: common life (monastic or structured) and congregational living (loose structure but intentional).  When people talk about “young people” seeking community it sounds like they suppose this means common life; I can tell you that I am young people, and common life doesn’t appeal to me.  What does appeal to me is sharing my adult life with like-minded, and like hearted people.

Catherine McAuley

We’ve been studying community at the Novitiate for the past couple of weeks and I really loved Tony Gittin’s article “Community, Communitas and Downward Mobility.”  According to Gittins communitas, a vibrant kind community life, is just a brief moment  like a match being struck.  As I read his article I couldn’t help think of Catherine McAuley’s own communal beginnings.  Her dream was impossible, her companions were insufficient, and the audacity of her imagination and faith were unstoppable (Gittins 19).  It’s hard to imagine choosing the circumstances which would facilitate communitas today: incredible odds, and little hope of success.  The payoff however, is an incredible burst of imagination fueled by “a burning commitment both to the idea and to the community” (Gittins 20).  This choice, to live on our liminal edge, to live vulnerably and therefore authentically, is a daunting and simultaneously alluring challenge.  We are no longer a new community, new foundations are not being sent out as in Catherine’s day.  So how do we rekindle communitas?  We can’t re-strike a match, but we can bring a new match to the embers of the original fire.  For me these coals are found in the members of my community, the history of the order, Catherine’s charism, and my inter-community peer groups both here this year as well as within Giving Voice.  The challenge to me personally will be to seek out areas and experiences which will present me with incredible odds that can only be faced with a strong commitment to community and to the call God has given me.

Drawing Mandalas: The Mirror of Wholeness

So, I just went on my annual silent retreat and it was another great week of silence! This year I got in touch with my creative artistic side when is discovered Mandalas! Mandalas are an ancient eastern meditation and can take form in a variety of expressions although up until now I have always thought that mandalas were the sand pictures created by Buddhists. As I learned more about this form of contemplation I found that any kind of shape- geometric or natural, symbol, or color centered within a circle can be used to express what is inside of you. These mandalas are a way to see and express your inner self, mind, spirit, journey or whatever. There is a ton of resources out there from every area of study- religions, cultural, and psychological (especially Carl Jung)- so I’m not going to try and sum up all the common motifs and symbols here.

I did read a few articles while I was on retreat and many said that you should start with a symbol, which represents you, in the middle of the circle. I found that this method didn’t really work for me so what I did was to trace a circle and to lay out all of my crayons (I’m very fond of crayons but anything will do). I would try to breath deeply, clearing my head, and then quietly ask God to guide me and to show me what God sees in me. Then looking at the colors one would seem to pop at out me and I would start with that color in the center and move out from there with whatever felt right.

Once you have drawn your mandala you can reflect on it right away, the experience of drawing it, and anything that has occurred to you through the process. Later, you can go back and meditate on what you drew. I found the steps for reflection provided by the retreat center to be very helpful.

  1. Quiet: Stop, breath and relax
  2. Intention: What am I grateful for? What do I want right now?
  3. Attention: Look over the entire image. Is there a figure, shape, color, texture, or word that calls you attention?
  4. Notice: What feelings, thoughts, or desires do you notice? What could they reveal about God and your life?
  5. Respond: Speak to God as you would one friend to another.
  6. Close: Offer a prayer or gesture as a way to close the experience. Maybe journal about the encounter, or share the experience with others.

My first mandala felt a little forced but as I drew my second, and third they became more organic and much less of an act of my conscious mind. I look back on my fourth and fifth mandala and I see God speaking to me through what I drew in a still and silent space, and it is like being able to see your reflection in a still pool of cool water.

The best prize is a surprise

So I was sitting on a park bench on my day off about to curl up with a good book (The Historian in case you were wondering) when it started to rain.  I looked up, scowling with disappointment at first, then I realized that God is in the storm just as much as the sunshine.   That instant I became aware of the smell of summer rain as the occasional drop made it through the trees to my shoulder, and Sunday’s homily came back to me.  The priest had reminded us that God can often be found in the interruptions if we just take a moment to be aware of the present.

It amazes me how the world can suddenly come into focus when life is interrupted.  In fact, one of my favorite morning prayer petitions has the response, “God of surprises, show us your face.”  As I sat in the park all the things I hadn’t noticed a moment ago became so acutely important: the wind gently rocking the hanging plants, a chipmunk- which I have never before heard make a sound- chirping on a log; all of this captivated me, and filled me with the sense of peace, and respite which I had hoped to achieve by curling up with a good book.

It’s a good thing Easter is 50 days!

I meant to post this awhile ago, but its still Easter so its not late…. right!?

I like Palm Sunday as much as the next person but I never cared for calling out for Jesus’ crucifixion during the Gospel narrative.  When the priest announced that, as the body of Christ, we all would be reading the words spoken by Jesus along with him I was so surprised and delighted!  The priest came down and stood in the middle of the center aisle facing the altar with us.  This was such a powerful experience for me, especially since throughout lent the homilies have been directed toward the theme that we are the body of Christ.

Saying with the priest the words which Jesus spoke in the garden when he said, “I AM” made me think of how often in our daily lives we must face the fear of persecution in this secular world in order to be Christ to others, and to be open to doing the will of God.  Its hard to imagine being in Jesus’ place in that garden when his friend betrayed him, when his fellow country men turned on him because of what he said and did in the name of God.  We all face similar situation everyday.  Do we stand up for a moral issue?  Do we stop our friends when they tell an immoral joke, or do we laugh because everyone else is.  It is so hard to be in the world and not of it, but that is what and who we are called to be as disciples, as a sign of God’s love for us and for the whole of creation.

The Crew’s Reviews: “Of God and Men”

I saw the movie, “Of Gods and Men”, with my house for one of our faith sharing nights and I thought it was not only an amazing story based on true events, but also a beautifully told and artfully filmed movie.  We were each touched by different aspects of the story but one thing we all agreed upon was that the feel of the movie, and the periods of silence in it, really gives you a sense of what this community’s life was like.  For me that really drew me into the story.

This movie has a lot of different themes, my house had planned on discussing the theme of community discernment, however our conversation turned to how each individual spent time hashing things out with each other, and in prayer.  I loved how we got to follow each brother’s journey individually as well as the journey of the whole community.  One brother’s journey in particular sticks with me though since he was in such fear and despair until he finally found peace in God after discerning where God was calling him to be in the midst of the crisis.

Treasure Map?

“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what a ship is built for.”

– William Shedd

A lot of people ask me, usually with a somewhat shocked expression, what led me to religious life.  It would have been nice if God had handed me a treasure map to tell me exactly where I needed to go, and I don’t think an X to mark the spot would have been too much to ask for?  But the truth is I didn’t really know where I was going when I started on this journey, and there will be no “X” to mark the finish line since I will always be growing and discerning.

When I was little I had always thought I’d get married, have kids, be an aerospace engineer for NASA… but God asked me to follow a different route and called me to religious life.  I wish I could say there was a moment when I was sure about all this, mostly because people keep asking me how I knew, but really I came to know as I searched for the one place where I felt like I could be happiest; and when I stumbled upon Mercy it felt like I was coming home.

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