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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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.

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Feeding the Hungry

I wrote the article below for Giving Voice’s newsletter and I wanted to share it with all of you!

IIMG_2853 just began a new ministry here in Connecticut as the chef at the Thomas Merton Center (a day shelter) in Bridgeport which is one of the poorest cities in the state. I am so happy to be back in a kitchen doing what I love most after experiencing two years of not working during my novitiate. The Thomas Merton Center is housed in what used to be St. Joseph’s church in a rundown neighborhood characterized by unkempt and abandoned houses cordoned off by chain link fences. The center still looks like a church from the outside even though the stained glass windows are covered with bars, and inside the pews were removed to make way for almost two dozen tables. The altar and the vestibule are now the kitchen and store rooms. Having my new kitchen housed in a room that is still reminiscent of an altar, Gothic arches and all, has been a unique experience. It is a challenge for me in two ways, first because the program has not been kept up for quite some time and its rundown condition troubles me. It saddened me to see a kitchen and food, both of which are spiritual experiences for me, treated in such a thoughtless way. The second challenge comes with my desire to live up to these auspicious surroundings. I have often experienced food and the art of cooking as a spiritual exercise both in its connection to creation and the God of Creation, as well as in the art of cooking and eating mindfully, which is to say in such a way that enjoying the food becomes a meditation.

20151201_120350We are fed in many ways and just so my ministry to feed the hungry goes beyond filling empty bellies; it is filling starving souls. Many guests come to the Center, or any soup kitchen, just for a meal; however, just as often guests come because they are alone and isolated by their poverty, addiction, or illness. I think one of the reasons humans gather, whether it’s for a meal or to be around the table of the Eucharist, is to be reminded that we are not alone. My ministry as chef is to facilitate the gathering and as such I can think of no better place for a day shelter’s kitchen then an altar.

A New Ministry with Old Reminders

A busy day at the TMC

A busy day at the TMC

Today’s ministry miracle was making lunch for 128 guests in just 45 minutes with whatever I could find in the freezer.  I got into this tight spot today due to a scheduling error in which I was told the day’s group of volunteers would be bringing the lunch with them.  When it got down to the wire, and no group appeared, I grabbed frozen pepperoni, spinach, and kale out of the walk-in freezer and then coached a volunteer on how to make a bechamel sauce (butter, flour, and milk).  Forty five short minutes later I had six cheesy casseroles for the crowd and they loved it!  The volunteers laughed when I called it a Christmas Miracle but on a deeper level I really meant it.

I so appreciate these moments in ministry where I get into a sticky situation and think to myself that there is no way this is going to work.  When everything does in fact work out I know that God is in the work with me.  Sometimes these are the most valuable moments because I am reminded that this is not my work, and I am not in it for myself.  God and I are in this together and I trust that God equips the called rather than calling the equipped; although a culinary degree doesn’t hurt either.  I’ve only been the chef at the Thomas Merton Center in Bridgeport for three weeks so right now days like these are more common than I’d like to admit.  I hope and trust that these reminders of my co-creativity with God, and dependence on God, will continue to come but hopefully they will be gentler in the future.

What is Important in Ministry: Presence and Commitment to Gifts

Sr Eileen- Street MinistryPresence, I have come to see, is one of the most important parts of any ministry but maybe more so in the context of a life of ministry. My order takes a fourth vow of service in addition to the traditional three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience so getting a handle on this idea of presence in ministry has become an interest for me as I prepare to make my first vows. I’ll be making my first vows in just two short months and in between now and then I’ll be visiting a number of Mercy ministries which exhibit a commitment to the marginalized members of society. So far I have visited six ministries: two shelters, two soup kitchens, one eco-spirituality center, and a street ministry. The ministry of presence was one of the things I noticed as a common thread throughout all of these encounters.

Sr BethIt seems to me that this ministry of presence is a compassionate stance taken with those being served, and one of the unexpected- though perhaps hoped for- ‘side-effects’ of this is that the minister is ministered to in return. As I have visited and worked with Sisters and Mercy Volunteer Corp members I have witnessed this open stance and it has been humbling.  It has been a gift to be accepted and trusted when I show up as a stranger at a ministry site simply by being associated with the Mercy presence already established there. I was impressed by this in Bridgeport where I was welcomed wherever I went because I was with Sister Eileen. The openness of the women at Catherine’s place who were willing to share their stories and concerns with me simply because I came with Sister Beth, who has worked to gain the trust of the residents, touched me also. It says so much about the quality of presence of the Sisters who work in these ministries and have spent so much time building these trusting relationships with the people they serve.

Mercy FarmI found this ministry of presence to be an unexpected gift as I volunteered at Mercy Farm where I spent a few days cooking for and with a group of students on an immersion trip. It can be hard to see the things we always do as gifts, and for me that would be cooking, so I was pleasantly surprised and grateful when I read the evaluations and found how meaningful the time spent in the kitchen had been for some of the students on the trip. I was glad that they all enjoyed the food and ate well, but I was grateful because I was in some way able to be a positive presence in that ministry. I was also able to see some of my growth in this area because not too long ago I would have been shy and reserved and now, as I have grown in confidence, I was able to engage these students in a way which was more dynamic and open to their input. I guess I’ve got Fr. Anthony Gittins to thank for that since his expertise in the area of ministry has helped to shape my understanding of ministry. My next few ministry trips will be more like tours than service opportunities so I will have to pay attention to how I can continue to grow in this ministry of presence.

A Nun’s Life: Your Questions Answered

I am so overwhelmed and grateful for everyone’s positive feedback after the podcast on A Nun’s Life!  Thank you to everyone who listened and chatted live.  It was nerve-wracking as we set up for the event, and then waited for five o’clock to roll around.  It was well worth it though to be part of such a wonderful conversation and such a meaningful ministry.  If you missed the live broadcast you can find the audio archived here.

After doing something that is out of my comfort zone, public speaking for example, I have found a time of reflection to be a very helpful tool which helps me touch into what was so important about the experience.  I wrote about preparing for the podcast on the Official Mercy Blog and taking the time to think over everything has affirmed my desire to be a part of this wonderful Mercy adventure.  I was so happy to have had a chance to share what has brought me to this moment in my life.  It’s been a crazy journey but as I have been often told, “God draws straight with crooked lines.”  At this point in my life I can attest to that, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

How Relationships Can Inspire Your Ministry

“Tenderness is accepting the weakness of the loved one.”  Upon hearing philosopher Yann Dall’aglio define tenderness this way I couldn’t help but think of how I’ve grown in my relationships with my students at Mercy Vocational high school. As with any inner-city high school population there are many rough edges, plus I don’t know how to teach and I’ve made plenty of rookie mistakes; all of this adds up to some animosity but now, quite unbidden and unheralded, I find myself feeling quite fond of my students and yet nothing in the classroom or in their demeanor has changed.  This leaves me wondering what happened! My best guess is that when I was able to cut myself some slack and be okay with not knowing how to do this ministry well, when I was able to be compassionate to myself, I became able to except the weakness and growing edges of those around me. I’ll have to look up who said you must first receive compassion in order to give compassion, but this idea that you must have in order to give seems to be a true  dynamic in relationships especially those connections formed within ministry; and let’s be real no one can succeed at everything all the time so I’d be better off simply knowing my weaknesses and strengths, and not put undue pressure or self-value onto those things which do not suite me. So to take Dall’aglio’s point another way then I cannot be tender towards others until I accept my own weakness and know that my value lies fundamentally in all that I am, the core and center of my being, and not in what I do.

I think I understand why Catherine McAuley said that service is not for the salvation of others but also for our own salvation, or in today’s vernacular, for our own wholeness.  I cannot learn and grow enough on my own; I need the help and insights of others in order to help me to get out of my own way.  I have been growing in this understanding of the vow of service since I heard Anthony Gittins speaking on ministry.  His constant reminder has come to me often in this experience: “…You are the one who has left home; you are the stranger in need of welcome…”  I did not seek welcome when I entered the classroom in October, but I believe that my students have slowly welcomed me, and I have welcomed them into my life.

How Do You Feel?

cc9b6d78fba04800e92369ea9ba12125 True empathy creates strength in a way that moral outrage and pity cannot, according to Joan Halifax on TED. Strength grown out of the connections formed through empathy is the strength to be present in the suffering of others, to know we are connected with others, and still stand strong “with softness in the moment.” Joan also says, “We cannot be attached to outcome” which sheds a lot of light on my situation in ministry. There are precious few measurable goals when it comes to influencing a young person’s life, especially since I will only be here for a grand total of six months, so I cannot be attached to any outcome of my ministry at Mercy High; all I can be is present and a presence in the lives of my students and co-workers.  Yet, I cannot be present to the needs of my students if I am planning how their futures could be, or even what class time could be. As much as I would like to shake some of my kids awake I cannot they must, to a great extent, do that for themselves. If I am thinking and dreaming for them then I am not present to them in their current circumstances, and I so very much need to be present with them!  Presence and empathy with those I minister to is of crucial importance since, to paraphrase Lilla Watson, my future and liberation is bound up with these kids in a way which remains ineffable to me because even as I know this connection to be true and influential I also know that come April I will move on in my journey and most likely never see or hear from them again. My connection with my students is changing me in quiet and subtle ways, and I have learned so much from this experience.

At Mercy High I’ve seen that I can become more present to those around me by simply knowing and living into the reality that being empathetic will not drain me.  This is not to say that empathy does not have a cost, but rather that I will not be used up in the process- like a tube of toothpaste which can never be refilled.  In empathy I can meet the challenge to let go of old things I’ve held onto for too long so that there will be enough room for everyone, and simultaneously I can receive the gifts of others which I previously had no room for.

Adventure in Education: New Experience in New Places

Well, it’s been three months since I’ve left the novitiate and here is what I’ve been up to.  I began a new ministry experience assisting in the culinary department of Mercy Vocational High.  I work with the chef instructors there as well as about thirty culinary students in the only Catholic vocational high school in the country.  It is a very unique and wonderful ministry all around, and the highlight for me is the Mercy heritage in there.  The school was started by Mercy sisters and there are a dozen sisters ministering in the school at present.  So far I have had a smattering of experiences in the classroom as well as out.  I went with the senior girls to their retreat day, and I chaperoned field trips to the Renaissance Fair, theater, and art museum.  I’ve tried my hand ren fair paat substituting both classroom and lab periods.  Aside from grading, and planning courses I’ve gotten to try just about everything in three short months.  I hope the experience of snow days will be in my future, in order to round out my teaching experience!

This ministry has stretched me in new ways and I have been so thankful for the support of the sisters I minister with as well as the support of the local community.  Students in Philadelphia face many challenges, as many children do in most cities, and these challenges impact their time in school.  Some see school as a haven while others do not wish to participate.  On the whole I have been able to see the students, especially those in the culinary lab, work together to achieve things they didn’t think they could do.  In October the chef announced to the senior class that they would be creating a Ghost Buster themed cake display and many of IMG_0407the students didn’t think it could be done.  After a few weeks, just before Halloween, they were proud to present their final project to the school.  I am always so happy to see a student realize they are capable of doing or trying something they were scared of, and I am inspired by their resilience.

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