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.

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Becoming Positive

IMG_2644Today I finally worked up the courage to sign up for the Closer to Free ride.  In September I’ll be riding my bike 100 miles to raise money for cancer research and care.  I’ve never done anything like this before and I’m surprised at how nervous I was just to take the first step into this large endeavor.

Part of the reason I hesitated is because it’s still hard for me to talk about how cancer has touched my life.  I’ve lost three grandparents to cancer, two other relatives are survivors, and one friend is currently fighting a battle with cancer.  All in all I’ve felt powerless to help my loved ones and their caretakers, so when I saw this opportunity to participate in Closer to Free it felt like I finally found something I could do to help others who have been through this.

IMG_0405A bike ride is also somewhat symbolic for me because riding my bike is one of the places I feel most quiet, mindful, and free.  I often imagine God riding along with me in the silence, and the longer the ride the easier this becomes so 100 miles should be beautiful.  This is also an opportunity for me to take my personal loss and turn it into something positive and life giving.  I’m looking forward to riding with a team, aptly named “Live Positive”, and I’m excited to be able to share this experience with other riders.

Please cheer me on, and support me with your prayers.  If you are interested you can donate to Closer to Free through this link: http://www.rideclosertofree.org/participant/srmandy

What Is Your Story?

Network Rally at the start of Lobby Day.

I’m not familiar with politics or the processes that make our country function, nonetheless I arrived in D.C. the other day to join the Nuns on the Bus from Network for their first lobby day.  Joining other sisters from around the country to talk to our representatives about the next budget and future tax reform was a very new experience and a little bewildering.  As we gathered for prayer and training I found myself immersed in acronyms and jargon, like sequestration, and some of it sounded a bit foreign to me.  Fortunately for this mission work, as Sr. Simone called it, knowing the ins and outs of politics was not paramount, instead our focus was to share the stories from the front lines and give names and faces to the people directly affected by these policies.  From the soup kitchen I shared my relationship with one man who, once he was supported by a case worker, was able to get into permanent housing and gain access to the services he needed.  Through public human needs programs this man gained stability in his life and no longer used about a million dollars worth of emergency services annually.  Meeting people like this in my ministry experiences has helped me to see the value of investing in our neighbors through programs because everyone deserves a dignified life, and it is better for the community in the long run.

I was surprised yesterday at the positive reception we received as we bounced from office to office.  A few people we met with made a point of saying just how much it mattered when constituents came to visit, as well as the importance of writing or calling about issues.  I was surprised to know that calls and letters were tallied and thus added weight to the decisions being made.  I guess I have more of a voice in politics than I ever thought.

My experience this week reminded me of the story of Jesus placing a child in the midst of his disciples (MT 18:2-5).  A child in that context was a silent and invisible member of society.  Like Jesus we have the power to place the silenced and invisible persons we know into the spotlight hopefully highlighting the issues in our communities which should not be ignored.  After what I’ve learned and experienced this week I think I’ll feel much more comfortable and empowered to call my representative when I am next called upon to reach out to my representatives.  I’ve got plenty of stories to share.  How about you?

 

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.

What These 397 Incredible Days Have Meant

Wingspan Prophetic witness seems like such a huge part of this whole life as a Mercy to me, and it scares me a bit. I so resist the idea that as a sister I need to be presentable at all times, I need to be patient, and people will not always accept anger as a reasonable emotion from me. I do not like the idea that as a sister I will be expected to be wise, learned, and a theologian. I do not feel prepared for this burden, I do not feel equipped for this call. I do however; feel called to be something different, to step out of life as we know it, out of the rat race, and by so doing to say to the world, “Hey, there is another way!” Or in the immortal words of Olaf the magical snow man when his friends were faced with an impossible mountain climb, “Not sure if this is going to solve your problem but I found a staircase that leads exactly where you wanted to go.” Like Olaf I may not have the gifts the world is looking for, but I might have the gifts that are needed, enough to cause ripples if I dare to rock the boat. I do not always see in me the gifts I see in other sisters of Mercy, and I do not know for certain that courage-a trait I see in many others-is one of my gifts. I am however, beginning to see some of my own gifts emerge and they do enable me to be something different than what the world has already chosen.

As I’ve worked through this integration time I am reminded of a movie I watched in my Religion and Art class in college. We watched “On the Waterfront” in which Marlon Brando is an ex-prize fighter turned dock worker struggling to stand up to his corrupt union bosses. The new and just union leader is murdered and at the funeral Marlon receives his coat and experiences a conversion leading him to take up the man’s cause. The coat is like a prophet’s mantle, the sign of a prophet in the Old Testament, and just as Elisha inherited Elijah’s place so Marlon inherits the role of the union leader. I find myself faced with this same choice as I move through formation so I can fully join the ranks of those who have come before me, and live a life that will preach the Gospel louder than any words could. So as a symbol of my year I have knit my ‘mantle’: a spiral ever deepening, ever wider, made up of all of these parts of my year- all knotted and looped together to form a whole story woven together in me.

Transitions that Teach: Learning from Where You Live.

I cannot believe how the time has just flown by since Christmas!  Like the school year the second semester goes too quickly and planning has already begun for the next phase of my formation.  After I finish my canonical year out here in St. Louis I will begin what is called the apostolic year which is focused on ministry experiences.  Mercy ministries from around the Institute invited me to join them for my six month placement, and one in particular caught my eye.  Mercy Vocational High School, located in Philadelphia, is a high school which includes vocational programs not least of all being my personal favorite: Culinary!  I hope you can tell just how excited I am to be able to get back into a kitchen.  I have really missed working this year and though I get to cook for my sisters at home, it’s just not the same.  I am not sure what I will really be doing as an assistant to one of the culinary instructors and I’m sure I will get to try many things out in this placement.  Most of all I look forward to the opportunity to share my love of cooking with the students.

20140518_154912_resizedAs things roll along out here in St. Louis I also try not to think about this impending move, packing, and all the joys of transitions.  As you can see I’m not doing very well in this endeavor.  Sometimes I feel a bit like a nomad being here for a while, and then Philly for a few months, and then somewhere else down the line.  At the same time I know each move makes me stronger and gives me deeper roots in the community which is what really matters.  I am also glad to be able to meet so many sisters because the more I meet the more complete my picture of Mercy, and our founderess Catherine, becomes.  I have met so many wonderful sisters in my home region, and those I have met here and on my travels to other Mercy regions have only helped me to grow.  So while I try not to mentally pack and unpack in anticipation of my next move I am doing my best to soak up all the mercying lived out here around me in the daily experiences of all the sisters I meet.

By working in harmony with nature… we change ourselves!

I’m sitting here on my private balcony at Lumen Christi farm and eco-spirituality center attempting to do my novitiate homework, but having more luck bird watching as an American goldfinch perches on a queen anne’s lace blossom.  I’ve been taking breaks from writing my autobiography, which needs to be turned in a few days from now, to go weed the gardens here at the farm.  Ha! who would have thought weeding would be a break!

I just spent five days up in Msculpture garden Indian Islandaine on the Indian reservation where I helped prepare most of the meals.  I really enjoyed cooking for the immersion group, it wasn’t hard and they were so appreciative that I found the time there to be very peaceful.  I was also able to participate in many elements of the immersion experience; the elder’s talk on native spirituality was my favorite.  He spoke about his own experiences and his expression of Christianity through his own traditions of spirituality which I found to be very meaningful to me since they showed me once again that all paths are sacred, and God is in everyone and all of creation.

I’ve only been in Vermont a few days but so far I have been soaking up the stillness and the sounds of creation; even the shouts of guinea hens which seem to have taken a bad attitude towards me.  Being here working on and in the earth reminds me of something the elder said during his talk to the Indian immersion group; connecting with the earth, our mother, can heal you.  The poster stuck to the fridge echoes this as it boldly states growing your own food is the most radical thing we can do today since it will change you, and so change the world.

“Sympathy is no substitute for action”

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150 Easter eggs

One of the things I noticed about myself early on in my discernment was a deep need for my work to mean something.  At the time I was studying to be an aerospace engineer and my great concern was that I might end up in some government job and one day be asked to design a fighter jet or a weapon.  Even though I changed courses to a career which makes me significantly happier my desire for what I do to mean something in the world today has not changed.  Many people assume my greatest connection to my ministry is through my work with the poor and homeless who come to eat, and while these are the people I literally serve I do not think I have ever felt that they have been the focus of my ministry.  The people I really feel I serve are those who have been mandated by the court to do community service.  These are some of the most startlingly interesting people I have ever met; and each one reminds me of the line in “The Circle of Mercy” which exhorts us to forgive the incompleteness in another.  At first I did not like the people who were there to help in the kitchen, my pre-conceived notions got the better of me I’m afraid.  These were criminals after all.  As I grew into my ministry I learned that these drunk drivers, addicts, and small time thieves are just as incomplete and in need of service as anyone of us.  The greatest joy in my day is when someone completes their required hours and tells me they had fun, or learned something, or that they’d like to come back.  That’s when I feel I have made a difference because that’s when I believe that I helped someone find a little more completeness in their life.

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Flour fight!

Another great thing which has come to me through my work at the soup kitchen is the joy of receiving support from my local community.  The sisters I live with have helped me process various struggles.  Sisters donated their spare change when we needed eggs, and some have even covered for me when I went on retreat.  It’s not always easy for me to ask for help, and receiving such deeply needed help has taught me a lot about what I think Catherine meant when she talked about charity.  I’m used to being on the giving end and having this role reversed has helped me to see the love in the giver, something I always knew was there but rarely experienced especially in such a deep way as having a dire need met. This experience has also helped me to grow in solidarity with all the people I serve who depend on the soup kitchen to fulfill their basic needs.

Shanghaied at the Farmers Market

I was heading out to lunch with a cool, some would say the coolest, sister when she suggested swinging by a farmer’s market. I  thought, “gee I love farmer’s markets, why not!”  When we get there people are pretty much packed up but hey I like to sleep on Saturdays, but then Sister says, “Hey lets go talk to those guys.”  Turns out we aren’t there to shop oh no, we are there to get donations for the soup kitchen!  I may hate talking to people I don’t know but I did get nine flats of tomatoes, bags of peppers, eggplant, and a bouquet of sunflowers.  Not too shabby.  I used most of the goodies to make some delicious eggplant parm (minus the parm) with a lamb and veal ragout, and tomorrow I think I’ll cook the acorn squash as a side dish for the pork I plan on making.

Sister wants me to go with her for more another Saturday.  The guys we talked to said we could have filled trucks- literally plural trucks!- if we had been there at 6 or 7 in the morning.  I don’t think I could bear to drag myself out of bed at that ungodly hours, forgo my pancakes, to go ‘weight lifting’ at the market.  Well, maybe for some mushrooms…

You would think we would get more surplus local produce, or the dented and scared ones anyways, but we don’t get a ton.  We have received some goodies from the farmer’s market that is held every week a block from the kitchen.  We’ve also been able to make some other great connections through that farmer’s market.  Zen’s Roasters for example have started to blend and roast a custom “Community Blend” specifically designed for us at the soup kitchen, and I gotta say their coffee gives Starbucks a run for their money!  The great new coffee also goes great with the fresh handmade donuts and parties from local bakeries.  Its pretty cool being a sort of farm-to-table soup kitchen.

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“If we had some eggs we could have eggs and ham, if we had some ham.”

So I walked into work the other day- and I have got to tell you its a bad sign when I can’t make it from the dinning room door to the kitchen without being stopped by a crisis- and it was just one of those days.  Before I even got into my Chef coat I was informed that we were running out of milk and cereal.  Turns out that recently more people have been coming to the soup kitchen for breakfast, in fact the number of guests has more than doubled!  I couldn’t figure it out, after two years what would have changed to cause so many more people to come out for breakfast?  That’s when I found out that SNAP benefits had been cut.  What is SNAP you ask, well it’s what they used to call food stamps with more focus on getting people to buy healthy food (gettingsnap.org).

Sounds like a good idea right?  So why would anyone vote to cut this program?  Well frankly it was the Afghanistan War vs the poor, and the budget had to be balanced somehow.  SNAP benefits will be cut off for 1.8 million people, as well as limiting access to free school lunches for 280,000 low-income children.

So at the soup kitchen we have gone from 18 boxes of cereal a week to more than 40.  All this during a hard economic time when the government can’t send as much funding our way, everyone is competing for grants, and individuals can’t donate as much as they used to.  Well, there is always the ol’ kitchen motto: Make it work!

Here is a little more from Congress- a 5 min montage of the 90 minutes of speeches made in favor of bringing troops home:

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