Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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When the time is right and the soil is ready

God’s grace is often given when I least expect it. A couple of weeks ago I helped facilitate a retreat for women who have experienced homelessness and who are in recovery from addiction. (Read more about the Ignatian Spirituality Project.) I entered the retreat as a facilitator, hoping to be of some assistance to the women on retreat, but I also participated in all of the exercises myself. In that space of mutual openness, with God and with the other participants, I received an unexpected gift of healing.

Much of the retreat involves deep sharing, getting in touch with our fears and woundedness, and sharing them with the group. It’s both a daunting and a liberating experience. Even though I have written a bit on my blog about my experience of my mother’s struggle with alcoholism, and the subsequent healing I’ve experienced, I still find it hard to speak about it out loud. But speaking is freeing and makes room for greater clarity and a new perspective to emerge.

Listening to the group of women share openly about their struggles with addiction and the effects on their family life, particularly their relationships with their daughters, was a revelation to me. They spoke lovingly of their daughters but also admitted that they hadn’t been the mothers they had wanted to be. Their sharing spoke to a part of me that I realized hasn’t yet fully healed. As the women shared their stories, I began to see my own life story and my relationship with my mother in a more complex way and with greater compassion. Elements of my mom’s struggle became clearer to me and I could better understand the pushes and pulls she must have experienced. In the words of the courageous and beautiful women on retreat, I heard my own mother speak to me. Words that I have longed to hear.

The retreat was short, only a couple of days, but it gave me the gift of deeper healing and it has shown me that there are still some tender spots in my heart where my mother’s memory resides. Two weeks from now, on May 7th, will mark 15 years since her death. So much has happened in that time. My life has gone through many changes and I wish she were here with me, but I know that every act of healing is a reconciliation that brings her closer to me and me to her.

Every act of healing also reminds me that I am known and loved by God. In knowing and loving me, God offers me many opportunities to grow, to be made stronger, and to respond with love and gratitude. As we are on the cusp of spring right now, God reminds me, too, that healing is like the tender new life that emerges from the soil when the time is right and the soil is ready.


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Through the Desert

It’s Good Friday. We are here, in the Easter Triduum already. It seems as though Lent had barely begun and now it’s already finished. Two days ago, I sat in our chapel reading through my journal, tracing my journey through Lent this year. What an adventure this has been! Even amidst the day-to-day activity of my studies and ministries, I walked through the desert of Lent.

As I read through my journal entries, I was reminded that the desert has not been a desolate place. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed, was anxious and struggled with fatigue along the way, but accompanied by my book of poetry, I encountered the God of Life each day. The Word in the Wilderness by Malcolm Guite has been a wise and challenging companion on the journey.

At the start of this desert journey, I encountered oh-so-familiar temptations, alongside Jesus who

laughed, ‘You are not what you seem.
Love is the waking life, you are the dream’.
        (excerpt from “All the Kingdoms of the World”, Malcolm Guite)

Jesus shook me from my complacency and urged me to question my desires. When do I care too much (or even a bit) about being ‘special’ or ‘better’ or ‘superior’? Where are these desires coming from? Jesus reminded me that

Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
        (excerpt from “The Bright Field”, R.S. Thomas)

This poem prompted me to admit that I struggle to see the miracle of the lit bush, the brightness of God’s presence in my daily life. I often look to the future. I give in so often to dissatisfaction and to the tensions within me that keep me

Pinned where I am, right now, somewhere, I turn
And turn to orient myself. I have
Directions calculated, maps at hand:
Hopelessly lost till I look up at last.
        (excerpt from “Maps”, Holly Ordway)

On this journey, I can see that I’ve often tried to guide myself, thinking I’ve got to do it on my own. I wrestle with fear that keeps me held fast within myself, pinned down, unable to reach out to others, unable to see myself differently or to live differently. I fear inadequacy and yet there is no escaping my inadequacy. And yet God does not ever let fear have the final word. God keeps encouraging me to leave the fear behind. I was inspired by the words of my poet-guide who proclaimed

This is the day to leave the dark behind you
Take the adventure, step beyond the hearth,
Shake off at last the shackles that confined you,
And find the courage for the forward path.
You yearned for freedom through the long night watches,
The day has come and you are free to choose,
Now is your time and season.
Companioned still by your familiar crutches,
And leaning on the props you hope to lose,
You step outside and widen your horizon.
       (excerpt from “First Steps, Brancaster”, Malcolm Guite)

I’ve recognized that fear, as ever, is my crutch as much as it is a prison keeps me from doing what I am called to do. I feel the tension of that fear. There is tension between fear that holds me back and the courageous invitation to move forward. To move from the darkness to the light, from shackles to freedom, from lies to truth, from being caught up in being an individual to learning to live in community. I have faith in the graces God has given me (I think back to my 30-day retreat and I am overwhelmed at God’s generosity) and in those graces that God continues to give, and yet I am hesitant to truly act out of faith, to let go of the lie that says I can’t and to embrace the truth that says I can.

Fetal position
under flannel sheets, weeping
How I talk to God. 

Moonlight on pillow
tending to my open wounds
How God talks to me.
       (excerpt from “How I talk to God”, Kelly Belmonte)

I know that alone I do not have the strength or the courage to be the radical disciple of Christ that I long to be. I fight myself and I fight with God. I do not let myself submit to God even when I want to submit. Sometimes I just don’t know how. I call out to God:

Batter my heart, three person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new… 

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
       (excerpt from “Batter my Heart”, John Donne)

Every tiny moment of submission, of opening myself up, of letting God get a good honest look at me, throughout this desert journey, has been a moment of transformation and of gift leading to a renewal of vocation.

Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
The clarity of early morning… 

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.
       (excerpt from “Late Ripeness”, Czeslaw Milosz)

This poem thrills me. I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard. Of course. Whether I think I am worthy or not, or have anything to offer to God’s service. How could I ever really be worthy? Somehow, it seems that as I am, I am good enough for God. I am reminded that I am loved and I have been entrusted with being part of God’s plan for the world, part of the plan for salvation, redemption, and renewal. But I must remember, always remember, to

Open the map to him and make a start,
And down the dizzy spirals, through the dark,
his light will go before you. Let him chart

And name and heal. Expose the hidden ache
To him, the stinging fires and smoke that blind
Your judgement, carry you away, the mirk 

And muted gloom in which you cannot find
The love that you once thought worth dying for.
Call him to all you cannot call to mind.
       (excerpt from “Through the Gate”, Malcolm Guite)

This poem recalls the beginning of the journey, when I first set out with Jesus into the desert. Have I let him chart the course, to name and heal? Have I exposed my hidden aches to him? It’s a reminder to constantly go back to the source of life and healing and to keep turning myself over to him.

The waters cleanse us with his gentle touch,
And here he shows the full extent of love
To us whose love is always incomplete,
In vain we search the heavens high above,
The God of love is kneeling at our feet.
Though we betray him, though it is the night.
He meets us here and loves us into light.
(excerpt from “Maundy Thursday”, Malcolm Guite)

This journey does not end here; it will continue into the new life of the resurrection. But for now, there is nowhere else to go except to the cross. I go to offer myself in love and adoration to the one I love, the one who has journeyed with me through the desert.


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those winter blues

From my window, I can see the snow-topped roofs of St. Michael’s College across the street. When the sky is grey, the wintry world appears flat, lifeless, and disturbingly dreary. Other days, the sky is bright blue and the sun streams through the window, offering hope that winter won’t last much longer. Lately, it seems like the grey days have outnumbered the sunny days.

Normally, I don’t mind the winter. I like to get out and walk in the snow, to feel the sharp chill of the wind and to hear the crunch of snow and ice beneath my boots. But this year winter has made me irritable. I’m discovering that winter in the downtown of a big city is a different sort of winter. The snow turns grey and dirty almost immediately upon falling. The piles of salt on the sidewalks turn the joy of crunching through snow into wading through mush. It’s not beautiful for long. And when the days are short and cold, the lack of beauty weighs heavily on my soul. The winter blues have struck and I’m having a hard time shaking them.

Of course, some of this melancholy is rooted in laziness. Obviously, this city has beautiful parks and outdoor spaces to explore in winter. When I lived at Loretto Abbey, I would go to Edwards Gardens on weekends in the winter. I just haven’t made an effort to find a similar environment downtown and I’ve managed to convince myself that if it isn’t within walking distance, I don’t have the time.

So instead of making an effort to go out, I’ve made it easier to stay in. I’ve let myself get caught up in the busyness of the winter term and allowed my studies and other ministries to take over. I’ve let the things that I know sustain me slide a bit. I’ve prioritized work over well-being and I can feel its effects: a decline in interest and focus in my prayer life and in my desire to socialize with friends and community members, and, as usual, a slip in my exercise habits. For some reason, it always surprises me when I let things get out of whack, even though I know myself well, and I know that I can get caught up in work, especially when something interests me. I tend to reach a point where I stop and ask myself, how did I end up here?

Now, happily, there is a remedy for what ails me, a remedy built in to the liturgical year of the Catholic Church, in fact. We begin Lent this week, starting with receiving ashes on Wednesday, a symbol and stark reminder of human mortality. (And when doesn’t a little reflection on mortality help to recalibrate a person’s priorities?) I’m looking forward to being deliberate during Lent: to slowing down, at least somewhat, and to reflecting on what it is than I am getting myself caught up in and how God is at work in it all.

I have a hunch that this Lent will see me spending more time with God outdoors, braving the cold together and going for walks in the snow (and the mush). We’ll also spend time reading poetry together, following along with Malcolm Guite’s The Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter, letting the words take us where they will.


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Mary Ward Week 2018

Tomorrow marks the final day of our week-long celebration of Mary Ward. We began with her birthday on January 23rd, and on January 30th, we remember the anniversary of her death.

As one Institute – the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Congregation of Jesus – we have been praying together this week with a beautiful booklet of reflections written jointly by IBVM and CJ sisters and friends. I would like to share a couple of excerpts here that continue to speak to me.

“The felicity of this estate was a singular freedom…to refer all to God. Being grounded in this (the virtues of freedom, justice and sincerity), we should gain at God’s hand true wisdom and ability to perform all such other things as the perfection of this Institute exacteth of us.”
[From Mary Ward’s letter about the ‘Just Soul’ experience, St. Omer, November 1, 1615]

 

Mary Ward had free and open access to God. How free she was, a woman with a burning desire to follow the will of God despite her suffering. She invites us to follow her way, knowing that we are one with many companions across the world. We are all seeds which will bear abundant fruit in the places where we live.

We are the descendants of an incomparable woman
We abide in truth
We love sincerity
We are a voice of justice,
We live in freedom and refer all to God
We are carriers of Christ
We are contemplative in action.
We desire more
We love to Be more
We love to Do more
We give and reach out more.

[From Cecilia Insuk Lee, CJ (Korea) and Selvi Adaikalam, IBVM (East Timor)]

What emerged as a key element of the conference (“Friends of Mary Ward”) was the sense that we are not called to be about living in the past, but rather to be willing to embrace this new thing that God is doing in the hearts and minds of all those who love and follow Mary Ward.

The virtues Mary Ward wrote about in 1615 after a very significant prayer experience are not only an ideal for sisters or women in general; they are relevant for all those who want to follow Jesus today. Mary lived out these virtues – freedom, sincerity and justice – and became for us, her companions, a vivid model and example. Even in times of trial and darkness, when her faith was put in danger by the Church’s leaders, she chose to follow the path of truth. Her attitude is a lesson for us in the 21st century. Our society needs the sincerity and transparency proposed by our founder, and as Mary Ward’s friends, we are called upon to live them in our context.
[From: Ann McGowan (Mary Ward Centre, Canada) and Anu Tampu, CJ (Romania)]


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Witness to hope

Photos courtesy of Facebook – Canadian Women’s Foundation

Yesterday, like thousands of other women across Canada, I gave my voice and my feet to the collective cause of women’s rights. I joined the throngs of inspired and lively women gathered in Nathan Phillips Square to cheer and to raise one another up, but most importantly, to listen attentively to each other. In an act of communion and solidarity, we joined together as women with diverse beliefs, backgrounds, and visions for the future of Canada, but with the common understanding that the only way to make lasting change is to work together.

As one body, we listened to the passionate voices of young women working hard to make their communities safer and more responsive to the needs of women. We listened to stories of pain and suffering: the brutal treatment of Rohingya women in Myanmar, and the equally brutal treatment of our own indigenous women in Canada. Their stories are our stories. We listened to the voices of women, rich in life experience, counsel sustained passion and patience for what they know may be a lifelong struggle for justice.

Each individual voice, expressing a unique story and perspective, was a vibrant part of the whole, the common voice of hope. Hope for the future and an unwavering belief in a Canada and a world that can be different and will be different. Not just some day but in our day. Our feet embodied the hope that filled us as we marched through the streets of downtown Toronto. We gave witness to our solidarity and to our commitment to improve the lives of women, to work as long as it takes, and to not back down in the face of opposition.

As a religious sister, I am called to witness to hope, and especially to the hope that is rooted in my Christian faith. God is with us. We are working with God to build a more just world so that all may enjoy the fullness of life. As a Mary Ward woman, I am called to service, particularly in response to the needs of women and girls in our time. On January 23, we will begin a weeklong celebration of Mary Ward, the feast of our Institute. We will honour our foundress who believed in the capacity of women to do great things. May she continue to inspire our Institute to work for the good of women and all of society, and may she intercede for our world in such need of healing.

Mary Ward, pray for us.

 

There is no such difference between men and women that women may not do great things. I hope in God it will be seen that women in time will do much. Women should and can provide something more than ordinary.
– Mary Ward


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Welcoming the New Year

A frosty start to 2018.

A new year has begun.

The start of a new year always excites me. It’s a clean slate. A fresh beginning, with so many possibilities for what lies ahead. Like many people, I perform a little ritual each year. I spend some time taking stock of the previous year and I look ahead to the new and see what changes I might want to make to my life and what I might want to accomplish.

I like to make extensive lists of resolutions, mapping out the different components of my life – health and well-being, spiritual, economic, etc. I savour the act of setting goals and making plans to accomplish them. I find it energizing. And even if I don’t accomplish what I set out to do, I don’t get down about it because each new year gives me a new chance to do things differently.

This year, however, I don’t feel drawn to the same kind of lengthy list-making. My list is shorter and perhaps more integrated than in past years. This year I am doing some pondering along the lines of the IBVM vow formula and the two ancient commandments: to love God with all of my heart, my soul, my strength, and my mind, and to love my neighbour as myself. I am taking time this week to recall how I have loved over the past year as well as how I have not loved.

As I peer into 2018, I notice my desires for the year. How do I desire to love God with all of my heart, all of my soul, all of my strength, and all of my mind? How do I desire to love my neighbour as myself? I know that there are many areas of my life to work on – my relationships with others, my prayer life, and aspects of my health and well-being – how do these affect my ability to love? Where is God calling me to be and to act? This year I have set no goals for perfection, but I have a deep desire for transformation, for greater openness and a greater ability to give and to receive love.

Just as Pope Francis’ 2015 homily in New York City has been a touchstone for me these past few years – his reflection on “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” has given me consolation and inspiration – so too has the poetry of Malcolm Guite become a touchstone and guidepost for me. His poem Be Opened haunts me. There is no better word for it. The poem is Malcolm’s reflection on Mark 7:31-37, the healing of the deaf and mute man. This beautiful poem speaks to me of my desire to give and to receive love even as it reminds me of my many flaws and limitations. It rouses a deep yearning within me. I want to be opened, broken wide open, by God, so that this desire to love can be realized and manifested in the small actions of each day.

And so, as 2018 unfurls, I am guided by my heart’s deepest desires. As I face each day’s challenges, and as I fret about some thing or other, I will listen for God’s transformative words: Be opened.

Be Opened

Be opened. Oh if only we might be!
Speak to a heart that’s closed in on itself:
‘Be opened and truth will set you free’,
Speak to a world imprisoned in its wealth:
‘Be opened! Learn to learn from poverty’,
Speak to a church that closes and excludes,
And makes rejection its own litany:
‘Be opened, opened to the multitudes
For whom I died but whom you have dismissed
Be opened, opened, opened’, how you sigh
And still we do not hear you. We have missed
Both cry and crisis, we make no reply.
Take us aside, for we are deaf and dumb
Spit on us Lord and touch each tongue-tied tongue.
– Malcolm Guite