Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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Sit and do nothing

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Shema Israel adonai elohenu, adonai ehad…Shema Israel adonai elohenu, adonai ehad…

The first line of the Shema, a foundational prayer of Judaism that I am learning in my Prophets class, repeats in my head, over and over again. Darn it, I say to myself, now is not the time. I breathe deeply and try to push the almost hypnotic phrase away, out of my mind. My eyes are closed. I am sitting on the floor of our chapel, cross-legged. I become aware of a dull ache in my right hip. I feel it slowly travel down my thigh and to my knee. I shift and straighten my legs. Now my lower back begins to ache. I sigh. Back to centre, I remind myself, push away distractions. I gasp and choke. I cough. I realize that in my attempt to push away distractions, I have been holding my breath. Now my breathing is staccato and unnatural. Why can’t I breathe properly? Are my 15 minutes over yet??

***

Welcome to the joys of centering prayer. Or rather, the amateurish antics of one who is trying to practice centering prayer.

In a novices’ module a couple of weeks ago, we were introduced to the ancient practice of centering prayer. The instructions passed on to us were simple: sit and do nothing. Twenty minutes twice a day. Sit and do nothing? Sounds easy, I thought, I do that all the time. Then the instructor made us sit for 10 minutes and I discovered how wrong I was. I realized that even though I tend to sit in silence during my personal prayer, my mind is always active, talking to God (especially when I pray using the Ignantian contemplation method). In centering prayer, however, the point is to sit in silence and to be silent, in mind and body.

The newness of this form of prayer (as in, new to me) and the challenge of it is attractive to me. I admit that I am not practicing it for twenty minutes twice a day, but I am incorporating 15 minutes of centering prayer at the beginning of my personal prayer. It’s really hard. Each day, I struggle with random thoughts and muscle tension/discomfort and, occasionally, with holding my breath during prayer. But even with all of the challenges, I am finding that beginning in silence has added a depth and richness to the prayer that follows. In the silence, God is centering me in his presence.

 

 


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Grounded

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I am reading through my retreat notes from my 30 day retreat. I felt drawn to return to these notes in order to ground myself in the graces I received. With so much time spent on study and learning these days, through my course, our novices program, and our in-house formation, I’ve felt a desire to consciously bring the retreat graces into this new phase of formation.

I am currently reviewing notes from the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises, re-living my experiences of being immersed in God’s love and starting to see and love myself as I am. I’ve also been reading poetry by the Australian poet, Marlene Marburg, inspired by her experiences of the First Week. Her poem, toe print, touched something in me and I would like to share it with you.

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In my first step,
I put my toe-print
on God’s rejoicing earth,
and all else I am
stirs in hopeful breath.

And as I grow
in gripping steps   I think
my toe-print is my own.
I do not think
where it has come from
or where it is going.
I do not hear,
beneath my feet, the praise
of leaves and stones,
of puddles, ants and snails,
the tones of other toe-prints
longing for our God.

But as I grow
in trusting steps
I sense within
each line, each whorl,
a belonging to God’s infinite
labyrinth           and each step,
a humbling one of many
given
just to me.

– Marlene Marburg, Grace Undone: Love

From her biography:

Marlene’s poetry has been published widely in journals and anthologies. Grace Undone: Love, Marlene’s first collection of poetry, is largely extractly from the early section of her thesis, and focuses on a First Week experience of praying the Spiritual Exercises in which helpful and unhelpful patterns of living are explored in the light of God’s love. Marlene is a senior lecturer and formator of spiritual directors at Sentir Graduate College of Spiritual Direction, University of Divinity, Melbourne, Australia. In her spiritual direction and supervision work, Marlene companions people from the perspective that all of life invites authenticity and interior freedom.

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In follow up to my previous post on prophets and prophecy, I recently listened to two very interesting podcasts about the subject. There is a group in the U.S. called The Liturgists. They host a podcast about contemporary issues from the perspectives of science, art, and faith. I really enjoyed the conversations they had about Prophet or Ass and The Voice of God. If you feel so inclined, check them out!

 


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In search of a prophet

Elijah

The Prophet Elijah by Sieger Koder

“To us a single act of injustice – cheating in business, exploitation of the poor – is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to world.

Their breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria. We ourselves witness continually acts of injustice, manifestations of hypocrisy, falsehood, outrage, misery, but we rarely grow indignant or overly excited. To the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions.”

“The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind…Almost every prophet brings consolation, promise, and the hope of reconciliation along with censure and castigation. He begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.”

“The prophet does not judge the people by timeless norms, but from the point of view of God. Prophecy proclaims what happened to God as well as what will happen to the people. In judging human affairs, it unfolds a divine situation.”

Therefore, the prophetic speeches are not factual pronouncements. What we hear is not objective criticism or the cold proclamation of doom. The style of legal, objective utterance is alien to the prophet. He dwells upon God’s inner motives, not only upon His historical decisions. He discloses a divine pathos, not just divine judgment. The pages of the prophetic writings are filled with echoes of divine love and disappointment, mercy and indignation. The God of Israel is never impersonal.”

     – Excerpts from The Prophets, Abraham J. Heschel, 1962.

 

I’ve got prophets on the mind. Thinking about prophets, the act of prophecy, and what it means in the world today. I’m taking a course at a local theology school on the prophets, taught by Sr. Helen Graham, a Maryknoll Sister, who delights and challenges me in every lecture.

I have limited knowledge of scripture (i.e. almost none). A few bible study programs at my former parish and that’s about it. I approached this course with a bit of trepidation, wondering if I would even ‘get’ what was being taught. So far, each class has only served to whet my appetite to learn more. After each class I make my way to the library and I stroll through the stacks of books and make lists of which I will borrow and which I will look for upon my return to Canada. I am restricted to borrowing one book at a time, which is a huge disappointment when all I want to do is peruse page after page.

But…back to the prophets. I am drawn to them right now because I am drawn to world events, and to events in the Philippines, that disturb me. I am angered by acts of violence and by the indifference to these acts that I encounter. I guess I am also angered by my own feelings of helplessness in the face of indifference. I am searching for the prophet who will bring society to its senses.

The prophet sees the world around him or her and is so moved by injustice as to feel God’s own response within, compelling them to speak out. In the Old Testament the prophets railed against Israel for being faithless and for falling away from God. Redemption was possible but there was a cost – to turn away from sinfulness and greed.

Where are the prophets today? Can we hear them? Our world is in chaos. Atrocities occur every day and become commonplace. We become used to reading about bombings and terrorist attacks. We see images of poverty and war and environmental degradation. We become mired in our own infighting. Sometimes we respond to global injustice by posting messages of love and solidarity on social media. Sometimes we reprimand our governments and urge them to do things differently. Are we all prophets when we act in this manner? Or does a prophet do something more?

I don’t have a complete answer to this yet. I’m still learning. Sometimes I like to think of myself as a prophet, pointing out injustice. But maybe I’m just a complainer. I’ve been complaining about life since I learned to speak. It’s a craft I have honed over many years. But surely prophecy is more than complaining.

A great part of that more is contained in the prophet’s union with God, in the expression of God’s response to a situation. I look at myself and I know that I am not there (yet?). One of the biggest gifts I have received this year is the freedom to see myself clearly (or at least with growing clarity). And what do I see when I look at myself? I see a hypocrite. I see someone with mixed motives. I see someone who is trying to be more concerned about others around her than she is about herself but she’s not quite there yet. I can see that I am more of a false prophet than a true prophet. My complaining is more about my own desire than about God’s.

So the true prophet, I think, is someone who has a certain freedom of motive (i.e. not acting based on his or her own interests), and therefore is open to union with God and seeing through God’s eyes. However, the passion aroused in the prophet comes from within the prophet and is a personal response at the same time as being a response from God.

It’s tricky to articulate this clearly and I’m probably not doing a good job. Perhaps I’ll get further along in my course and come away with a different perspective on the prophet – who knows. But what I do know right now is that the world needs prophets. In every age, and in this very moment, we need people who can see the world through the eyes of God and speak the truth to us.

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A trip to the Mekong Delta

One of my favourite experiences during our visit to Vietnam earlier this month was a trip to the Mekong Delta. It was a fantastic experience, organized by one of our sisters. Even though we participated in an organized tour, I felt like a true adventurer (my childhood dream was to be Indiana Jones!), especially as we paddled along one of the channels of the Delta.

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The Mekong Delta produces over half of Vietnam’s rice as well as many kinds of tropical fruit, like jackfruit, mangosteen, bananas, and others. The vegetation is lush and exotic, particularly to my Canadian eyes.

On the day of our trip, we left Ho Chi Minh City early in the morning and traveled two hours to a spot along the Mekong River. From there, we took a boat down along the river to explore a few different islands. On our first stop we observed how rice paper is made. We also had a delicious traditional Vietnamese lunch – fish, pork, greens, and yummy fresh spring rolls. At each stop there were tourist souvenirs on display.

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Coconut monkeys!

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Wending our way through the jungle.

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The river is brown but it’s not dirty. It is rich with mud and sediment that keeps the Delta fertile.

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Rice paper drying on racks.

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A paste of rice is bubbling away. Soon it will be rolled out into paper.

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I was so tempted to buy a Vietnamese hat.

 

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Our feast! Notice the remains of the elephant fish. It was delish.

After lunch we were taken to another island to visit a bee farm and to taste delicious honey tea.

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I found the water mesmerizing.

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Honey tea – nectar of the gods!

From the bee farm we were led by donkey to a local restaurant to listen to traditional South Vietnamese music and to enjoy a selection of tropical fruit.

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It was a rather bumpy ride.

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Not a great shot but I was trying to capture the ornamental dogs on top of the gate posts. I noticed a lot of houses with ornamental dogs or dragons.

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A feast of fruit! Watermelon, longan, pineapple, dragon fruit, and rambutan.

Finally, we went to a third island to learn how to make coconut candy and try a sample (or two!).

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Coconut candy being mixed. It had an enticing aroma.

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Samples on offer.

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Coconut candies drying and ready to be cut and packaged.

My favourite part of the trip was our jaunt along one of the Mekong channels. It was beautiful and enchanting.

 

At the end of the day I was exhausted but I felt so blessed to have had a little taste of Vietnamese culture.

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rain, rain, rain

As I write this post the rain continues to fall. For a week now it has been raining. We are in the midst of a typhoon, or perhaps we are encountering several, one after another. Streets are flooded. Schools have been closed. Even where we live, which is relatively high up in Quezon City (above sea level), several streets are flooding with the rain and drainage back up. It’s the first time I have experienced such consistent rain and I can’t help thinking of a song I learned when I was young:

 

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Beautiful Vietnam

The members of our novitiate house had the incredible opportunity to travel to Vietnam last week to visit the IBVM community there. It was a whirlwind week of new sights, sounds, and tastes. I loved exploring Ho Chi Minh City with our sisters (usually on the back of their motorbikes) and learning about their culture. I really fell in love with the city, the culture, and the people. Such an intoxicating mix of East and West.

More to come soon on our visit but first a selection of photos to whet your appetite!

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The Post Office – a beautiful example of the French architecture found in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City.

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A portrait of Ho Chi Minh is prominently displayed in the main hall of the Post Office.

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At Ben Thanh Market.

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Bags, bags, and more bags!

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Bowls made from coconut.

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Amazing embroidery work – gorgeous scenes stitched by hand.

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“The Church of 3 Bells” or the “Dominican Church” – an extraordinary example of the fusion of East and West. The church was built in the style of a traditional pagoda as a way to incorporate the Catholic faith into Asian culture.

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A pair of dragons greet you at the entrance to the church.

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A mountain of fresh spring rolls!

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I visited the museum that commemorates the American War (Vietnam War) – shocking photographs of the atrocities of war and the effects of the war on generations of Vietnamese. A lot of propaganda as well.

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After the museum, I visited Independence Palace – the seat of the Vietnamese government in the 60s and 70s.

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If you visit Ho Chi Minh, look up! Tangles of wires greet you everywhere.

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It’s a work of art.

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A hem (lane) leading into a Japanese neighbourhood.

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Beautiful Vietnam!


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Light in the city

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For nearly a year now I have been captivated by the words Pope Francis spoke when he visited New York City last September. I have gone back to them time and again, and held them in my heart, especially this year in Manila. During the Mass he celebrated at Madison Square Garden he said:

“In every age, the People of God are called to contemplate this light [referring to the words of the prophet Isaiah]. A light for the nations, as the elderly Simeon joyfully expressed it. A light meant to shine on every corner of this city, on our fellow citizens, on every part of our lives.”

“God’s faithful people can see, discern and contemplate his living presence in the midst of life, in the midst of the city. Together with the prophet Isaiah, we can say: The people who walk, breathe and live in the midst of smog, have seen a great light, have experienced a breath of fresh air.”

As I walk the streets of Manila, I often struggle to see the light of God in the midst of the city. I walk to the supermarket and I choke on the fumes of the traffic, sometimes so much that I have to hold my handkerchief against my nose and mouth. A month ago, I walked home from the LRT station and was splattered with urine by a man living on the street. I’ve been spat on by careless passersby several times. I’ve come home during a heavy rain and discovered that my feet and legs stink of excrement from wading through puddles. My heart aches when I pass by a polluted river or stream, so full of garbage and waste that it cannot support life. Many times I have caught myself judging this city. Why is it so foul? Why is there so much filth everywhere? It’s disgusting! In Canada…

“In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath “the rapid pace of change”, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no “right” to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.”

I walk to church and I pass men and women sitting on the side of the road or next to a pile of rubbish. I see children, skin blackened with dirt and grime, begging for change. I see hordes of young men standing on the street corner unable to find work or engaged in work without meaning or outlet for their gifts. I see young people with passion and potential shining in their eyes who are unable to express their creativity and talent. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, the more that I see these people, day in and day out, the less I really see them. Like Pope Francis says, they become part of the urban landscape. They blend in with the broken walls I pass and the crumbling pavement I step through each day.

Where is the light of God in all of this? Where is the hope?

“Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that he is part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope. A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others, for the life of our city. A hope which frees us from empty “connections”, from abstract analyses, or sensationalist routines. A hope which is unafraid of involvement, which acts as a leaven wherever we happen to live and work. A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as he continues to walk the streets of our city. Because God is in the city.”

When I feel overwhelmed by what I find outside my door (which is often), I call upon God in prayer. Usually I talk to Jesus and I tell him that I feel repulsed and angered by what I see outside, by the injustice done to his people. I tell him that I want to help. I want to do more than pass by. I want to engage with his people. I tell him that I feel fed up that this year of novitiate is focused more on prayer than on ministry. I ask, why am I here, in a place that is screaming for assistance on every street corner, and I cannot go out and spend my energy there? I tell him that what I do is not enough. Let me do more.

In my prayer, Jesus basically agrees with me. It’s not enough. I could never do enough to fix all of the problems I see. But I can do what I am called to do. I can engage deeply where I am called to be engaged. I can consciously bring Jesus with me wherever I go, walk the streets of Manila with him, and ask him to show me the light in the city, where hope is to be found. Because there is hope. There is always hope. In my very limited humanity, I can’t always see where hope lies. The details overwhelm me and make me feel powerless and angry. But regardless of my limitations, there is hope.

On Wednesday mornings I volunteer as a caregiver at an organization that looks after street children and youth. I work with babies and toddlers, playing with them, reading to them, cuddling them, giving them as much love as I can for the 2.5 hours that I have with them each week. It’s not enough. The neglect they have experienced in their young lives is evident and they need much more than I can give. But I am present to them for those 2.5 hours and the love I give them is all I have to give. It takes the same amount of time to travel to and from the organization – a train, a taxi, and a jeepney ride each way – and most days it’s a real slog. But reaching the children’s home and seeing their beautiful faces makes it absolutely worth it. It is in the faces of these children that I see the hope of Jesus. In this tiny way that I contribute to the enormous problems of the world, in the concrete way that I am with them, playing with them, and loving them, and in the way that they are loving me too, God is present in the city.

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