Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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Falling in love

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Helping with homework at Sarnelli Center for Street Children (Note: for safety reasons I am unable to post photos of the boys’ faces.)

A week ago I returned from a 10-day immersion experience with street children in Lipa, Batangas province. I haven’t been the same since. I have symptoms of withdrawal. I feel fidgety and restless. I check my watch often and I ask myself “What are they doing now?” My heart aches. I really miss my boys.

For 10 days I lived with 8 other novices (5 women, 3 men) and 20 boys aged 9 to 15 years. I would get up with the boys in the mornings and help them get ready for school, eat meals with them, assist them with homework, play with them, pray with them, and care for them like an older sister.

After a couple of days of getting to know them, I began to feel close to them. And then I fell in love with them. Being in love taught me a lot about love.

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Praying The Examen for Children.

Love bridges any cultural or linguistic divide.

I can’t speak Tagalog very well. Or at all, really. At dinner on the first night with the boys, I rattled off the list of Tagalog words I know (basically limited to please and thank you and terms about riding on a jeepney), and made them laugh when I said para po, which means stop, please. They took it upon themselves to beef up my vocabulary and so slowly I learned the words for fork and knife, bowl and cup, rice and fish, and being full (busog). I delighted in learning from them and they delighted in teaching me. I was also schooled in the proper way to use a fork and spoon to eat (do not try to use the spoon as a knife unless you want to be ridiculed!), and I learned to eat rice twice a day (three times proved to be too much), mixing it together with the meat and broth to make a tasty little stew. Each of my successes at mealtimes brought me closer to the boys at my table and was a way for us to show that we cared about each other.

Love gives generously.

I think of all the little ways I gave and received love during those 10 days. I discovered that I can endure discomforts and inconveniences for the sake of love. Lack of sleep, unusual food (i.e. too much rice), and occasional emotional discomfort (being stretched) seemed like nothing because I just wanted to spend time with the boys. I discovered that loving others motivates me to go beyond myself in a way that I find difficult to do when I am focused on myself. For those beautiful boys I felt like I would have done anything.

They loved me in their individual ways too. Often it was through material gifts. One boy gave me a little candy or a packet of biscuits every day from his pocket money. He receives only 10 pesos a day to buy a morning snack at school yet he saved a bit of it for me every day. The boys’ love also took the form of playing together after school each day (badminton championships – Canada vs. Philippines!) and reading together every night. At the end of the immersion, I received several little notes and beautiful works of origami expressing their love and appreciation – treasures from the heart.

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Getting ready for the next badminton match.

Love is not bound by distance.

I was heartbroken when I had to say goodbye to the boys last week. Due to unfortunate circumstances we had a very abrupt goodbye and I am still recovering from the experience. I actually feel pain to be separated from them. But I know that I must continue with my formation and they must continue with their lives too. Even though we are separated now, a piece of my heart will always be with them and a piece of theirs will always be with me. I pray for them and think of them every day and I will continue to do so when I return to Canada. Their love has forever shaped me.

Love is the root of vocation.

During those 10 days, I received significant consolation from God. I felt confirmed in my vocation to religious life and I know that I am called to love those who are neglected or abandoned by society. Throughout my discernment, and at times during this year of formation, I have struggled off and on wondering whether religious life is a selfish way of life. I would think of the job I had in Ottawa and my house and the fact that I could give a child a very good life. I’ve wondered whether I should adopt a child instead and focus my life on giving a child in need a good and loving home. But during the immersion, I really felt a confirmation that God is calling me to religious life and to a freedom to love as many people in need as possible. It does mean that I will not raise a child or devote myself solely to the well-being of one person (or family) but I will be available to love as many people as possible as deeply as I am able.

In the midst of both rejoicing and mourning my experience with the boys, I feel a sense of gratitude for the gift I have been given. And I know that like the 30-day retreat I made in April, the fruits of this experience will only deepen and grow over time.

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My group of novices during the immersion experience.


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Poverty (II) – Free to Give and to Receive

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Living the vow of poverty is an invitation to live in interdependence – mutual giving and receiving. It sounds fairly simple and straightforward but in practice it isn’t all that easy. Growing in interdependence is appealing to me but also makes me apprehensive. Up to this point in my life, I have been growing in independence – going from living at home to studying at university to embarking on a career to becoming financially successful and being totally responsible for myself. It sometimes feels scary to think that I am actively working on giving up security and control over my life.

When I left my job in the federal government last year, I was making a six-figure salary. I had never dreamed that I would earn a salary like that, and yet, there I was, in my mid-thirties as a single woman, earning more than some families do with two incomes. I had a house, a car, and a dog. I thought I was set. But now all of that is getting turned on its head. My life aspirations have changed dramatically over the last few years and now I’m in the process of formation for a lifestyle that will see me hand over any future paychecks to the IBVM and be reliant on the community to have my needs met. This really is a process of growth, not something that happens all at once. I am being stretched to see my life very differently and I’m being challenged to both let go and to embrace.

Letting Go of Stuff

When I first entered the IBVM as a candidate two years ago, I was quite concerned about my stuff. I had put my house up for rent and I had a storage unit full of the furniture and accessories of my former life. In the process of moving, I gave away several things to friends and mailed sentimental items home to my family, and yet I still managed to bring a lot of stuff with me to Toronto (two carloads full!). Stuff I thought was really important (perhaps even essential) to my well-being and happiness (for example, my collection of Wes Anderson films on DVD). Some of the things I brought with me have been useful and have made my new home feel like home, but at the same time, some of the things that I brought with me were about making me feel secure in my new environment.

Living in the Philippines is giving me a broader perspective on stuff. When I arrived in January, I brought the maximum weight allowance possible with me – two suitcases full of clothes, books, various medicines, etc. – just in case I needed something important and couldn’t find it here. I’ve since discovered that while most of things I brought have been useful, some definitely have not and could have been left at home.

And actually, the less stuff I have, the more free I feel inside. Less to keep track of or be distracted by. I’ve discovered how little I truly need to be happy and content. (I think the popularity of current minimalist movements demonstrate a desire people have to be free of too many cumbersome possessions.)

Of course, interdependence is not only about having less stuff, but for me, having less gives me greater interior freedom which I believe leads to greater generosity.

Letting Go of Social Status

Another area in which I am growing towards interdependence is my shifting perception of social status – moving away from thinking of myself (and others) based on occupation, income, societal power, etc. I feel kind of conditioned to think this way but the vow of poverty invites me to let go of valuing my work based on the income it earns, or its associated prestige, and to let go of valuing myself based on what I earn or do.

I admit that working for the government had a certain element of prestige to it and made me feel special. Working to support the government in power and the people of Canada made me feel good about the work I did. I was fortunate to travel internationally a few times to participate in meetings and I met some well-regarded and important government officials. I don’t yet know what the future holds for me in terms of employment or ministry work but it probably won’t involve hobnobbing with government officials or big decision-makers.

So I am being called to embrace any kind of work for the glory of God and to value myself and others for who they are and not what they do.

Letting Go of Financial Control

Another way that I am moving towards interdependence and learning to live the vow of poverty is letting go of control of my personal finances. When I joined the IBVM I had a house, RRSPs, a pension plan with the federal government, insurance policies, bank accounts, etc. I still have these things actually but I’ve entrusted them to my father during my novitiate. Before I make my first vows, I will need to take the next step and sell my house and convert my financial assets into a patrimony.

My patrimony will consist of the assets I acquired before entering religious life. It will be set aside for the duration that I live in religious life. I won’t be able to access any money from it but it will be there if one day I discern that religious life is not where God is calling me to be. Basically, I am letting go of control of my own financial security and learning to trust that I will be taken care of by the community. And I am committing to taking care of others with what I contribute.

Embracing Interdependence

The point of all of this letting go, of course, is to embrace interdependence. By letting go of independence (in mostly financial and material ways at present), I am opening myself up to receive what is offered by the mutual giving and receiving that occurs in community. It really mirrors my relationship with God and the journey I have been on during this year of novitiate: emptying myself to be able to receive what God wants to give me and to be able to give myself freely to God. Growing in generosity as well as in vulnerability.

I think our Constitutions (Vol. II) express this so well:

4.16     We live the vow with liberality and gratitude,
supporting and encouraging one another
to distinguish between needs and wants.
We strive to be free from acquisitiveness
that we may give;
free from self-centredness that we may readily share,
free from self-sufficiency that we may receive.

 


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The Vow of Poverty (I) – It’s Not About Deprivation

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Image courtesy of Forbes.com

The vow of poverty is complex. I’ve been trying to think about how best to frame this blog post and I think I will have to split it up into two parts. I’d like to first share what I have been learning about the vow of poverty from our in-house formation sessions and then in the second post share about my personal experiences of letting go of material goods and resources and how I have come to think about the vow for myself.

In our in-house formation, Sr. Christine Burke, ibvm, has been leading us through an understanding of the evangelical vows (vows taken in religious life). She has really helped me (and my fellow novices) to think more deeply about the vows and she has guided us through some meaningful discussions. I think our most complicated discussion has been about poverty.

We first talked about poverty on a global scale – absolute poverty, extreme poverty, extreme deprivation. We can give it many labels. This kind of poverty is identified by a significant lack, usually of the basic needs of life – access to adequate housing, food, education, health care, employment, etc. Extreme poverty is dehumanizing. It takes away the dignity of a person and renders them invisible and voiceless and nearly always powerless. I see this kind of poverty on an almost daily basis in the Philippines and it is crushing. It is crushing to live and experience and it is also crushing to witness. This kind of poverty can seem hopeless and entrenched. This kind of poverty is a result of unjust and broken economic and social systems at the local and international levels.

The Church tells us that extreme poverty is a sin. Extreme deprivation is something that we must fight against – we want people to be lifted out of these conditions, to experience life fully and equitably. Choosing to live according to the vow of poverty therefore is not about choosing a life of extreme deprivation but it is about choosing to live with less in order to give more to others. Some religious congregations live a very austere life (think of Mother Teresa’s congregation, the Missionaries of Charity) but not all are called to live like that.

As an IBVM Sister, I will take a vow of poverty in relation to mission and community. In taking the vow of poverty, I will give up personal ownership of goods and control of finances. Within the community our resources are shared so that everyone has access to what they need, regardless of whether they are making an income. By living simply, we are also able to use our resources for mission, that is, to help those in need in society. Our Constitutions (Vol. II) express the beauty of the vow:

4.13            God is the true wealth of the human heart.
The vow of poverty that we profess
is an identification with Christ,
poor in his self-emptying love
and his total gift of self to all.
Like Mary, who stands out among
the poor and humble of spirit,
we proclaim the greatness of God
and our dependence on God’s provident care.

4.14            By the vow of poverty we choose a life
where material goods are held in common
and generously shared in the spirit of the Gospel.
We renounce the independent acquisition,
use and disposal of anything of significant value.
By this vow we commit ourselves
to sharing our Institute resources across provinces.

4.18            Our vow of poverty calls us
to right relationship with all around us,
to practical solidarity with those who are poor,
to a responsible care and use of earth’s resources.
In the interdependent community of creation,
we humbly join the prophetic voices of our world
who work to preserve its beauty and dignity.

The vow of poverty asks me to become interdependent – to let go of independence (financial) and risk becoming interdependent. Interdependence requires maturity and a willingness to learn how to give to others what they need but also to receive from others what I need.

And how is the process of becoming interdependent going so far? For that answer, you’ll need to wait for Part II!


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The C-Word

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Looking out into possibility…

The idea of a life without a romantic relationship was a real stumbling block for me when I thought about entering religious life. I struggled with it throughout the years I was discerning. I thought that the absence of romantic love would lead to unhappiness and loneliness, and I thought that I would be constantly trying to suppress or repress my feelings. That celibacy / consecrated chastity could mean a life of meaningful happiness just didn’t seem possible. And so for many years, even though I didn’t feel particularly drawn to marriage or to having a family of my own, I struggled to see the possibility of religious life.

During this year of novitiate I have had plenty of time to face the demons within, including the false ideas I’ve carried around about sexuality and my sense of self worth. I’ve been able to see that a lot of my struggle with the notion of chastity has been around my ideas about being loved and valued.

For a long time I believed that being loved romantically by a man was the only way that I would find true happiness. (This idea was reinforced by societal emphasis on romantic love, and on a more personal note, it was also reinforced by the model my mom gave to me.) Every other kind of love seemed second best. I wanted to be loved and admired (adored actually) by a man who would make me feel special. I thought that being loved in this way would take away the pain I had felt growing up, feelings of not being loved or being enough (see blog post from March). However, none of my romantic relationships ever really did this. Nonetheless I clung to the belief that eventually I would meet the man who would make everything in my life perfect.

But it didn’t happen. And when I was honest with myself, I knew that I wasn’t even all that interested in looking for the man who would make my life perfect. I was comfortable and relatively happy being single, and I was more interested in my relationship with God. Which blossomed into a deep attraction to religious life. And now, having had some experience living religious life, I can see that it does make me feel happy and fulfilled. There is great love and support in community life. For me, living a life that is totally centred on God, and living a life dedicated to bringing God’s light and love into the world (whether through ministry like spiritual accompaniment or combating social injustices or myriad others) is how I can freely live as fully myself, without clinging to false ideas.

Not to say that living a life of chastity is easy. In our formation house we have been studying the religious vows, and we’ve had some great discussions about chastity. My understanding and appreciation of chastity will grow and change over time, I know, as I live religious life. There will be moments when I will fall in love and I will need to discern how to respond. There will be moments of loneliness and unhappiness. It happens in every life. And in those moments I hope that I will still be able to see the gift of the vow of chastity, draw upon the support of community, and find strength in my relationship with God.


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The Canvas of Society

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Table of Hope – Joey Velasco

I’ve been absent from my blog for the past couple of weeks because I’ve been recovering from dengue fever. I had a mild case, thankfully, but it has left me feeling tired and low on energy. I am a bit behind in my blogging. I’ve got a couple of posts in development on the subject of the vows (one on poverty and one on celibacy), something we have been discussing a lot during our in-house formation, but they’re not ready yet.

So instead I would like to share a video that we watched in our inter-congregational novices program earlier this week. We were learning about the “Church of the Poor” and the need for immersion and solidarity with the poor in society. We watched the video, below, entitled Canvas of Society, produced by a Filipino artist, Joey Velasco. Joey Velasco created a painting of the Last Supper called “Table of Hope” featuring street children eating alongside Jesus. This video documentary is about his inspiration for the painting and explores the lives of street children in the Philippines. It is a beautiful but heart-breaking glimpse into the world of street children and a call to become mindful of those who can become invisible.

 


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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??

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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.

toe print

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!