Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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Looking back

As I look back through photos from the past few years, I am reminded of the incredible experiences I’ve had since joining the IBVM. I find it hard to believe all that has happened, and, oh, the places I have been. I am in awe of it all and filled with gratitude.

Arriving at Loretto Abbey in September 2014. I was struck by how beautiful it is.

Received as a candidate with the IBVM.

Helping Marren to dress for a Canadian winter. 

Our evening tea time at the Abbey.

My first visit to New York City and the United Nations – March 2015.

Halloween at the Abbey – October 2015.

 

Received as a novice – December 2015. 

Memories of the Philippines and Vietnam – 2016. First year/canonical year of novitiate.

My second visit to New York City and a chance to intern at the IBVM UN NGO – April to July 2017.

Discernment retreat for profession of first vows. Pondering the future – August 2017. 

This prayer of Thomas Merton has accompanied me for much of my adult life and it has been in my heart many times over the past three years:

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
– Thomas Merton

It still rings true to me now, even with my first profession just a few weeks away. There is always an element of risk in life; we cannot ever be completely certain of where we are going or what will happen. Certainly over the past three years much has happened that I could not predict, and I suspect the future will be the same. I have come to see that religious life, despite sounding quite tame and restrictive, is anything but. There is a lot that is unknown and much joy that comes in the discovery.


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The First Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola

It’s Tuesday evening. We are gathered, seated in a circle, perched on couches and armchairs. Expectant. The candle on the centre table is lit. We watch the flame flicker and grow. I begin, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…”  

We have come together, seven students and me, to pray. We are making our way through a selection of the First Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, as adapted by Michael Hansen, SJ. Each prayer leads us into a deeper encounter with the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and into a fuller awareness of God working in us and in our lives.

The First Spiritual Exercises began as the prayer journal of St. Ignatius. In his journal he recorded his questions, the graces he received from prayer, his favourite scripture passages, and notes that helped him progress along his spiritual journey. He later used his journal as an instruction manual for giving his prayer exercises to others.

The First Spiritual Exercises are so called because they are the first exercises he gave to others and they are the first form of the full Spiritual Exercises, which are normally made during a 30-day retreat or over 30 weeks in daily life. The First Spiritual Exercises are arranged into four four-week retreats that together form a complete version of the full Spiritual Exercises. The retreats respond to a foundational desire for inner peace as well as a particular desire for love, service, forgiveness, healing, freedom or divine friendship.

In the five weeks that we have been praying the First Spiritual Exercises together, I have been amazed by the response. It has been a joy to pray and journey together through the exercises, and I have experienced abundant blessing from God through our prayer and spiritual conversation.

I have received the gift of God’s presence in a unique way while praying in silence with others. Although I do speak at times, guiding the meditation with prompts for the exercise, there are beautiful stretches of silence where we can hear only the ticking of the clock on the wall. In that silence, even as we pray individually, we are joined as one and together we encounter God. At times, the presence of God seems almost tangible. God is with us, bringing peace and calm in the quiet.

I’ve also received the gift of witnessing God at work in others. After we pray, using the meditation outlined in the exercise, we move into spiritual conversation, sharing a particular moment or experience in our prayer. I’ve been awed and humbled week after week by the sharing. I’ve felt such joy listening to group members describe how God spoke to them during their prayer, revealing something small or big about their lives and their relationship with God. Clarity about a decision that needed to be made, actions to take to heal a friendship, opening up to greater love for oneself. Each week I am reminded that God’s revelation in others and through others is profound and powerful. Together we are noticing the movement of the good spirit and the bad spirit during prayer, and we are beginning to discern the movement of the spirits over the whole of our five weeks (and counting) together.

Lastly, I have received the gift, the ever-renewing gift, of noticing how God is at work within me. I’ve noticed deep joy from this experience of prayer together and the opportunity to guide and mentor others in prayer (and to be guided and mentored in return). I’ve also noticed moments of anxiety and uncertainty. I’ve grown closer to God as I grow in understanding of my vocation to religious life and possibilities for future ministry and work. As I prepare to make first vows, I am striving to be attentive to the movement of God within me, and through the First Spiritual Exercises, God’s presence becomes clearer and clearer.

After each week’s gathering, I thank St. Ignatius for his attentiveness to the will of God and for his insights into the spiritual journey.

“The Spiritual Exercises are all the best that I have been able to think out, experience and understand in this life, both for helping somebody to make the most of themselves, as also for being able to bring advantage, help, and profit to many others.”
– Ignatius to Rev. M. Miona in 1536.


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Summer days

A month and a bit have passed since I left New York City. (The withdrawal pains have subsided.) It has been a busy time with lots of activity and travel and not much time to tend to this blog. It has been a relaxing time as well, like an extended summer holiday.

I left New York for Saskatoon and made a five-day retreat with twenty-one other young religious from across Canada, facilitated by the wise and insightful Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI (more to come on the talks from the retreat in a future blog post). It was an energizing experience and consoling to meet other religious who share similar concerns, hopes, and dreams for the future of religious life in Canada.

The view of the South Saskatchewan River from Queen’s House Retreat Centre in Saskatoon

After the retreat, I spent time with family in Rosthern, SK and then in Calgary, AB. It was so good to be reunited with family and friends again, most of whom I hadn’t seen in about two years, before I went to the Philippines for the canonical year of my novitiate. Naturally, there was lots to share and to catch up on. It felt a bit strange at times relating my experiences of the Philippines because my year there seemed like a year out of time. There was an odd feeling of time displacement; I couldn’t keep track of the time I’d been away. Regardless, it was so good to see everyone and to feel connected again. Being with my family reminds me of who I am and where I have come from, and I am grateful for that. My family is very much a part of my spiritual journey even though I don’t get to see them very often.

The statue of Our Lady of the Prairies at Queen’s House

After a week or so back in Toronto, I made a trip to Ottawa. I hadn’t been to Ottawa for nearly two years so again there was that sense of time displacement. It was coupled initially with a feeling of nostalgia for my old life. I visited my old house (even did a bit of yard work there), met with friends and colleagues, and visited my old parish (I happened to be there just in time to celebrate the installation of its two new pastors). I had time to catch up with good friends and to glimpse again the life that I have missed off and on these past few years. As the visit progressed, I noticed that the feeling of nostalgia lessened and was replaced by a feeling of deep gratitude for all that I had experienced in Ottawa during the 10 years I lived there. I came to recognize that that part of my life is truly over now and I do not desire to go back and resume it. It was a beautiful and life-giving season in my life but now I am called to something else and to be somewhere else and I desire with all of my being to give myself to this new life and new path that I am walking along.

I think this is a good place to be – mentally, spiritually, etc., – as I prepare to make a discernment retreat next week that will lead up to making my first vows (potentially in December). I am not caught up in false feelings about the past and I am not bound by expectations for the future. I feel that I am calmly in the present, ready to be with God in a sacred space, and to talk about all that has gone on in my life over the past few years and all of the graces, gifts, and opportunities that God has been giving me as I move closer to making my first vows.

Please keep me in your prayers starting Monday as I make an eight-day silent retreat at Loyola House in Guelph. I will keep you in my prayers as well. Love and blessings to all!


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A Litany of Thanks

It’s my final day in New York City. At least for now. I hope to come back someday soon.

The past three months have been a dream come true. Even more than a dream come true, really, because I had no idea what these three months could hold. I’ve titled this post A Litany of Thanks because the overwhelming emotion that I feel right now is gratitude. I thank the IBVM for recognizing my personal and professional interests and for letting me explore them at the UN in such a meaningful way. I thank Cecilia, our IBVM representative at the UN, for hosting me and for giving me freedom to engage in the UN system and to contribute to the work of our NGO and other NGO committees. I thank Libby for bringing a bit of Australia to New York City and for sharing her wisdom and humour and making us all laugh at the right moment.

I thank God for guiding me along the way and for being with me here in New York and at the UN in a way that I had not yet experienced in my life. For the first time, I have felt a total unity between what I would consider my professional life and my private life – I have truly experienced God in all things. In all places and people and in all moments. I haven’t experienced this kind of unity before. Previously, I had felt a huge divide between my work life and my private life, especially my involvement in my parish. A big gap between the secular and spiritual. But now everything is spiritual, everything belongs to God and is of God. Divine life is everywhere!

I thank the UN (inasmuch as I can thank an institution) for the spaces and opportunities to join with other people to dialogue and debate, to learn and to grow, to listen and to be moved. It is a great privilege to be here and to be exposed to so many of the world’s struggles and achievements and, most of all, to witness incredible resiliency and determination to make the world a better place for all. At times, I have been caught up in a swell of optimism and idealism, and other times I have been brought low by realism or even pessimism. But it’s all part and parcel of the onward movement of humanity. In a moment of frustration, I once joked to Cecilia and Libby that we are at the intersection of dysfunction here at the UN. We experience the dysfunction of the various NGO committees, the dysfunction of Member States, and the dysfunction of the UN system itself. Not to mention our own personal dysfunction and NGO dysfunction. We’re in the middle of a vortex. So no wonder things are tediously slow and disorganized at times! But even in the midst of all kinds of dysfunction, I know that I love this work and I believe in it with all of my being.

And last, but definitely not least, I thank New York City for giving me a home and a playground to explore for the past three months. The first week I was here, I was bit shocked by the noise and wondered if I would ever find a quiet space. But then all of a sudden, I didn’t hear the noise and it didn’t bother me again (except for the occasional late night siren or slamming door in the hall that disturbed my sleep!). The noise became the hum of life. The energy of the city gave me energy and really brought me to life. I’ve gone out to do and see so much.

I’ve volunteered on weekends at the 91st Street Community Garden and with Franciscans Deliver, a food pantry outreach at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Midtown. I’ve traversed the length and width of this island many times, discovering its neighbourhoods, parks, museums, and churches. I’ve been to concerts and plays, a comedy club, a late show taping, and taken a tour of the NBC studios at Rockefeller Centre. I’ve hunted down landmarks that have special meaning for me, places that Madeleine L’Engle, Helene Hanff, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day brought life to. I’ve encountered the most unusual people walking down the street (an old man in pink lingerie riding a scooter, as one example) and of course, I have also witnessed the most shocking poverty and neglect in the homeless people I’ve encountered on every street. With visiting friends, I’ve laughed until my stomach has ached and I’ve cried desperate tears. I’ve celebrated Canada Day and the Fourth of July with equal gusto. I’ve gotten to taste an amazing slice of life in this city and I devoured it with great delight.

For the past three months and all they have contained, I say: thank you.


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What happened at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues?

As we wrapped up this week at the UN at the Forum on Financing for Development, I realized that I hadn’t posted anything about the forum I attended when I arrived in New York in April: the Permanent Forum in Indigenous Issues.

The Forum was a powerful experience. It was a great privilege to listen to the voices of indigenous people from around the world, gathered together to share their common struggles, hopes, and dreams. One of the things that struck me again and again throughout the Forum was the resiliency embodied by these groups of people. For many of the indigenous groups, including those from Canada, it was not their first visit to the UN. Many have been coming, year after year, to share the same grievances and to demand change in the same areas, perhaps making tiny steps forward each year, perhaps not. It was truly an inspiring and humbling experience to participate in dialogues and conversations with these diverse groups and to reflect on my own attitudes and actions towards indigenous peoples.

I would like to share some of the reflections of our IBVM NGO. Please take a look at the recent UN UPDATE 26.

You can read about Indigenous-Peoples-and-Climate-Change or listen to the reflection.

You can also read Libby’s reflection on the The-Great-Silence or watch her video. Enjoy!


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Renewal – Attire

A depiction of Mary Ward wearing the traditional IBVM habit although
it’s unlikely that she dressed quite like this.

I’ve decided to end my blogging spree on Vatican II renewal with an issue that is a bit of a thorn in my side. Often, the biggest critique I hear about the effects of Vatican II has to do with clothing. I’ve heard complaints that women religious went wild after Vatican II, rejecting the habit, which somehow means that they also reject church teaching and authority, and are therefore a lesser version of their sisters in habits. I’ve seen this mentality in posters advertising Catholic conferences for which admission is free for men and women religious, as long as they wear their habit.

To be honest, I’m not too bothered about the clothes. When I was discerning a vocation and investigating religious communities, I didn’t care whether or not the sisters wore a habit. I was looking for a community in which I could be fully myself and contribute the gifts I have been given by God. I understand and respect the symbolic nature of the habit and I respect those communities who do wear one but I also don’t see it as a sign of lesser commitment to religious life to not wear a habit.

The IBVM did wear a habit for a long time even though Mary Ward did not wear a habit and did not want her sisters to wear one. In order for Mary Ward and her sisters to be effective in their mission and to work among the people, they did not wear a habit. However, successive generations of sisters were introduced to the habit by church hierarchy and eventually it became a requirement under canon law. Those generations of sisters did adopt the habit and it became an important part of their identity.

However, with the renewal of Vatican II, religious communities were encouraged to go back to their roots and the vision of their founders and foundresses. The IBVM, after careful discernment, decided to return to habit-less life, as per Mary Ward’s vision, wearing contemporary clothing. This occurred gradually over many years, beginning with a modified habit before the sisters were donning street clothes. I believe in Mary Ward’s vision for her Institute and in the dignity of women religious who do not wear a habit. Whenever I hear criticism about the clothing worn by women religious, I will go back to this statement by Mary Ward, shared during the 1967 Chapter of Renewal:

Our attire should be such as can provide an example of Christian modesty and the other religious virtues to seculars and others: such as poverty, elegance (good taste and appropriateness) and religious decorum. Our clothing should accord with the type that honourable women of the region where we are needed or dwell, wear. We should be ever alert to opportunities for greater perfection and at the same time always rejecting anything that savours of the slightest worldliness or vanity. Submission to God and the common good should be the guiding line of our progress.
        – From Mary Ward’s Memorial to Pope Paul V


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Renewal – Poverty

The pilgrim Mary Ward, free to refer all to God, free to live the vow of poverty.

Poverty continues to be something I wrestle with, especially after my experiences in the Philippines. I am drawn to it, desire it, long for it. And I am challenged by how to live it here in Canada. I find comfort and inspiration in the words coming from the 1967 Chapter of Renewal.

Poverty is not dependent solely on lack of material things, nor even modern ‘insecurity’; rather it is dependence upon God from whom we receive all we have, a dependence which should also be a ‘shining’ witness.

Common life, devotion to labour, sharing with the poor, and ‘frugal’ living are all manifestations of the reality of the spirit of poverty. Ultimately, poverty means total dedication – of time, talents, all circumstances – a gift of self to Christ in others, a response to Christ who emptied Himself.

Mary Ward’s Vision of the ‘Just Soul’ would seem to embody our Foundress’ concept of the total dependence upon God and ‘perfect liberty…(to) refer all things to God’ – in that state before the Fall when, receiving everything, they experienced no clinging, and in reality were never so poor.