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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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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Catching up

I need to catch up on my blog! Over a month has passed since my last entry. (This appears to be a habit…) So much has been going on that I intend to write about soon – I’m back into theology studies, involved in several exciting and rewarding ministries, and I’m starting to prepare for my first profession of vows with the IBVM.

But first things first. The discernment retreat! I haven’t shared about it yet.

To some extent the retreat is a bit hard to describe. It was very unlike the first 8-Day Ignatian retreat I made 4 years ago (when I was discerning to become a candidate with the IBVM) and nothing like the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises I made in the Philippines in 2016. It didn’t feel like work at all, it felt like a vacation.

At Loyola House, the grounds beckon.

I arrived at Loyola House at the end of August fully armed with what I thought I needed to make a good retreat – a stack of the journals I’d kept for the past three years, a bible, and a book on Mary Ward’s spirituality. To me, they seemed like the perfect resources for a discernment retreat. What a great decision I was sure to make if I consulted these books. Naturally, I spent the first day of my retreat taking full advantage of them – praying, reading, reflecting, and making notes to share with my retreat director. I was happy because I thought I was doing good work.

When I met with my retreat director the next day, however, we both realized that I was going about the retreat all wrong, despite my good intentions. I had embarked on the retreat prepared to wrestle with God, to work hard at making a decision about first vows. But I discovered that I had, in fact, already made the decision about vows (after all, I have been discerning for the past three years). Instead, God was inviting me to play. I was totally surprised. I was unsure whether it would be a real retreat if I didn’t follow a structured schedule of prayer. After much reassurance from my retreat director that I wouldn’t be goofing off, I spent my remaining retreat days marveling at God’s creation and delighting in each day’s new discovery.

The first thought that came to mind when I saw this bench was: ‘it’s Tardis blue!’ What a great place to sit and wait to meet The Doctor…or maybe God will turn up instead.

I walked a lot. Two or three hours a day, all around the property. One day I was captivated by texture. I stopped to caress, to really touch and feel the different textures and composition of the flowers, stones, tree trunks and bark, wild grasses, and leaves that I came across. Another day I was captivated by the sunlight and how it played off of the hills and valleys, the trees and fields. And on another day, I was drawn to hidden places – the light behind a grove of trees, a tiny flower nestled in amongst a tangle of grass, the sun peeking out from behind a cloud. I felt that God was beckoning me to explore hidden places within myself.

I also played in the arts and crafts room with the paint, pastels, and collage materials. I tapped into my childhood joy of creating with bright colours, without worrying whether the final products were any good. It was spontaneous and fun and made me wonder why I don’t play like this more often.

The entire retreat was suffused with a sense of peace and contentment and fun – a real joy at just being with God rather than being caught up in doing. It was more contemplative than active, and such a different experience than I had expected. My retreat was a confirmation of my vocation to religious life and a confirmation of my desire to become a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I can’t deny the sense of rightness and happiness I feel when I think about life as a Loretto Sister. The retreat also confirmed that God is always with me and I don’t have to constantly work at the relationship; God wants me to enjoy it.

And now here I am, a month later, and life is very busy again – filled with studies and prayer and meetings and friends and celebrations and more. All the bits and pieces of ordinary life that God makes so extraordinary. I feel God’s invitation to enjoy it all, the ordinary and the extraordinary, and to continue to live in gratitude and awe as I eagerly anticipate my first profession of vows.

 

 


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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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Sacred Reading

“Reading seeks for sweetness of a blessed life, meditation perceives it, prayer asks for it, contemplation tastes it.  Reading, as it were, puts food whole into the mouth, meditation chews it and breaks it up, prayer extracts its flavour, contemplation is the sweetness itself which gladdens and refreshes.”
      – Guigo II, Carthusian Monk

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We have begun the practice of weekly Lectio Divina in community. Each Thursday we gather to read the gospel for the coming Sunday. Our practice is simple. We read the text three times, listening carefully and savouring the words.

After the first reading, we pause for a moment and then share a single word or short phrase that captures our attention. After the second reading, we share a bit further, maybe a longer phrase or sentence that moves us. After the third reading, we may feel drawn to offer a brief reflection, maybe relating it to our day or a recent experience. We may end with an intercessory prayer as well or instead. This sacred reading of the gospel text opens me to the Holy Spirit, ready to go where the Spirit leads. Each time of prayer follows the same pattern but always produces newness and variety.

The practice of Lectio Divina is relatively new to me. I practiced it previously in a parish young adults group that I was part of but I have not practiced it consistently. Our current weekly practice took a bit of getting used to at first but I now find it deeply enriching. I appreciate the time for quiet contemplation of the Sunday gospel as well as the sharing that results from our group practice. I am finding that the practice of sacred reading of the gospel text has encouraged me to adopt a practice of “sacred reading” in daily life – looking at the world around me, open to the Spirit, noticing where I am drawn, and seeing all life around me as holy, belonging to God.

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I became more interested in the practice of Lectio Divina last year while I was in the Philippines. I’ve mentioned it previously on my blog but I really got hooked on listening to podcasts while I was there. It became a way for me to relax in the evenings and I’ve continued to listen to them since. One of the podcasts I began listening to last year is Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. It’s fantastic! The hosts are graduates of Harvard Divinity School and they treat the much-loved Harry Potter series as a sacred text to be read in a similar way to the Bible, Torah, Koran, etc.

Each podcast episode covers a chapter of a Harry Potter book (they just finished season 2 and the second book in the series – The Chamber of Secrets) through the lens of a particular theme. For example, in the second book, they looked at chapter 16 through the lens of grace and chapter 18 through the lens of love. The podcast is fast-paced and witty and incorporates spiritual practices throughout, including Lectio Divina, imaginative contemplation (yay, Ignatius!), the Jewish practice of Havruta, and each episode ends with a blessing. The podcast is so creative and it encourages the listener to apply these spiritual practices and to see the sacred in the everyday. I can’t wait for season 3!

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Go to http://www.harrypottersacredtext.com!!

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As a final note, The Liturgists podcast, which I’ve mentioned previously as well, just happens to be promoting Lectio Divina right now. For their patreon members, they are offering daily recorded Lectio Divina meditations during Lent. Check it out!

Happy and blessed reading!