Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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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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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!

 


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To live the Constitutions

A follower of Mary Ward, just like a Jesuit, can only be someone who has experienced what it is to be loved unconditionally by God, who has at least to some degree attained indifference, who knows (again experientially) what is it is to be a forgiven sinner, who has been profoundly attracted by the person of Jesus Christ and become committed to his project, who has learnt the art of discernment through being wisely accompanied, at least once, in making a life-changing decision, who has entered into the suffering and death of Jesus Christ and received intimations of his risen life and glory, who embraces herself, her life, other people and all creation as gift, hence becoming sensitized spiritually to recognize God in all things. Without these graces no one can understand, still less live, the Constitutions. They are not addressed to anyone else.

From: O’Leary, Brian. “‘Hither I Must Come to Draw’ Mary Ward and the Ignatian Constitutions.” The Way 51.3 (2012). p.35

I love this passage. I came across it during my reading last week and it has stayed with me. I have been pondering it for several days. For me, it sums up beautifully the relationship between the Spiritual Exercises and living out our Constitutions. We live by grace.

 


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As it all becomes real

When I arrived home from our 30-day retreat, after making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I quickly unpacked my suitcase. I hung up my clothes and put my books in order on the shelf. I put away my toothbrush and my shampoo and I settled back into the routine of regular life.

But the graces of the retreat I am unpacking at a much slower rate. Slower than a snail’s pace. In a sense, it feels like I am not so much unpacking the experiences of the retreat but that the graces, or gifts, that I experienced during the retreat, are making themselves real in my everyday life.

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Love

I received the grace of God’s love in many ways during the retreat. Perhaps the most powerful, or foundational, experiences of God’s love, were felt in the first week. As I immersed myself in the various moments of prayer each day, I was slowly able to  recognize God’s presence and love in all aspects of my life, from the moment of my birth until the present. I felt, powerfully, that I am God’s child and that I am loved unconditionally. That grace, which continued to build throughout the four weeks, has only strengthened in the time that has passed following the retreat. Each day I wake up in the morning and I know that I am loved. I may not always feel the “warm fuzzies” of love but I know in the core of my being that I am loved. And that knowledge makes each day a joy to be discovered and savoured.

 

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Freedom

I received the grace of freedom in myriad ways during the retreat: through deeper self-knowledge and self-acceptance, through understanding my sinfulness and relinquishing my sins before God, and through the desire to surrender all of myself and my life to God. Again, it was in the first week that the foundations of the grace of freedom were laid. When I had truly experienced God’s love for me, I was able to look at myself honestly, without the masks I have worn during my life, and to see my sinfulness (and my beautiful potential), and offer it all to God. I made a general confession (a confession that covered all of the sins of my life) which made me quite nervous at first but was my liberation. I felt such a sense of freedom and release from all of the things that had been holding me back from living my life fully and from being fully present to God. The feeling of freedom grew during the retreat and I believe it was crucial to my ability to receive the subsequent graces of the retreat.

Back at home now, the grace of freedom is active in my life. I feel greater freedom in relationships, in experiencing the ups and downs of the novitiate, and in discerning this vocation and whatever the future may hold. It’s a feeling of being open to God working in me, leading me, and guiding me, and of trusting in God.

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Friendship

The most profound grace I experienced during the retreat was the grace of friendship with Jesus. All of the graces felt profound, of course, but when I experienced the gift of friendship, I had the sense that this changes everything.

During the second week, I experienced some significant resistance in prayer and I struggled to stay engaged. At one point, I got so fed up, feeling that the Exercises were contrived and I was being forced to try to experience things that I just couldn’t experience, and I was about to give up. In the middle of my interior fury, Jesus told me to go for a walk. I have rarely experienced what I consider a direct intervention from God, but in that moment, I heard Jesus, through my inner voice, tell me to go for a walk. So I went for a long walk with Jesus all over the retreat grounds. I experienced, almost tangibly, his presence, walking beside me and talking to me. He encouraged me and loved me, and he basically told me to get a grip. It was just what I needed. He made me laugh at myself and he pulled me out of desolation. In that moment, I understood in my heart that Jesus is truly my friend and he is walking through life with me.

Later that week, the knowledge of friendship was confirmed in my scriptural reflections. During one of my contemplations on the mission of the disciples, I had a joyful revelation that to share the gospel, to tell people about Jesus, is to talk about my friend. I felt a strong desire deep within to tell the whole world about my friend and about all of the amazing things he has done for me and how he has loved me.

In the fourth, and final, week of the retreat, I received the grace of knowing that Jesus is my best friend. Not just that Jesus is my friend but that Jesus is my best friend and he has always been with me. It was in that moment that I knew that this grace changes everything. I can see that my best friend has always been with me and will always be with me.  No matter what happens this year in the Philippines, or later in my life, I know that my best friend is with me through it all and is leading me. And because I trust my best friend and believe that he loves me and wants only the best for me, whatever I experience, whether joy or suffering, is a gift from my best friend. Most of all, I know that I want to live my life for my best friend. Since coming home from retreat, this grace has sustained me and given me energy and life each day. It’s exciting to live each day knowing that my best friend is at my side, sharing it all with me, and I don’t need to be afraid, no matter what happens.

 

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Discipleship

The grace of discipleship seemed to flow from the graces of freedom and friendship though they are very much intertwined. When I prayed with the mission of the disciples during the second week of the retreat, I felt an outpouring of graces, including the freedom and friendship I’ve already described. Freedom and friendship led me to an intense desire to be a disciple of Jesus (in my retreat journal, I named the grace as being ‘a radical disciple’). I’ve never experienced that kind of desire before. Generally, in the past, I have been hesitant to even use the word disciple to describe myself for fear of being seen as a sort of ‘Jesus freak’ and risk being rejected. But I think all of the retreat graces I have received have given me courage (although courage may be a separate grace altogether!), and through my prayer, I saw that what I truly want is to be a radical disciple of Jesus. I desire to leave everything behind and follow him, to go out into the world with nothing (the disciples went without food or money or an extra tunic!) except the freedom to share the good news with all that I meet.

The grace of discipleship has been made more real since the end of the retreat. For the past few weeks we have been studying our IBVM Constitutions (the rules and guidelines that govern our community), and many of the passages we have studied have resonated with that grace. I can see that my life as a sister in the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary is how I can live as a radical disciple of Jesus in total freedom and love.

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Compassion

The final retreat grace I would like to share is the grace of compassion. This particular grace I actually only recognized after the retreat ended. I didn’t notice it specifically during the retreat but I can see that it was a gift that I received. Certainly, over the course of the retreat, I learned to see myself with compassion – to see my faults and failings and my sinfulness, and knowing that I am loved by God, I am able to better love myself. As I prayed with the passion and death of Jesus, I was often moved with compassion for his pain and suffering, and felt greater love for him. In the days after the retreat, however, I can see most clearly the grace active in me. In the last couple of weeks, I have had to confront a couple of challenging situations that I know in the past would have caused me to become defensive and resentful. Instead, I felt a deep compassion that led me to be more loving, open, and understanding. It was proof to me that I am being transformed by God.

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What I have experienced so far after the retreat is, I know, just the tip of the iceberg. I experienced much more during the retreat than I am able to understand and process right now. I am grateful to have a journal full of the riches of my prayers that I can look back on, and I believe that God will continue to deepen my understanding and experience of these graces throughout the rest of my life.


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The flora and fauna of paradise

I’m still reflecting on the graces I received during the retreat and am taking time to process everything that happened but I wanted to share more photos of the retreat centre and its grounds. Here are my favourite photos of the beautiful plant and animal life that made the retreat centre such a special place.

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This was my usual view for my first prayer of the day. It was so wonderful to be outside.

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These flowers were fiery bright – I loved seeing them in the morning sun.

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These trees with aerial roots were amazing.

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I could see this tree out of my window. It became very special to me during the retreat.

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When we arrived it was so dry and the earth was cracked like this everywhere in the property. When we left it had begun to rain so the cracks were beginning to close up.

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My favourite place to pray in the late afternoon with the golden sun.

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The yellow version of this beautiful flower.

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I took this picture at the end of our retreat. You can see the grass is starting to turn green again.

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A seed pod beginning to open. It was the size of a corn cob!

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And here are the seeds embedded in a sort of cotton.

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Another favourite place to pray in the late afternoon.

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The sheep had free reign during the day to graze where they liked. They tended to follow a very particular route and timetable as they travelled the property. I usually saw this parade of sheep around 8:30am.

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Our beloved “mini lamb”, or “lambie”. Also known by his given name, “Cha-Cha”. As a little lamb with fleece as white as snow, he was spoiled by everyone. He was later adorned with a little cross pendant, like a little monk.

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A rear view of the two other lambs – they did not want to pose for a picture.

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The nocturnal amphibian.

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We couldn’t escape the roosters, even at the retreat centre – another noisy bunch.


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On Retreat

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We’re making a retreat! For the next month our home away from home will be Sacred Heart Retreat Center in Quezon City. The long retreat is an essential part of our IBVM formation. We make the 30 day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola once during our novititate and then again several years later before we make our final vows.

What are the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola?
(the following is taken from Ignatian Spirituality – a fantastic online resource!)

“The Spiritual Exercises grew out of Ignatius Loyola’s personal experience as a man seeking to grow in union with God and to discern God’s will. He kept a journal as he gained spiritual insight and deepened his spiritual experience. He added to these notes as he directed other people and discovered what “worked.” Eventually Ignatius gathered these prayers, meditations, reflections, and directions into a carefully designed framework of a retreat, which he called “spiritual exercises.”

Ignatius wrote that the Exercises: “have as their purpose the conquest of self and the regulation of one’s life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment.” He wanted individuals to undertake these exercises with the assistance of an experienced spiritual director who would help them shape the retreat and understand what they were experiencing. The book of Spiritual Exercises is a handbook to be used by the director, not by the person making the retreat.”

“Ignatius organized the Exercises into four “weeks.” These are not seven-day weeks, but stages on a journey to spiritual freedom and wholehearted commitment to the service of God.

First week. The first week of the Exercises is a time of reflection on our lives in light of God’s boundless love for us. We see that our response to God’s love has been hindered by patterns of sin. We face these sins knowing that God wants to free us of everything that gets in the way of our loving response to him. The first week ends with a meditation on Christ’s call to follow him.

Second week. The meditations and prayers of the second week teach us how to follow Christ as his disciples. We reflect on Scripture passages: Christ’s birth and baptism, his sermon on the mount, his ministry of healing and teaching, his raising Lazarus from the dead. We are brought to decisions to change our lives to do Christ’s work in the world and to love him more intimately.

Third week. We meditate on Christ’s Last Supper, passion, and death. We see his suffering and the gift of the Eucharist as the ultimate expression of God’s love.

Fourth week. We meditate on Jesus’ resurrection and his apparitions to his disciples. We walk with the risen Christ and set out to love and serve him in concrete ways in our lives in the world.”

– See more at: http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-spiritual-exercises/what-are-the-spiritual-exercises#sthash.JrlX61n9.dpuf

Ever since I first heard about the 30 day retreat I have longed to make one. It seems like such an incredible opportunity to spend a month in prayer in such a special and focused way. I feel so grateful to have this experience.
Please pray for us while we are on retreat!
I’ll be back again in May!

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