Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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Immersed in the UN

United Nations Headquarters in New York City

After a busy two weeks of finishing up papers and wrapping up my first semester at Regis College, and celebrating Holy Week and Easter with the IBVM community, I’ve now embarked on the next stage of my formation of my second year of novitiate. This time from New York City.

I am here for the next three months on an immersion experience to learn about the work of our IBVM non-governmental organization at the United Nations (IBVM UN NGO). I’m working with our UN representative to find out how the IBVM engages the world at the UN and contributes to its aims.

The past few days have been eye-opening and so enjoyable. I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about the activities of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) at the UN, and how NGOs work with this body. I’ve attended a couple of NGO committee meetings – one on social development/social protection and the other on global citizenship. It has been incredible to meet people of different backgrounds who are coming together to work on a shared cause.

Quite a bit of the UN system is familiar to me, having worked for several years on the children’s rights file (including National Child Day) for the Canadian federal government. I know a lot of the lingo and the mechanisms for achieving the work. But a big difference I’ve noticed already is the challenge of working together as a collective of different organizations as a coalition rather than departments of one federal government (though there were times it was challenging to work together as diverse departments!). To me, it seems much harder as a group of NGOs to come together to determine a mandate, a direction, and steps for taking action. In the government, generally the mandate and direction is set for you in some way – usually determined by the Minister or the Cabinet, informed by the directives set by international organizations (in the case of children’s rights). But in this instance, the international organization (the UN) provides directives for engaging in its processes but the specific mandate of each group is determined by that group, which is informed by a number of factors, including the work of other groups/coalitions (there are over 5000 NGOs at the UN!). Although it can be overwhelmingly bureaucratic, I find the process fascinating.

The results are important too, of course. But oftentimes, in an institutional setting, focusing on the results isn’t always the best way to go. Institutions work slowly. They take two steps forward then one step back. There is a lot of waiting and frustration involved. I got a taste of that on Wednesday at a meeting I attended: we were talking about how to get a particular concept on the social development agenda and it seemed that the best strategy was an incremental approach of inserting basic wording into a resolution, and then feeding that resolution into various meetings and assemblies over the next year or so. And then the real work could be built up from there. There are very few issues that advance quickly in large institutions and I was reminded of the patience and dedication required when trying to make changes at the systems level. It’s definitely not as fulfilling or as gratifying as changes that take place on local levels.

After only a few days, I can feel my policy instincts revving up again after laying dormant for the past year and half. The adrenaline is starting to surge through my bloodstream. I’m excited to be here and to contribute to the aims of our NGO in any way that I can. I’m also approaching this time here with all of the treasures I accumulated from my time in Manila and all of the experiences and encounters I had there.

I come now with a firsthand perspective of the poverty, environmental degradation, political corruption, and social stagnation that hinders developing countries. And I come with personal stories that fuel my desire to move this work forward. I come with the stories of my boys at the center for street children, and the stories of the caregivers and the children of the Virlanie Foundation, and the stories of the men and women I met in the neighbourhood where I lived. In the work I did prior to entering the IBVM, I didn’t have that personal experience to drive my work. I loved it and I did it with a love for the theoretical people in need. Now I will do it with a deep and profound love for the real people I have met who are in need and who will benefit so much from systemic change.

Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You


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Go to the limits of your longing

In response to my last blog post, a very thoughtful Loretto Sister sent me a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a beautiful poem and so I would like to share it here.

“Go to the Limits of Your Longing”

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
Go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

You can hear it read by Joanna Macy here.


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Unpredictable grace

I had an unpleasant encounter this morning on my way to the church where I volunteer with a breakfast program for the homeless. It was an encounter that left me feeling shaken and unsettled.

It was dark when I left home this morning and the streets were quiet. Not many people are out at 6:30 on a Saturday morning. I started out on my usual route towards the streetcar. Half a block from home I noticed a man walking up the street towards me. I could tell he was agitated. He moved his arms erratically at his side, like he was striking out at some imaginary person next to him. I knew that I should get out his way so I moved over to the edge of the sidewalk, practically walking along the curb. I thought he would just pass me by. But instead he darted towards me, muttered something about “white woman” (he was a black man), spat on my face, swore at me, and then took off.

For a second I froze, shocked at what had just occurred. And then I ran. A bus was parked at the end of the block so I ran up to it and got on. The driver was already on the phone with the police, having just had a similar encounter with the same man. I saw the spittle all over the window that shields the driver. When the police arrived, they were very kind and compassionate. They took a statement from me, offered me medical services, and even gave me a ride to the church so I wouldn’t be too late for volunteering. They were compassionate towards me but they were also compassionate towards the man who had caused the incidents. They were concerned about finding him and getting him into a treatment program for mental illness (I think he was known to them) rather than being concerned about punishment.

Despite the kindness of the police, I arrived at the breakfast program feeling upset. I do not like unpredictability. Especially when it has a violent quality. I guess no one does. But a fear of unpredictability, particularly the unpredictability of mental illness, kept me from reaching out to the homeless for many years even though I felt called to work with them. Unpredictability makes me feel vulnerable and I really don’t like feeling vulnerable. So my encounter this morning took me to a low place and it affected my perspective of the guests at the breakfast program. I found myself withdrawing from them, not wanting to look them in the eyes or engage with them too much as I served food. My smile felt fake. I watched the men suspiciously, expecting them to act with aggression. I knew that I was judging them as I served them and I felt disappointed in myself. For the five or six weeks that I have been volunteering with the program, I have loved it. I felt open and free and full of love for all the people that I met. And then in one morning, I felt my heart close up.

I know that this is not what God wants. God has called me to this ministry to love. To give my love to those I encounter, God’s love manifested in me, and to receive love as well. Not to be scared and shut myself up. When I came home later in the morning I spent time praying about what had happened. I talked to God about my fear and my reaction to fear and my disappointment in myself. I felt God’s gentle consolation.

There was grace at work in that early morning encounter and the unpredictability, frightening as it was. There was grace at work at the breakfast program. God was present. I thought back to my 30-Day retreat and the grace of knowing that Jesus is my best friend and that he is always with me. I remembered the graces I received for mission and discipleship and the freedom I experienced. With Jesus at my side, fear won’t hold me back. I will keep on going.

Please say a prayer for the homeless men and women in our city. And please say a prayer for me too.


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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.


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Renewal – Obedience

Mary Ward’s obedience to the will of God led her to found the IBVM.

The vow of obedience is a topic I haven’t yet broached on this blog. Last October/November I wrote about the vows of poverty and chastity but didn’t get around to obedience (a Freudian slip?). I became engrossed in my immersion experience in Lipa and didn’t feel drawn to write about obedience after that. But the lack of a post has been duly noted and will be rectified at some point in the nearish future.

As I read through the archive material on obedience I became very aware of how differently the vow was lived out in the pre-Vatican II world of IBVM religious life. I have great respect for the sisters of that time who lived the practice of being sent for mission without any consultation. That would be a great challenge for me. I have to admit that I feel deep gratitude that I am living in an era of religious life where that is no longer the practice. Here are a few selections from the 1967 Renewal Chapter that stood out to me. I suspect that the living out of the vow of obedience has continued to evolve since that time.

The apostolic nature of obedience is basic to our vocation and its ultimate norm is the will of the Father, sought and found through a deep spirit of faith in the decisions of superiors whose role it is to “serve rather than please”.

A key aspect of the newer approach to obedience is the prior consultation with the sisters before the superior makes a decision. This is rather a mutual ‘discernment of spirits’, listening to the Spirit, than a democratic majority rule…

The stress today is upon total life commitment rather than minute prescriptions, upon the importance of forming one’s conscience, upon obedience as ‘being sent’, upon individual discernment regarding exceptions, upon personal responsibility for the permissions one asks, upon the necessity for mutual openness and humility.


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Renewal – Chastity

Chastity frees us to move out into the world and to respond with love.

I’ve written about chastity before so I won’t go into much detail here. But as I read the Chapter of Renewal notes, I was struck again by the beauty of the vow of chastity and its gift of opening us up to the world.

The motive of Chastity is love of God; the result of Chastity is instense love of neighbour; it is nourished by a spirit of prayer. Our Chastity frees us for deep, personal relationships with one another. Rather than a protective attitude, it engenders a continual growing in love, and a continuing going out to others. 

This makes demands on us: openness to the Holy Spirit’s urging; a learning to accept love; mutual acceptance and reciprocal giving. It is God Who first loved us and Who gives us the capacity to love. The test of love is not emotion, but trust and service; ultimately love is a mystery.