Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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True life is brimming

This is my first blog post as a professed member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. What a thrill! I now write as a Loretto Sister. (I can’t stop smiling as I write this!)

Two weeks ago, I made my first profession of vows. I vowed poverty, chastity, and obedience to God for one year, according the constitutions of the IBVM, in the witness of community, family, and friends. I felt totally surrounded by love as I made my vows. I rested in the love of God and in the love of so many of the ones I love who were there with me. Afterward, how we celebrated!

Now, we are almost at the end of Advent. Christmas is on the near horizon. As I look back on the readings I chose for my first profession, I see how beautifully Adventish (Advent-like? Adventful?) they are.

The first reading I selected is from Isaiah (Isaiah 9:1-4, 6), which we do usually read during the season of Advent:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time, he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shone. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Those who have read some of my other blog posts will know that these verses are particularly dear to me. I have referenced them before, when writing about Manila and about New York City, when I have looked for inspiration to the homily Pope Francis gave on these verses at Madison Square Garden in 2015.

My novice director, Jane, noted my love for this homily in the reflection she gave during the profession:

Pope Francis gave a homily in New York City in 2015. His reflection was on Isaiah’s words: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” His words have deep meaning for Sarah.

This is some of what he said.  “In every age, the People of God are called to contemplate this light; a light meant to shine on every corner of this city, on our fellow citizens, on every part of our lives.”  “Go out to others and share the good news that God walks at our side. … “God is living in our cities.”  …”God removes us from the fray of competition and self-absorption, and God opens before us the path of peace – that peace which is born of accepting others, that peace which fills our hearts whenever we look upon those in need as our brothers and sisters.”   

What strikes me this Advent are the lines: “God removes us from the fray of competition and self-absorption, and God opens before us the path of peace – that peace which is born of accepting others, that peace which fills our hearts whenever we look upon those in need as our brothers and sisters.”   

I feel a constant nudging from God to open my eyes to the needs of those around me, especially those on the margins of society, and to respond with love. I know that I am being nudged to something more, and especially to look at my own life and to ask myself if I am truly at peace or if this is a superficial contentment. Do I look on those in need as my brothers and sisters? If so, how can I accept injustice? These questions poke and prod me and they invite me to trust that God will show me how to respond.

As a second reading for my profession, I selected an excerpt from a letter Mary Ward wrote to her spiritual director, Fr. Roger Lee, SJ, in November 1615. The excerpt describes Mary’s vision of ‘The Just Soul’, that is, a description of the ideal qualities of a member of her Institute – a woman of freedom, justice, and sincerity.

It seems a certain clear and perfect estate, to be had in this life, and such a one as is altogether needful for those that should well discharge the duties of this Institute. I never read of any I can compare in likeness to it. It is not like the state of saints, whose holiness chiefly appears in that union with God which maketh them out of themselves; I perceived then an apparent difference, and yet felt myself drawn to love and desire this state more than all those favours.

The felicity of this state (for as much as I can express) was a singular freedom from all that could make one adhere to earthly things, with an entire application and apt disposition to all good works. Something happened also discovering the freedom that such a soul should have had to refer all to God…I seemed in my understanding to see a soul thus composed, but far more fair than I can express it.

It then occurred and still continues in my mind, that those in Paradise, before the first fall, were in this estate. It seemed to me then, and that hope remains still, that our Lord let me see it, to invite me that way, and because He would give me grace in time to arrive at such an estate, at least in some degree. That word justice, and those in former times that were called just persons, works of justice, done in innocence and that we be such as we appear; and appear such as we are – these things often since occurred to my mind with a liking of them… I have moreover thought up-on this occasion that perhaps this course of ours would continue til the end of the world, because it came to that in which we first begun.

Again, from my novice director’s reflection: …on the front cover [of the Mass booklet] is our founder, Mary Ward, travelling lightly, moving forward, free, apt for all good works. It connects to Mary Ward’s vision of a just soul that we heard in the second reading.  Here is an authentic person, without attachments, with an attitude of openness, and a freedom to refer all to God.  Knowing Sarah, how could she not be drawn to become like such a person?

During Advent, I reflect upon Mary Ward’s words and I see that these are just the qualities I desire in order to encounter Jesus at Christmastime. Christmas is a time of profound mystery – we read the stories of Jesus’ birth and we ponder how it is that God could come to us in the form of a helpless child. How do we prepare ourselves to meet this mystery? How do I prepare myself to meet this mystery? I look to Mary Ward and see a way forward. Using Mary Ward as my example, I strive to grow as a woman who is free, a woman who is just, and a woman who is sincere. I strive to be a woman who will meet Jesus in the manger at Christmastime and who will follow Jesus as his disciple until the end of her life.     

I think I will end this blog post with more words from Jane, who ended her reflection so perfectly (you can see where I borrowed the title for this post): I end with these words from Sarah’s favourite poet and songwriter, Malcolm Guite. He captures what I feel is Sarah’s disposition right now:

The heart is wide open, the true life is brimming
And yearning to come flowing through
I lay down my burden and walk to the well head
And drink and then bring some to you


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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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Praying with the music of Joni Mitchell

While walking along Bloor Street a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a sign advertising a ‘Rock Eucharist’ at The Church of the Redeemer, an Anglican parish, featuring the music of Joni Mitchell. Being a big Joni Mitchell fan, I was immediately intrigued.

It’s rare to find experimentation like this in the Roman Catholic Mass so I really wasn’t too sure what to expect from the Rock Eucharist. I have to say that I was enchanted by it. It was prayerful, reverent, meaningful, and, yes, experimental.

The Ice Offering. In 2000, I visited my grandmother in Saskatoon and she took me to the Mendel Art Gallery to see “voices”, an exhibition of Joni Mitchell’s artwork. Her paintings, like her music, are evocative.

The themes of creation and conservation were woven throughout the liturgy, drawing from the same themes found in the music selected for the evening. We sang “Big Yellow Taxi” as the opening song, “Woodstock” as a sort of responsorial psalm, “Both Sides Now” as the offertory, “Passion Play (When All the Slaves Are Free)” as the communion song, and “Love” as the closing. The combination of the music and the prayer was powerful, and to be honest, because I found it so unusual, I was very attentive to all of the details.

Middle Point

What I found was that the break from the liturgy routine I am used to opened me up to a renewed encounter with God, hearing God speak to me in new language. It also gave me a deeper appreciation for the spirituality and soul-searching qualities of Joni Mitchell’s music. Long have I admired and enjoyed her work and to hear her music in the setting of a liturgy gave it a deeper richness for me.

Both Sides 2

I hadn’t heard her song “Love” before, a meditation on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13). It’s beautiful and compels me to meditate on Paul’s letter myself.

Love

Although I speak in tongues
Of men and angels
I’m just sounding brass
And tinkling cymbals without love

Love suffers long
Love is kind!
Enduring all things
Love has no evil in mind

If I had the gift of prophecy
And all the knowledge
And the faith to move the mountains
Even if I understood all of the mysteries
If I didn’t have love
I’d be nothing
Love never looks for love
Love’s not puffed up
Or envious
Or touchy
Because it rejoices in truth
Not in iniquity
Love sees like a child sees
As a child I spoke as a child
I thought and understood as a child
But when I became a woman
I put away childish things
And began to see through a glass darkly

Where as a child I saw it face to face
Now I only know it in part
Fractions in me
Of faith and hope and love
And of these great three
Love’s the greatest beauty
Love
Love
Love

– Joni Mitchell

 


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To pray and feast and give thanks

Art by Susan Daily, ibvm

On Monday we celebrated Thanksgiving at Loretto College – my first Thanksgiving with the community here – and what a joyful celebration it was! With guests from near and far, we gathered together to pray and feast and give thanks for the blessings in our lives. For me, it was an experience of family, of friendship, and of the interdependence of community that marks religious life. Each person’s contribution to the gathering was a gift to be enjoyed.

As I draw nearer to first profession, I am spending time in gratitude. Gratitude for all of the people in my life, for all of the twists and turns of my life that have led me thus far, and for all of the graces God has given me and continues to give.

As I dwell in gratitude, I have been drawn to the poetry of Malcolm Guite. I savour his poems and have prayed with them over the past several months. I share with you his poem on Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving starts with thanks for mere survival,

Just to have made it through another year
With everyone still breathing. But we share
So much beyond the outer roads we travel;
Our interweavings on a deeper level,
The modes of life embodied souls can share,
The unguessed blessings of our being here,
The warp and weft that no one can unravel.

So I give thanks for our deep coinherence
Inwoven in the web of God’s own grace,
Pulling us through the grave and gate of death.
I thank him for the truth behind appearance,
I thank him for his light in every face,
I thank him for you all, with every breath.

– Malcolm Guite

You can listen to Malcolm read his poem here.


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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!