Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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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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Newly minted novice

Last Thursday, December 10, 2015, the feast day of Our Lady of Loreto, I was received as a novice to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loretto Sisters) here in Toronto.

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As the day approached, I felt a mixture of joy and fear. Joy for this next step in my discernment and formation with the Institute, but also fear of the unknown and all of the newness that lies ahead when I go to the Philippines.

To prepare myself to be received, I spent time in prayer and reflection, using a booklet on consecrated life as my guide. I really only used the first couple of chapters of the guide, focused on the heart and mind of the consecrated person (identifying the call to religious life) and the response of the consecrated person (saying yes to the call). These alone provided plenty of fuel for reflection.

Experiencing a call to religious life is mysterious. It is hard to explain the drive and longing felt by someone called to religious life: the desire to give fully of oneself in the service of God and God’s people, and the profound desire to know God. I find it very difficult to express how much I long to know God, to understand God’s plan for the world. I have so many questions for God. I also feel a deep desire to serve God by caring for all people. And over time, I feel more and more drawn to life in community. I pondered all of these things as I waited to be received.

During the reception, I felt peaceful and joyful. I was moved by the joy of the sisters who participated in the reception, and I felt (and feel!) so grateful to be part of this community. There is so much life and love here.

I received the Loretto cross (which I happily and proudly wear) and gifts to help with my discernment during novitiate: a bible, the IBVM Constitutions, and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. All of these will come with me to the Philippines and help to guide me.

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So now, as a newly minted novice, I am trying to live fully each day with the community here and love these sisters as much as I can before I depart. And I am continuing to pester God, to try to know him better, and be open to the gifts and graces he has given me.

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Venerable Mary Ward, foundress of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pray for us.

 

 

 


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Breaking free from obligation

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Sometimes prayer feels easy and natural and I can’t wait to have some quiet time to spend with God. Other days it feels like a chore and I have to battle with myself to slow down and do it, all the while fighting off distracting thoughts and the desire to be doing something else. These days, particularly, as I am wrapped up in the “ending of my normal life” (which sounds rather melodramatic but is true) I find it hard to pay attention.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have talked about the Examen, a daily prayer recommended by St. Ignatius and a key tool for discernment. What I haven’t really mentioned is my own struggle to pray the Examen regularly, and frankly, to sometimes even be interested in praying it. It’s not completely about a lack of discipline on my part because I do pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day without fail, so I think the problem is more about motivation.

I find that the traditional formula for the prayer doesn’t quite do it for me right now, or rather, that it is too big and too broad for me. I get lost in it. These are the steps to the Examen, as directed by St. Ignatius:

  • The first Point is to give thanks to God our Lord for the benefits received.
  • The second, to ask grace to know our sins and cast them out.
  • The third, to ask account of our soul from the hour that we rose up to the present Examen, hour by hour, or period by period: and first as to thoughts, and then as to words, and then as to acts.
  • The fourth, to ask pardon of God our Lord for the faults.
  • The fifth, to purpose amendment with His grace.

Although the prayer is supposed to last only about 10 or 15 minutes maximum, I often become fixated on a specific point in my day or on my sins and the 15 minutes stretches into 20 minutes or longer. 20+ minutes of intense self-criticism – not at all the purpose of the Examen. I tend to put the emphasis on reliving the various events of my day rather than on seeing them in relation to God’s working in me. As a result, I often pray the Examen without a lot of enthusiasm, mostly out of a sense of obligation, and rarely feel enriched by it.

However, all of that is changing thanks to Reimagining the Examen by Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ.

I noticed this book on the bookstore shelf and flipped through it, after having seen it advertised online. I skimmed the introduction and thought I would give it a try. The author offers 34 varieties of the daily Examen, including the traditional version. Each follows a particular theme from Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, such as:

  • Spiritual freedom
  • A particular relationship
  • Habits
  • Gratitude
  • Repulsions, inspirations, desires

I’m about halfway through the book and already my practice of the Examen has changed quite significantly. I’m sticking to the 10-15 minutes daily quota but the 15 minutes is a richly focused reflection and dialogue with God (a crucial element that was not so robust in my previous practice). I enjoy the guided instructions – they help me to keep on track and keep to 15 minutes with minimum distraction or my mind wandering off.

The fact that each day is different and, at this point, since I am still making my way through the book, new, I find that I am actually excited to pray and I anticipate it during the day. I am also finding that keeping a journal of my Examen prayer is a very helpful way to see how God is present in my life. It’s only one sentence but it summarizes that day’s experience and it helps me to keep fresh in my mind how God has been active in my life that day.

So for anyone who may want to start the practice of the Examen or for those who may currently find it a challenge, I recommend that you READ THIS BOOK.


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Heading into the homestretch

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I received my official acceptance letter to the IBVM novitiate a few weeks ago. It was exciting to hold in my hand the proof of my acceptance and to know that I will be entering into the next stage of formation with the community.

I’m sure a lot of people think that religious communities these days are pretty desperate to have new members so basically anyone who walks through the door is guaranteed a spot. Not so. There was a lot of work involved in that acceptance: interviews, discussions, paperwork (you’d be surprised to find out that religious institutes like paperwork as much as the government does!), not to mention my intensive psychological assessment at Southdown in the spring. Needless to say, I am very happy to be accepted and I am looking forward to becoming a novice…and going to the Philippines!

But before I write about that upcoming adventure, I want to talk about the here and now. I’m entering into the homestretch of my time as a candidate. I’m starting to wrap things up at work (only a month left!), I’ve been trying to squeeze in as much time with family and friends as possible (I’ve been to Ottawa twice this month to see friends and to spend time in the office, and I’ve been to Calgary to see family), and I’ve been studying like mad to retest my French levels for my job.

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I’ve also been trying to get my financial life in order – my house and old life that’s tucked away in a storage unit in Ottawa – so that it takes care of itself while I’m a novice. In a sense, I am starting to distance myself from my current-soon-to-be-former life. At times, it has felt overwhelming. I’ve cried quite a few times, mostly in the chapel during prayer. The closer I approach the novitiate, the more excited I become, but also the more scared I feel. What am I doing? Is this really the right thing to do? What if it all goes horribly wrong and I’m far away from home? What if I suck at being a novice? And really, what exactly will I be doing for a full year in a tropical country – how much praying can I possibly do?

Thankfully, I have had a lot of support from family, friends, and the community so I haven’t gone totally berserk yet. And most importantly, each day I give God my fears, my hopes, my worries, and my busyness and ask him to see me through it all. Day by day and checklist by checklist. Because in the end, all of this work, all of this preparation, and all of my life, is for him.

 


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Provincial Assembly 2015

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Last weekend our community held its annual Provincial Assembly. All members of the Canadian Province were invited to the Abbey to discuss the Calls (outcomes) that emerged from the Institute-wide General Congregation (GC) that took place in Spain last September. The General Congregation marked the end of the term of the past General Council in Rome, and the election of a new General Council and mandate. The Calls are what form the mandate for the next 8 years. The Calls from GC14 are:

  1. Reclaim the freshness of the Gospel, allowing Jesus to transform our lives.
  1. Bring those forced to live in poverty to the centre of our life and ministry.
  1. Go where the need is greatest.
  1. Live sustainably, discerning what is enough.
  1. Create the oneness that moves us across boundaries.

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I attended the day and a half long event with eagerness and excitement. Since I am still a candidate and not a fully professed member of the Institute, I felt very privileged to be able to participate and share my thoughts. The table discussions were very rich.

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There was a significant focus on the first call – a real excitement to rediscover the gospel message, begin Mary Ward Circles (prayer circles) for gospel reflection, and look more closely at the New Evangelization. Everyone agreed that Call 1 is the foundation for the rest of the Calls and paramount to the life of the Institute.

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Through our discussions on poverty and sustainable living, I learned in more detail about some of the ministries undertaken by individual sisters, the gifts and strengths of the Institute in Canada, as well as the challenges it is facing. There is much that can be done and I sensed a great desire among the sisters to carry these Calls out into action.

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I was very impressed by the openness and candour of the discussions. Certainly, there are many challenges ahead facing this ageing community, but I was struck by the hope and optimism that coloured our conversations, and the trust that God will always provide what is needed. At the end of the Assembly, I felt very much that I had just been part of a family gathering. My experience at the Assembly was for me another confirmation from God that this is where I am meant to be.

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Meeting Sr. Cyril

videostillImage taken from: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/1999/09/03/september-3-1999-mother-teresas-legacy/2847/ 

Sr. Cyril Mooney, ibvm visited us at Loretto Abbey for a couple of weeks in May and June. I had heard a lot about her from the sisters here, about her work in India and her gregarious personality, so I was very keen to meet her.

She travelled to the U.S to receive an honourary doctorate from St. Michael’s College in Burlington, Vermont before coming to Canada. Her work to educate children in India has been recognized through a number of awards and honours.

Even from the short time that I spent in her company, I could see that Sr. Cyril is a force to be reckoned with. Very determined and focused, she has spent much of her life trying to alleviate the struggles of the poor in India through education. She taught and was principal at Loreto Sealdah school in Calcutta, and implemented a number of innovative programs there. The school caters to children from both poor and wealthy areas of Calcutta, but because the girls all wear uniforms there is no distinction between them. In the school they are equals.

The girls are taught to bear responsibility for others and actually help to teach the “Rainbow Children” (the children from the streets who come to the school for classes and who also receive food and shelter). What I also found fascinating was the outreach she and her students do to help children that are involved in domestic labour and are unable to attend school. The students go around to homes where they suspect that children are being used as domestic servants and use a variety of methods, including asking the children to come out to play, to try to put an end to the practice. Children are empowered to help other children in need and to realize their right to education and grow to their full potential. I really think this is amazing.

But what struck me most about Sr. Cyril, even more than her many accomplishments and innovative practices, was her obvious deep love for the children she works with. It was plain to see that it is this love that has motivated her and has kept her working so hard throughout her life. It was beautiful to witness and deeply inspiring.