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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Welcoming the New Year

A frosty start to 2018.

A new year has begun.

The start of a new year always excites me. It’s a clean slate. A fresh beginning, with so many possibilities for what lies ahead. Like many people, I perform a little ritual each year. I spend some time taking stock of the previous year and I look ahead to the new and see what changes I might want to make to my life and what I might want to accomplish.

I like to make extensive lists of resolutions, mapping out the different components of my life – health and well-being, spiritual, economic, etc. I savour the act of setting goals and making plans to accomplish them. I find it energizing. And even if I don’t accomplish what I set out to do, I don’t get down about it because each new year gives me a new chance to do things differently.

This year, however, I don’t feel drawn to the same kind of lengthy list-making. My list is shorter and perhaps more integrated than in past years. This year I am doing some pondering along the lines of the IBVM vow formula and the two ancient commandments: to love God with all of my heart, my soul, my strength, and my mind, and to love my neighbour as myself. I am taking time this week to recall how I have loved over the past year as well as how I have not loved.

As I peer into 2018, I notice my desires for the year. How do I desire to love God with all of my heart, all of my soul, all of my strength, and all of my mind? How do I desire to love my neighbour as myself? I know that there are many areas of my life to work on – my relationships with others, my prayer life, and aspects of my health and well-being – how do these affect my ability to love? Where is God calling me to be and to act? This year I have set no goals for perfection, but I have a deep desire for transformation, for greater openness and a greater ability to give and to receive love.

Just as Pope Francis’ 2015 homily in New York City has been a touchstone for me these past few years – his reflection on “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” has given me consolation and inspiration – so too has the poetry of Malcolm Guite become a touchstone and guidepost for me. His poem Be Opened haunts me. There is no better word for it. The poem is Malcolm’s reflection on Mark 7:31-37, the healing of the deaf and mute man. This beautiful poem speaks to me of my desire to give and to receive love even as it reminds me of my many flaws and limitations. It rouses a deep yearning within me. I want to be opened, broken wide open, by God, so that this desire to love can be realized and manifested in the small actions of each day.

And so, as 2018 unfurls, I am guided by my heart’s deepest desires. As I face each day’s challenges, and as I fret about some thing or other, I will listen for God’s transformative words: Be opened.

Be Opened

Be opened. Oh if only we might be!
Speak to a heart that’s closed in on itself:
‘Be opened and truth will set you free’,
Speak to a world imprisoned in its wealth:
‘Be opened! Learn to learn from poverty’,
Speak to a church that closes and excludes,
And makes rejection its own litany:
‘Be opened, opened to the multitudes
For whom I died but whom you have dismissed
Be opened, opened, opened’, how you sigh
And still we do not hear you. We have missed
Both cry and crisis, we make no reply.
Take us aside, for we are deaf and dumb
Spit on us Lord and touch each tongue-tied tongue.
– Malcolm Guite


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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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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!