Friday, July 24, 2015

Re-entry & Two Voices

Sorry for a bit of radio silence there folks! For the last four weeks I have been away on retreat in Cape May and then was studying at Boston College, but have no fear- I have returned and hopefully new reflections on my time away will be up here soon. Suffice it to say, for now, that the time was refreshing and rejuvenating.

In the meantime, you can read my latest column on the Global Sisters Report: "Speaking with two voices, listening to one." In it I deal with the tenuous role of the voices you come to speak with and have to possess as a vowed religious. Not an easy space to navigate but hopefully I've been able to put words to my experience and my many and varied feeling around this all.  Here's a sneak peak:

Being a young religious sister means you represent a lot of things to a lot of people. You are an anomaly; you are the image of a teacher/counselor/nurse/confidant/relative from the past; you are a beacon of hope or a bearer of harsh realities. You come to embody the church. And, whether you like it or not, you will be called upon, time and time again, to represent issues and viewpoints much larger than yourself.

In many ways, you can get lost behind the title and qualifier of “sister.” Before they know you, people will read their opinions on to you. And even after they’ve engaged with you, many will make assumptions about where you stand on subjects. Marriage Equality. Women’s Ordination. Pope Francis. No matter the topic, there are presumptions of how I feel and think.

I don’t know if it’s a reality that I will ever get used to, yet I know that this is my reality: I am in the unique possession of two voices – my own and that of an authority far greater than just me.
I speak for myself, but I also speak on behalf of my congregation, my church and my faith. The responsibility is as tremendous as it is ridiculous. It is a position that requires prudence and humility, as well as a healthy dose of humor.

How can one person embody a whole system, its values and its truth? How can she be held accountable for the actions of an institution she finds herself a faithful member of? How does one reconcile the two voices they hold in tandem? These are the questions I find myself beholden to.

The answers to these questions aren’t easy, first and foremost, because our world isn’t so starkly binary. We operate in a world of in-betweens, a world of grey. Anyone who ministers, be they a committed lay person, a religious brother, a priest or a woman religious, knows this reality. We have to uphold our obligations and commitments to those we serve, both the organizations we belong to and those who place their trust in us as representatives. That trust gives us a distinct authority and responsibility in our interactions with others. It (whether rightfully or not) makes us agents of truth.

As a result, we must respond and act with compassion. A pastoral response is the only response.

The nature of such a response can be complicated. To be pastoral does not mean dismissing doctrine. It does, however, mean vowing to do no harm. That is the trust others place in us, that we will act responsibly, love fully, embrace vulnerability, and embody compassion. And that’s where having two voices takes on another dimension.

Recently, while I was away taking theology classes for the summer, a fellow student and friend pulled me aside before class. “Did you hear the news?” she asked looking at me wide eyed, “About the teacher in Philadelphia?”

I nodded. I knew the story; the head of the religious education department at an academy run by a group of women religious hadn’t had her contract renewed after a complaint was filed by a parent about her same-sex marriage. The school had cited the upholding of its Catholic identity in its letter to the community, a defense applauded by the bishop and supported by the congregation. My friend spoke vehemently about what she saw as the injustice of it all. How could this happen? What could be done? Why stay in the church? Is there any hope?

She looked deep into my eyes as I listened to the pain and struggle she shared. Suddenly, she took a step back. “I’m sorry,” she said breaking eye contact, shaking her head to loosen her focus. “I know you deal with this all the time . . . it’s your life . . . I just needed to say something to someone.”

I thanked her for trusting me and offered what I could: compassion, hope and understanding.

I could hear my voice speaking – a mix of my own desires for the church, my deep belief in God’s love, and an active attentiveness to and acknowledgement of her feelings. The two voices within me intertwining in response.

“I don’t know what more I can say,” I uttered softly, focusing with empathy on her eyes. This is my life. I thought to myself.
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No matter what we say, in whatever voice, speaking with reverence is pivotal. In that moment (like so many other moments), I had the opportunity to give voice to the love of God for all people.

That love knows no bounds.

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Changing Call

Over the last year, I've come to the realization that my call to religious life has changed. It isn't gone, but it is distinctly different. In my latest column for the Global Sisters Report, I try to explain the nature of this change. I don't think it's just me either...it's the nature of call.  For our church, our society, and each one of us, our call is changing. Recognizing that is the first step in more consciously living out our call. Below is the first part of the column with a link to it in its entirety. Enjoy!
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There’s a tightness in my chest that is hard to explain. I can’t remember when it first started or on what occasion it became noticeable. In a way, it feels like it has always been there, loosening and tightening over time. Like a band wrapped tightly around my chest, it binds up my heart; not in a painful way but as a steadfast reminder of a presence deeper than myself. In simplest terms, it’s the feeling I get when I find myself deep in prayer. And for good or for ill, it’s also what I’ve come to associate with call.

A friend once told me, she’d considered religious life and could see herself becoming a sister except for one small thing: the call.  “I can do the apostolic works, the study, the community, but I don’t know if I know what it means to be called” she said, “is it a voice or a feeling or what?”

That’s a hard question to answer. God speaks differently to different people. (My friend would also take issue, I’m sure, with what it means to “hear God’s call” on grounds that call is something far beyond a momentary utterance.)  For me, though, there’s a deep sense of serenity, a steadfast groundedness that signifies that sense of being called.

For a long time, I didn’t know what to do with that feeling. In prayer, in writing, in service, in reflection, and in conversations, it would surface. It came and went freely; yet it stayed present enough in my muscle memory that I could never forget it.  I recall times as I was discerning religious life that I actively ran from that feeling and yet each time it came, I knew I was in the right place.

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Sitting across from my formation director a few weeks ago, I panicked: that feeling was missing.  It had been for months and as I looked back at my first year as a professed woman religious, I wondered what might be happening.

At the end of a year heavy in transition, I knew that feeling wasn’t gone, yet in the moment I couldn’t exactly feel it.  God has had a firm hold on me, but the tightness I cherish has been intermittent.  “My call has changed.” I stammered out to my director. 

What I thought this year might be, it wasn’t. My call to religious life felt different than I thought it would. And to my dismay and delight, I’ve discovered this is a changing call.

And that’s the thing about call: you answer the call awesomely unaware of where it will lead you and all it will drag you through.  This almost always guarantees that life and call will feel different than you thought they would.  The answer isn’t to run, though, it’s to keep discerning.

My sense of God’s call has shifted. The white hot lightning of initial fervor has cooled, making way for a tempered tension, reliant on prayer, reflection, and balance. Passion percolates with nuance in a way that’s become more apparent in the months and years since I first answered the call to religious life. I’ve come to realize that what I feel called to hasn’t changed, how I feel called, though, has. 

In time, part of this call has become more apparent: being called is about recognizing a need and filling it.  That need is not just in the world, it’s also in yourself.  I need to be here. Not because my religious congregation needs me, but because in order to live the life I am called to- a life dedicated to Jesus- I need to live my life for now as a religious sister.  This need is one that has been underscored over time.  If I hadn’t met God in a very real and tangible way in my life would I still be here?  If this way of life didn’t allow me to foster and focus on that relationship, would I remain? Probably not.  I need to be bound up in love; in a tightness that frees me by holding me close in a world of risk, uncertainty, and instability.

In the day-to-day, holding firm and staying focused explicitly on call can be difficult. What we are called to is embodied in how we live and who we are. Day-to-day life tempers idealism, draws us into relationship with the world and others, and changes the way we understand call. If call means living, it is the life we live that influences the way we hear the call, melding together the theoretical and the actual in what we hope is harmony.

In that way, we come to realize that the call is not something that is answered once and for all. The call requires living. And such a requirement is sure to be messy.  Living the call presents surprising changes to our lives. We are changed in the process of answering.  “What you want me to do”; “who you want me to be”; and “what I actually know” become questions relative to a call that leads ultimately and primarily to Christ.

So, how do I know this call is the same despite its new feel? I know it because I feel it in the same place even if in a different way.  Like a foreign touch that produces a familiar sensation, it is a changing call that tightens the heart as an act of constriction, not restriction.  Thus the heart beats, bringing life, growth, and strength to the body as it is stretched in new ways of listening to and living out the call every day.

Such growth comes from openness to the Spirit.  We change in the act of answering the call, becoming, in the process, more authentically who God has called us to be.  This process is one of renewal and reawakening. With intention and the Spirit, we come to hear in a new way, live in a new way, and love God in new ways. 


And I can’t help but think that this changing call is not just on an individual level.  As a church, as religious communities, and as the People of God, our call is changing too.  We are called to love and to live the Gospel. And so, the same question proceeds- not what are we called to do, that’s constant, but- how we are being called to do so...  



Thursday, June 18, 2015

Be Generous.

I have been away these past few days at the national conference for the Association of Colleges of the Sisters of Saint Joseph (ACSSJ) at Elms College in Chicopee, MA. Yet today as I sat in sessions about how we might refocus our mission, how we can learn from the Second Vatican Council, and how we work with dysfunction and allow the Spirit to flow in all things, I am struck by a sentiment that rings true in the midst of all that this day has held.  From the release of the Pope's latest encyclical to the tragic shooting in Charleston, one feeling...one imperative strikes me: Be generous.

Beyond all else, let us be generous to one another. Let us lavish love upon those who deserve it and those we might not think do. Why? Because that isn't our call. For all that frustrates us, let there be a spirit of generosity that lives within us.  Let us give to others, for in giving generously, we receive generously.  Where you doubt others or yourself, have faith... give freely... try to find hope where all else points to hopelessness.

That can be hard and still we try.

Sitting in a workshop this morning, the presenter said something that struck me. He quoted part of Pope John XXIII's first encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram, which falsely attributes this quote to Augustine: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." 


And reading this quote he stated simply- the worst thing we can do in creating dialogue and relationship is to sin against charity.  We must give fully to the one in front of us.  This doesn't mean ignoring what is but instead it means offering a openness and sincerity in consideration and love for the one you are in relationship with.  We share the essentials of our being and life; we allow others to be in what is not essential; and in coming to discover all that is in between we offer charity of Spirit and being. 

Be Generous; Love Freely; Practice Charity; and sanctity will flourish.

 Amen.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

To Love and to let go

I don't think I have a story to go with this post. I just have the simple insight gained: that to learn to love is also to learn to let go.


I imagine the disciples watching as Christ ascended into heaven. They needed to let go, just as I'm sure Jesus was learning to let go too.  The relationship between them was not ending; it was changing.  He wouldn't be here with them in the same way, but still he wasn't gone. They need not stand and wait for his return. No, his return would be in their love, made manifest in their living and discovered in the eyes and arms of others.  That is where they would find him. I can say that because for anyone who has found God- who has fallen in love with the Divine- that is how we've done it... in others, in prayer, in experiences...in some way other than explicit, literal, actual face-to-face contact.

The last week has been full of goodbyes.  As I come to the end of my first year of full time ministry as a Sister of St. Joseph, I realize the intense nature of the relationships we maintain. We are relational people.  We live and work so that all people may be in union with God and with one another. That's who we are; that's who I am. At times, I'm not very good at that. At other times, by grace, it comes easily. Either way though, hard or easy, relationships come and with/in them there is love.  It's a love beyond bounds of being. It means being vulnerable. Opening yourself to the love of another and discovering what happens in the process.

A friend posted earlier in the week on Facebook about how life turns out. She wondered aloud- Does anyone's life turn out how they expected? Is being flexible with one's expectations make for a happier life? Can one be too open to what happens next in life?

Reading those questions, I wondered. Has my life turned out how I expected? Have my expectations changed?  How am I still discovering who I am? and in what ways, am I striving to most perfectly (and thus imperfectly) be myself?

Talking to another friend later in the week, we drew the conclusion that life is complicated.  And despite what we might hope, life is just going to keep being complicated. 

In the end, I guess, we just have to learn to live in the complications. Live in, not with. To "live with" is to passively acquiesce to it all; to "live in" is to say yeah this is complicated, but it's also life...my life and I'm going to live and love in it no matter what.

Sometimes that requires letting go. It means being a little less serious so you can just be  and so, ultimately, love can do its work in you and through you.  You're changed.  The hope is that that change is for the better (and if you let go a little, lean in to God and trust, it probably is). Then you can most fully be yourself and you can allow those around you to be themselves- the very person you love them most for being.

And there's something freeing in that... something complicated... something called Life. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Poem behind the Post: Tiny Resurrections

My latest column for the Global Sisters Report is entitled "Tiny Resurrections". In it, I reflect on the grace that we can find when things don't turn out how we'd like or expect.  It comes from my own experience of this year's Easter Triduum. Before the column came this poem, so take a minute and read the two. Easter blessings and happy wandering!

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To each his own
hidden moments of Resurrection

There among the tatters
of the everyday

Grace freely given
if I am free enough to receive

like the working mother
who makes change from the collection basket

The light of a star
above a path
that though in darkness
promises direction always

We journey these days in faith
believing there is more
and finding apart from what is expected
moments of resurrection
fragments of grace giving new life
everyday, always.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Sister

As I've done before, I've written a post for my religious community's blog, Sharing the Joy of Vocation.  The piece is entitled "The Sister"; below is a copy of the piece and a link to the episode of Everybody Loves Raymond I reference. Be sure to check the blog out and enjoy!
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"The Sister"

One night at the end of January, I got a text from my father who was away visiting family in Louisiana.  He’s not one to text often, so I perked up when I saw the notification on my phone. “Watching the 'Everybody Loves Raymond' episode where Debra’s sister announces she’s becoming a nun,” he wrote, “Hilarious (with some serious sides of self-reflection).

 I paused for a moment when I read those words.  I had never seen that episode, but the fact that he indicated that it had prompted some self-reflection on his part made me want to pry more deeply.  “Hahaha,” I wrote back “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that one; you’ll have to tell me about it.”

"Go to YouTube,” he responded, giving me the episode number and title. No luck getting an explanation. Dads can be tough nuts to crack. So, I did the next best thing - I watched the episode and pondered what might have prompted his reflection.

 Right off the bat, there’s a lot to love about the episode. It’s funny whether you are a sister or not. As every episode of Raymond does, “The Sister” looks at family dynamics and how we function in the midst of the stuff of life- offering many laughs and oftentimes a lesson all rolled into one. While not correct on some details, the episode struck at the heart of the matter. Even before the first commercial break, I knew why my dad had sent it to me.

You see the process of telling the people in your life that you are becoming a sister isn’t always easy.  At times, you have to insert your own laugh track where awkward silences and misunderstanding pervade.  But that’s the thing about a call… sometimes you hear it more clearly than those around you.

Now, looking back on it, I laugh all the harder. It wasn’t always so easy and, to be honest, I still hit rough patches; but watching my family take on this choice in my life- this part of me- has been a joy and a challenge.  That story is one much longer than these types of blog posts allow, but let me just say the dinner scene in the episode rings true (“Excuse me, Sister, but is there a special blessing for dessert?”)  And the thing about family is that they’re always with you.

My family cares deeply about who I am and who I am becoming. They want the best for me. They support me but as my father has reflected in recent months, “Don’t say we were against the idea…it’s just that we were cautious.” That’s true and probably for good reason. A call is something that is lived out in stereo; you learn the rhythm from the life you live, the faith you foster, and the people who accompany you.  Family is a key part. They can help to clarify lots of things and teach you things about yourself that you never realized you didn’t take the time to know.

As we navigate this call together, I am constantly reminded that God is the one in control. If I balked every time someone stopped to ask if they could ask me a question and followed up with a wildly personal query, I wouldn’t make it very far. My family and friends, though, are just trying to understand so that they can support me. After all, a religious community is not a family. You only get one of those.

Knowing that they (and I) can look back now and laugh is a blessing in and of itself.  We laugh together. And in that laughter is something pure… something surely of God: Love.  That is the love that is at the root of who we are as Sisters of Saint Joseph. It's a love that speaks truth and brings joy in all that we are and strive to be; love that draws people together, love that seeks union, and love that, in facing the unknown knowingly, with faith and hope, loves all the same.

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Here's the episode for your viewing pleasure:

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Poem: The Ocean of a Soul

This past weekend, we took a group of students to St. Mary's-by-the-Sea for a Silent Retreat. As I reflected on their prayer and this sacred silence by the sea, the following poem came to light:


Cast out
into the ocean of your soul
they said

Cast out
into the deep
Beyond your bounds
Beyond your knowing

To catch
you know not what

And waves shoot out in the sand
like the ocean of a soul

And you realize
You cast out
not to catch
but to be
caught.