Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Space Between

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me when the next post would go up on the blog. I can never really tell when the next piece will come, but soon after "Epiphany on Moreland Street" appeared. That brief comment, though, got me reflecting on an experience from New Years and time spent on retreat; those reflections moved their way through personal poetry to my latest contribution to the Global Sisters Report: "The Space Between". Below is an excerpt. Thanks for reading.

"It is in the shelter of each other that the people live," An old Irish proverb teaches.

Life, it seems, begins and ends in encounter. Together we support one another. We create something new; we make space. And there, within ourselves and within the world, life is sheltered and sustained. Between you and me there is created the perfect balance of resistance and reassurance — trust rooted in and returning to love — a balance better known as relationship.

Together we live and move and have our being. Just as God lives in us. Yet, in the cold chill of winter, it can be easy to forget that our God is a God of relationship encountered.
"Look at the sky, Colleen," the woman said in a hushed tone as she gestured out the window. She knew we weren't supposed to be talking. "The beauty," she continued, pointing to the treetops, "that's what this is all about."

I looked intently as she left my side; I could feel the eyes of the other women in the dining room on me. They knew we weren't supposed to be talking, either, and so they watched my gaze, trying to discern what it was that was so important it warranted breaking silence to be addressed.

I felt like I could have stood up and shouted to the room "It's beauty!" But instead, I just sat and stared intently at the treetops. Crisp and clear; stripped bare and set in silhouette against the bright blue sky. It was beautiful. And I couldn't say a word about it.

I was at a silent retreat for New Year's — a prayerful pause at year's end. The fog and dreariness that engulfed the end of the year in the Northeast seemed to have broken. And seated in that dining room on the last day of 2015, I smiled to myself as I soaked in the beauty. Unbeknownst to me, it was what I had come away to encounter.

Driving five hours north a few days before, I'd traveled through a foggy haze from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, from the relative warmth of Philadelphia to the snow covered ground of the Commonwealth. As dusk fell upon the back roads I was traveling, I noted what seemed like the fusing of heaven and Earth. The trees made to look even taller in their barrenness seemed to stretch into grey sky, their tops disappearing into low hanging clouds just as quickly as the taillights ahead of me faded into the distance.

A year ago, I attended this retreat for the first time with two sisters I'd shared novitiate with, drawn by a Jesuit friend who was helping facilitate the retreat. Somehow in just one year of attending, I'd become part of this nearly 40-year-old New Year's tradition. Religious sisters from numerous congregations were in attendance, along with married, single and widowed women, all of us seeking time away to begin the new year with prayer and intention.

Arriving at the retreat center, I was met by familiar faces. To my surprise, despite a year's time and few words between us, they remembered me and I remembered them. Friends, new and old, united in reflection and prayer, connected by the space between us.

Settling into the silence of retreat, I found myself giving thanks for the opportunity to step away, no matter the hazy grey of winter and year's end. Silence and time solely set aside for prayer were a welcome and much-longed-for reprieve from everyday life. I was determined to take full advantage of it all and yet, I soon realized the invitation of this retreat might be to take full advantage of what God was offering and not, perhaps, what I had planned.

I wanted to encounter God, to take a quiet look back on the year that had been. I longed for deep connection within the all-too-rare stillness. I wanted to listen uninterrupted. I named those desires and God answered. Sometimes, though, what you want and what you long for can turn out looking differently than how you imagined.

'Look at the sky'
It didn't happen all at once. It happened as I sang my heart out at liturgy; and as I let me guard down; and, oh yeah, as I stopped to have deep conversations with those around me, people I love, people who are on the other end of a phone or an email more often than they are in conversation with me in person. And in those moments, moments utterly contradictory to what I thought I needed or wanted, God provided.

Talking, I found clarity. I remembered why I need to talk, why I need to write, why I need to create and explore and discover. There in the space between myself and another was God inviting me to listen and speaking softly in the consolation of relationship, the reality of friendship, and the gift of presence.

There, I could see the year as it was and myself as I am. I was free to live. I'd found shelter... Read the complete column here.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Epiphany on Moreland Street

In the light of the night
they lay
unceremoniously discarded by the roadside
conifers cast aside with
season's cheer and a chill in the air

and as I drove past
the only guide, a set of headlights
I wondered- when does room at the inn run out?
what price must be paid for new life?

And there in rings as bright as day
like stars traced out across the sky
the stumps answered in
a chilled chorus of Hallelujah:

Keep your gifts.
It takes a life.
To make a manger...
to take the journey.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Vision: "Why being single and living as a sister aren’t the same"

As the semester comes to a close, I am trying to catch up the publications that have come out over the past few months. Below is one- an article in the most recent edition of Vision Vocation Guide about the difference between vowed religious life and life as a committed single person.  In some ways, because of the publication, the material deals more with ideas and ideals than experience; there is much gray in the midst of it all- not all communities are the same, but the reason for and state of religious life stand as a distinct and unique. Religious life is definitive, a unique expression of the Christian life lived out by grace in commitment. It is a radical calling, not better or worse than any other, yet certainly distinctive.  With all that said... I hope you enjoy the article. Blessings, Colleen

When I told people I was thinking about becoming a religious sister, they asked me the same questions: Why did I feel called? Why religious life? Or just plain, Why?

And once I told them about my desire to grow in my relationship with God, to serve others, and to live a radical life of intention in line with the gospel, the inevitable questions were: Why become a sister? Couldn’t you do all those things as a committed single woman?

Yes, I could have done all of those things as a committed single woman. I realized this as I discerned, so the bigger question for me was: What exactly is the difference between a committed single life and a vowed religious one?

The answer to that question is more complex than simple statements. It digs deep into the nature of call and vocation, uncovering who we are and what call truly means. Single life and religious life, after all, are both calls. Before we can look at how the two are different, it is helpful to understand what they have in common.

As Christians, we are called to live out our faith. The lives we lead reflect the love of Christ, and our vocations are the way in which we are most called to share that love with the world. Our true vocation enables us to be our most genuine selves as God created us to be.

The people who questioned me about why I was becoming a sister rather than staying single had my best interests in mind. I could do everything I sought to do as a committed single woman, but they missed one key point: discernment of a vocation is about more than you.

Vocation is about you and God—your deepest desires and God’s deepest desires for you. Discernment is about discovering those desires in relationship with God and naming what gives fullest life to that relationship. You don’t become a sister because of a lack of options, just as you ideally don’t remain single because nothing better has come along. You commit yourself to a way of life based on how your relationship with Christ calls you... Read the rest here

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Big Questions

The following is an update following the facilitation work that "The Next & the Now" preceded in Latham, NY for the CSSJ Federation Leadership Assembly. 

Religious life is the realm of big questions.

That’s part of what drew me to want to be a Sister of Saint Joseph. As I sit with the young people who I minister to on the college level, there are always questions. And whether they are big or small, each is important.   As I got ready to leave last week for the Federation Leadership Assembly in Latham, NY, one of my students turned to me and said, “Why can’t you just stay here?”

I assured the students I was with that I would be back after a day, but I needed to go. Big questions don’t restrict themselves to one realm or another and it seemed after months of planning with Kathleen Durkin, CSJ that Latham was where some serious questions needed to come into play.

The big question of this year’s leadership assembly was “What’s next?”  That’s not a question you can answer in just a few short days, but it is a starting point and it is a critical question to keep asking ourselves as women religious and Sisters of Saint Joseph. What’s next in a sense is what’s now.

As I recently wrote in my column for the Global Sisters Report, “Our world, our church and our congregations are at a critical point in time. We find ourselves in a liminal space, where change is pressing in and new life is imminent… Here in this liminal space, the next and the now are in coexistence. Each one is reliant on the other. Today is lived in hope of tomorrow, and tomorrow cannot be without faithful living today. Perhaps the real question at this moment is: What will we allow to be birthed in us?”

Standing in front of the Leadership Assembly this past week, sharing in conversation, engaging big questions, and pondering the next and the now, that question kept returning to me: What will we allow to be birthed in us?

Listening to the sharing of the Assembly, I could hear where the creative tension of the current moment lies. New membership, life long formation, shared governance, congregational boundaries, justice issues, corporate voice- these are where the hearts of the Assembly seemed to go.

For me, that seemed to be an indication of what might be next. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’ll take a step.  Asking big questions is one thing, taking the next step of not just asking but engaging big questions is quite another. That step  doesn’t guarantee answers; in fact, it almost certainly will draw forth more question than answers, but the act of engaging pushes us forward toward the future.

After having spent the day with the Leadership Assembly, I knew I’d been engaged in a process that was worthwhile. As a newer member, it is my hope that we, as Sisters of Saint Joseph, will have the courage to engage the questions that arose; that we might have the strength to be challenged, to respond to the call of our vowed life in a more authentic manner.  Leaving the Assembly, I wondered what shape it might take. Our future- whether personal, communal, congregational, or federationally- is going to be influenced by what we choose to do, to be, and to stand for today.

We need to have the courage to ask big questions …and to listen for answers. What we hear may surprise us, it may scare us, and it, no doubt, will challenge us. This is the work of the Spirit, influenced by grace, and put into practice in the daily living of genuine commitments and questions.  It won’t be easy, but who ever said it would be?  Religious life is the realm of big questions. We need to keep asking... and acting-- our future depends on it.

(See this article in full on the United States Federation of Sisters of Saint Joseph website, here.)

Sunday, November 22, 2015


-written at the 2015 Atlantic Region Under 62 Gathering-
Unfurrow your brow
my sweet soul
unfurrow your brow

That you might see with
the eyes of your heart
unfurrow your soul

There is no limit
to your dreaming
or your feeling
only that which you
allow to be

unfurrow your brow
give breath to the Spirit
that somewhere between
your head and your heart
There might be life.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Next & the Now

These are busy days. Last weekend, we took a large group of students on retreat; this coming weekend I head with another group of students to the Ignatian Family Teach-In in Washington, DC. In between, I found myself at the Annual CSSJ Federation Leadership Assembly in Albany, NY. There, the question that seemed to be at the forefront was: "What's next?"

If there isn't a more ambiguous or difficult to answer question, I don't know what is.  Yet, I and the other sister facilitating set out to speak on the topic and run a process exploring just that...what's next. Months of preparation went into the time we spent with the group, but to supplement  that and bring it to a head right before we began I offered a reflection on "The Next and the Now" for the Global Sisters Report. Here's a excerpt.... I hope you enjoy! 

Big questions matter.

“How do you believe that change is possible, when the present seems to be filled with the same old things?” An undergrad at Georgetown University asked me this as I came to the end of my remarks on the nature of vocation and the role of smart, Catholic women in the church.

“How do you find your place in the world?” another young woman asked the next day as I sat on a panel of women of different faiths.

“What do you do when the questions shift from should I do this with my life to will I do this with my life?” a student looked me square in the eye as we talked about her journey and call.

Looking at each one of these women, I took a deep breath and answered to the best of my ability.
There is something striking about these questions. Listening to them intently, I could hear the heart behind them. There are individuals on the other ends of them; people trying to figure out life. Or at least trying to get a grasp on what their lives might be.

 These questions are as big as they are deep. They deal in theory and theology, while also dealing with life. They straddle where the questioner is now and what holds promise for them next. Simple answers will not suffice to these questions; they, much like life, are far more complex.

This may be true, but I still tell the young adults I work with to learn to ask big questions. And perhaps more importantly, to let themselves fall in love with big questions. After all, whether you can answer these questions clearly or not is secondary to the fact that you are looking for Truth, and Truth is looking for you.

Big questions matter. That’s the point God keeps on underlining in my life these days. I’ve spent the last month answering such questions; from lectures and panels to conversations on discernment retreats and the everyday work of my life as a campus minister, the big questions keep on coming.

What’s next? I find myself being asked over and over.

To be honest, I am still discovering what is now — what our reality is . . . what my reality is as a woman religious. Our world, our church and our congregations are at a critical point in time. We find ourselves in a liminal space, where change is pressing in and new life is imminent. At least it feels that way.

Here in this liminal space, the next and the now are in coexistence. Each one is reliant on the other. Today is lived in hope of tomorrow, and tomorrow cannot be without faithful living today. Perhaps the real question at this moment is: What will we allow to be birthed in us?
In a public conversation a few weeks ago, I asked a question of the presenter, a sister who’s served in prominent leadership roles in religious life. The discussion, hosted in honor of the Year of Consecrated Life, focused on passion for and identity in religious life. I’d been invited as a younger voice to the conversation and yet, unlike other experiences, I didn’t feel like a token newer member.

The group of women religious gathered from various congregations seemed engaged in the question of how to better live into the future. Uninhibited and with genuine interest, I posed a question to the presenter, “Since I am part of a very small group in religious life, how do I/we get our voices heard?”
She paused to think for a moment and then replied: “I don’t know if there’s anything you can do. The issues of the majority are not yours, and so while they’re distracted by whatever they’re occupied with, you’re being given the opportunity to evolve.”

Distraction that allows for evolution — a novel idea, I thought to myself.

The truth is, part of the future lives in what we are doing or not doing right now. What are we talking about? What aren’t we talking about? Those are the things that the future will hold whether we want it to or not. The next steps in life reflect something of our present reality, whether we can conceive of that or not. The need then is to live intentionally now since we don’t know what will be called forth in us next. We can be assured that the experience of life we are engaging in today will contribute in some way to what comes next. Living with such intention (in community, in prayer, toward the charism and in relation to the world) increases the likelihood that whatever it is that is next, we will be grounded enough to grasp it.

Distraction may foster evolution for some, but it also poses the threat of diverting the energy of the whole system. If we are caught up in the pressing needs that the majority identifies, we can’t put in the energy needed for growth. And yet, we can’t forgo the now for the next. Ultimately, the two need to be held in balance.

This is a theme I return to continually with the college students I work with. The paper due this week plays into a much bigger picture; just as four years of education fits into the picture of a much bigger life. It’s easy to get hung up on the midterm to the point where you don’t see the long view.
I think back to that first question: How do you believe that change is possible, when the present seems to be filled with the same old things?

There are so many layers to that question.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


This is a day that was three hundred sixty-five years in the making. That's right....years not days. And yet those two things aren't too far off the mark of each other.

October 15th marks the Founders' Day of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. It is on this day that the international family of Joseph celebrates the foundation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph in 1650 by six young women compelled by the Spirit and led by a charismatic Jesuit priest.  Three hundred and sixty-five years ago, this group came together- an amalgamation of differences, an experiment in diversity, and a courageous foray into unity with God and neighbor without distinction.

With all this in mind, I sat in the chapel of our mother house in Philadelphia this afternoon to celebrate with my community, both my sisters and the partners in mission and students I work with on a daily basis. In a certain strange way, you could say that courageous foray into unity continues to this very day.  Sitting in the chapel I marveled at the power of 365.  Three hundred and sixty-five years ago, a group came together that would change the course of countless lives. There's no way that those first six women could see what the year ahead held, let alone what the next 365 would.  I don't know if they thought anything would come of this Little Design beyond their own measure and good work and yet they believed and strove to live genuine lives of faith. And that, I reflected as I looked up at the star strewn ceiling of the chapel, made all the difference.

Those women couldn't have known what awaited them. They might not have even realized the way the commitments they were making would transform their lives. I'm almost certain that they didn't think the risk they took then would create change in my own life now.  How could they? And yet, they put one foot in front of the other and in time came to a place far beyond themselves.

In a way, they accomplished everything they gave themselves to in a manner a thousand times greater. All without recognition and without assumption, simply with faith, longing, and humility.  All these years later, I can't help but hope that I can offer myself in the same way; sitting in that chapel today beside the students I work with on a daily basis, I couldn't help but hope the same for them too.

In just a year's time, they will be different. I know that I am. A year ago, I sat in those pews overwhelmed by transition and staring at the spot in that chapel where I'd made vows just a few short months before.  I knew I didn't feel how I wanted to, but I also didn't know how to fix that.  That's a lonely place to be.

I left that space 365 days ago with more questions than answers.  The last 365 days have been about waking up each morning and trying to live the answers to those questions... the why's and how's and what's of life.  I don't know if I can say I have concrete responses to many of those queries but I do have 365 days of experience.

Listening to one of my sisters offer a reflection on scripture and the call to never settle, I recalled a line from our grounding documents: Each day we make a new beginning in this Little Institute.

That's as much as I can do, as far as I am able. That is perhaps the greatest lesson of the past year- that everyday is a new beginning.

I may not know what tomorrow brings but I didn't know what today held until I lived it.  More important than knowing is choosing. This life after all is a choice. Every moment of every day.  I chose to let gratitude overcome grief at some point in the last 365 days; I tried to let go of my ego to let me be myself in the freest way possible. Some days have been better than others. Every day though is an option for grace and gift.

That's what those women opted into 365 years ago and it's what I chose to live and give myself to today... in the hope that the next 365 days will bring as much growth and grace as I can handle and I can chose to engage for the betterment of my self, my God, and the world.