Friday, May 20, 2016

Step by Step Revisited

The past few days I have found my mind wandering back to the blog. May is a time of endings and beginnings. My ministry on a college campus shifts drastically as the month goes on and for me personally, May marks my birthday and this year that means entrance into a new decade of life. (Farewell my twenties, you were lovely!)

These endings and beginnings find me retracing my steps too. How did I get to where I am today? As I help college students look towards the prospects of the future- possible years of service and discussions of vocation- I find myself drawn back into my own story. Then, today I revisited a blog entry from five years ago entitled "Step by Step." 

That entry meets me at the journey one year into my time in Philadelphia.  In a meta- sort of way it reflects on a year prior and so from my vantage point today, it captures two distinct times... the time I decided to leave my job to do a year of service and the moment where that year was almost over, my heart was moving to the next steps of life, and I readying myself for a move into the next step of my discernment of religious life.

Sitting and reading the entry tonight, I was struck by what has changed and what remains the same. I am still the same young woman searching for home and striving to find God; I am the same person who has fallen in love, I am the same Colleen who longs to reveal glimpses of God in the everyday. Only now, I have many more experiences under my belt.  I have and continue to be refined. I know more now than I did then- about life, about myself, and about not knowing much at all.

A package came in the mail today, a gift from a friend for my birthday. I smiled when I saw the handwriting, knowing instantly who it was from.  It was from one of the other volunteers I lived with during my year of service. In her card, she wrote "It's hard to believe it's been 5 and a half years! Your friendship is like gold."

It is hard to believe. We always said if we didn't live together we probably wouldn't have been friends and now 6 years after signing on the dotted line for that program, I marvel at the wondrous providence of God that draws us together in the least likely of places.  Step by step we grow together; we learn what it means to walk this journey and every step of the way we realize that there is no way we can do it alone.

Cheers to the journey and all it holds! Thanks for walking it with me & here's to whatever is yet to come!

Read "Step by Step" here.

St. Bernardine of Siena, Pray for Us on the Journey!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Dilemma of Charism: Mission Alive

In April, I completed the last retreat of the semester for my ministry- a retreat on the mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph & Chestnut Hill College for faculty and staff at St. Mary by-the-Sea in Cape May Point, NJ.  The retreat was a wonderful experience, which drummed up in me reflection about what it means to pass on mission and share charism.  The resulting article appeared in the Global Sisters Report's Horizons column. May it stir in you the charism of your heart and make you consider to what and where we are all called.

"Charism is simply the grace to live our mission well." Sr. Bette Moslander, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kansas, once wrote.

Standing in front of a group of colleagues on a recent retreat for college faculty and staff, I read those words aloud from a slide, acutely aware that the presentation I was giving was one of the only things standing between them and a beautiful spring day. They had chosen to be here, though, and despite the sound of crashing waves outside, they remained focused on what I was saying.
"The gift of our charism is already alive in you" I told the group, "you wouldn't be here otherwise. It's in the how and why of your teaching, the groundwork of your interactions, and the foundation of everything we as an institution try to embody."
The task that lay ahead was to get the group, as individuals and as colleagues, to recognize the gift of mission and charism in their midst. I'll admit it wasn't the hardest task in the world — these were people who understood the value of working in a place rooted in the legacy of religious sisters. They'd taken time from their busy schedules to step away to reflect on and be stretched by what it means to work at a mission-driven institution.
Sharing with them over the weekend, I found myself returning with new eyes to a dilemma I faced early in my formation. My dilemma was this: If I embrace the charism within me and give my life to this mission, will I spend my whole life simply passing it on to others and never really living it?
I loved the mission and charism of my congregation — the Sisters of St. Joseph — from the first moment I read it. "We live and work to bring all people into union with God and one another," the vocation director, quoting our constitutions, wrote in her response to my initial inquiry about the congregation.
I remember reading that line and feeling my heart beat a little faster. That is what I want to be about, I thought to myself.
As I moved my way through the first stages of formation within the congregation, I deepened my understanding of that first line and, in the process, I fell more and more in love. That feeling was a confirmation of the life I was discerning. If this mission was the reason we existed as a congregation, then I wanted to be a part of this group of women. As I grew in community, I began to realize that the way in which we strived to achieve that mission — our charism — wasn't just something I desired, it was something I already possessed.
The dilemma I found myself facing, though, as I began ministry was the fear that somehow in lovingly sharing the mission and charism I'd given myself to, I might never get to live it out, but instead be forever bound to passing it on to others.
Looking at the men and women in front of me as I spoke about charism, I wondered again what it means to pass on mission.
To survive, the seeds of mission need to be planted. But what is to be done in a culture, like today's, where people lack the language, or even context, to identify/qualify charism and mission?
It seems that part of our role as people of faith is to prime the soil for such planting. In that role, the means of transmitting mission becomes a bigger question. If we authentically live our lives, embodying the mission and charism of our religious institutes, is that enough? Won't our mission be passed on implicitly?
That is our hope: that the lives we live will speak to something larger, reflecting the principles and aims of our religious lives. Yet, there's no guarantee of that.
Perhaps, here is where a more explicit approach to mission and charism is necessary. Lives well-lived surely give the Spirit room to move both within ourselves and within others. It is by our lives that we bear witness to the Gospel. Yet, it is also our responsibility to give those with whom we work and minister the tools to name and own what they are witnesses to; giving them the ability to identify the mission they are already a part of and claim the charism they already possess.
Sitting on a deck during a break in the retreat, I chatted with a colleague. "I'd forgotten how much I love this mission," she said. In the hustle and bustle of life it can be easy to become distant from the mission. "This isn't just what the sisters or this school is about," she said pausing, "it's what I am about. This is my mission. It is a gift."
Sometimes it's in remembering that giftedness that Grace has the opportunity to change minds and hearts. Mission and charism aren't things you just toy around with. They are part of who you are and what you do. For my colleague, it was the recognition that she had gifts that were meant to be shared in the same way those before her had given of their own gifts to foster her personal, professional, and spiritual growth. Just as the mission was alive in them, it was and is in her.
Sitting there by the seashore, I had to think of Jesus. His life, his mission, and his ministry — it was all about passing it on. The love of God incarnate, he lived so that those around him might come to believe and in turn, that they might pass on the Gospel message to everyone they encountered. The Spirit endowed them with a charism to do so and each set out in a unique way to spread the Good News. In the process, they learned more about the God they loved and who they'd been created to be. Sometimes they did it more perfectly than at other times, but they lived and learned.
That's the way we foster, broaden, and strengthen our gifts: by putting them into action. Like athletes or craftsmen, we must practice to hone our skills. Few of us, if any, are prodigies and that reality is, in and of itself, a liberating gift; it keeps us humble and reminds us who and whose we are... Continue reading the rest of the article here

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Cultivating a Hungry Heart

Over the last two years, I have been blessed to write for the Global Sisters Report.  This week marks the two year anniversary of my start with the site and the publication of my latest piece on Friday will mark my 22nd column for the Horizons feature. Before that piece is published, I thought it would be fitting to post an excerpt from my last column "Cultivating a Hungry Heart", a meditation on what it means to give and to gain through the lens of Lent and a life of faithfulness- enjoy & thanks as always for reading:

For years, I've taken something on for Lent — a work of mercy, a good deed, a practice or a devotion. One year, I went to daily Mass; another year, I gave donations to local charities.

This year, I did something I haven't done in a very long time: I gave something up.

I gave up snacking between meals and, in the process, I learned what it means to cultivate a hungry heart.

As a college campus minister, I am quite literally surrounded by food. Snacks draw students into spaces. They help facilitate conversations and give space and place (for good or for bad) to emotions, stress and sharing. They are everywhere, and for that reason, I knew giving up those snacks would be a challenge.

Within the first week of Lent, I realized the difficult, if not enlightening, situation I'd gotten myself into. Just as taking something on for Lent had served for years as a way of being more conscious of my actions in everyday life, returning to the practice of giving something up did the same for me in a new way.

I quickly realized that the snacks that are ubiquitous with my ministry weren't going anywhere. They were still there as I talked with students; I just needed to refrain. More difficult, though, was that I came to realize that after a stressful conversation or emotional moment, I couldn't reach for something sweet or salty to dissipate or absorb what I was feeling. Instead, I had to recognize what appetites exactly I was feeding. And where I might normally pause and gather myself for a moment with a mindless munch, I had to gather for a moment of recollection, centering myself again on the One who grounds my ministry. That moment of recollection made me realize the many moments of my day that call for rededication to what I do, moments when I might collect myself and invite God more deeply into my being and doing.

Those moments, no doubt, are even more numerous than I was able to realize. As the days wore on, though, I found myself more conscious of when I needed to pause and pray. My heart, it seemed, was hungrier than I had realized for these moments.

In the frenetic pace of our lives, this is often the case. It's only when we can stop ourselves (or even just slow down) that we realize how much more there is to be consumed and digested in each moment. To cultivate a hungry heart, we must be able to recognize and admit that we, in fact, are hungry. That acknowledgment of hunger is the beginning of a process of being fed.

Once I acknowledge my hunger, I can try to identify what will feed me. This requires paying attention and listening, not only to myself and my body, but to God.

Over the 40 days of Lent, I came to know more clearly the moments I needed to stop and reflect, and yet I also found that sometimes that reflection, for whatever reason, wasn't always a ready possibility. Sometimes I just didn't have the energy I knew it would take to dive deeper, and at other moments, it was a matter of not having enough time. Realizing that the hungers of the heart — hungers for justice, prayer, goodness, and grace — are those I can so often ignore, push aside, or, quite frankly, miss, I recognized the need to be intentional about how and for what I make space in my life.

My days of fasting between meals taught me the importance of what you eat when you get the chance. I became acutely aware that whatever I consumed during a meal needed to nourish me enough to carry me through the day. Meals on the fly weren't a good option. If I ate quickly, my body missed the intention of the meal. I would feel this later when my stomach gurgled. My body needed time to know it was eating, to feel cared for, to be filled.

In time, I came to understand the best ways to navigate my Lenten sacrifice and to see how it applied to what I ate and also how I lived. At its basest level, choosing not to eat between meals made me more aware of the most basic needs of my body. It wasn't until Holy Week, though, that I realized that what I'd given up had larger lessons to teach me about the truest hungers of my soul and what it means to have a hungry heart.


As my Lenten season came to a close, I took a few days during Holy Week to gather myself. The first few months of this year have been full of ups and downs; I'd barely had time to pause, let alone stop, to nourish my heart and soul. As I looked toward the holiest days of the year, I realized the need and desire within myself to step away and reflect. My heart and my soul were hungry. Like a body constantly in motion, eating meals on the go, I needed a moment to be filled. I needed time to stop and recuperate.

What I wanted were days of deep connection. I longed for release and relaxation. Yet as I settled into the silence, I found that I could only handle so much. I found myself both relaxed and restless. I knew what I wanted those days to be, and yet somehow, like a diner with too many menu choices, what I ordered never seemed to satisfy. Continue reading the rest here.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Joseph on the Journey

The following is a brief piece on Joseph written in anticipation of the feast of Saint Joseph this Saturday. Written for my students as part of a larger prayer, it speaks to the journey of life and living that Joseph traveled. As a journeyer, Joseph shows us that sometimes we don't know where we're headed and that sometimes it's in the subtle prompts of Love that we find our way... one step at a time. 
San Jose en el Rio Grande by Fr. Bill McNichols

St. Joseph was a man sent on a journey.

He had a dream. And like the dreams of many, it came from deep within, from the One who was creating something new even if Joseph had no clear idea what it was. “Do not be afraid,” the angel said in the dream. “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 

When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded and took his wife into his home. And so, a new journey began.

A beautiful baby boy was born. Joseph pledged to care for the tiny babe in his care. Joseph was a just man; he would teach that sense of justice to this child. And each person he touched would bear the mark of care and compassion from his father. A touch taught on the journey- a journey of listening, of going to far-off lands, and of seeing the distance love will take you.

Joseph was a man sent on a journey. He was a man with a common touch. A person taught to follow, to care, and to dream. Beyond all knowing, beyond common knowledge… deep in the heart of God... for the life of the world.

Friday, February 19, 2016


Last weekend, I went for a walk in six degree weather. The air I walked in was the type that burns any exposed skin... that makes your sinuses ache when you scrunch your nose and your eyes water in the wind.  These aren't the types of temperatures we often have in the Mid-Atlantic region and yet, despite the absolute chill, I walked for over a mile.

Sitting here as my forehead peels, I'm grateful that I did. I cleared me head and allowed me to see things from a new perspective. It also reminded me of where I've been. You see, for the year I lived in Chicago as a novice I walked a lot and at least once a week I walked multiple miles in temperatures near zero to get to my ministry site at a Montessori school across town on the North Side.

I remember the freedom those walks afforded me. As novices, the women I lived with and I lived in close quarters. We spent an inordinate amount of time together and a lot of time praying and processing together. This time was full of grace, yet every Monday when I hopped on the L, I was happy for the walk that awaited me. That walk gave me time to reflect on my own.  I'd walk a mile to the station by our house and then reaching the North Side, I'd walk at least another mile because the bus never seemed to show up.  Through rain and snow, ice and wind, I made that walk.  And trudging down the hill to our Mother house Saturday, I couldn't help but remember all that time in Chicago meant to me.

There are some moments in life, when it feels like seismic shifts are taking place, that you find yourself grasping for solid ground.  And, there are other moments when, even though the shifts are seemly imperceptible- whether by design or denial- that you find yourself happening upon touchstones in your life.  These touchstones give you something to stand on. With each footfall this weekend I felt a little more support.

These cold winter days are filled with change and challenge.  The stark realities of religious life stand out when everything else seems to be stripped bare. It's at that intersection that I seem to stand. And here is where numerous touchstones seem to be coming to me, as if God is saying "Be still. Fear not. I am here and you are mine."

Two weekends ago, I found myself at my Alma Mater for a reunion of sorts. Each year, alumnae of the Religious Studies program at Fairfield University gather for an evening to join in conversation and community.  This moment of pause with old (and new) friends in familiar places is a gift. This is a touchstone community for me, full of touchstone people.  This is the group I left suddenly the first year to go be with my dying grandfather and this is where I return year after year to reflect personally and theologically on life and the future.  We share and journey together. I am reminded who I am, simply by being with those who know a part of me and as a result hold a touchstone piece in the mosaic of my life.

Before leaving campus the day after to drive back to Philly, I stopped by the Egan Chapel- a cornerstone of my Fairfield experience. Here is where I prayer the Spiritual Exercises during the 19th Annotation, where I spent countless nights, where I gave my energy and found a deeper sense of living.  Simply being in a space like that is rejuvenating.  Everything you encounter holds significance, reverberating with a sense of the holy and evoking a fundamental wholeness.  This place is home, even after many years of absence.

It is the places, people, and experiences of life that ground us. From time to time, we find ourselves called to return to them.  In some cases, we know why and in others, we are left to wonder.  Either way, we know them in the core of our being. These are our touchstones. They lead us closer to God and the pave the way for what lies ahead, reminding us that no matter how rocky the path gets it is the touchstones that hold firm beneath our feet.


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.