Monday, August 22, 2016

"An Experiment in Hope"

In my last post, I alluded to the article it connects to, a reflection entitled "An Experiment in Hope" in the Global Sisters Report, that was published last Friday as part of the Horizons column.  Below is an excerpt and link. May it offer insight into the reality of the future and how seeking a new horizon is as much about changing position as it is about gaining new insight. 

Demographic collapse is tough ground to build a case for hope on. Yet, that's exactly where Marcia Allen, CSJ, began her presidential address, entitled "Transformation – An Experiment in Hope," to the Assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) last week.

She didn't talk about diminishment or downsizing, as women religious are apt to do. She didn't sugarcoat the facts or put on rose-colored glasses. No, she stood as a leader of the largest association of the leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States and spoke the truth: Membership is collapsing.

"Our members are virtually evaporating!" Allen declared as she provided the statistics to support such a claim. What once served the leaders of 150,000 to 181,000 members will by 2025 serve the leadership of fewer than 29,000 sisters.

I can't imagine anyone in the room was shocked, but, as I read and reread Allen's remarks later, I was struck by the clarity and realism with which she spoke and wrote. What might at first seem tragic, struck me instead as awe-inspiring. This was real — and when we face reality, whether it is in ourselves or in the systems we are a part of, there is potential for growth. If demographic collapse was being so frankly discussed on a public stage, there might be hope. After all, the topic at hand was transformation, not desolation.

I have often said that as a young woman, I came to religious life knowing full well the reality of religious life. To the extent that I could, that is true. Yet, as with all things that we come to as an outsider, I could only know so much. At times, the reality of collapse is starker than I ever realized and in certain moments, it is actualized in ways I never would have imagined. In time, I've come to grapple with it more fully and to understand what exactly it means for me and the women I call sisters. Some days it spurs hope, other days it brings gratitude, and on even more days it causes me to wonder if change is possible.

The amalgamation of these thoughts and emotions is what Marcia Allen's poignant words struck on in me. And in her upfront naming of reality, I recognized that this, in fact, is the reality we need to move beyond.

Our task now is not to develop a new way of seeing the old. We're not meant to rearrange what we have, to make a new plan or to remodel what has been. The task at hand is to allow for a totally new view ― to recognize a new horizon.

The only way to see a new horizon, though, is to change where you are standing. Like falling asleep on a road trip, we awake to find that the cityscape we once saw has given way to fields of green and a flat horizon. Perhaps that is the way it is with hope and the transformation of religious life, too. For so many years, we've told ourselves numbers will increase and change will come. The change, though, has come in a different way, not in the form of new and abundant vocations, but in the inevitable impact of time. As we have waited and worked in hope, collapse has taken its toll.

So much has already changed, but still, no matter our numbers, we choose from where we see, and we have the opportunity to take in a new horizon. To see, as Allen puts it, "a whole horizon of possibility, a landscape filled with potential and unlimited opportunities." We cannot just sustain what was, we must develop questions that move us beyond now, meeting the needs of the future.

Reaching that new horizon, however, requires shifting our stance. It means approaching religious life in new ways, deconstructing systems, and gambling on the essence of our foundations. This isn't easy. No one ever said it would be.

In futility and desperation, we might shout out: "Tell me where to stand!" No one can, though. Like the Israelites in the desert, we wander. Taking in our surroundings and our reality, we keep our eyes on the horizon, bracing ourselves for what is to come. We remember too, that God works in the darkness. The wind blows through the night to part the Red Sea; in darkness, the Spirit hovers above the waters of Creation to bring forth life.

As a newer member in religious life, this wandering can be tiring but it is also formative. Just as Marcia Allen says that transformation is an experiment in hope, so is religious life today. It is an experiment that we take part in — that we give our whole selves to. In faith that leads to hope, we traverse the landscape...Continue reading the rest here. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Poem: "The Power was Never Yours to Begin With"

Tomorrow my latest column will come out on the Global Sisters Report. The piece is a reflection on Marcia Allen, CSJ's Presidential Address at last week's LCWR Assembly. In the course of writing it, the following poem emerged within me. I originally thought it would close the piece but in the end, it turned out to be a part of the creative process instead.  Hopefully, it shares its own light and will shed light on what is published tomorrow. 

The Power was Never Yours to Begin With

You will feel like you have died
and you have
because there's no room for you
that's the only way
the future can come
by your letting go

be put in the tomb
And, lo, wait until you see what emerges
Hope never before seen
on a new horizon.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Flotation Devices

This summer has been a bit of a whirlwind. Between retreat and formation classes, time in Orlando for the US Federation of Sisters of Saint Joseph 50th Anniversary Federation Event, and vacation with family in Wisconsin, today marks the first time in a month that I will sleep for two consecutive nights in my own bed.  

That break, however, is short lived as I pack to head up to Boston College for a week to study before getting back to ministry in August. 

Yet, in the midst of much activity, I've found the time to write a new column for the Global Sisters Report's Horizons column. The piece is entitled "Holding onto Hope in troubled times" was published on Friday and explores the difficult necessity of finding hope as the world faces tragedy, violence, and disunity at (what seems like) every turn.  Hopefully, it speaks to your own experience as it draws off my own. Together, let's find hope in the trouble times and hold on to each other for buoyancy.
Pulling into the post office parking lot as I came off of retreat, I stopped for a moment in the car. I thought to myself, The flags are at half-staff again.

And for a moment, I couldn't remember why.

A laundry list of places streamed through my mind: Baton Rouge, the Twin Cities, Orlando, Nice, Dallas, Baton Rouge (again), Istanbul ...

The names spun round and round in my head, and yet, I guiltily admitted to myself, I couldn't place the reason why the flags in front of me hung in mourning. At some point, I had to turn the news off; I had unplugged in exchange for my sanity and my soul.

Hope, it seemed, needed help floating. Perhaps that's what we all need in the darkest of times: flotation devices.

As the new year began in 2014, Pope Francis departed from his prepared remarks about creating community and ending violence in the world to ask, "What is happening in the heart of humanity?"

Without missing a beat, he answered that question with a simple imperative statement: "It is time to stop."

As the 24-hour news cycle continues and reports of violence flourish, it's hard to imagine that stopping is an option. How do you possibly counteract hate? How do you stop violence? How do you heal the heart of humanity?

Faith, hope and love: These are the only viable answers. These are the virtues that dive deep into the heart of God and draw directly from the one who made us. Love may be the greatest of all these virtues, but truly, no one virtue can exist without the others. Love begets faith, which begets hope, and vice versa.

We love because God first loved us. We believe because love has been revealed to us in one way or another. And we have hope because current and past experiences of faith and love inherently foster a future full of hope. In the simplest terms, the heart of humanity is found in faith, hope and love. If we believe that, then anything — even stopping the current cycle of tragedy and violence — is a possibility.

That's all I could think of as I watched individuals join hands along the length of Hope Memorial 
Bridge in Cleveland on the eve of the Republican National Convention this past weekend. They came together to "Circle the City with Love," a founding principle of the Sisters of St. Joseph, who organized the event.

There, on that bridge, thousands of people stood in silence for 30 minutes to witness to the power of love. In the process, they gave a glimmer of hope by not only showing the love present in their city, but by revealing love at the heart of humanity. They stopped and, for a moment, the heart of humanity beat brighter.

In much the same way, NETWORK's Nuns on the Bus have been traversing the country since July 11, speaking to the ways we must mend the gaps in our society. Each stop of the bus offers another moment of healing, a pause for grace, for faith, for hope, and for love to enter the world. The stories shared at each stop are glimpses into the shared humanity we hold. Together, we can overcome hatred and apathy; we can grow in awareness and foster community. The first step, though, is to see the gap so we can mend it.

Those gaps can be anywhere: in our social service systems and our everyday relationships with one another, in the divides we realize and in those we have yet to become fully aware of. The recognition that these divisions exist is the first step of many to creating union in our world.

Seeking such unity moves far beyond this moment in time and recent "newsworthy" events. It calls us to recognize the many injustices that exist in the world, to bring hope and change beyond the headlines. It challenges me to recognize my role in labor trafficking, to face the fact that my food might not be fairly produced, and to call upon myself and the corporations I patronize to embrace just labor practices. It means praying for peace personally and with others. It means joining the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in a national boycott of Wendy's restaurants, calling elected officials about immigration reform, and working to minimize my carbon footprint in all areas of my life.

And in all of these actions, hope is alive, working toward a better tomorrow by believing in and loving today.

Perhaps that is the greatest challenge: keeping hope alive in the small things so that no matter how daunting a moment seems, the darkness can never overtake the light.

Hope, then, floats above tragedy, above violence, and above grief and mourning. Hope sustains us and allows us to see more clearly, no matter how blurry the signs of the times might seem. When read with eyes of hope, faith and love, the signs of the times can be transformed from tragically daunting to utterly inspiring... Continue reading the rest here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Cost of Being Here

As summer kicks into full gear and as I look forward to my annual retreat, it seems fitting that I would share my latest reflection from the Global Sisters Report, an article entitled "The Cost of Being Here."  May it meet you where you're at and as these days of rest kick in may you settle into the loving embrace of God.

Only two weeks into my summer vacation, I've hit a snag.

The past few weeks, at the college where I minister, have been full of activity. Like a blur, finals, commencements, dinners, evaluations, graduations, service trips, goodbyes, and planning sessions for the year ahead have come and gone. And after months of going at breakneck speed, I paused to rest . . . and found I couldn't.

Whether you work in a school setting or not, summer offers a welcome respite. As the weather warms, minds wander to thoughts of vacation. And perhaps, if you're lucky, the season brings with it the opportunity for a change of pace and ultimately some rest.

That's what I had hoped for as I waved goodbye to the last student departing after our final week-long service-immersion trip of the semester.

Walking back to my office, I felt the frenetic pace of the semester give way to a feeling of exhaustion. The adrenaline that seemed to have been fueling me dried up, and suddenly all I wanted to do was rest. The frantic pace of life had exacted a certain toll on my body and soul; after a few good nights of sleep, I found myself feeling more refreshed, yet, the deep desire within me to rest felt unfulfilled.

Even though my days were less filled, I still seemed to be rushing around. When I sat to reflect, I felt like my body was still in motion as if I'd stopped after a long day's journey only to discover that the road was moving beneath me.

It seemed my mind was still set in the mode of accomplishing things. Whether I was catching up on reading or going for a walk, the pace I kept was still just as fast as during the semester. And even though it was what I knew I needed, the last thing that I wanted to do was stop.

As a result, I just felt more tired. Finally, I convinced myself to sit longer than I had let myself before. No distractions, no goals, no desire except to stop and be here. I resisted for the first 20 minutes. My mind swore that there were things I could be doing. It darted like a child overtired and hanging on to the last semblance of energy before crashing. I thought about the future, about the things I needed to get done and about the things I'd already forgotten to do.

Finally, the racing stopped and there I was in the quiet. Why is just being here so difficult? I wondered. The response to my question came quickly from within: because being here is costly.

Taken aback, I stayed with that response. What was the cost of being here in this moment?

Being here meant that I wasn't somewhere else. To my mind programmed by the semester to keep on going that seemed like a pretty steep price. The cost of being here is the loss of the opportunity to be somewhere else. It's a forfeiture of the chance "to do" in exchange for the opportunity to actively "be." In many ways, it's a trade-off that doesn't make sense to modern sensibilities. I knew there were messages waiting for me on my phone; that for all the times I'd said I needed a break, I had not meant to stop and actively reflect on where I was. I wanted time to mindlessly be and yet, when I got that, it left me feeling unfulfilled.

I knew that feeling well, it sat somewhere near the roots of my call to religious life — that feeling of wanting more, of being unsatisfied, of longing for something deeper.

I must admit, there are moments that that desire is not met, that I find my soul's longing deeply wanting. The question is how do I find rest in those moments?

Feeling my mind scramble for activity as my heart relished being in the here and now, I recognized the cost of being here. It meant denying the desire to be busy for something far less exciting and far more important — rest in God.

That's the kind of rest we as humans struggle with and we as women religious, in particular, are challenged by on a regular basis.

I am not what I do.

A sister I deeply respect once told me never to say no to an opportunity to do more. In order to be here and now, though, you have to be able to make space. You can't be completely given to a ministry (no matter how good or pressing it is); you have to allow for a space to stop and let God speak. In that moment and place, God could very easily bring ministry to the forefront, but it is the act of relinquishing control that is the true cost of being still for a moment.

Our ministry, after all, is not judged by the exhaustion we feel or the rest we don't take; it is measured by the lives we touch. And we are only able to touch lives as far as we are in touch with the One who calls us to service. Without rest, what we do is a wash. Who we are becomes caught up in what we do, not whose we are, in the here and now.

Even as I write this, I recognize the contradiction between my words and actions... Read the rest of the article here.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Subordinate Clauses

Recently, as I was writing, I noticed something repetitive about the phrases I was using. The word "seem" was making frequent appearances in the piece I was composing. The first time I used it, the word provided a good turn of phrase. The second time, it did the same. The third time I took note of its presence and then, by the fifth or sixth use I wondered why I seemed to be qualifying everything I was saying.

A quick glance at the dictionary revealed what I had already internalized.

Seem (sēm/)verb meaning to "give the impression or sensation of being something or having a particular quality." 

A note below the definition said "used to make a statement or description of one's thoughts, feelings, or actions less assertive or forceful." Why was I softening the words I was writing?

I thought about the topic I was covering. It hadn't come easy.  Instead of the natural process of waiting for inspiration to come, I had had to cajole the article from its place deep within me. I knew it would work, but it was a matter of making it come out naturally as if it hadn't been forced to work.  In the end, I was pleased by the results and struck by what it taught me about my creative process.

After weeks of hard work and a busy schedule, the piece I was working on stood as a final hurdle before a true break could come. Whether I was doing so intentionally or not, my writing voice conveyed a sense of doubt and reticence.  I was seeking clarity as much on paper as in my own being.  All I could do to draw forth my truth as I knew it in the moment. Perhaps, that is where the "seem" came from.

Pausing as I wrote, I would pray and wait.  It is in the silence of my heart and being that ideas make themselves manifest.  The time and patience required is the nature of my process.  What comes has the feel of an emerging creation, which I give thanks for whenever I have the privilege of working it out.

Putting the final words on the page, I smiled.  A weight was lifted and I could go forth to rest and relax... to allow the renewal which creation feeds off of.  This doesn't just seem to be the case; it is the case.  In that space, new life can emerge. That new life brings a hope that is so exhilarating that I can't help but give thanks for what has been created and the process of creation.  It is a secret beauty that renews my soul and before I can qualify this process I think of what might come next, reveling in what has been and hoping that these gifts given by God will continue to give abundantly into the future.  That is my hope and so far, it seems to be working.

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