Monday, April 14, 2014

Holy Week: Receiving in the Darkness

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.

Those words rang out like a discordant chime from the pew behind me tonight at Mass. They made me pause as I heard them. Their familiarity is ingrained in me and for a moment, as I continued to say the words of the new Missal that I have been taught over the last two years, they made me consider that perhaps I was saying the wrong thing.  Of course, I wasn't, but hearing words spoken so confidently, from a sort of spiritual muscle memory, made my ears and heart perk up.

For the clash of liturgical norms that they stirred up within me, these words seem to fit at the beginning of this Holy Week.  Maybe, as this week begins, that's exactly what I need to be saying. Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I will be healed.  

I stand at the threshold of this the holiest of weeks on the Christian calendar and I know that Jesus is coming. I watch as he mounts a donkey and parades into Jerusalem. Entering triumphantly on the back of an utterly ordinary creature, Christ comes into this final week of life inviting us into the extraordinary mystery of his life, death, and resurrection. His disciples may not have known it then, but we do now: this march triumphant and jubilant is also the beginning of the end. It is a procession toward the cross.

And so, as this week begins, I am struck by the way, even though the light of Easter is right around the corner, darkness rushes in.

As I watch Jesus ride past me into this week, I can only utter to myself... Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.   

I went to a late Mass tonight in celebration of Palm Sunday.  There is something intimate about the 8PM Mass I have found here in Chicago at Old St. Patrick's Church. The intricate Celtic designs of the church are somehow subdued by the night lighting; the crowds that fill the pews Sunday morning are slightly thinned, allowing for the feeling of being a part of a community of faith while also granting you a little space to yourself in the pew; and the beautiful stained glass windows normally illuminated in the daylight give way by nightfall to a lighting design that is cozy and calming, welcoming worshipers and inviting deep reflection.  And then, there is the music.  Let's just say it fits all that I've mentioned above- soft, reflective, enchanting, and serene- and so much more.

As Mass ended tonight, I could feel the darkness closing in. With a simple piano and violin accompaniment, we sang "Were You There." I had used John Angotti's version of the song for community prayer this afternoon, drawing off of Pope Francis' impromptu words today about entering into Holy Week and, in so doing, entering into the story of faith, the story of the Passion that we encounter these holy days.

We must ask "Who am I?" says Francis. Who am I in this story? What part do I play? and, most importantly, "Where is my heart?"

That is a question for all of us to ask.  As the words of the song rang out in the Church, something deeper came.  The song gave me goosebumps. I could feel the trembling within me, the "Oh" resonating from a depth created by pain, wisdom, experience, and grace, rooted in faith and self and yet beyond my very self all the same.

I closed my eyes as I sang and each time I opened my eyes, it was a little darker in the church... as if with each word the light was being drained from the sanctuary of Old St. Pat's.  By the end of the song, the light in the church was a dim glow. I felt depth within and the brief applause for the music ministry that broke the silence felt dreadfully out of place.

The darkness had come... the darkness of this holiest of weeks.

This is a time of reflection.  A time, the presiding priest reminded us, to listen for responses from God; to hear what God is trying to say to us at this very special, very sacred time.  Pope Francis' words echo is my ears, "Where is my heart?"  That question is a call. The call to be with Jesus this week, to be in the Passion- living, loved, forgiven, given, beloved.

There is much to be attentive to and so let us pray that we can be... attentive to God, to the deep call within, to the words that echo in our ears, and to the presence that is crying out to us.  May we be open to receiving Christ these days, no matter how difficult that may be. To hear God's words, to know God's love, to feel and encounter our God, and to allow ourselves, in the midst of darkness, to move toward all that is offered to us by the Light.

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Days Away

There are some days that are more difficult to be in Chicago than others. At first, I think I thought that those days would be major holidays like Thanksgiving or Easter. And while those days are hard, they're also the days that draw our novitiate group together as a community. You hear about what each person's family does for the holidays, what foods they cook, what traditions they hold dear, how they celebrate, and then you get the chance to do those things together.

Sometimes each person bring an aspect of their life back home to the table, other times we get the chance to make the holiday our own, in the way only a group of people who will be living together for a year can.  At Thanksgiving, it meant swapping recipes. At Easter, it'll mean joining in the Paschal Mystery in a way that draws us together free of "the way things always are" and free to create lasting memories by simply being together.  Yes, I miss my family and my congregation on these major holidays, but those days aren't the hardest.  Feast days are.

Yesterday as I celebrated St. Joseph's Day with the community here in Chicago, I gave thanks for where I am and the many blessings I have in my life. I spent time with Joseph in prayer, had dinner with our sisters in LaGrange, and enjoyed a lovely prayer service. But it wasn't the same as being home.  As we pulled up to the LaGrange Center of the Congregation of St. Joseph, I knew my sisters in Philadelphia were together celebrating Mass for this holy day. No doubt, there was music by our sisters, a reflection from one of our own, and time to meet and greet sisters from near and far.  For the last three years this is how I have spent my October 15th (Founders' Day) and March 19th.  Really, that is the only way I've ever celebrated those days.

Lot of days can be difficult but it's the days that I've only ever shared in community that are some of the hardest. They are the days you can't compromise; each one of us can't do what we do "back home" because of the simple fact that we're not at home. It's the people who help make the day; the Spirit that courses through the congregation; the being together as we are, doing what we do, that make these celebrations so great.

As I sat in the chapel at LaGrange yesterday, in the midst of beautiful music and a lovely prayer service, I knew something wasn't quite right.  My heart was in two places at once- present to my sisters here in Chicago, who I share my life with day in and day out, and in the hearts of the sisters I miss back home in Philadelphia.  Unfortunately, you can't be in two places at once. Yet, I know I'm where I'm supposed to be and in that, Joseph is with me.

This man, who left what he knew and what society said was right to do, found himself on a journey of love that led him to (and with) God. Joseph trusted God. He listened and followed.  As I reflected, I thought of the way Joseph is often pictured: holding Jesus.  This is what God led Joseph God's very self.

Trust the One who has led you to here. Those words echoed in my ears as I prayed yesterday.

No matter the stress on the journey, we must trust. I trust that I am being led on this path by the One who holds me close in love. This is the God I am growing closer to and who is revealing more and more to me each day. Like Joseph, I am where I am meant to be and even though I may face days away I know that my heart is in the right place. A place where I can be at home even when I am away; a place that journeys with me in my heart, where I am held in the loving heart of God, asked only to trust and follow, forever at home no matter the distance.

Friday, February 28, 2014


Sometimes prayers come out as poems.  As I make my way through my Federation Novitiate experience, I am finding that more and more poetry speaks to the deep movement within me. As a wise woman once told me, "Poetry's power is in capturing feelings. It is a mode of telling our self how we feel." And so, in this way, prayer and poetry fit perfectly together.  Poems become a mode of expressing emotion to God and discovering it anew for ourselves.  The following poems come from a two day class on the vow of obedience. May they speak to your heart & open you to the prayer already deep inside of you...

In the stillness
in the war torn shallows
of your heart
and hear.

Hear the whisper
that cries out
from the very cracks within
your bones,
“Be True.”
and the Truth will set you free.

Free to be bound up together
in our brokenness
to speak to the One who knows
all too well
and to learn, as if for the first time
that nothing
-not even ourselves-
can separate us from the Love of God.


Loving God, pause within me.
Long enough that I might see you there
and recognize your presence.

Pause if only for eternity and hold me still.
That I might be given to you,

All my desires,
            and blindness,
all that I am. Let me pause with you.

That I might be given to you
and as you move on,
I might follow you

to the ends of the Earth.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Story of God

"Tell me the story of God" she said, looking me square in the eyes. 

This wasn't a challenge or a test, it was a simple request.  She wanted to hear the story of God and I was the one she was asking.

Looking at the hand-carved nativity set before me, I figured I had better oblige.  This set is a constant presence in Room 105. Unlike the nativity set of my youth that appeared at the beginning of Advent and then disappear in a flurry of tissue paper right around the time that the glass balls from our Christmas tree went into hibernation, the nativity set in the Montessori classroom I minister in one day a week as a novice is a mainstay.  Its tiny figures are just the right size for little hands to play with and they occupy their own space in the classroom, complete with a place mat "stage," where they must stay put. Looking down upon the play space is a smiling picture of Pope Francis that hangs overhead.

I had knelt down to see what Laurel was doing with the set, hoping that I might be able to just observe. Laurel is about five years old; she has an active imagination and loves to play.  This coupled with the fact that she was a latecomer to the class meaning that while she is social, she isn't bound to any particular group of peers.  In the few weeks I've worked with Laurel I've been challenged to use my imagination more and more, to let down my guard and pretend a little bit. 

Often times when I ask Laurel what work she'd like to do, she proposes a game- be it "fish match tag", "name tag motor boat", or some other whimsically crafted pass time.  Sometimes we do play and other times we don't. I love watching Laurel's eyes when she realizes that this adult sitting next to her will actually play; the sparkle in that moment is a mix of delight, mischief, and sheer pleasure.  At first, I think she thought I was suspect, but over time I've received many a bowl of imaginary food and felt myself moved to see what truly letting go can bring about in an educational setting.

Today was one of those days.  When Laurel asked me to tell her the story of God, I knew what she was getting at but still the phrasing caught me off guard.  My novice mind fluttered- the story of God? Oh, if only I could and if only you knew what you were asking!

Quickly, we gathered all the players: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, a shepherd, and a handful of barnyard animals.  The story began with the Annunciation and Joseph's dream. A silhouette cruciform (a la Rio's Christ the Savior) stood in as the angel. Laurel stopped me there. "You know that's a cross" she stated plainly. Yes, I knew that but I needed an angel and so the somewhat amorphous form would have to do.  Laurel acquiesced, getting my reasoning and so we carried on.

 From the foreshadowing of Jesus' birth, we moved to the actual story of searching for a room in Bethlehem during the census. A little boy in the crowd that had now gathered around the play space kept on trying to jump to the Jesus part, inserting the manger and baby into the center of the place mat over and over again.  Once Mary and Joseph had finally settled in, we got to that part and then the shepherds, followed by the three kings and the star.  The kids hung onto every word, even the stuff they didn't quite understand.  "What is gold?" I asked and to which I was met with blank stares.  

Finally a little girl piped up, "Like the gold star you get for good work." 

"Exactly." I replied.

Then the Holy Family headed off to Egypt because Joseph had promised to keep the family safe.  They were a very good family I explained to the group.  They listened to God and helped one another. And, into all of that Jesus was born and he was human just like us and he was also God, sent to be among us.  They knew this. The story was a story about love we concluded- a family's love and God's love. Everyone seemed satisfied with this story of God.

"What was your favorite part of the story?" I asked Laurel when we were finished. 

"I liked the part where they couldn't find a room" she gleefully responded.

As I asked why this was her favorite part, we talked about what Joseph must have felt in that situation and what it means to make room for God. Of course, this had been her favorite part though- this was the part of the story where I let the kids be the people on the other side of the door.  

The little couple would walk up to them, knock on the door, and ask if they had any room. Each child would open an imaginary door and emphatically respond "No!” swinging the imaginary door they'd just opened shut.  When we got to Laurel it was difficult to convince her she had to say yes to letting them use her stable or the story wouldn't continue.  With this understanding, she allowed it.  If you want the story of God after all, you have to let God in.

Rearranging the pieces of the set, Laurel turned to me with another pressing question: "Can we play hotel with them now?"  I smiled. "Not right now" I said, there was other work to be done. I literally had beans to count with children and other understandings about the concept of numbers to explore on a 1,000 bead chain.  Our religion lesson had taken place in the midst of the story, complete with voices, actions, wooden figures, and handmade stars. I can hope the kids took something from it all, and even if not the whole nativity story- at least a piece of the story of God. A story filled with delight, joy, mystery, and the littlest amount of imagination... that is, of letting go...a story full of what we might call faith.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Principled Beauty

The following entry appeared originally on Live Questions.  Never heard of it?  It's a project started by some friends of mine that looks at questions of vocation, community, solidarity, and beauty. It is an outstanding project that I couldn't be happier to be able to contribute to from time to time.

“Kansas is an attitude” our instructor remarked with a wry smile on her face.  These were the first words out of her mouth… and they were true.

Kansas is an attitude. There’s no way around it. Kansas in the middle of January, however, is an extreme expression of that attitude. I and four other novices had come to Kansas to explore our congregational roots. Our instructor was a sister in her seventies; a woman born of the prairie, stubbornly independent, stunningly simple, and simply brilliant. Suffice it to say we met that attitude head on.

The lessons we had come to learn were on vocation, but surprisingly lessons on beauty came hand-in-hand with those about our call as religious sisters today, tomorrow, and yesterday. 

Kansas in January is desolate. The fields of wheat, milo, and corn that tantalize the American imagination with shades of gold are cut down to the ground. In their place are vast expanses of barrenness, the common vision of heartland mowed down.  It is a land recuperating, silently fostering the signs of life for spring. 

I and four other sisters were there to explore 100 maxims from seventeenth century France.  Written by the Jesuit who helped found our religious congregation, these maxims are guides for life; whether you are a religious or not, they are principles to live by.

Some make common sense: “Strive to be kind always to everyone and unkind to no one.” (Maxim 64) “Never think about tomorrow unless it has some necessary link with today, but entrust it to Providence.” (Maxim 69) or “Live out your life with one desire only: to be always what God wants you to be, in nature, grace, and glory.” (Maxim 73)

Others challenge our modern sensibilities and defy human nature: “Give all the happiness you can to those who give you a great deal of unhappiness, and give it willingly.” (Maxim 51) “Interpret all things from the best possible point of view” (Maxim 52) or “Advance all good works until they are almost finished; and then, whenever possible, let them be completed by someone else who will receive the honor.” (Maxim 85)

But the maxim we started with, Maxim 1, is the maxim that the ninety-nine proceeding maxims seek to elaborate on:

“Keep always in mind the aim of your vocation which is sublime; and never do anything which contradicts the commitment to a life full of modesty, gentleness, and holiness.” 
-Maxim 1-

 You can take this to mean anything you want, but for me, the aim of my vocation is union with God and neighbor without distinction.

This is the vocation I feel called to and it is the aim of the Christian life in general. Yet, as we moved our way deeper into this maxim, something struck me about the manner of achieving that aim.  It was hidden in the translation.

Modestie and douceur are most commonly translated from French literally as modesty and gentleness. But really, in practical terms, our call as Christians isn’t to a hackneyed expression of modesty and gentleness- you know, covering up and remaining docile. In all actuality, though, those words are much deeper. Respectively they mean a call to an awareness that is prudent, i.e. constantly discerning, (modestie) and a manner of being in touch with and seeking beauty (douceur). In older translations, the word douceur was taken to mean gentleness, but its true meaning (literally “sweetness”) is more akin to beauty.

And so, with this in mind, the second half of this key maxim essentially says:

Always keep in mind the aim of you life and…do nothing that contradicts the commitment you make to living a life that is constantly discerning, seeking beauty, and bound by holiness.

There, wedged in between the call to be constantly discerning and ever in pursuit of wholeness/holiness, was Beauty- douceur.

This beauty though isn’t just happiness and loveliness. No, it is something much more principled.

Such beauty, the Beauty in pursuit of union with God and with neighbor without distinction, has four characteristics:  order, symmetry, harmony, and right relationship.

Looking up at the same sister who’d told us that Kansas was an attitude, I stared quizzically, my aesthetic mind reeling.  These were principles of beauty I had not encountered before. As I played various “beautiful” scenarios through my head, my mind and heart whirled. I had never considered beauty this way.  In essence, as I seriously considered this definition, the drive of my vocation hung in the balance.

Could the beauty I cherish in the world, in fact, be a function of my vocation? I wondered.

Is what we find beautiful defined by the presence of these characteristics at the very core of its being?

Harmony, order, symmetry, and right relationship flooded my mind. Not only do these lie at the heart of the Gospel, they also speak to the sometimes indescribable and yet principled beauty of our world. 

Surely even grace operates within this basic framework; liberated not tamed by these broad categories. The harmony, symmetry, and order of life (and beauty) are God’s not ours. The right relationships we are called to flow out of our right relationship with our Creator.

And as I considered all of this- my life, my call, this world- I also drew into mind the principled beauty I encountered on the wind-swept plains of northern Kansas. There, even in desolation, poverty, and expansiveness, there was Beauty. It was a beauty bound up in harmony, symmetry, order, and right relationship.

It is what I considered as I tried to capture the principled beauty of the area on film and it is what I delved into as I plunged the depths of my being in a place stripped of all else. And what did I find?

I found a beauty given and graced. It is an attitude. And it is something that goes far beyond the Plains into the depths of our very being- the aims of our vocations- the principles of our lives.

And in that, there is something beautiful just waiting to be discovered. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Take My Hand

As many of you know, in addition to writing here on the blog, I also put my pen to real paper from time to time.  You can find some of the publications that I've written for on the right hand side of this page, but today is a special day.

Today, my reflection "Take My Hand"  was published in Give Us This Day, the fabulous worship & prayer aid from Liturgical Press. Usually these reflections are subscription-only, but today's was re-published on Pray Tell, a wonderful blog of worship, wit, & wisdom. So, in case you missed it, click on the link and check it out!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

I lit myself on fire once.

Written during (not for) the opening of Chapter 2014, Philadelphia via Concordia, KS
I lit myself on fire once.
Not on purpose, but still.
The match I intended to blow out
consumed my hair and eye lashes.

All around me was a flash
of light and heat
and in my heart
was panic.

The mystics speak of being set
on fire
by the Love of God,
in a Love all-consuming.

I'm sure it comes like a flash
and I'm sure fear must be
extinguished first
or it won't burn bright for long.

I feared I'd be disfigured
that my whole self might go up
in a cloud of smoke.
Singed and shaken I emerged.

But I imagine when God sets a fire
it is a controlled burn
it gives life even as it takes it
and only singes what resists.

The blaze is set deep within
no puff of smoke or putrid smell
only life,
the most combustible fuel of all.

You can't set that type of fire yourself
No, it is a flame beyond
your control
If you try, you're bound to get burned.

As a child, they told me
not to play with matches.
You'll set yourself on fire.
How right they were.

I was set on fire once
through no fault of my own
I consented to being consumed.
I could not hold the flames at bay.

Let go and let it burn my Love
whispered in my ear.
A flash of tongues about my head,
White hot passion in my soul.

Engulfed but not afraid I stood
A box of matches at my side
The emptiness inside was full

A flame that wouldn't die.