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.
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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

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.

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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

Touchstones


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.