Monday, November 22, 2021

Imagine Advent

This Advent I'll be taking part in (and offering my own reflection to) "Imagine Advent," a daily reflection program from the Jesuits of the United States and Canada. Looking at where we can find God in the stories we tell- be it in film, books, poetry, art, or elsewhere- this program promises new insight during this sacred season as we prepare for Immanuel, God with Us. I invite you to join me by signing-up for daily e-mails at jesuits.org/advent 

See below for more information and blessings as we journey together during these Advent days!


From The Jesuits: "Advent is a season of waiting — waiting to encounter our God who enters into the human story through the Incarnation. Through this period of prayerful waiting, we discern how Christ is entering into our own stories in a new way in this moment.

God’s desire to enter into the story of creation is not limited to a stable in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. “God has become personally woven into our humanity,” Pope Francis reminds us, “and so has given us a new way of weaving our stories.” St. Ignatius taught that God is to be found in all things — and God can be found speaking to us in and through countless stories.

Join members of the Ignatian family during these next 25 days as they share with you stories through which they encounter God. This Advent, as we wait to welcome Christ anew into our story, let us make a 25-day pilgrimage through multimedia storytelling, encountering God’s Holy Spirit speaking to us in even the most unlikely of places."

Friday, November 5, 2021

The grace to pray for the grace I need

My latest column for the Global Sisters Report explores the way we pray and the graces that we pray for. Sometimes what we desire is different than what we need. The dialogue of prayer can bring these distinctions to light and invite us to see the glimmers of grace that God is offering if we are aware and courageous enough to embrace them. Enjoy!

--

Calm your body. For a moment, take a deep breath. Go ahead. I can wait.

Sink deep. Deeper than one breath can take you. Deeper still to the place where your shoulders release and your muscles unfurl. Keep breathing with no other intention than to breathe.

Ease down to the bedrock of your being. You'll know when you get there. Close your eyes, if need be, stare into space or reread the above. Maybe some more slow breaths might help before you come to the still space of beginning. When you get there (or even if you can't quite make it) ask yourself: What is the grace I need?

Here. In this moment. As everything else swirls around, what is the grace I would pray for myself? For the world? For this moment?

Hold that grace for the moment, so that it can take hold. Give it space to take up residence, to set up shop and prop open the door. This grace, if given the space, might never leave. Maybe it'll even invite its friends in. How about that?

Sitting in prayer a few weeks ago, my mind raced as I sorted through a conflict the day before. Had I said the right thing? Had I been firm enough? Should I apologize? What was there to apologize about?

Rerunning the situation in my head, my heart raced, revisiting the adrenaline-filled moment. In the end, the voice of one of my first spiritual directors echoed in my ear. Name the grace, I could hear her whispering. Name the grace you need, you want, you're afraid of.

Breathing for a moment, I came to that ground floor of my being, clearing the space of the adrenaline haze and the many voices of fight and flight. What I needed and wanted was peace.

Naming the grace we most desire is at the heart of a fruitful prayer life. Sometimes what we name is perfectly aligned with God's desire; other times what we name might come out sideways or take on a different meaning in the movement of the Spirit. In some moments, we don't exactly know what we want or need and at other times, what we name is not exactly what God knows would serve us better. Yet to intentionally name a grace is to introduce into prayerful dialogue a desire for deeper understanding and resolution in our lives and relationship with God.

The process of naming such an intention in prayer — a desired outcome, if you will — draws us into direct conversation with God. We are planting the seed we hope to cultivate with God and what grows in our time together is a fruit of that intention. Like any good conversation, prayer takes that intention and forms it through mutual engagement. I may want peace, but I need to listen to what God wants for me and how God thinks might be the best way to come to that end.

Here we come to realize that the naming of a grace is not just wishful thinking or projected wish fulfillment. God is not a genie. It is not as if we name a grace and then, it just so happens that when our prayer is complete, the grace has magically come to be. Likewise, in praying for a specific grace, we are not subliminally determining where our prayer will end up.

Prayer of this sort, wrapped up in pretty little packages, should raise suspicions. If anything, the grace of prayer is unwrapping the gift God is offering us through ongoing dialogue. We are sharing with God and, as such, we also need to be prepared to receive whatever grace/gift God offers us in return. What is revealed may be far more complex or gratifying than we ever could have imagined. Thus, prayer becomes a process of growth, discovery and surrender.

We also need to recognize that maybe the grace we want is deeper than what we are willing or able to name. In that case, part of the invitation of prayer is to listen to what God is trying to illuminate within our lives. The invitation then is to ask God what we need and to discover together what the answer might be.

For some, not knowing what you want or need in a specific moment can be a scary prospect. If I can't tell God what I need, how can we proceed? Or, better yet, how will I know when I get it? The answer to both these questions is essential and essentially the same: trust.

Like sinking into the silence, we know when we have arrived. We trust the moment and know it when we feel it. The only way to get there though is to trust the One with whom we journey.

What scares some in this prospect, enlivens others. Not knowing exactly what grace is needed frees us to imagine God's grace in new and different ways. Perhaps a broken relationship or betrayed trust is what I bring to prayer. Unable to clear the cloudiness of anger and hurt, I could settle for cheap grace, or I could ask God what might be best in this moment. The answer — maybe to pray for the peace and success of the other — might surprise me and call me to examine my own motivations and prompt deeper trust in God's will and reliance on God's ways.

The grace that we name, then, may or may not be the grace we receive. We trust, though, that by entering into prayer with our full being, God will guide us to what we need. If we don't find ourselves where we intended or where we thought we would be, it would be best to talk about that with God, too.

Ultimately, as with any relationship, what matters is our showing up... Finish up the column on GSR. 


Friday, September 24, 2021

Where Everyone is Neighbor

As some of you know, I recently left my ministry at the SSJ Neighborhood Center in Camden, New Jersey to pursue graduate studies at the Boston College School of Theology & Ministry. Before my departure, I wrote a piece about the Center in honor of the Year of St. Joseph, which has just been published in the Catholic Star Herald.
----

Even after 120 years of service in Camden, the Sisters of Saint Joseph were the new kids on the block when they arrived in 2017 in the Cramer Hill section of the city. Sent by their congregation, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia, a group of sisters set out to establish a new, sponsored ministry in the city: the Sisters of Saint Joseph Neighborhood Center.

“For all our ministry in the city of Camden, we as a congregation decided that to continue our commitment to those who are materially poor and marginalized, it was important we establish a physical place for ministry,” explains Sister Bonnie McMenamin, SSJ, the SSJ Neighborhood Center’s founding director. “As Sisters of Saint Joseph, we are called to love God and to love our neighbors without distinction. That means encountering Jesus in every neighbor we meet and seeking to foster a sense of community in and among the neighbors and neighborhoods we serve.”

Over the last four years, that is exactly what the SSJ Neighborhood Center has done. With programming that ranges from a food pantry and prayer groups to English as a Second Language classes and sewing and crocheting lessons, the center is focused on bringing people together to provide opportunities for connection, enrichment and empowerment. Serving primarily adults and families, the center provides a safe space for neighbors to learn and grow together.

“This is a place where all are welcome,” Sister Clarisa Vázquez, SSJ, outreach coordinator at the center, says. “Our neighbors come from various cultural backgrounds that wouldn’t normally mix. With a common goal of learning English or a sewing project, they grow together, they help one another and they develop relationships far beyond the classes they share.”

This was evident when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the center’s classes in spring 2020. “We moved the classes we could online,” Sister Bonnie recalls. “Our neighbors wanted to be together, even if that meant learning how to do so virtually!”

For many, that meant learning how to use a laptop computer. For volunteer teachers, that meant adapting lessons to a digital format. “The pandemic put all of us to the test,” says Sister Colleen Gibson, SSJ, coordinator of services. “Yet, God provided in every instance. Students and teachers adapted and learned together. Demand on our food pantry expanded, but so did the generosity of our neighbors near and far.”

The center’s monthly food distribution has grown exponentially since 2017. What began as a pantry that fed 14 families on a monthly distribution day now feeds more than 200 families every third Wednesday of the month. The pantry distributes food provided by the Food Bank of South Jersey as well as donations from parishes, religious education programs, community groups, and individuals from throughout the Camden and Philadelphia areas.

“We could never do what we do on our own,” Sister Mary Berryman, SSJ, coordinator of the food pantry, explains. The center is reliant on volunteers to help serve neighbors, teach classes and provide goods for distribution. Beyond the food pantry, donors help provide diapers and baby clothing for families in need, new and used household goods for the center’s “sharing markets,” and financial assistance for those seeking rent and utility assistance.

“Our mission is to unite ‘neighbor to neighbor and neighborhood to neighborhood,’” Sister Colleen adds. “We see that come alive when a neighborhood teenager strikes up a conversation with a student volunteering from Camden Catholic High School, or a neighborhood family gives gardening tips to the family from Philadelphia who shares a plot next to them in our community garden.”

“Here, everyone is a neighbor,” Sister Bonnie says as she reflects on the center’s roots and mission. “Our love of God draws us into union with all people.”

In this Year of Saint Joseph, Sister Bonnie takes solace in the example of Saint Joseph that is lived out at the SSJ Neighborhood Center. “Like Joseph, our service is humble and often hidden. We give ourselves in the service of God’s love. We create a space where no one is turned away, where there is always ‘room at the inn.’”

Together with their neighbors, the sisters are helping to create a space where all are welcome. They, after all, know how it feels to be new to a neighborhood and hope they can make room for each neighbor to flourish in the fullness of God’s love in community.

To See & Be Seen: Embracing Presence as a Ministry of Learning

My latest piece for Global Sisters Report is a reflection on the depth and complexity of a ministry of presence. This practice lies at the heart of good relational ministry. Doing it well means being present not only to the person in front of us but God at work in our midst. May we each be blessed to see and be seen in our encounters.

---

One of the first lessons of ministry is the importance of presence. If we are to be engaged with others, to win hearts and souls, and to find God in it all, we need to be actively present to the people in front of us. Our job is to hear their stories, offer respite to the weary, make space to breathe, and provide companionship, if only but for a moment, to those to whom we minister. In so doing, we walk together, share life and ultimately reveal love.

Such a prospect seems simple, right? Yet when we probe more deeply into the practice of ministry of presence, we discover that what seems to be simple is, in reality, rather complex.

This is a lesson, however, we only learn in living.

As a college freshman, I thought I knew what ministry of presence was. That is, I thought I knew until I encountered a call to presence far more complex that I ever could have imagined.

A group of classmates and I had been sent to serve the Tuesday morning meal at a local soup kitchen. We were instructed to be fully present to the people we met there. "Listen to their stories," our guide told us, "Give the gift of your presence."

Upon arrival, my friends all garnered jobs on the front line, distributing a warm meal to those who came in off the streets. Meanwhile, I found myself relegated to a side room. My only companions were an industrial dishwasher and a small window that diners could pass their dirty dishes through for me to clean. Listening to the sounds of the dining room, I waited for people to finish their breakfast and come into sight.

Soon hands began to poke through the window, but no one stayed long enough for me to really be present to them. As dishes piled up, I forgot about the instruction to be present and instead got down to the work at hand. As I worked my way through the stacks of dishes before me, I noticed someone standing at the window. The man dressed in a dark blue flannel handed his coffee cup to me.

"Thank you," he uttered.

"Oh, you're welcome," I replied, turning to put the cup into the dishwasher rack I'd been filling. Spraying the dishes down, I turned back to see him still standing there.

"Thank you," he said, looking intently at me. His eyes, a rich chestnut color, seemed to peer deep into my soul. "Thank you," he repeated with a gentle nod of his head.

I nodded my head in return. "Thank you."

For a few still moments, we silently looked at one another, before he nodded again and walked back to the busy dining room. Staring at the now empty window, I wondered what exactly had just happened.

On the car ride home, my companions shared the stories they had gathered while serving. Each one of them buzzing with the energy of encounter. I, meanwhile, sat silently in the back seat. When asked what stories I had gathered, I sheepishly stammered that I hadn't gathered any. I had seen and been seen.

The conversation quickly turned to other things, but I remained in that space, both comfortable and uncomfortable. The look. The nod. The knowing. All Presence.

From time to time, that moment returns to me in my memory. It is a reminder that whatever I think presence might look like, there is always more to learn.

This realization is itself a lesson. A ministry of presence makes space for the other, giving them the space to be heard, to be seen, and to be loved. In that space we discover what unites us and, if we are lucky, we encounter God in the person in front of us and the act of being present. Our hope is that it does the same for the other people involved, too.

The temptation of a ministry of presence is to make it about us. If we aren't careful, it can easily devolve into a self-serving ministry; we can selfishly serve to enrich ourselves, treating presence as an avenue to self-congratulations and achievement rather than humility and openness.

Yet to truly be present is to find Divine Presence in the presence we offer and receive. As such, we recognize that a ministry of presence is, in fact, a ministry of learning. We learn that we can make space but can't force grace. We discover that curiosity is best used in the service of seeking the One who seeks us. And we realize that gratitude is the greatest response to all that Presence offers us.

If we approach our encounters with others with these grounding values — humility, openness, curiosity and gratitude — we create a space where no matter what happens we have the potential to receive it, to be taught by it, to expand our vision, and to grow in the process.

This, of course, requires us to let go of set outcomes, expectations and desires. When we meet disappointment or frustration in our encounters, it would do us well to honestly ask if we were holding too tightly to one of these factors, limiting our freedom and constricting our ability to truly be present.

Practicing such presence is a lifelong process. While we might become better at offering a ministry of presence, it is a ministry constantly developing, showing us new facets of the Divine and ourselves in relationship. Called to be students of life, we have the opportunity to learn and to grow in moments of presence expected and unexpected. In those moments, no lesson is too big, no encounter too small. For this, we should be grateful.

Years later, I still recall that moment standing face-to-face with the man with the chestnut eyes at the soup kitchen. That encounter surely wasn't what I expected my ministry of presence to look like that day. So often that is the case...Click here to finish reading this piece

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

New Ignatian eBook!

I'm pleased to share that to celebrate the Ignatian Year 2021-2022, the 500th anniversary of St. Ignatius’ conversion, I've contributed to the free ebook “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: Through the Year with Ignatian Spirituality” from the Jesuits. Filled with Ignatian prayers, poems, reflections and illustrations, this work features 26 contributors and is free to download at jesuits.org/ebook


When you sign up for the e-book, links to download it will be e-mailed to you immediately.

Spend time with this rich resource throughout the year (you'll have to wait/ skip ahead to Lent for my contribution) and find how "Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places" can enrich your prayer this year!

A Future of Fruit Salad & Solid Connections

This week the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) will gather for their annual assembly. On the agenda is looking a continuation of their visioning for the future. As I say in my latest column for the Global Sisters Report, this is not a new conversation. Yet in recent months, I've come to reflect on the fact that multiple conversations taking place on many levels will certainly yield multiple fruits. Below is an excerpt from my column- Enjoy!

---

The other day I sat beside our new receptionist trying to make sense of the dial plan for our telephone system. There on the screen in front of us, we could trace any phone call that came into the neighborhood center where I minister and follow the route it would take to each office. Imagine an old-time operator's station, complete with wires and plugs, but digitized. Instead of long cords connecting telephone extensions, colorful arrows stretched across the computer screen in front of us. As we gazed upon the mess on the screen, we wondered aloud how so many conversations could happen at once. Surely with all these intersecting arrows there would be something lost.

After following each dial plan's arrows to completion, we saved our work and with a little trepidation, picked up a cellphone to test it all out. As I pressed the cellphone to my ear, I heard the sweet sound of the center's recorded welcome, followed by a ringing phone down the hall. Hanging up, I moved on to testing the next line. With each call, I found a successful connection. What had seemed like a mess on paper, in fact, was a network calibrated and ready to ring out.

All it needed was a call.

***

On a recent video conference with Sisters of St. Joseph from congregations around the United States and Canada, the conversation turned to our vision for the future. As people spoke about what they dreamed, I could see the arrows and connections mapping out before me. Common themes emerged in the conversation. By and large, this wasn't a new conversation but an evolving one.

It is a conversation happening in so many places and on so many levels. In inter-congregational spaces, among congregations that share charisms, within individual congregations, within age and interest cohorts, and among individual members, there is a process of envisioning for the future that has been going on for years, and is continuing to take place as we live into the future.

In following the preparations of the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or LCWR, for their annual assembly, it is evident in conversations between leaders around the country. The work leaders have been doing through the conference's "Discerning Our Emerging Future" initiative broadens leaders' view of what key components need to be considered in looking to the future.

Many of the themes that are found in LCWR's conversations are echoed in other circles: inclusivity, diversity, empowerment, relationships, shared ministry, reconciliation, joy, call, charism, formation, movement to oneness, and trust. These themes underscore the viability of religious life moving into the future and the critical need for conversations that listen and actions that include, so that the future of religious life reflects the Gospel vision and call that is at its core.

In the multitude of conversations, it's important that we all continue to keep showing up. This can be difficult in a process that is more of a marathon than a sprint. The spirit inspires, and yet we discern that movement in conversation with one another and in the realm of conferences and committees. At times, such work can be tedious; we must endure. Conversations can seem repetitious; still we must continue, speaking our truth and listening so that all voices are heard.

We must remember that multilevel conversations will inevitably bear multiple fruits. There is no one "right" answer but a multitude of threads being pulled together by the Spirit. Our challenge will be recognizing, balancing and reconciling these fruits of the Spirit, even if they don't seem to be part of the same plan. We're making fruit salad, patiently and perceptively recognizing the multiple paths the Spirit is devising to make our future a reality.

To embrace this reality, we must trust in the work of the Spirit and trust in one another as we journey into this uncharted territory together. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians (Ephesians 4:2-4), we are being called to journey together "with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call."

In hope, we journey together.

On the way, we engage in conversations, recognizing that the prayer and discernment we are about at this moment is done in motion. Where we stood yesterday is not (and cannot be) where we stand today. In pursuit of the moving target that is the future, we come to see that there are many ways to get there. There is not one answer to the question of our emerging future but a multitude of conversations to be had.

As those conversations (and ultimately the faithful people who pursue the actions they imply) yield fruits, we will be called to reconcile the resulting plans and visions with one another. In so doing, may we hold true to the common charism of religious life that unites us while also enriching one another (and our world) with the particular charisms the Spirit inspires in each of us.

In the master plan for religious life, we can trust that the Spirit is the One connecting these many conversations. What, at times, can feel like a jumble is, in fact, the creative spirit of God working in the chaos.

Like a busy operator, God is making the connections. The call of religious life can and will make its way through if we trust and cooperate with God's vision... Finishing reading here.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

'Go to Joseph': A father for us all

In the United States, today marks Father's Day. As we celebrate the gift of fatherhood, I reflected in my latest column for the Global Sisters Report about the model of faithfulness Saint Joseph passes on to all of us. May we always "go to Joseph" and find in him a companion who will journey with us wherever life takes us.

---

It's funny the things we remember from our childhood. The little rituals we carry with us into adulthood.

As a child, I can remember the soft jangle of the cross my father wore around his neck clattering against his Miraculous Medal as he settled by my bedside to put me to sleep. I recall the way my tiny fingers traced the image of Mary on the medal as I drifted off to sleep. My mother meanwhile would, as she still does from time to time, trace a cross across my forehead. And there in the moments before bed, I felt safe and secure, surrounded by the love of my parents and assured, without any words, of the loving presence of God in the stillness of the moment.

Traditions like these imprint themselves on our little lives and grow along with us. All these years later, I can still hear the jangle of my father's necklace as I fiddle with my own and feel my mother's thumb as I trace my own brow. Truly, these little rituals serve as touchstones to a much bigger story.

With this thought in mind, I set out the first Christmas after my nephew and godson was born with a mission in mind: to find a way to make those kinds of memories.

As much as it was my nephew's first Christmas, it was also my brother's first Christmas as a father. Having just begun my formation as a Sister of St. Joseph, I prayed about what might be the best gift for memory making. Thoughts of experiences and adventures whizzed through my mind. Yet, as I prayed, I found my fingers tracing the small medal that hung around my neck, transporting me back to those bedside moments.

"Go to Joseph." I thought to myself.

By Christmas morning, a tiny box sat beneath the tree for my brother: a perfect-sized St. Joseph medal for little fingers to trace.

Who better to accompany my brother on this journey into fatherhood than the one who provided the loving presence of a father to Jesus here on earth? Better yet, who better to accompany my nephew as he drifted off to sleep and grew in age and wisdom?

Joseph, after all, is a father to us all. He is an everyday saint. A man of few words, whose love of God was reflected in the way he loved those around him.

As we celebrate Father's Day in the United States and in places around the world this weekend, I believe Joseph offers us an example of a father whose faithfulness is ingrained in each of us.

In Joseph, we find a mirror of God's love in action and a quiet companion who gives witness to the steadfast faith and willing courage of a person totally obedient and fully given to God. Whether in his dreams, his work or his fatherhood, Joseph shows us that faith takes many forms.

As a dreamer, Joseph reveals to us that God's dreams are meant to put us in touch with reality rather than helping us to escape it. "Joseph did not hesitate to obey, regardless of the hardship involved." Pope Francis has written about Joseph's response to his dreams. In each case, Joseph faced the reality at hand, be it taking Mary into his home, uprooting his family to go to Egypt, or returning to Israel by one way or another. In each case, Joseph was attentive to God's message, realizing that these dreams were bigger than just him. Thus, Joseph shows us that our dreams are meant to serve the world, not just ourselves. By our obedience, we engage the realities of the moment and with God we are able to act in ways that serve the greater good and God's greater glory.

As a worker, Joseph shows us that we are called to be co-creators with God and that such creation takes hard work, courage and an ability to adapt to the needs of the moment. Joseph made a way even when one was not necessarily clear. "God always finds a way to save us," Pope Francis exhorts in "Patris Corde," "provided we show the same creative courage as the carpenter of Nazareth." With creative courage, Joseph transformed problems into possibilities and made a life for his family (and all of us) through his indominable engagement with the Spirit's call and Love's inspiration. Our call, then, is to get our hands dirty in the service of God's plan, working joyfully and giving witness to the value and dignity of all peoples' work.

Finally, as a father, Joseph demonstrates the power of love, given freely and abundantly, to foster life in our world. Although Joseph was not Jesus' biological father, we see the evidence of his love in the life of Jesus. Joseph's loving spirit, care for all people, faithfulness to God's call, and protection of the most vulnerable is no doubt seen in his foster son. Jesus learned from Joseph and Joseph provided the space in which a young Jesus could flourish. We can only hope to do the same for those entrusted to our care.

Recalling my gift to my brother many Christmases ago, I wonder what the impact of that medal has been. To be honest, I don't know if he ever wears it. Yet, I know Joseph is with him and his children all the same. I can see it in his gentleness, hear it in tender moments, feel it in their drive to do good, and sense it in the quiet confidence of a father doing his best to bring his sons' light to full flame in the world.

As we mark this Father's Day, may our prayer be that we may become more like Joseph... Finish the piece here