Last year, I got one of the best birthday presents I've ever received. I was finishing up my year in Chicago, the second year of my novitiate, and found myself celebrating my birthday far from home. Thousands of miles from Philly and the East Coast, my fellow novices and I celebrated a new year of life as we also marked what would soon be the end of our time together. The end of our semester was full and so as our departure from Chicago was immanent, I didn't expect much for my birthday. What I got instead was a wonderful surprise.
Traditionally on your birthday you get to pick what you want to eat and the person "put in charge of your birthday" creates a prayer service to celebrate you. Beyond that, gifts are minimal or non-existent.
The days leading up to my birthday were long. I was bracing myself to leave Chicago and so I was not in the greatest of moods as I began to make disconnects from what I had grounded myself in for the previous nine months. Heading to our prayer space for prayer before dinner, I sighed, thinking I just needed to get through this celebration and soon I would be home.
Walking into the prayer space, I got the sense something wasn't right. Out of my peripheral vision there seemed to be too many people in the room. I looked first to see our neighbor Julie. There was no surprise in that since Julie shared all special occasions with us. I continued to turn and two my astonishment there sat two men- Max and Robert- without even processing their presence, I blurted out "What are you two doing here?!?" They smiled. They were my gift.
You see, Max and Robert were part of the weekly classes we shared with nearly seventy other novices from different religious communities in and around Chicago. For the semesters we spent in Chicago, we met weekly with this group, listening to lectures on various topics and engaging in discussions about who we were, what this life means, and where a call to religious life leads you as you journey along the way. Seated at round tables each week, we shared. For the most part, people moved around the room, switching tables from week to week. That is except for Max, Robert, and me. Week in and week out we sat together. A Sister of Saint Joseph and two Augustinians. Over time we built a relationship, we came to know and cherish one another (as so many in the group did). In a way, the sour mood I found myself in at the end of the semester came from the fact that I would be leaving these dear brothers behind as I left Chicago. So, you can imagine my surprise as they rose to greet me on my birthday.
We shared in prayer. I cried tears of joy at their presence and as we shared in pizza and ice cream cake, I couldn't help but beam at the present I had received. The gift of relationship, the grace of friendship.
This week I was reminded of that gift as a manila packing envelope arrived in the mail. Tearing it open, I found a copy of St. Augustine's Confessions and a note that read: Happy Reading & Happy Buy a Nun a Book Day!
I was astonished. I knew exactly who the gift was from- Max.
Sitting and looking at the book now, I can't help but give thanks for what it signifies- a relationship begun and far from finished.
To be honest, some of the greatest gifts I have received in my life aren't things at all, they're people.
As I make the transition from novice to professed sister, there is a wonderful reminder in that gift. Knowing that there is still room to grow, and knowing that even as life goes on, growth flourishes, changes, and develops, just a love and friendship does, I sigh and smile. This is about more than books or birthdays, this life is about love and the giftedness and grace of relationship.
These days, I find myself caught up in transition. I live in a new house with new people; I am a little over a month into a new ministry; I am learning what it means to live my vows day in and day out; and I am now, somewhat suddenly, making the transition from one mentor to another in my formation. All of this gives me pause. It makes me consider the changes at hand and what is really important.
In what can feel like constant turmoil, I am finding a grace and groundedness in the gift of people. As I minister, it is the students I work with on a college level who are gift. As I learn the ins and outs of a new house and local community, it is the sisters I live with who lighten my load. And as I feel the hurt of losing a director, I try to find the blessing in the gift of time and space that was so blessed and which will certainly continue to be blessed in new and wondrous ways.
Many moments of my days at present could lead to upheaval. Lots of things don't make sense and almost everything bears the uneasy feel of the unfamiliar. That is a feeling that sucks, plain and simple. Yet, in the midst of it all, God continues to offer gifts. On long days, it is the gift of relationship that grounds me again, steadying my footing. I am gifted- by a God who won't let go, by relationships that are rooted in love and rooting, and by the gift of being able to return always to the ultimate reason why I am here- a love that won't let go and call me forth.
In the end that is perhaps the greatest gift I could ask for. It gives me perspective, even as I feel the growing pains invited and uninvited, expected and unexpected. God's grace is a gift freely given and all I can do in it all- as I feel it all- is simply to acknowledge those I love, the gift they are in my life, and the One who in it offers a giftedness of connection beyond anything I could ever imagine.