My most recent piece for the Global Sisters Report draws off of a series of workshops that I'm giving to our sisters on conflict resolution, nonviolent communication, and intercultural dialogue. In it, I offer a few simple insights about conflict and how having an open heart opens us to the possibility to transform moments of friction in our lives. May it meet you where you are and I pray offer a moment to consider the conflict of our world and your life in light of the call to love. A blessed Holy Week to all!+
A sister turned to me after a recent workshop on conflict resolution. "I ask myself," she said with a troubled look in her eyes, " 'How is it that after all these years I can still feel this conflict in my bones?' It's like it never left me."
There were sadness and surprise swirled together in her statement. In her eyes, I saw a search for hope, a desire for resolution. I had no response to her statement except to nod knowingly. All I could do was return her gaze with a look of loving compassion. It wasn't that I was at a loss for words, but rather that no words would do in that moment. Instead the sentiment hung between us, a truth held in the reality of being spoken.
As she spoke more, she wondered aloud, "Why am I still carrying this with me? Why can't I just let it go?"
It's a reality that many of us know — if not fully, at least in part. That sense of conflict once forgotten that returns; the shaky feeling of trying to stand under the weight of a memory revived.
The truth is that conflict runs deep. The way we engage the conflicts of our lives has a big impact on what it is that we carry with us from those moments and experiences of opposition.
Simply put, conflict is the encounter of feelings or elements, such as actions, ideas, interests, beliefs or perceptions that are in opposition. Few people enjoy conflict, and yet it is an inevitable reality of life; conflict is normal and there's a consolation in knowing that. Wherever two or three are gathered, conflict is not far behind.
At this moment, it might be the sharing of a memory reawakened of a long forgotten or avoided feeling; in another, the awareness of an overreaction or displaced response that comes from another place, situation or relationship entirely; and in still another moment, it might be an actual encounter with someone that dredges up a sense of conflict you thought was forgotten or forgiven.
These moments are rarely expected or readily welcomed. Yet that's not to say we should ignore them. To shy away from such feelings when they surface is to deny the deeper need for healing and the long-term effects of hurt in our lives.
Opening our hearts, transforming conflict
Every conflict begins with a negative perception of the other. That perception stems from the initial judgements we make of others to the state of mind and being we're in when encountering a person or situation and everything in between. To be able to recognize the many aspects of ourselves and the situations that lead to conflict when parties come together, we each must be aware of our own interior life as well as the way that life interacts with the world around us. Such awareness requires an openness on our part; we need to be honest about our feelings and attentive to the many elements interacting in any given moment.
Sometimes this happens in the moment and helps us to prevent conflict, but, more often than not, it's only after a conflict occurs that we are able to stop and assess what has happened (and then choose how we will or will not react).
Each of these choices is just that — a choice.
As a mentor once said to me, "Depending on the moment and your capacity in that moment, you need to ask yourself — is this a time to 'block and go' or do I need to 'stop and engage?' "
Just as we have the ability to interpret a situation for good or ill, we also have the capability to face conflict head on, through compromise, not at all, or through a myriad of other approaches. We all have our reasons for the choices, both conscious and unconscious, that we make concerning conflict. Our choice reflects our desire; the skills we employ to deal with conflict help to facilitate that process.
The skills for dealing with conflict are imperative to living a life of peace and love in the world. They are skills that in theory seem easy to practice but in practice stretch us to be proactive, self-aware and humble. Such skills do not promise to eliminate conflict. In fact, in some cases, they are sure to instigate conflict. Yet, they also provide a means to transform conflict so that we might emerge less shaken, more informed, and with a greater sense of wholeness by working through conflict in relationship and dialogue with others.
Part of transforming conflict, not just managing or resolving it, is to choose to engage conflict and to do so with an open heart. This means being willing to look at what lies beneath the conflicts of our lives and seeking to more deeply understand who we are by how we engage conflict.
Much like an open door policy, an open heart approach to conflict creates space where it is safe to explore conflict in our lives. This requires courage and a healthy dose of humility. It invites us to stop, assess, think, and then act, while undertaking seven key steps: Continue the article here
The Lenten journey is one that offers us opportunities to deepen our relationship with God and to examine the way we live our lives. In my latest piece from Global Sisters Report, I look at the invitation in this season to discover what might be missing and to invite God into the emptiness. Below is an excerpt; I pray it might give fuel to your reflection and speak to your experiences- Lenten Blessings!
"Not only we ourselves desire life in abundance; God desires it for us as well. Not only must our eyes and ears be attentive; God's "eyes" and "ears" are always attentive to us. … God does not wait for us to puzzle out the way of life; God rushes in before the soul finished its prayer to show us the way. And the way is to rejoice in this constant, loving Presence." —Norveen Vest, Desiring Life
A few weeks ago, I found myself in front of nearly 150 students in grades five through eight at a local school where one of my congregation's associates-in-mission is principal. I had been invited to come speak on vocations and my own story.
After speaking to a similar number of students from the lower grades, I dove into the lesson prepared by our vocation directors for middle school students. We began by looking at our own unique being and how the God who has uniquely made us calls us to be who we truly are by living out our call to love and to embody God's love in the world.
Of course, no matter your age, exploring such topics isn't simple. And so, after reading a poem and a prayer, I pulled out a bag full of 24-piece puzzles featuring cute animals and cartoon characters. Unbeknownst to students, each puzzle intentionally had missing pieces.
Grouping the students by grade level, I spread them out in 15 groups around the gym we were in and put the stack of puzzles in the center of the room. "Your task," I told them over the flurry of chatter in the space, "is to create a whole picture. The first group to complete this task wins!"
With that challenge, the energy and noise levels in the room went up a notch. On the count of three, each group would send a member running to get their puzzle and to race back so that they could hopefully win.
"One ... two ... three!" I shouted into the microphone as students rose to their feet in pursuit of the prize.
Soon the groups began to realize something wasn't quite right. First, the oldest students flagged me down. "Do you know where our pieces are?"
I shook my head and shrugged. Almost instantly they began to theorize about what this all meant. Before I could listen too intently to their discussion, a younger student ran up to me out of breath and with a look of panic on his face. "We don't have all our pieces. … Where are they?"
Again, I shrugged. He quickly left my side and began searching under chairs and in the corners of the gym for the missing pieces. Meanwhile, his fifth-grade classmates began to ask me what the true meaning of this exercise was.
"What do you think?" I asked them.
Their responses surprised me: No one is perfect. God is the missing piece. We can't always put the whole picture together. You need other people to give pieces and help complete the puzzle.
All of those lessons are true.
As I called the group back together and the disappointment of not winning subsided, lessons began to sink in, and the students began to recognize that the puzzles had more to teach us about how God calls and how we put that call together, even when we don't have all the pieces.
Then I ended by sharing pieces of my story and inviting the students to strive to work with God to assemble the puzzle of their own call, now and in the future.
That's the call for each of us. Leaving the school, I thought of the eagerness with which the students responded and the conclusions they drew. I patted myself on the back and then promptly got back into the grind of everyday life, all but forgetting about the experience. That is, until I began preparing for Lent.
Reflecting on what I might give up (fasting), give back (almsgiving), and give to prayer (prayer) in order to draw closer to God this Lenten season, the image of the empty space in the puzzle returned to me.
We all have those spaces in our lives that are in need of greater clarity, the pieces of our lives that require time, patience and prayer to discover, recover and uncover. The empty spaces remind us of the lessons many of us spend our lives learning — no one is perfect; you don't need to be perfect to be loved; there's grace in empty spaces; God fills us when nothing else can or will.
Dwelling on the gaps in my own self-awareness and spiritual life, I remembered the fifth grader who ran up to me panicked, out of breath, and desperately looking for the pieces. How many times in life have we or do we busy ourselves in frantically searching for the missing pieces? Running to the point of exhaustion, only to realize that it might benefit us more to sit with the empty space?
When we take a loving look at our lives, what might benefit us more: filling the hole in our life or being in the hole with God?
The latter is a simple and yet profound gesture. In the empty space, we surrender; we don't know or need to know; we can be and be perfectly well in and with Christ.
In her new book (and accompanying podcast), Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I've Loved), Kate Bowler underscores "what it feels like to live a non-shiny life in a world that prefers glittery people." That word — "shiny" — resonates within me as I consider the life I live and the life each of us is called to. Life can be messy, and we often find that pieces are missing or that they don't fit the puzzle the way we think they will. God's invitation is to get dirty, to rend our hearts as the Prophet Joel declares in the Ash Wednesday Scripture.
Lent is not a shiny season; it is a season of grit and dependence. It requires us to lean into God while examining (and hopefully letting go of) what prevents us from growing in relationship with God and one another. This requires determination. Not determination to get it "right," but determination to hang in there, to persevere, to occupy the empty spaces, and to embrace the missing pieces and perhaps, in the process, regain our missing peace.
The accounts of a now thirty-something trying to discover who she is and who she's meant to be through a life well lived... I am a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia in temporary profession, learning to live the life I love and growing in my love of God and neighbor each and every day.