Opening Up

I am waaaaaay overdue for a proper blog post but I’m just not ready yet to write anything particularly reflective. As I’m sure has been the case for most people, my focus for the past few months has been survival. Coping with the never-ending lockdown in Toronto, finishing up my studies, and basically just trying to keep it all together.

Now, mercifully, it seems like life is entering a new stage. The city is slowly beginning to open up as the third wave of the pandemic subsides. I’ve completed my theology studies and am now preparing to begin full-time ministry as the next phase of my formation as a Loretto Sister. There is much that I could write about each of these things but just not yet.

So…instead…I offer photos.    

High Park in the spring.

A place of refuge this past year and beautiful in any season. When I walk here each day, there is always something different to see. The landscape reveals itself in spontaneous and mysterious ways.

Sakura cherry blossoms! Blockades were set up this year to prevent crowds from gathering, but after the peak of the blossom I could get up close.

Some mornings the water is almost perfectly still. I am often tempted to just step out on to the water’s surface and see if I can make my way across the pond.

The mist was incredible this morning. It danced along the wind.

And, of course, each walk through the park offers the opportunity to make a new friend.

Mary Ward Week 2021

Here we are at the beginning of Mary Ward Week 2021! Today we celebrate the birth day of Mary Ward, foundress of the Congregation of Jesus and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is a very happy day and this year we have so much to celebrate as we contemplate union between our two branches.

To begin this week well, I am sharing our reflection booklet and the YouTube video of the Mass from Loretto Abbey chapel in Toronto, celebrated for Mary Ward. Please join us in prayer.

And our prayer for this week:

O God, you gifted our founder Mary Ward with vision and courage.
Support all those whose vision and gifts further the work
of bringing this world to fullness of life
especially in their times of trial.

Give us courage to work for the coming of your reign in our hearts.
Knowing the work we do is yours to accomplish,
let us never be discouraged.

We thank you for all those who have gone before us
and who have persevered in spite of difficulties and adversity.
We ask them to intercede for us.

Grant this through Jesus
who is our way, our truth, and our life.
Amen.


Mary Ward, pray for us and give us your spirit!

A New Year calls

I went for a long walk in High Park this morning to contemplate the year that has been, to just be present in the fading moments of 2020. I’ve read lots of posts on social media about saying good riddance to 2020, and lots of ways to ‘exorcise’ this unexpected and difficult year from our lives. But as I reflect back on each month of this year, I discover nothing to be rid of. I find so much to be grateful for, so much that caused suffering and disappointment, so much that was lacking in myself and the world around me, and so much that was right in myself and the world around me. Despite the difficulty of it all as a whole, I don’t want to be rid of any moment of this year because these are the moments that make me ‘me’ and you ‘you.’ These moments are what make us who we are.

There has been a lot to carry (and I’ve been a lot for others to carry!) in 2020, and no doubt there is still more carrying (and being carried) to come in 2021. I don’t want to end this year on a note that says “Get lost!” but rather, “It’s now time for you to go, thank you for your troubles and your gifts.”

And so, in my heart all day I have been saying my own farewell. And tonight, in our community, we will end the year with prayer and celebration. I end this post and this year (of relatively few blog posts) with a song we will sing tonight from Kate Rusby, whose music has been a faithful companion to me throughout the pandemic and no doubt, into the New Year.

May God bless us, keep us, and be love in us in 2021.

Addendum: this video was just posted on Facebook so check it out.

This Overflow

Tonight feels like the eve of a new season.

Not a season of nature – it’s not autumn yet – but a new season of discovery. I begin my final year of theology studies tomorrow. I will be off and running until April.

After the unusual spring and summer of covid-19, I am hoping this new season will bring with it a sense of stability (even as there are worries about a second wave). I cannot say normalcy because I don’t really want online learning to become normal. I already miss being together with my friends and classmates in person. Nevertheless, this new season, with all of its screen time, will bring a certain stability and routine, which I definitely appreciate.

What’s more, I begin this new season in a new space. A new community setting that is intercongregational, intercultural, and intergenerational. New and new and new. And also familiar, in a way. I love domestic life and I am grateful to be living again in a house where I can do domestic things like cooking, and cleaning, and even a bit of decorating.

We are blessed to live close to High Park and to the lakefront. Each day I go out for a walk along the water or among the trees, discover some new sight, and I feel restored and reconnected. Ready for whatever comes next.

And with this new season, I am turning again to poetry (after a spring and summer off) and I find Malcolm Guite (of course) says it so well and with such beauty, especially this excerpt from his poem Strange Surprise:

None of this need have happened, all of this,
These unexpected gifts, this overflow
Of things we know, and things we’ll never know,
None of this had to be, but here it is,
The here-and-now in all its strange surprise;
A space to be ourselves in, and a grace
That spins us round and turns us to the source
Whence all these gifts and graces still arise.

40 Years

A week ago, I celebrated my 40th birthday.

I remember when my mom turned 40. Her sisters arranged a special surprise – we woke up to find a flamboyance of 40 pink plastic flamingos roosting on our front lawn and a sign saying “Honk! Stephy’s turning 40!” to encourage all drivers passing by to pay homage. Her birthday party that evening was filled with “Over the Hill” decorations and gag gifts. I can’t recall if I gave her a pair of dentures or a cane.

My own 40th birthday was not quite so outrageous. The pandemic put a bit of a damper on the celebration I had originally envisioned (a rooftop extravaganza) but it was still a day spent with family and friends (on the phone and online), and it was topped off with a barbecue in the evening with community and five very special guests (our first guests since the pandemic began!). Lots of food and conversation and laughter, and of course, cake.

While I have no qualms about turning 40, celebrating my birthday always reminds me that the summer is passing. It’s surprising how quickly this summer is moving along. March and April were painfully slow in passing but since then, time has sped up enormously. Thankfully, it has been filled with many good things.

For one, I made a book! Not a professionally published book but a self-made book of a number of posts from this blog spanning my first three years with the congregation. It was a project that I had on my ‘To Do’ list for a long time and finally did it. I am really pleased with the result. It’s a lovely memento but also, I hope, I’ll be able to share it with women who are discerning a vocation to religious life. They might appreciate to hear one woman’s experience of discernment.

This month I’ve been in UN mode. Earlier in the year, I was named regional representative to our UN NGO – collaborating with our CJ and IBVM representatives at our NGO in New York – which I am delighted about and which has already been so much fun. I spent two weeks of July glued to my laptop, watching meetings of the High Level Political Forum, and participating in side events on financing for development, child abuse online, and climate change. Now I’m working with the NGO Working Group on Girls and contributing to planning for activities for the International Day of the Girl on October 11th. It’s energizing to be engaged in this work again.

I’ve also been working on research for a comprehensive paper that is part of my theology studies. I’ve been reading about children’s rights and religious freedom, the spiritual and religious development of the child, and ecclesial and sacramental engagement of children. There’s lots to explore and it has been fascinating to do some reading on these topics. I’m grateful to have the time to devote to it and to be able to explore interesting tangents and ideas.

The day after my birthday, I gave my first-ever homily/reflection as part of St. Basil’s parish online Gathering series. I really enjoyed the process of preparing the homily, and though I was nervous about the delivery, it went well, and perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to do something similar again in the future.

Finally, I’ve been re-visiting last year’s Mary Ward Summer School – reading Mary Ward’s letters again, and adding in some of St. Ignatius’ letters. I’m finding so much that inspires and consoles and challenges and, above all, so much that reminds me of what my vocation is all about and what has attracted me to it. This little extract has given me another way to look at this time of the pandemic:

I would wish you every well-being and prosperity imaginable that might help you in promoting the service and glory of God Our Lord. However, then I think that these illnesses and other temporal mishaps frequently come from the hand of God our Lord so that we have greater self-knowledge and a diminished love for created things, along with a deepened realization of the brevity of this life of ours. In that way we can equip ourselves for the next life which is to last for ever.
    ~ Ignatius of Loyola, Letter to Isabel Roser, 1532

Of course, in between all of these projects, I’ve spent lots of time on the roof, enjoying the sun and an occasional dip in the pool, reading and relaxing on the lounge chairs (I need more Ted Chiang!), watching the new Babysitters Club series on Netflix (so good – somehow both nostalgic and modern – and brings back lots of memories of reading the BSC books), watching Singy Songy Sessions by the marvellously delightful Kate Rusby, and walking a virtual camino.

And now…I’m going on retreat! A very different experience this year to be sure – a Zoom retreat from my bedroom – but I have no doubt that this 4-day retreat with the “Under 55ish” group of religious across Canada will be just what is needed. Time to reflect and rest and give thanks for these 40 years.

 

30 years

Back in the 90s

This afternoon as I sat on our rooftop patio, enjoying the afternoon sun, my mind travelled back to 1990, to this day 30 years ago when my mom received a heart transplant. She was 36 years old. 

That day is a bit of a blur now but I remember pieces of it. No doubt each member of my family remembers something different. I was 9 years old and in grade four. The day before she would have her transplant, Mom and I had been at my softball game. Her pager went off. She went to find a payphone to call the hospital to see what the news was. She had been on the transplant list for several months by that time. We were living in Calgary but had spent several months the previous year living in Edmonton in anticipation of her surgery. During that time, her pager had gone off sporadically and she had called the hospital each time only to discover that it was a false alarm. But this time, she came back to tell me that she had to go. There was a heart available and she had to go to Edmonton right away. Being 9, I didn’t really think through the consequences of what she was saying and I told her I would prefer to stay at my softball game until it ended and then meet her back at home. 

I was lucky to see her before she left. When I arrived home a while later, my aunts and two of my mom’s closest friends were there. My aunt Jessica was going to accompany Mom to Edmonton on the plane that had been arranged for them. I arrived just in time to say goodbye to her as they hurried out the door. Mom later said that I had been so calm and brave but I think I was just oblivious because as soon as they left the house, I burst into tears. It wasn’t easy to sleep that night, wondering what was happening to her, waiting to hear news about the surgery. The next morning my brother and I stayed home from school, hoping for an update. When one hadn’t arrived by lunchtime, we both decided it would be better to be busy at school than sitting around at home, waiting. 

I remember sitting in the classroom during the afternoon recess (I was catching up on what I had missed in the morning) when the principal came in (a tall man I found intimidating and a bit scary) to say that he had just received a call from home and that my mom had come through the surgery and was in recovery. I was so relieved. I am sure we celebrated at dinner that night.

But it wasn’t the end of our waiting.

In 1990, organ transplants were fairly new and so recovery was quite different than it is now. Mom had to stay in Edmonton for three months, in the ICU for several weeks and then in an outpatient residence. My brother and I weren’t allowed to visit her while she was in the ICU. I remember the first time we made the trip to Edmonton we had to stand behind a glass partition and wave to her. It was heartbreaking for all of us. The only joy I had was exploring the University of Alberta Hospital with my cousin. We wandered along all of the hallways and discovered the vending machines on each floor, testing them to see if they would randomly yield their delights. Once, we were rewarded with a free root beer. 

In recovery at the University of Alberta Hospital

Finally, Mom was moved to a different floor of the hospital and we were able to go in and hug and kiss her. In a way, it was like meeting a stranger. Her face was puffy and red from the steroids she had to take and she had a long scar that ran from her breastbone down along her abdomen. I was fascinated by it. I think she was self-conscious of it later on because the scar only faded so much, but each time I saw it it made me happy. It was a sign of the new life she had been given, a gift for all of us. 

The outpatient residence

Mom eventually came home in August (and saved me from attending a day camp that would have had me riding my bike all over the city – no doubt it would have been good for me but I equated it with torture). It was like having a special guest come to stay. My brother and I were so happy to finally have her home. Each year on May 16th, we would celebrate the anniversary of her heart transplant. I would bring her flowers and it would be like a second Mother’s Day. Every year, even as a kid, I remember being so grateful that someone had offered their organs for transplant so that Mom could keep being my mom.  

At home with the new regime of medication

When she died on May 7, 2003, she was two weeks shy of her 50th birthday, and nine days shy of her 13th heart anniversary. I think of her often during the month of May, sometimes with sorrow on the day of her death, always with gratitude on the day of her heart transplant and with joy on her birthday. Her life, like all lives, unfolded as she did not expect but she met each challenge with courage, generosity, forgiveness, and love. 

Happy 30th anniversary, Mom. 

Josephine Butler

Image credit: The London School of Economics and Political Science

I’m working on a research paper for an Old Testament class, exploring the life and exegetical work of Josephine Butler (1828-1906), an Englishwoman and social reformer dedicated to women’s equality. The more that I read about her and by her, the more profoundly I am inspired by her character and her work.

Through her deep faith and prayer life, she grew to personally identify with marginalized women – the poor and destitute, prostitutes and women in prisons and workhouses – and dedicated her life to working for social change that would improve their lives.

I came across a passage in her memoir that beautifully describes her struggle with God as her vocation to advocate for others emerged.

For one long year of darkness the trouble of heart and brain urged me to lay all of this at the door of the God, whose name I had learned was Love. I dreaded Him – I fled from Him – until grace was given me to arrive and wrestle, as Jacob did, with the mysterious Presence, who must either slay or pronounce deliverance. And then the great questioning again went up from earth to heaven, “God! Who art Thou? Where art Thou? Why is it thus with the creatures of Thy hand?” I fought the battle alone, in deep recesses of the beautiful woods and pine forests around our home, or on some lonely hillside, among wild thyme and heather, a silent temple where the only sounds were the plaintive cry of the curlew, or the hum of a summer bee, or the distant bleating of sheep. For hours and days and weeks in these retreats I sought the answer to my soul’s trouble and the solution of its dark questioning. Looking back, it seems to me the end must have been defeat and death had not the Saviour imparted to the child wrestler something of the virtue of His own midnight agony, when in Gethsemane His sweat feel like great drops of blood to the ground.

It was not a speedy or an easy victory. Later the conflict was renewed, as there dawned upon me the realities of those earthly miseries which I had realized only in measure by intuition, but later still came the outward and active conflict, with, thanks be to God, the light and hope and guidance which He never denies to them who seek and ask and knock, and which became for them as ‘an anchor of the soul, sure and steadfast.’

Looking my Liberator in the face, can my friends wonder that I have taken my place, (I took it long ago) – oh! with what infinite contentment! – by the side of her, the ‘woman in the city which was a sinner,’ of whom He, her Liberator and mine, said, as He can also say of me, ‘this woman hath not ceased to kiss my feet.’”

Josephine Butler, Josephine E. Butler: An Autobiographical Memoir

Her passion and commitment to the sufferings of women reminds me, of course, of the passion and commitment of Mary Ward, another strong and faithful Englishwomen. I look forward to continuing my study of Josephine Butler and undoubtedly I will have more to share here.

Learning from the Monks

Credit: The British Library
Copyright: ©The British Library Board

It’s challenging to live under these extended quarantine conditions. Whatever novelty there might have been in the beginning has long since worn off. I continue to be anxious about the state of the world and to pray for the many people who are suffering and for those who care for them and who keep our society running. But I am also experiencing psychological fatigue. One day I am feeling up and the next day I am feeling down.

In the midst of this angst, however, I watched an online retreat/talk given by Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI in which he presented principles from his new book Domestic Monastery. I find them particularly apt for this pandemic experience and they are helping me to change my attitude. 

The principles are derived from the Rule of St. Benedict, and lessons from other monks and mystics. For me, they offer an alternative viewpoint that is liberating and helps me to imagine a way to get through this temporary time of forced enclosure. 

Ten Principles for Turning Your Home into a Domestic Monastery

“Regulate your life by the monastic bell”
While I do live in a religious community, we do not live by the monastic bell. We do, however, especially in this pandemic time, have a fairly set schedule of activities – particularly prayer and meal times. My monastic bell is also the schedule I set for myself each day – exercise, work on my theology studies, cooking, connecting with family and friends, etc. It helps to find order and flow in the day. It is also intended to remind me that my time belongs to God and not to me. This helps me to find balance, to set boundaries, and to be able to move freely from one activity to the next.

Stay inside your cell”
Rolheiser suggests that this phrase, for us non-monks, means being faithful to our commitments. To stray away from these things is to leave our cell. For me, this means staying faithful to my religious vocation but also to the commitments I have made that have become more challenging to meet during the pandemic. This includes community life, studies, academic committee work, and ministries that have moved online, as well as finding ways to keep in touch with loved ones and to communicate regularly during this time of distancing. 

“Let your cell teach you everything you need to know”
I find this principle a hard one to live out. Rolheiser says that our fidelity to our commitments will teach us what we need to know. This is a challenge for me. Right now, I feel a lot of resistance and resentment build up because of this forced enclosure. My cell, i.e. school, community, family/friends, ministry, etc. is often teaching me things I’d rather not know – about myself in particular, but also about others, and about the world. Rolheiser says that these things force us to “grow up,” to become more mature, and I suspect, to be more effective agents of God’s love. I take hope that during this pandemic, the moments in which I struggle most with resistance are the moments in which I will be able to experience the greatest transformation.

“Ora” – pray
This is essential. Given my current position of comfort and good health and well-being, committing to prayer is one way that I am able go beyond myself and my environment when it is so easy to stay locked within. Praying for the world – for all who are sick and dying, for all those who care for them, for those who continue to serve our society, for those who struggle with financial insecurity and lack of employment, and for everyone who struggles to cope in this uncertain environment. All of these needs of the world draw me out of my selfishness and my limited perspective and force me to encounter the greater reality of this pandemic. 

“Labora” – work
This principle is all too easy for me. My default setting is to work (at least on the things that I am interested in) and I have been able to find many things to keep occupied during this time. However, work is not meant for work’s sake. Work is meant to remind me of my vocation as a human being to serve God in all that I do. This is something I need to keep calling to mind when I get absorbed in what I am doing and am tempted to forgo other activities in order to keep working on a project.

Live in quiet – be in touch with “the mild”
a. Be in touch with what is gentle inside of yourself, others, the world, God
b. Be in touch with nature
c. Be in touch with your food
Living in the quiet has been both calming and unnerving. To live in a quiet Toronto has been very strange even though it is a necessary measure. Within the confines of my home, this principle speaks to me primarily of being quiet within, of seeking a gentleness of heart in a stressful time that tends to bring out the worst in me. It’s a reminder to be gentle with each person in my life and also with myself. Being open to receive the gentleness of God, especially when I am feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Rolheiser’s sub-points b. and c. remind me to appreciate the natural world around me, especially when I go out for a walk in the neighbourhood, and to appreciate and enjoy the food that I am blessed with each day. 

Understand your family as a “school of charity”
This principle relates to the third principle: “Let your cell teach you everything you need to know.” This experience of the pandemic is a teacher and I am definitely a student. Because this situation seems to frequently bring out the worst in me, I also need to at least try to let it bring out the best in me, too. In his presentation, Rolheiser speaks of a stone being polished by other stones. The little irritations I feel each day, then, if opened up to God’s grace, can polish me as well.

Do “vigils” when the angel of the night summons you
Rolheiser refers to the angel of the night as the grudges, resentments, and unresolved tensions that surface at night and either keep us from sleep or wake us from it. Certainly, these days I feel like the angel of the night is a frequent visitor as I struggle to sleep well. I continue to wake up in the night and to worry about all of the “what ifs” and I battle with the resistances I feel in not being able to live as I would like. It is time to do “vigils” – to confront and find a way to make peace with the angel that disrupts my sleep.

“Celebrate” the joys, particularly the joys of community and simple living – but all the joys of life
This is an important principle for these difficult days. It can be easy to focus on the negative right now and to discount the positive. I know that I struggle to allow myself to really celebrate when so many people are grieving, but I think it is necessary. I resolve to find more opportunities to create, celebrate and embrace moments of joy during this time of confinement – simple pleasures like eating lunch on our rooftop patio, watching the tulips bloom in our front garden, and laughing with family and friends over Zoom. 

“Persevere” – give your family the gift of your fidelity
Perseverance is probably the most necessary guiding principle right now. I must remain faithful to what needs to be done: staying at home, washing hands, and practicing physical distancing, especially when I am tempted to slack off because I am bored, or lonely, or just tired of following rules. Perseverance is assisted by love: being motivated by love for others pushes me to go beyond and do what I might not do solely for myself. 

These principles, while not easy to live by, are helpful to me, especially during this time of uncertainty. They have given me much to reflect on, to change my perspective on what it means to live within restriction, and to find a way to navigate through the doom and gloom that rises in my heart when I am not attentive. There is much wisdom to be learned from these monks.

Living amid the pandemic

Like many others, I’ve been glued to the news. Over and over again, I’ve heard the words unprecedented and never before used to describe the life we are now living amid the COVID-19 pandemic. We have entered into a time of intense global solidarity that is brand new for most generations alive today. It feels like a moment of great historical significance. We, as a global society, have the potential to be transformed into something new and better than we were before. But we don’t know where we are in all of this. We could be at the beginning of this pandemic or we could be nearing the end. It’s important to pay attention to the shifts and changes around the world and to who we are and how we are living in this time of uncertainty.

As the pandemic has progressed, I’ve noticed significant interior movements within myself. Three weeks ago, I was merely fascinated by what was going on. Having worked previously for the Public Health Agency of Canada and participated in a response to disease outbreak ten years ago, I was captivated by the evolving response efforts. I was nostalgic for my old job and I was in awe of what seemed to be a very smooth unfolding of a coordinated response across the country. 

As the crisis has continued to heighten, however, and we’ve entered into a state of emergency, my fascination has turned to worry and anxiety. Family members have been impacted by job losses, so many people continue to become sick and to die. The hypothetical has become very real and the real is scary. As a result, I’ve been struggling to sleep at night. I’ve often woken up early in the morning with panicked thoughts of people in hospital ICUs gasping for breath, of families struggling to make ends meet because of lack of income, of people on the streets becoming ill with nowhere to go and no one to care for them.

I am coping by doing what we are supposed to do: social distancing and connecting with people virtually. I’m focusing on completing my schoolwork. I’m praying with my community and doing my part to take care of them and myself. I’m not able to go out and volunteer as I am accustomed to doing, but I can prepare food for the homeless and give to the organizations that serve them and others in need. It doesn’t feel like enough but it’s all I can do in this moment. I am so grateful to those who are able to be present to people in need right now.

Gradually, my worries and anxieties are being relieved, or at least, better managed. They are embedded in my personal prayer and in my community’s communal prayer. They motivate the little actions I take each day to contribute to the overall sense of goodness in the world. For the past several days, I have felt a sense of steadiness. Not a complacency, but a stability and a quiet trust.  

The truth is that this time is a jumble. It is simultaneously a time of all sorts of things. It is a time of suffering: of anguish over rising illness and death, of economic devastation, and separation from loved ones. It is also a time of blessing: of connection and unexpected tenderness found in emails and phone calls, in the outpouring of gifts from musicians and artists to bolster our spirits, and the celebrations of daily life (birthdays, anniversaries and feast days). It is definitely a time of disruption and adjustment as our routines change and we figure out new ways to live, even if only temporarily. It is, I hope, a time of greater introspection and reflection: what does it mean to be human today?

Finally, what brings me the most hope and joy in this time of global suffering is the discovery of all of the diverse ways, large and small, that we can do good together, for each other, and that we are doing it an unprecedented way.

Malcolm Guite

Blog for poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite

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