Summer in the city

A good friend from Ottawa came to visit last weekend and we had a great time exploring the city together. We went to the Beaches, took the ferry over to Toronto Island, and ended the day with a delicious dinner (and decadent chocolate cake for dessert) and a play: Titanic: The Musical. It was a wonderful way to start the summer! As usual when I’m having fun, I generally forget to take pictures. But here are a few from when I managed to remember I was lugging my camera around.

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DSCN0829At the Beaches

DSCN0831My destiny! (in the amusement park on Toronto Island)

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Provincial Assembly 2015

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Last weekend our community held its annual Provincial Assembly. All members of the Canadian Province were invited to the Abbey to discuss the Calls (outcomes) that emerged from the Institute-wide General Congregation (GC) that took place in Spain last September. The General Congregation marked the end of the term of the past General Council in Rome, and the election of a new General Council and mandate. The Calls are what form the mandate for the next 8 years. The Calls from GC14 are:

  1. Reclaim the freshness of the Gospel, allowing Jesus to transform our lives.
  1. Bring those forced to live in poverty to the centre of our life and ministry.
  1. Go where the need is greatest.
  1. Live sustainably, discerning what is enough.
  1. Create the oneness that moves us across boundaries.

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I attended the day and a half long event with eagerness and excitement. Since I am still a candidate and not a fully professed member of the Institute, I felt very privileged to be able to participate and share my thoughts. The table discussions were very rich.

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There was a significant focus on the first call – a real excitement to rediscover the gospel message, begin Mary Ward Circles (prayer circles) for gospel reflection, and look more closely at the New Evangelization. Everyone agreed that Call 1 is the foundation for the rest of the Calls and paramount to the life of the Institute.

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Through our discussions on poverty and sustainable living, I learned in more detail about some of the ministries undertaken by individual sisters, the gifts and strengths of the Institute in Canada, as well as the challenges it is facing. There is much that can be done and I sensed a great desire among the sisters to carry these Calls out into action.

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I was very impressed by the openness and candour of the discussions. Certainly, there are many challenges ahead facing this ageing community, but I was struck by the hope and optimism that coloured our conversations, and the trust that God will always provide what is needed. At the end of the Assembly, I felt very much that I had just been part of a family gathering. My experience at the Assembly was for me another confirmation from God that this is where I am meant to be.

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Words to live by

For the past couple of weeks I have been reflecting on self talk. Bolstered by my spiritual director, and armed with a book or two or on the topic, I have been trying to pay close attention to the self talk that arises in moments of stress. Some of it is so ingrained that it’s hard to pick up and to notice. Nonetheless, it has been obvious that I need to work on replacing the negative talk with positive talk. In a book titled Self Talk, Soul Talk by Jennifer Rothschild (a light, introductory book to the issue of self talk), I came across a list of affirming scriptural passages that have brought me much peace and joy. I thought I would share them here for anyone else who might find them helpful.

I am gifted with power, love, and a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)
I am chosen for success. (John 15:16)
I am complete. (Colossians 2:9-10)
I am secure. (Romans 8:31-39)
I am confident. (Philippians 1:6)
I am free. (Romans 6:16-18; 8:1-2)
I am capable. (Philippians (4:13)
I am spiritually alive. (Ephesians 2:5)
I am God’s workmanship. (Ephesians 2:10)
I am welcome in God’s presence. (Ephesians 2:18; Hebrews 4:14-16)
I am sheltered and protected in God. (Colossians 3:3)
I am valuable to God. (1 Corinthians 6:20)
I am a member of God’s family. (Ephesians 2:19; 1 John 3:1-2)
I am God’s treasure. (1 Peter 2:9-10)
I am dearly loved. (Colossians 3:12)
I am being transformed. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
I am forgiven. (Ephesians 1:6-8)
I am an heir of God. (Romans 8:17)
I am a friend of God. (John 15:15)

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here and there

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Original painting by Maria Steller

This week is a (mostly) quiet week – squashed between two ‘away’ weeks.

Last week I was in Ottawa. It was so wonderful to be back in the office with my coworkers and have the chance to work together in person rather than by email or over the phone. I also had to spend in the evenings with friends that I love and miss (check out the gorgeous painting created and given to me by the talented 5 year old Maria!) and spend time at my old parish. I had so much fun. I felt like I was on a high all week.

And yet, I was equally happy to come back to the Abbey and see the sisters here.

When I first moved to Toronto, I felt a real mix of excitement and apprehension. I didn’t know what I was getting into (still don’t, frankly) and I worried that I was making a huge mistake. Being back to Ottawa last week made me realize that as much as I love that city and the people in it, it really isn’t the place where I am meant to be right now. It felt so good to visit, but I know that God is calling me to something else. It was a true gift from God to recognize that I am at peace with my decision to be in Toronto, discerning this vocation.

Next week, I go to Southdown Institute for a candidate assessment (psychological assessment). Four days of learning about my personality, and my strengths and weaknesses (I hope there will be chocolate). I’m not really looking forward to it, but it’s part of the journey and could turn out to be yet another gift.

distracted, impatient, and restless

I have been feeling very distracted lately.

When I try to pray, either my own personal prayer, or the Liturgy of the Hours, or even at Mass, my mind struggles to stay focused. After a few brief quiet moments, my thoughts go off on a tangent and I get caught up in something unrelated to what I am trying to mediate on. I begin to notice whether I feel hot, cold, anxious, tired, energized, bored, alert, or restless. I’ve been feeling restless a lot.

Part of it may be a sort of spring fever feeling – I want to get up and move around and enjoy the sunshine whenever it’s out. I’ve taken up running again, and even though I’m sluggish and out of shape, it feels like such a gift to be outside and be alive.

But part of the restlessness is also related to what I am trying to pray about. I am still praying for healing. It’s hard. Even though, by the grace of God, I have made progress and I generally feel much lighter and freer than when I began, I know I still have a long way to go. My triggers still trigger anxiety and insecurity (confronting my negative self talk is on my current ‘To Do” list). And I feel impatient to just “be healed” once and for all and never have to worry again.

I met with my spiritual director yesterday and talked to her about this feeling of impatience. She laughed with me about it and could sympathize. As we talked, it became clear to me that God isn’t using the lightning rod method of healing with me because there’s more that I will learn from the slow and steady route. I think God wants to give me gifts that can only be received this way (even though it’s not my preferred route – instantaneous would be fine by me!). Perseverance is the key.

I desire so much to understand, really understand, what my life is about – what it is that I am called to do on this earth. It seems so hidden from me. Sometimes I feel like I am on the brink of understanding. I get a tiny glimmer, and a sliveriest bit of meaning, and then it’s gone and I am back to my usual restless self, sighing and impatient.

**

My candidacy director has given me a book about the Catholic faith to make sure I know the basics before beginning the novitiate next year (although frankly each sentence of ‘the basics’ is a world of theology unto itself). For someone who has gone to Mass quite regularly throughout her life, and went to Catholic school, I am realizing that there is a whole lot I don’t know about the Catholic faith. I was probably taught more than I recall, but I can’t seem to retrieve that information from my memory banks!

Happily, this means I’ve had plenty of “eureka!” moments as I have been reading. And no doubt this is helping me along the road to understanding myself better (and my restlessness), understanding Jesus (and God) better, and opening me up to understand what it is I am called to do in this life. These passages have been roaming around in my mind for the past few weeks:

“Again, let us remind ourselves, Jesus was not putting on an act, or doing something extra. He was merely acting as a creature should act. He was simply open to the ever-present gift of his Father’s love. He let it enter and empower his every thought, feeling, word and action. It was what kept him alive: ‘Doing the will of him who sent me…is my food’ (John 4:34).

But if Jesus is already the perfect loving child of the Father, why did he have to die?

Because giving up one’s life is the total gift. Anything else would be less than perfect. There is nothing greater to give than life.

So Jesus had to give up his life because there was no greater way he could show his love of the Father. He had to give up his life because anything else would have been a lesser gift, and he wanted to do the perfect human thing.

But there is another reason Jesus had to die. He came to a world lost in sin. How could he save the world? By showing it how God acts in the face of hatred. God refuses to be vindictive. He wants no pound of flesh. He wants only to forgive, to heal, to reconcile.”

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“No wonder we shy away from the cross. Our problem is not that it is painful, but that it is too great a sign of love. We do not love that way, and we are embarrassed when God does.

Our life of faith, it would seem, is a gradual coming to accept the unbelievable tenderness of God.

– Leonard Foley, OFM. Believing in Jesus: A Popular Overview of the Catholic Faith.

*******

My mind has also been taken up with thoughts of seeing friends and coworkers when I am in Ottawa this week. I am really looking forward to spending time with people I love and miss.

Signs of Spring

I would like to thank the many people who have shared their support and gave me words of love and encouragement after my last post. I truly appreciate you journeying with me this year, and for supporting me. You all mean so much to me. Thank you.

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Potted arrangements for spring

Last weekend my dad was here for a visit (Hi Dad!). It was so much fun to have him visit the Abbey, meet some of the sisters (they all told him he couldn’t be my father, he looks like my brother! – I think he was secretly thrilled even though he laughed it off ), and explore the city with me. Excellent father-daughter bonding time! And he didn’t even seem too nervous having me chauffeur him around the big city. (I’ve come quite a ways since our driving lesson days – as long as I don’t have to drive a standard, of course!) But his visit certainly did make this choice I am making more real to me. No longer am I welcoming family into my own home, but to the home of many other people. The visit had a different feel than when he would visit me in Ottawa, and I think it will take a bit of time to get used to the new scenario.

DSCN0800  A splash of purple by the Abbey chapel

Spring has definitely come to Toronto in the past couple of weeks and I am enjoying every minute of it. Signs of spring abound. This past week has just been gorgeous. Beautiful sunny days and warm temperatures. I’ve been getting outside more often – exploring the neighbourhood (and making a mental note of cafes and restaurants I would like to try), and trying to get back into shape (running and tennis are back on the agenda!).

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Red celery? No idea what this is. Do you know, Master Gardener Aunt? 🙂

The grounds around the Abbey are showing their own signs of spring. From the potted plants by the entrances and exits, to the wild flowers that spring up in the grasses, new life is taking over!

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Hyacinth? They smell lovely, whatever they are!

 

 

Transformed by Love

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This is a blog post I’ve wanted to write for a little while now but it has been a struggle to put the words on to paper, mostly because the topic is complicated and very personal.  But since we have now come to the Easter season, the season where we celebrate redemption and Jesus’ resurrection, it seems fitting to share about the inner transformation I am experiencing.

During Lent, the 40-day period prior to Easter, Christians are called to a special time of prayer and reflection, to keenly seek out God’s presence. For me, the time of Lent was focused on a very specific purpose: healing. Particularly seeking the healing of old wounds caused by my mother’s alcoholism.

This process actually began before Lent, when I was reading a memoir by Gerard W. Hughes, SJ (author of God of Surprises, which I wrote about it an earlier post). One of the exercises in the memoir asks the reader to sit with God and to recall childhood memories and to simply note those that come to mind. Unexpectedly, I was flooded with memories of my mother and her struggle with alcoholism – some really terrible memories of being a child alone, struggling with trying to take care of her and take care of myself. The intensity of the emotions that accompanied those memories freaked me out. Why now? After all this time, why I am thinking of this? She has been dead for nearly 12 years. Isn’t it over and done with? I don’t want to deal with this.

But as I sat there, I realized that this was more than just a deluge of memories. It was an invitation to go beyond the initial pain and shock and to truly seek healing. Even though I hadn’t been expecting the invitation to come as it did, I felt in my heart that I couldn’t refuse it. After all, a large part of this candidacy year, the discernment that I am doing, involves looking at my life as a whole and seeing how God is present. I decided that even if I didn’t really want to delve into the abyss of the past, it was important to do so in order to be free to move forward with this next phase of my life.

As much as I had wanted to, I didn’t escape my mother’s alcoholism when I moved from Calgary to Ottawa after her death, and I didn’t escape it moving from Ottawa to Toronto. I realized that if I didn’t want it to keep following me around, I needed to address it. And I could trust that God would be with me no matter what.

But as I sat there in the chapel, I realized that I didn’t even know where to start. Although I have been to see counselors/therapists at different times in my life (for example, when I struggled with panic attacks a couple of years after I moved to Ottawa), the focus of those encounters had been on the immediate problems and we didn’t talk much about what happened during my childhood. So 12 years of living with an alcoholic mother basically flew under the radar.  My first step then was to seek out more information about alcoholism and the effect it has on the family.

I went to the library and borrowed a whole stack of books and immersed myself in the world of Adult Children of Alcoholics, or ACOAs, for short. This newfound knowledge was a real revelation for me. It was stunning. And brutally painful. I could see myself – my behaviours, beliefs, and coping mechanisms – so clearly in the ACOA response to trauma.

Need for control? Check.
Tendency towards hypervigilance? Check.
Fear of intimacy? Check.
Self doubt? Insecurity? Check. Check.
Need to please people? Check.

It was like having all kinds of scabs ripped open long after I had convinced myself that they were healed and no longer there.  The more I read and identified with ACOAs, the more I began to wonder why God wanted me to do this. It was depressing, and I began to feel hopeless about it, wondering how I could possibly change anything that seemed to be so ingrained in me.

And so I prayed to God to let me know what I was supposed to do next. What am I supposed to do with this knowledge? It seems to be making things worse. I don’t feel like I have control over what I do. I keep reacting in the same ways over and over again. I don’t know how to stop it. I don’t know how to change.

In answer to my prayers, God showed me my strengths. God showed me how resilient I had been in times in crisis and confusion, when I had no control over my environment.  And, best of all, God showed me that I hadn’t been alone during those dark and difficult moments.  Jesus, the one I had prayed to when I was so scared and worried, had been there with me, all the time, at my side, and he knew exactly what had happened.  Things that I had kept secret from others weren’t a secret from Jesus because he was there with me and with Mom.

Around this time, I went to see my spiritual director and talked to her about what I had been experiencing in prayer.  As usual, she was incredible and told me exactly what I needed to hear.  She encouraged me to continue to look at these painful memories and to seek healing in an active way.  She gave me several prayer exercises to help with healing – beautiful imaginative prayer and even prayer through art.  She gave me advice on forgiveness.  She also talked about finding my voice. Often when people experience trauma, there is a great deal of shame attached to it and they are unable to express themselves.  Alcoholism, in particular, seems to breed a lot of shame and secrecy, which is so detrimental to healing.  Consequently, part of my prayer for healing has been to expose everything – beliefs, behaviours, memories, fears, and anxiety – everything – to God’s light.

Through prayer (and the ACOA books), I have come to understand that the behaviours and attitudes I adopted may have been necessary when I was a kid – they worked to keep me going in hard times – but they don’t work for me now.  They are responses that I don’t need anymore to live my life fully and happily.  I’ve also come to know that the negative beliefs about myself that I’ve been carrying around for a long time are simply not true.  God has shown me how loved I am, and how loveable I am, no matter what may have been said or done to me during my life.  God’s love is more powerful than any pain or worry or fear.

For Easter then, I would like to offer this message of hope: healing and transformation are possible.  No matter how much time has passed or how deeply pain is buried, it can be transformed and made beautiful – redeemed by God’s love.  Each day is an opportunity to give our wounds to God, to surrender them and let them go, and to be set free. Free to be healed and made whole and to be fully loved.

Happy Easter!

When calamity strikes

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By nature, I’m a fairly conscientious person. I like to get things done. I make timetables and lists, and I check the “To Do’s” off as I finish them. I like itineraries. I guess what I really like is predictability and a sense of control.

I’ve noticed over the course of the last few months, however, that the more I try to order and schedule my life, maximize my time, and be the most efficient I can be, I end up getting knocked totally off course! Case in point: for the past couple of weeks, I had diligently spent time in prayer and reflection in order to prepare for our big Canadian Provincial meeting that was to take place at the end of March. It was my first time participating in such an event and I was really excited about it. I had my notes carefully prepared, and I was looking forward to sharing my thoughts with the sisters. But then last Wednesday, calamity struck!

15 sisters, 3 de la Salle brothers, and several of the staff at the Abbey came down with norovirus. The next day, 4 more people were hit (including me, which makes this illness #4 or #5 I’ve been stricken with since Christmastime – which, by the way, better not be indicative of my future in religious life!). By the weekend, only a handful of people had been spared. I’m happy to say that everyone is recovering well, but we did have to postpone the big meeting. I was disappointed. Even amid severe stomach cramps, I had hoped that somehow we could still make it happen.

Instead, I used the quiet time (immobilized on my bed) to read about Mary Ward’s companions. Since reading a few biographies of Mary Ward earlier in the year, I have been very curious about the lives of her first companions. Not much is known about these women other than what is revealed in correspondence and some of the Institute’s historical documents. These women were quite young (some joined as young as 15 years old!), adventurous, dedicated, and faithful. They endured severe poverty, illness, uncertainty, and persecution. They were put in charge of schools and the formation of novices, were put in positions of authority in foundations in foreign lands, and were required to make difficult decisions. They often went years without seeing Mary Ward, with only letter correspondence to stay in touch. Many of them died while still young (30 years old and younger). Yet they were faithful to Mary Ward’s vision, to their call to religious life, and to the community.  They inspire me and I aspire to grow to be like them – to be steadfast and faithful (in sickness and in health!) and to be open and responsive to God’s working in my life.

And maybe, just maybe, to relinquish the “To Do” lists once in a while.

What a wonderful town!

New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town!
The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down
The people ride in a hole in the ground,
New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town! 

I’m still riding the high from 4 glorious days in The Big Apple. What a city! It was everything I had hoped it would be and more. I met up with Sr. Cecilia O’Dwyer, who heads the IBVM NGO, and Sr. Elena Cerdeiras, who was visiting from the Spanish Province, and we explored the city together.

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We spent an incredible day at the United Nations at the Commission on the Status of Women. We sat in on the General Assembly and listened to a number of countries give statements on women’s rights. We also attended the DPI (Department of Public Information) briefing on sustainable infrastructure and women’s empowerment. I had the opportunity to take a guided tour of the UN buildings as well and have the chance to peek in on meeting rooms like the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council. Since I studied International Relations in university, it was a real thrill to see the workings of the UN in person. We also went to a special 20th anniversary celebration event of the Working Group on Girls, a coalition of civil society organizations devoted to giving girls a voice at the UN. Hosted by a group of teenaged girls, we were entertained with a video presentation and then we heard the keynote speaker, Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, speak about her work for girls in Liberia. It was an inspiring talk and wonderful to see young girls so passionate about human rights.

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The rest of the weekend was a heady blur of sightseeing, delicious meals, and burgeoning friendship. We travelled up and down Manhattan and saw so many places that I had dreamed of seeing: the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, St. Patrick’s Basilica, the main branch of the New York Public Library, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Central Park, the 9/11 Memorial, the Washington Square Arch, the Brooklyn Bridge, the High Line Park, and more. And we got to walk through so many great neighbourhoods.

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Plus, we visited an excellent exhibit on Thomas Merton at Columbia University. It felt so intimate to see his handwritten drafts of poems and manuscripts and letters to friends. Not to mention his paintings and photographs. The exhibit has rekindled my interest in his life and work – I’ll have to dust off my copies of his journals and get reading!

I really feel very privileged to have visited New York – such a unique and exciting city. It truly is a place where dreams can come true.

New York, New York

In two short sleeps, I will be making my way across the skies to New York City. I can’t wait! For years I have dreamed of visiting iconic New York. Home of television, movies, art, theatre, music – culture and cuisine and people – so many millions of people. I have longed to visit for such a long time and I always figured I would go when the time was right. And happily, the time is now!

I am flying out on Wednesday afternoon to arrive in time to attend a civil society briefing at the United Nations on Thursday morning. One of the IBVM sisters (an Irish woman who is part of the Spanish Province) heads the IBVM UN NGO and she has graciously arranged for me to visit the UN and learn about the work the IBVMs are doing. The timing is fantastic. Right now the UN is hosting the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (March 9 – 20) so there will be workshops and events to participate in and learn from. It’s going to be incredible. And I’ll take a tour of the UN itself.

I’m also hoping to do as much sightseeing as I can cram into a couple of days. I’m planning to go see the Thomas Merton Exhibit at Columbia University (I love Thomas Merton), and I have tickets to take a tour of Rockefeller Centre (would have loved to go on an NBC Studio Tour if it was up and running), and then I will just walk and walk and walk. And walk. And take in as much as I can.

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