Searching for Spring

March. At last.

I read in the paper this morning that February 2015 was the coldest February in Toronto since 1875. This is not the kind of winter I had been expecting when I moved here in the fall. I had prepared myself for “winter lite” compared to past years in Ottawa, thinking that I wouldn’t need those pairs of long underwear anymore. But, I guess, winter is winter, and a Canadian winter generally is cold.

This weekend, though, it warmed up considerably. Still below freezing, yesterday was washed in sunshine and blue skies. It was a day to believe that spring is around the corner. I went to Cobourg to meet with my spiritual director and took a walk afterward to enjoy the bright blue of Lake Ontario against the winter sky. Sadly, I didn’t bring my camera along to capture it.

Today feels cooler and the sky is overcast. But it’s March. Finally. And I’m convinced spring won’t be too long now in arriving. I went to Edwards Gardens this afternoon for a walk. I kept a lookout for any little buds or signs of new growth. As the pictures show, I’m a bit early looking for signs of spring. Still too much snow and ice on the ground. It’s hard to deny, though: hope is in the air.

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I found the spring flowers…hiding inside where it’s warm!

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Mary Ward’s charism

It has been a very peaceful and quiet week at the Abbey. Last Sunday, my friend, Fr. David Bellusci, OP came to Toronto to give the sisters their Lenten retreat. From Sunday evening until yesterday at lunch, there was a hush over the Abbey. I really enjoy silence and solitude so even though I wasn’t actively participating in the retreat (had to go to work), I still benefited from the quiet atmosphere. There was a definite sense of prayer and tranquility, which was a lovely way to begin the season of Lent.

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*****

As mentioned in my last post, I wanted to write a bit about Mary Ward’s charism. For the last month or so, my candidacy director has been teaching me about the charism. I discovered that I had been totally wrong about what the charism is! Whenever anyone asked me about the community’s charism, I would always respond “Well, I think they are mostly a teaching order.” That, my friends, is not what the charism is! I guess that might be considered their apostolate (but don’t quote me on that either), or apostolic work. But it’s not the charism – whoops.

The charism, is, in fact, something much larger. Charism is a gift, a call to service and it is intended for the church (the people) rather than just for the individual or individuals in a community. Leading up to the full elaboration of the charism for her Institute, Mary Ward experienced three insights. The first was that she was not meant to join one of the established communities (Poor Clares, Benedictines, Carmelites) but something ‘other’ and this ‘other’ would give glory to God. Her second insight guided her in the structure of the Institute, and she was inspired to “take the same of the Society”, meaning that she was called to adopt the structure of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), something that had not been done by a female community before. Her final insight provided the fullness of the charism: that the spirituality of the Institute would nurture in its members an interior attitude of freedom (meaning the freedom to refer all to God, or find God in all things), justice (being redeemed or saved by God, made pleasing to him, surrendered to God), and truth (also referred to as integrity – a wholeness or unity between the interior and exterior of a person).

[From the IBVM Canada websiteWe look to Mary Ward’s vision of faith to inspire us and to enable us to understand our common vocation. We desire to foster that interior freedom of spirit, deep sense of justice, love for truth and cheerful attitude which she regarded as essential to fullness of life in her Institute.]

These insights occurred over the space of several years, which really seems to confirm Mary Ward’s trust in God and her patience and faithfulness in waiting for God’s direction. I think it also indicates that we are called to continual growth, and as our relationship with God matures and deepens, more is revealed to us. Mary Ward’s charism is beautiful and represents an ideal. I suspect it will take me a long time to grow into it. Real surrender, vulnerability, humility, and trust are involved, and I struggle with all of those things.

Happily, Lent provides an opportunity to be purposeful in prayer, to be present to God, and to examine those parts of myself that need to grow. I hope that all of my friends and family who observe/participate in Lent will feel renewed by God’s presence in their lives.

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Happenings

I think I am giving in to the February blahs these days. I’m finding it hard to be motivated to write a blog post, even though there has been a lot going on.

I think I mentioned the Mary Ward celebration previously. As part of Mary Ward week, we celebrated a special Mass together on January 25th. It was really beautiful. We all gathered in the Abbey chapel, which doesn’t happen too often. Many of the sisters from the infirmary joined us, which made it even more special, and all of the sisters renewed their vows. Afterwards we had a festive happy hour, naturally (and got to celebrate the 101st birthday of our Sr. Herman!), and dinner.

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A couple of weeks ago I attended a Mass for consecrated life at St. Paul’s Basilica with a number of the sisters. While the Cardinal gave a lovely homily, the Mass itself felt a bit flat. It didn’t have much of a celebratory feel to it at all (our Mary Ward celebration was much more enthusiastic!), which was a real shame. With all of the diversity and rich tradition found in the religious communities in the GTA, I thought it would be a lot peppier! Perhaps next year. After the Mass I attended a Mary Ward dinner at Loretto College, the women’s residence on the UofT campus. Since it was a formal occasion, the young women were all beautifully dressed (a few were wearing red carpet worthy gowns!) and the dinner was elegantly served (Greek food – yum!). One of the women read a brief biography of Mary Ward, and then we listened to music from the 17th century while we ate. It was a lovely event and much livelier than the Mass!

I also recently had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion on consecrated life at Regis College. There were 4 speakers – 2 women religious (a Xaviere Sister, and a Sister from the Institute of the Incarnate Word) and 2 men religious (a Jesuit and a Spiritan) – who each gave a brief testimony about how they found joy in religious life. They were very inspiring. I was especially moved by the Xaviere Sister. The community live simply and are rooted in Ignatian spirituality, and in trying to find God in all things. They don’t wear habits, and work in whatever fields they have been trained in prior to entering the community. One sister in their community is an engineer, another is an investment banker. They bring their spirituality into the workforce with them which I think is fantastic. It’s a very hard thing to do these days.

I’ve got more to write but not so much motivation today. My candidacy director and I have been contemplating Mary Ward’s charism over our last few meetings together. There’s too much to say about it in this post here so I will try to write another one soon to share what I am learning. The sisters here are making a retreat next week, starting on Sunday. I’m sure that in the silence that will soon pervade the house I’ll find more time and energy to write!

Into the wild white yonder…

of Cobourg, Ontario.

Today I took a trip out to Cobourg to visit my spiritual director, Sr. Kathy O’Keefe, a sister of the Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada. Every time I visit Sr. Kathy, I leave feeling so much lighter. Not that I arrived today with any heavy baggage or burdens to discuss. I feel very happy, comfortable and affirmed in my discernment to date. I truly feel that I am where God wants me to be, and living the life God is calling me to live.

Sr. Kathy has a real gift of listening and encouragement, and magnifies the positive. She helps me to see God at work in the everyday business of my life – the small moments at the Abbey and at work – and to recognize how God is confirming my vocation in these moments.

She is an obviously prayerful woman, with a deep connection to and love for God. At the same time, she is lighthearted and fun and a joyful person to speak to. I feel very blessed to have her as my spiritual guide through this journey.

After our visit, I walked along the lakefront and took in the snow and ice, and basked in the cool whiteness of it all.

 

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the freedom to refer all to God

On Wednesday, we had an evening reflection entitled “Praying with our Experience”, facilitated by Sr. Margaret Kane, CSJ.  As the first in a series of special community sessions for the Year of Consecrated Life, Sr. Margaret led us through a reflection on Mary Ward’s gift to the IBVM and to the world.

We were given a series of images of Mary Ward (posted below) to meditate on and questions to guide our reflection. It struck me as the sisters were sharing their reflections, how much they love Mary Ward, how she continues to inspire them, and how she has influenced their lives.

Many of the sisters talked about her courage, her determination, her resolve to follow God’s will no matter the opposition or obstacles she faced. The images show Mary Ward as a woman of vision, a woman who is grounded in the person of Jesus, a woman who was free to always move forward.

Sr. Margaret then talked about one of Mary Ward’s gifts to the IBVM community: the freedom to refer all to God. Much like St. Ignatius of Loyola, Mary was able to find God in all things – in her apostolic work as much as her contemplative prayer life. Her sense of freedom extended to her relationship with God, whom she called Parent of Parents and Friend of Friends. For Mary, God was at the centre of life.

Sr. Margaret encouraged us to be like Mary Ward and to pray using our daily experiences. Through the daily Examen prayer, we can look upon our day through God’s eyes, moved by the Holy Spirit to see God working in the stuff of our daily lives, and find the freedom to give all that we have to God.

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Tomorrow we celebrate the Feast of Mary Ward (we have been celebrating Mary Ward week this week, beginning with Wednesday’s reflection, and school Masses on Friday, and culminating tomorrow). We will have a special Mass and community gathering to remember Mary Ward and reflect upon her life. I feel very happy to be here for this celebration and to witness the impact Mary Ward has had on the women I live with and the larger community in Toronto.

Image of God

As I travel to and from work on the subway I am reading a book shared by my candidacy director. God of Surprises by Gerard W. Hughes, SJ has given me so much to think about and pray about over the last couple of weeks.

There are so many passages that I would love to copy and paste into this blog, but I think I would end up reproducing the whole book! Better, perhaps, to focus on smaller portions at a time.

Right now I am struck by what he says about having a false image of God. In Chapter 3 – Inner Chaos and False Images of God – he presents an illustration of the kind of image we can have of God, when we have been introduced to God by our parents and other adults when we were children:

“God was a family relative, much admired by Mum and Dad, who described him as very loving, a great friend of the family, very powerful and interested in us all. Eventually we are taken to visit ‘Good Old Uncle George’. He lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff and threatening. We cannot share our parents’ professed admiration for this jewel in the family. At the end of the visit, Uncle George turns to address us. ‘Now listen, dear,’ he begins, looking very severe, ‘I want to see you here once a week, and if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to you.’ He then leads us down to the mansion’s basement. It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as we descend, and we begin to hear unearthly screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle George opens one. ‘Now look in there, dear,’ he says. We see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing furnaces with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those men and women and children who failed to visit Uncle George or to act in a way he approved. ‘And if you don’t visit me, dear, that is where you will most certainly go’, says Uncle George. He then takes us upstairs again to meet Mum and Dad. As we go home, tightly clutching Dad with one hand and Mum with the other, Mum leans over us and says, ‘And now don’t you love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?’ And we, loathing the monster, say ‘Yes I do,’ because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace. At a tender age religious schizophrenia has set in and we keep telling Uncle George how much we love him and how good he is and that we want to do only what pleases him. We observe what we are told are his wishes and dare not admit, even to ourselves, that we loathe him.

Uncle George is a caricature, but a caricature of a truth, the truth that we can construct a God who is an image of our tyrannical selves. Hell-fire sermons are out of fashion, but they were in fashion a few decades ago and they may well come in again. Such sermons have a great appeal to certain unhealthy types of mind, but they cause havoc with the more healthy and sensitive.

Our notion of God is mediated to us through parents, teachers and clergy. We do not come to know God directly…Intellectually, I may know that God is not like Uncle George, but it is my feelings about God which determine how I approach him, and they do not change as easily as my ideas. Uncle George is not easily exorcised from my emotions and, although I may know in my my mind that God is not like that, I may still experience a strong disinclination to approach him, without knowing why, and find a thousand reasons for not praying – I am too busy, I prefer to find him through my work, etc. We have to pray constantly to be rid of false notions of God, and we have to beg him to teach us who he is, for no one else can.”

To me, this is fascinating. I think about my own ideas of God and I see that they are contradictory. I believe that God is loving, is in fact Love itself, and offers unconditional love, and yet I still feel that I need to do things to earn God’s love. There are the right prayers, right actions, right thoughts that will earn me God’s love. So somewhere in there, in the recesses of my mind and heart, there is a battle between my images of God – a God who is all loving but is also a taskmaster I have to please. Maybe it is the result of the condition of our society where we constantly strive to prove ourselves and earn respect and admiration, and even friendship, from others. So somehow I also want to earn the respect and admiration of God (and surely, entering religious life has got to be a surefire way to do that!). It’s going to take me quite a while to wrestle with this.

 

Advent

I live my Advent in the womb of Mary,

And on one night when a great star swings free

from its high mooring and walks down the sky

to the dot above the Christus i,

I shall be born of her by blessed grace.

I wait in Mary darkness, faith’s walled place,

With hope’s expectance of nativity.

I knew for long she carried me and fed me,

guarded and loved me, though I could not see.

But only now, with inward jubilee,

I come upon earth’s most amazing knowledge:

someone is hidden in this dark with me.

– Jessica Powers, OCD (Discalced Carmelites)

On retreat

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Villa St. Joseph

I’m back from a weekend retreat at Villa St. Joseph in Cobourg, ON.

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Hosted by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada, it was a perfect way to begin the Advent season.  There was time to read, pray, explore the house and grounds (at one time a summer home for the daughter of American President Ulysses S. Grant!), and of course, enjoy delicious meals prepared by their cook. I’ve come back the Abbey feeling refreshed and ready for Advent and the busy month of December.

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Candidacy Reception

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This evening I was formally accepted into candidacy with the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The program was beautiful and touching.  I feel very loved by this community and it is very humbling.  It’s a bit overwhelming, really.  I managed to hold off the tears until the end, when I received a congratulatory hug from the vocations director, and then I couldn’t keep it in any longer.  It’s hard to express the gratitude I feel to have reached this point.  Nine years to get here and it’s really only the beginning.

Today we also celebrate the feast of Christ the King and so I know that this day, in fact, belongs to God and not to me.  I feel blessed to have found this community, led here by God, and my heart is open to whatever lies ahead.

 

Malcolm Guite

Blog for poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite

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