Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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Falling in love

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Helping with homework at Sarnelli Center for Street Children (Note: for safety reasons I am unable to post photos of the boys’ faces.)

A week ago I returned from a 10-day immersion experience with street children in Lipa, Batangas province. I haven’t been the same since. I have symptoms of withdrawal. I feel fidgety and restless. I check my watch often and I ask myself “What are they doing now?” My heart aches. I really miss my boys.

For 10 days I lived with 8 other novices (5 women, 3 men) and 20 boys aged 9 to 15 years. I would get up with the boys in the mornings and help them get ready for school, eat meals with them, assist them with homework, play with them, pray with them, and care for them like an older sister.

After a couple of days of getting to know them, I began to feel close to them. And then I fell in love with them. Being in love taught me a lot about love.

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Praying The Examen for Children.

Love bridges any cultural or linguistic divide.

I can’t speak Tagalog very well. Or at all, really. At dinner on the first night with the boys, I rattled off the list of Tagalog words I know (basically limited to please and thank you and terms about riding on a jeepney), and made them laugh when I said para po, which means stop, please. They took it upon themselves to beef up my vocabulary and so slowly I learned the words for fork and knife, bowl and cup, rice and fish, and being full (busog). I delighted in learning from them and they delighted in teaching me. I was also schooled in the proper way to use a fork and spoon to eat (do not try to use the spoon as a knife unless you want to be ridiculed!), and I learned to eat rice twice a day (three times proved to be too much), mixing it together with the meat and broth to make a tasty little stew. Each of my successes at mealtimes brought me closer to the boys at my table and was a way for us to show that we cared about each other.

Love gives generously.

I think of all the little ways I gave and received love during those 10 days. I discovered that I can endure discomforts and inconveniences for the sake of love. Lack of sleep, unusual food (i.e. too much rice), and occasional emotional discomfort (being stretched) seemed like nothing because I just wanted to spend time with the boys. I discovered that loving others motivates me to go beyond myself in a way that I find difficult to do when I am focused on myself. For those beautiful boys I felt like I would have done anything.

They loved me in their individual ways too. Often it was through material gifts. One boy gave me a little candy or a packet of biscuits every day from his pocket money. He receives only 10 pesos a day to buy a morning snack at school yet he saved a bit of it for me every day. The boys’ love also took the form of playing together after school each day (badminton championships – Canada vs. Philippines!) and reading together every night. At the end of the immersion, I received several little notes and beautiful works of origami expressing their love and appreciation – treasures from the heart.

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Getting ready for the next badminton match.

Love is not bound by distance.

I was heartbroken when I had to say goodbye to the boys last week. Due to unfortunate circumstances we had a very abrupt goodbye and I am still recovering from the experience. I actually feel pain to be separated from them. But I know that I must continue with my formation and they must continue with their lives too. Even though we are separated now, a piece of my heart will always be with them and a piece of theirs will always be with me. I pray for them and think of them every day and I will continue to do so when I return to Canada. Their love has forever shaped me.

Love is the root of vocation.

During those 10 days, I received significant consolation from God. I felt confirmed in my vocation to religious life and I know that I am called to love those who are neglected or abandoned by society. Throughout my discernment, and at times during this year of formation, I have struggled off and on wondering whether religious life is a selfish way of life. I would think of the job I had in Ottawa and my house and the fact that I could give a child a very good life. I’ve wondered whether I should adopt a child instead and focus my life on giving a child in need a good and loving home. But during the immersion, I really felt a confirmation that God is calling me to religious life and to a freedom to love as many people in need as possible. It does mean that I will not raise a child or devote myself solely to the well-being of one person (or family) but I will be available to love as many people as possible as deeply as I am able.

In the midst of both rejoicing and mourning my experience with the boys, I feel a sense of gratitude for the gift I have been given. And I know that like the 30-day retreat I made in April, the fruits of this experience will only deepen and grow over time.

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My group of novices during the immersion experience.


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The Canvas of Society

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Table of Hope – Joey Velasco

I’ve been absent from my blog for the past couple of weeks because I’ve been recovering from dengue fever. I had a mild case, thankfully, but it has left me feeling tired and low on energy. I am a bit behind in my blogging. I’ve got a couple of posts in development on the subject of the vows (one on poverty and one on celibacy), something we have been discussing a lot during our in-house formation, but they’re not ready yet.

So instead I would like to share a video that we watched in our inter-congregational novices program earlier this week. We were learning about the “Church of the Poor” and the need for immersion and solidarity with the poor in society. We watched the video, below, entitled Canvas of Society, produced by a Filipino artist, Joey Velasco. Joey Velasco created a painting of the Last Supper called “Table of Hope” featuring street children eating alongside Jesus. This video documentary is about his inspiration for the painting and explores the lives of street children in the Philippines. It is a beautiful but heart-breaking glimpse into the world of street children and a call to become mindful of those who can become invisible.

 


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Sit and do nothing

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Shema Israel adonai elohenu, adonai ehad…Shema Israel adonai elohenu, adonai ehad…

The first line of the Shema, a foundational prayer of Judaism that I am learning in my Prophets class, repeats in my head, over and over again. Darn it, I say to myself, now is not the time. I breathe deeply and try to push the almost hypnotic phrase away, out of my mind. My eyes are closed. I am sitting on the floor of our chapel, cross-legged. I become aware of a dull ache in my right hip. I feel it slowly travel down my thigh and to my knee. I shift and straighten my legs. Now my lower back begins to ache. I sigh. Back to centre, I remind myself, push away distractions. I gasp and choke. I cough. I realize that in my attempt to push away distractions, I have been holding my breath. Now my breathing is staccato and unnatural. Why can’t I breathe properly? Are my 15 minutes over yet??

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Welcome to the joys of centering prayer. Or rather, the amateurish antics of one who is trying to practice centering prayer.

In a novices’ module a couple of weeks ago, we were introduced to the ancient practice of centering prayer. The instructions passed on to us were simple: sit and do nothing. Twenty minutes twice a day. Sit and do nothing? Sounds easy, I thought, I do that all the time. Then the instructor made us sit for 10 minutes and I discovered how wrong I was. I realized that even though I tend to sit in silence during my personal prayer, my mind is always active, talking to God (especially when I pray using the Ignantian contemplation method). In centering prayer, however, the point is to sit in silence and to be silent, in mind and body.

The newness of this form of prayer (as in, new to me) and the challenge of it is attractive to me. I admit that I am not practicing it for twenty minutes twice a day, but I am incorporating 15 minutes of centering prayer at the beginning of my personal prayer. It’s really hard. Each day, I struggle with random thoughts and muscle tension/discomfort and, occasionally, with holding my breath during prayer. But even with all of the challenges, I am finding that beginning in silence has added a depth and richness to the prayer that follows. In the silence, God is centering me in his presence.

 

 


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Thrown into the deep end

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We began an inter-congregational novitiate program last week. Nineteen different congregations (including the Missionary Society of St. Paul, Daughters of Wisdom, Redemptorists, Carmelites, and many more) from all over Asia, and parts of Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Europe (Malta). Two of us are from North America: 1 Mexican and 1 Canadian. We range in age from 18 years to over 40 years. It’s a diverse group and large in size. When we are all present, we number close to 90 participants.

Our first week together was intense. None of us knew what to expect. We assumed ‘orientation’ meant orientation. But, in fact, several of us were immediately thrown into leadership roles and made to carry the program forward. At a pre-orientation meeting earlier in June, I was elected co-chair of our novices’ steering committee. It was a very random election, based on my introduction (name and country), and with no job description provided. When I arrived at the module last Tuesday, I was informed that the other co-chair (who was meant to be ’in charge’) wouldn’t be joining the group until August so until his arrival I would be the one to lead!

I don’t consider myself a particularly spontaneous person but Tuesday morning I became intimately acquainted with the art of improvisation. All of a sudden I was the emcee for a three-day module I knew nothing about. I knew nothing about our schedule, our speakers, or even our purpose over the three days other than ‘orientation’. By the grace of God, and under the guidance of one of the priests who was the head of formation, I learned the ropes. Normally I would hate being in charge of something without knowing details in advance but I learned to go with the flow and to enjoy the experience.

And, anyway, I wasn’t on my own in the deep end. Many others were there with me. Our haphazardly assembled steering committee came together to organize some of the necessary components of the module: prayers 3 times a day (morning, noon and closing), animation sessions (basically icebreaker songs or games), recaps of the day’s lesson, introductions of the speakers, and preparation of thank you cards and gifts. It was a tall order for a group of people who barely knew each other’s names but it was a great success and the collaboration ended up being a lot of fun. I love working in a team environment where others are energized and excited to contribute and I experienced such positive energy and enthusiasm in this group that it was a pleasure to work together. And I am sure it will continue to be a pleasure to work together for the next several months.

I also learned something very important during the module (aside from two disturbing lessons about attitudes toward food safety and sanitation – but now’s not the time to get into that!). I learned how important it is for women to have a voice. Having a voice is something I take for granted in Canada. I don’t worry so much about sharing my opinion. I feel comfortable voicing my ideas and opinions at home and at work, and at church when the opportunity presents itself. However, I see that in this particular environment (the novitiate program), it is harder for women to be heard. Despite the fact that in the Philippines there are many strong women involved in politics, including past female Presidents, in religious life, or perhaps in the church, women’s voices are harder to hear. Men are being trained to be priests, to become preachers, and as such, they are given many opportunities to speak. Women do not have the same opportunities, nor is there the same expectation for women to speak.

The majority of the men in our program appear to be very confident speakers. In fact, some of them seem to use the opportunity to respond to a question to give a quasi-sermon to the group. They are very friendly and helpful guys but there seems to be gender power imbalance at play (such as an unfortunate incident where a man asked a woman to wash his lunch dishes for him!) or at least a limited understanding of women’s roles and abilities. The women, it seems, need some coaxing in order to share their ideas and opinions. They struggle to volunteer their thoughts. I am not sure the reason why. It could be more than gender. It could be age. It could be feeling less confident speaking in English. Regardless of the reason, it’s so important that we hear their voices. We have women from all around the world gathered here, women with diverse backgrounds and from diverse cultures, all with unique points of view that would enrich our dialogue.

I like to think that my next couple of months (or however long it ends up being) in a visible leadership position will help to encourage the other women in the program to speak up. We’ve already had a conversation about it as an IBVM community and we are going to use every opportunity to participate and have a voice and to encourage the other women in the program to join in as well. If we all feel comfortable sharing our views, we will all come away from this time of formation with a rich experience of what it means for men and women in the church to collaborate and to learn from one another.

Please keep us in your prayers!