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.

Rest in the New Year

Finally. A new blog post for a new year.  What’s up, 2020?

Actually, first, let me say that 2019 ended on a high note. I spent four days at the Rise Up conference in Toronto listening to talks, praying, meeting young people, and chatting about vocations. Best of all, I had the opportunity to collaborate with a number of other younger religious to create a space for participants to take a break, hang out, play games, and talk with religious. I wrote about that experience for Around the Well.

On to 2020. The New Year always gives me a boost. I love, love, LOVE the chance to think about new things I would like to do in the new year, to reflect on all of the possibilities, and to listen to how God is speaking to me, asking me, perhaps to change things up. For a number of years, I would make resolutions and be reasonably good at sticking to them. But this year I decided to do something different. Inspired by this podcast and related blog posts, I decided to make a 20 for 2020 list: 20 activities/goals for the New Year. Not quite 20 resolutions because they don’t all involve behaviour change, but more like a ‘To Do’ list for 2020, with a mix of short term items and some that will stretch into the end of the year. It’s exciting to think of new things I’d like to try as well as finally accomplish some tasks that have been hanging around for some time (like put together an e-book of some my blog posts, especially the ones from my time as a candidate and novice).

There a number of fun projects on the horizon, including some discernment on what I might do when I finish my theology studies (still a year away but very exciting and motivating to start thinking/plotting about it now), some work for the Ignatian Spirituality Project, a new semester of First Spiritual Exercises retreats, and coming up soon, Mary Ward Week 2020 activities at Loretto College (more to come on this).

While action is a heavy theme on my 20 for 2020, I’ve also included a weekly day of rest. When I added this item to my list, it seemed ridiculous to me, but the truth is, I’m really bad at this. I know that I need to take regular breaks, I often long for it and feel frustrated when I don’t take time to just rest, but I’ve been very bad (for many years) about prioritizing it. Being busy is second nature to me (and usually a source of joy and fun) and resting, except when sick, is very difficult. But I know from my fall 2019 First Spiritual Exercises retreat that rest is a gift that God wants to give me, a gift that, obviously, I can choose to either refuse or accept. In 2020, I choose to accept this invitation. To psyche myself up for my day of rest, I’ve been re-listening to my favourite Sabbath-themed RobCasts: The Cellular ExodusLet the Land Lie Fallow, and Menuha!

I’m now two Sundays into my practice and it’s surprisingly rough going. What I’ve noticed most of all is how tired I am. I spent the entire day last Sunday watching The Messiah on Netflix, and today I’ve spent most of the day watching His Dark Materials. On the plus side, I’ve also started a new Sunday evening ritual, again aided by television, involving Earl Grey teaPim’s orange biscuits, and the new season of Doctor Who. I suppose I’ve basically spent my days of rest (so far) being brain dead. I’ve noticed that I feel guilty, slightly depressed, and bored. I don’t really know how to enjoy spending time not working on stuff. I’m going to have to practice. I’m convinced that once I get into the rhythm of regular rest, the rest will eventually turn into play. Even more, while technically not a retreat day, my day of rest will be a day of listening. Listening to my body, my heart, my soul, (perhaps even with my brain disengaged watching tv) and seeing what’s going on inside. Listening for the quiet voice of God to speak. 

Prelude to the Nativity

Nativity scene, Quezon City, Philippines, 2016

For the past few years as a student, Advent has coincided with the busiest time of the semester. It has generally been an at least slightly stressful rush to finish papers and assignments and prepare for exams. This year was no different. 

But I found that praying with poetry was an effective and incredibly beautiful way for me to enter into the Advent season. I’ve been using “Waiting on the Word,” an Advent anthology compiled by (of course) Malcolm Guite, my favourite poet.

This past week I have praying with his poems in response to the ‘O’ Antiphons. I was particularly moved by his poem “O Rex Gentium,” that brings together, in an interesting way, what I had been studying this term. I took courses on theological anthropology (how we understand creation and humanity’s relationship to God as Creator), eschatology (how we understand the ‘end times’) and early Christian history (the birth of the Christian churches). These themes are reflected in his evocative description of Christ, the King of the Peoples/Nations.

I leave this poem as a prelude to the Nativity, which we will celebrate in just a few hours.

O Rex Gentium 
O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one.
You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.
We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within, the child within the clay,
O hidden King who shapes us in the play 
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.
– Malcolm Guite

Taking a time out

Coming out of the First Spiritual Exercises (FSE) retreat that recently concluded at Regis College, I made the resolution to make a retreat day once a month. Nothing too formal, just a day set aside to be with God and to hang out the way I hang out with friends. A time out from the usual routine.

So today I purposefully spent the day with God. We walked over to see the old Loretto convent on Brunswick Avenue, now turned into beautiful condos called “The Loretto”. Then we went to Indigo to browse the books and inadvertently stumbled upon Canadian icons. Sharon and Bram (of Sharon, Lois, and Bram fame) were there giving a children’s concert and talking about their book Skinnamarink.

It was a childhood dream come true. I remember watching their show in the mid-’80s and being terribly jealous of the children who got to perform on their show and sing with them (those darned beautiful children with their adorable lisps and slight off key-ness). How I wanted to be up there on stage singing along with “Tingalayo” and “Little Rabbit Foo-Foo”. Well, this morning I had my chance. Not to sing on stage with them. The requisite adorable kids were already there and beat me to it. But I did get to wander along looking at books in the science fiction section, singing along to “Tingalayo” and a new-to-me classic, “I Had an Old Coat”. It was bliss. 

This afternoon I continued my retreat by going out for tea. I wanted a chance to read old journals and to write in my current journal. And why not do so in the company of strangers with a chai latte? Questions came up during my FSE that I wanted to explore, and part of that exploration required going back into the past. So, I read a couple of journals from 10 years ago. They made me laugh (and a few entries made me want to cry) and I realized, my God, I am really me. I am so me. While the external circumstances of my life have changed dramatically over the past 10 years, I haven’t actually changed all that much (except hopefully, ever so slightly, for the better in some respects). My preoccupations and anxieties are pretty much the same, just transplanted into a new context. Realizations that I have about myself now are just a bit further along compared to the realizations I had then. In large part, it was consoling to read my journal, to see that I am growing, in baby steps for sure, but growing nonetheless. 

The always inspiring Eucharistic prayer.

This evening I went to the Church of the Redeemer for their monthly Rock Eucharist. Tonight the Eucharist featured the music of Alanis Morissette. How could I resist? If Sharon, Lois, and Bram provided the soundtrack for my childhood, Alanis Morissette provided the soundtrack for my teenage years and early adulthood. It was a beautiful liturgy, albeit with a couple of surprising song choices (I hadn’t expected “All I Really Want” to be the offertory song), but it was meaningful and thought-provoking. The pastor gave a beautiful sermon and spoke about the tensions we all hold in life. Like Alanis sings, “I’m sad but I’m laughing, I’m brave but I’m chicken shit.” We are rarely one or the other. We are both. And often both at the same time. 

My old journals reminded me of the tensions I held 10 years ago, which, it turns out, are not so different from the tensions I hold now. In one entry I wrote: You know, for awhile I thought Ron Rolheiser had it all figured out. [I had been reading several of his books.] He knows about loneliness, sadness, feeling unfulfilled, but he seems content to live the tension out. Prolong it, enjoy it almost. It seems so difficult to me. My patience hinders me, well, my lack of patience.

I think Ron Rolheiser does have it figured out. Not that I particularly enjoy the tensions inherent in my life, but by the grace of God, I think they are getting a little bit easier to hold.   

‘Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket…

Unguessed blessings

(The golden grasses on our rooftop patio)

As I wait, rather impatiently, for Malcolm Guite’s new collection of poetry, After Prayer, to be released, I am spending time with his collection Sounding the Seasons. Fitting for this weekend, and which I’ve likely shared in years past but am happy to share again, here is…

Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving starts with thanks for mere survival,
Just to have made it through another year
With everyone still breathing. But we share
So much beyond the outer roads we travel;
Our interweavings on a deeper level,
The modes of life embodied souls can share,
The unguessed blessings of our being here,
Threads of connection no one can unravel.
So I give thanks for our deep coinherence,
Inwoven in the web of God’s own grace,
Pulling us through the grave and gate of death.
I thank him for the truth behind appearance,
I thank him for his light in every face,
I thank him for us all, with every breath.
– Malcolm Guite
(this poem appears as the third poem in a sequence for All Saints)

 

This Thanksgiving weekend I am giving thanks for lives interwoven. I am thankful for my Loretto community, my family and friends, and all those I have met through my studies and varied works.

What is emerging this fall is the opportunity to deepen relationships. I’ve experienced a deepened sense of intimacy with my Sisters through our Mary Ward Letters Group (a monthly reflection group on the writings of Mary Ward, drawing on my experience at the Mary Ward Summer School). At our first gathering in September, I was delighted and inspired by their enthusiasm and sharing. Learning more about Mary Ward together is enabling us to learn more about each other as well.

(The peace pole in the rock garden of Loretto College)

My ministry work at Regis College is leading me into deeper relationships with classmates through the opportunity to c0-facilitate a retreat from the First Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola with a friend. We have been leading a group through Inner Peace in Divine Love, a four-week retreat that expands the final exercise of the Full Spiritual Exercises, ‘The Contemplation to Attain Divine Love’. According to Michael Hansen, SJ who adapted the First Spiritual Exercises, “[The retreat] begins with the note that love consists in mutual communication. St. Ignatius continues, ‘The lover gives and communicates to the loved one what they have, or something of what they have, or are able to give; and in turn the one loved does the same for the lover. Each gives to the other’ (Spiritual Exercises 231). This giving and receiving relationship of love cradles my retreat. It goes to the very roots of who I am.”  (p.28) The spiritual conversation that is flowing during this retreat is so life-giving. I listen to others share their experiences of prayer and of God’s presence in their lives, and I feel thankful and humbled to receive them. I feel thankful and humbled to be received in return.

(Autumn colours are slowly appearing)

Lastly, my ministry work with the residents of Loretto College is leading me into deeper relationships with them. I facilitated an Ignatian leadership workshop for a group of the residents at the beginning of the term, and, in larger numbers, we participated in the Global Climate Strike together at the end of September. Our monthly social gatherings with the Sisters and residents help us to build relationships of support and make Loretto College a home for each one of us. We are a community that lives together, cares for each other, and brings each other into the heart of God through prayer.

And, of course, this weekend I am taking time to connect with and pray for all the ones I love, especially the ones who live far from me.

(The prairie grass reminds me of my prairie home)

 

 

Where two or three are gathered

We are walking along a new path as the Canadian Region of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loretto Sisters). We met this past weekend to be inspired and to inspire one another.

Gathering at Loretto College

Our new leadership team gathered us together to share the ‘sparks and snapshots’ of our lives and mission. We gathered – sisters, associates, colleagues – in a spirit of interconnection and interdependence, recognizing that our lives are bound up together in the Body of Christ. It was a day of sharing and much laughter, squeezing in as much as we could into our 1, 2, or 4 minute ‘sparks’ of life. We were connected across the boundaries of time and space with our sisters in western Canada; voices on the phone suddenly making present those absent. Our theme, “Where two or three are gathered, there is hope,” a variation of Matthew 18:20, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them,” was our guide and source of blessing.

It was truly a hopeful gathering, marking movement out into the new, with announcements of our soon-to-be-open House of Welcome/Discernment, and new explorations for the Mary Ward Centre and others in ministry. We have entered into a period of renewed life and vitality in Canada, modelled by a leadership team focused on participation and collaboration. Each person in our region has an integral role to play in our present and our future.

As a newer member of the congregation, it was uplifting and inspiring to be part of the gathering and to witness the renewed sense of life. Since I entered the congregation nearly five years ago, I’ve felt a tension between institutional contraction and expansion. Rightly, a lot of attention and energy up until now has been focused on a degree of contraction within the congregation; closing Loretto Abbey and moving some of our sisters to Presentation Manor were major changes to community life. But now that these events have taken place and there is some stability, there is room to look outward and to see what newness and possibility God wants to inspire in us.

This abundance of newness coincides, happily, with the start of the new school year. I love this time of year. I still get a thrill on the first day of class. Actually, I get a thrill even just getting ready for it all to begin again. I’ve decided I need a motto for the new year, one that will help me keep things in perspective when, inevitably, I feel overextended. I’ve decided on: Go deep. Keep it light. (And the back-up motto, inspired by a recent visit to Invermara: Ice cream is always a good idea. I’ll keep that one for my final profession ring…)

I want to engage deeply with the material given to me this term. Learn as much as I can. Be serious about learning and knowing. Search for answers and, undoubtedly, discover more questions. I want to take myself much less seriously. Have more fun. Laugh every day. Play tennis and run. Write a TV comedy script with a friend, and short stories and poems. Give the First Spiritual Exercises. Read the letters of Mary Ward. Welcome young women to religious life. Discover newness in places I have not ventured, in people who attract and inspire me, and above all, in the God who fires the world with love and beauty and truth.

Move-in Day at Loretto College
Ice cream is always a good idea…

Mary Ward Summer School – Week 3: A Woman Like Us

St. Thomas Parish, Osbaldwick

We’ve wrapped up the third and final week of the Mary Ward summer school. This has been a shorter week – only three and a half days – but it has been equally intense. We examined the period of Mary Ward’s life after she arrived in Rome in 1621 up until her death in England in 1645. The years between 1621 and 1631 were a time of rapid expansion of the Institute and of tensions with Church authorities, resulting in the suppression of the Institute.

This period of Mary’s life gives something of a balance to the earlier period of her life in that it gives us a reality check on who she is: a woman with flaws. Our earlier studies, and especially the study of her spirituality and her inspirations for founding the Institute (‘Glory’) and its manner of life (‘Take the Same’) and the qualities of its members (‘The Just Soul’) emphasized the virtues and courage Mary exhibited. This latter part of her life, while still demonstrating virtue and courage, also showed us the actions of a woman who made some poor decisions. During this time, she was often severely ill, likely extremely fatigued, burdened by administration and care for the well-being of her Institute members, and consequently, appears to have made some imprudent decisions.

Mary’s tombstone in St. Thomas Parish

While it is true that Mary strove for a new form of religious life for women in a period of Church history that was not ready for it, her burst of apostolic activity [expansion into Cologne and Trier (1620-21), opening a school in Rome (1622), setting up foundations in Naples (1623), Perugia (1624), Munich and Vienna (1627), and Pressburg (1628)] without the Institute being approved by the Holy See, and in certain cases, without permission of the local bishop to step up shop, was not good strategy for being accepted by the Church. We also learned that the foundation in Liege had suffered terribly in Mary’s absence, its members suffering from poverty and hunger, and, in fact, dying from these conditions. Given the suffering in one of her foundations, it is hard to understand why Mary put so much effort into expansion.

We can interpret her activity as being based upon her conviction that she was following the will of God for her Institute, believing that “by their fruits ye shall know them” and attempting to demonstrate the value of her Institute to the Church, thereby securing approval for it. However, the reality of the political situation at that time really required more careful diplomacy from her. In addition, she was initially defiant in response to the suppression of her houses, seemingly based on misinformation, which did not help her cause either. The actions of one of her companions, Winifred Wigmore (who I love for her feistiness but who I suspect had a difficult personality), also contributed to the subsequent Bull of Suppression in 1631.

A letter from a school visit to Mary Ward’s tombstone

Of course, it is easy from this point in history, when we have access to all kinds of information and have a better understanding of the political and religious lay of the land than Mary Ward did, to point out the flaws in her judgment and in her strategy. She did what she was able to do.

This week, then, has been about seeing Mary Ward in, perhaps, a more realistic light. She was truly a visionary woman, grounded in Ignatian spirituality, who believed that women had a significant role to play in the Church and in spiritual and religious formation/education, and she was tenacious in her efforts to have her Institute approved. But she was also a woman so focused on her divine ambition that she expected her members to make significant sacrifices, she didn’t pay careful attention to the conditions of some of her foundations, and she didn’t play the political-religious game well, to the detriment of her work and of members’ well-being. She was, in short, a woman like the rest of us: a woman of divinely inspired potential, striving for the greater glory of God within the limitations of her humanity.

At the end of our summer school program, we made a little pilgrimage to Osbaldwick, the site of Mary Ward’s burial. Her tombstone hangs in the parish there although we don’t know for sure whether she is still buried in the churchyard or if her body had been moved elsewhere at some point in history. Regardless, it is a meaningful place for all Mary Ward women, the galloping girls, to visit. We ended our summer school together with a time of profound prayer and unity with each other and with our foundress, inspired by the words on her tombstone:

To love the poor,
persevere in the same,
live, die, and rise with them
was all the aim
of
Mary Ward who
having lived 60 years and 8 days
died the 20 of January 1645

These words have taken on a deeper meaning after our studies, now that we can interpret them more fully. She loved the poor (the materially poor, the spiritually poor – in England and elsewhere), persevered in the same (of the Society), lived, died and (will) rise with them (the members of her Institute). Mary Ward’s mission and charism are there for the world to see.

With the end of the summer school, it is time for this galloping girl to head home. With a suitcase and a heart full of treasures.

The participants of the Mary Ward Summer School 2019