Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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It’s a wrap!

The High Level Political Forum (HLPF) wrapped up in a flurry of activity last week. Sessions from Monday to Wednesday were devoted to country presentations a.k.a. Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). I was particularly interested in listening to the country presentations where the CJ/IBVM has a presence. Nine of our countries were up for review and I was able to be present for five out of the nine countries.

I paid special attention to the country review from Canada, of course, and was very interested to participate in the session as a member of civil society. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed in the Canadian presentation. The programs and investments that were highlighted as responding to the SDGs were the same that I have heard brought out to highlight Canadian commitment to maternal and child health. In my prior work as a public servant, I had referred to the same investments time and again. I was disappointed that the government did not have anything new to offer. The good news, however, is that there is a newly created federal structure – an SDG unit housed at Employment and Social Development Canada – that will be the coordinating body for the achievement of the SDGs in Canada. That means there is a point of contact for future consultations and participation.

The most enjoyable part of my time at the UN during the HLPF was the opportunity to work with Canadian civil society organizations. The group of Canadian NGOs that gathered at the UN were inclusive and open to collaboration. If they were surprised to have a Catholic Sister working with them on the interventions, they were quiet about it! Together we prepared two statements with questions that were delivered during Canada’s VNR. (The questions went unanswered, sadly.)

Members of our CJ/IBVM group also attended two civil society events with the Canadian government. The first, an informal meet and greet at the Permanent Mission where the Ambassador and Minister Duclos spoke. Thanks to a resourceful member of our group, we left with a contact for future follow up! The second event we attended was the launch of Alliance2030, a network of Canadian civil society organizations devoted to SDG achievement in Canada. At that meeting, we met representatives from a number of other organizations, including a passionate group of Canadian youth who want to make their voices heard.

The biggest lesson that I learned from my experience at the HLPF this year was the importance of an engaged and committed civil society presence (including religious or faith-based organizations) in development work – whether the work is undertaken domestically or abroad. I’ve long had an appreciation for civil society organizations, and I worked with a number of them as a public servant, but my experience of being ‘one of them’ at the UN was a real gift. I witnessed commitment, passion, resourcefulness, and readiness to work hard to achieve goals.

It’s almost time for me to bid New York a fond farewell – three weeks have flown by!  But this year I return to Toronto equipped and ready with ideas and tools for moving the SDGs forward at home and within our international CJ/IBVM network!


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Through the Desert

It’s Good Friday. We are here, in the Easter Triduum already. It seems as though Lent had barely begun and now it’s already finished. Two days ago, I sat in our chapel reading through my journal, tracing my journey through Lent this year. What an adventure this has been! Even amidst the day-to-day activity of my studies and ministries, I walked through the desert of Lent.

As I read through my journal entries, I was reminded that the desert has not been a desolate place. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed, was anxious and struggled with fatigue along the way, but accompanied by my book of poetry, I encountered the God of Life each day. The Word in the Wilderness by Malcolm Guite has been a wise and challenging companion on the journey.

At the start of this desert journey, I encountered oh-so-familiar temptations, alongside Jesus who

laughed, ‘You are not what you seem.
Love is the waking life, you are the dream’.
        (excerpt from “All the Kingdoms of the World”, Malcolm Guite)

Jesus shook me from my complacency and urged me to question my desires. When do I care too much (or even a bit) about being ‘special’ or ‘better’ or ‘superior’? Where are these desires coming from? Jesus reminded me that

Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
        (excerpt from “The Bright Field”, R.S. Thomas)

This poem prompted me to admit that I struggle to see the miracle of the lit bush, the brightness of God’s presence in my daily life. I often look to the future. I give in so often to dissatisfaction and to the tensions within me that keep me

Pinned where I am, right now, somewhere, I turn
And turn to orient myself. I have
Directions calculated, maps at hand:
Hopelessly lost till I look up at last.
        (excerpt from “Maps”, Holly Ordway)

On this journey, I can see that I’ve often tried to guide myself, thinking I’ve got to do it on my own. I wrestle with fear that keeps me held fast within myself, pinned down, unable to reach out to others, unable to see myself differently or to live differently. I fear inadequacy and yet there is no escaping my inadequacy. And yet God does not ever let fear have the final word. God keeps encouraging me to leave the fear behind. I was inspired by the words of my poet-guide who proclaimed

This is the day to leave the dark behind you
Take the adventure, step beyond the hearth,
Shake off at last the shackles that confined you,
And find the courage for the forward path.
You yearned for freedom through the long night watches,
The day has come and you are free to choose,
Now is your time and season.
Companioned still by your familiar crutches,
And leaning on the props you hope to lose,
You step outside and widen your horizon.
       (excerpt from “First Steps, Brancaster”, Malcolm Guite)

I’ve recognized that fear, as ever, is my crutch as much as it is a prison keeps me from doing what I am called to do. I feel the tension of that fear. There is tension between fear that holds me back and the courageous invitation to move forward. To move from the darkness to the light, from shackles to freedom, from lies to truth, from being caught up in being an individual to learning to live in community. I have faith in the graces God has given me (I think back to my 30-day retreat and I am overwhelmed at God’s generosity) and in those graces that God continues to give, and yet I am hesitant to truly act out of faith, to let go of the lie that says I can’t and to embrace the truth that says I can.

Fetal position
under flannel sheets, weeping
How I talk to God. 

Moonlight on pillow
tending to my open wounds
How God talks to me.
       (excerpt from “How I talk to God”, Kelly Belmonte)

I know that alone I do not have the strength or the courage to be the radical disciple of Christ that I long to be. I fight myself and I fight with God. I do not let myself submit to God even when I want to submit. Sometimes I just don’t know how. I call out to God:

Batter my heart, three person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new… 

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
       (excerpt from “Batter my Heart”, John Donne)

Every tiny moment of submission, of opening myself up, of letting God get a good honest look at me, throughout this desert journey, has been a moment of transformation and of gift leading to a renewal of vocation.

Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
The clarity of early morning… 

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.
       (excerpt from “Late Ripeness”, Czeslaw Milosz)

This poem thrills me. I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard. Of course. Whether I think I am worthy or not, or have anything to offer to God’s service. How could I ever really be worthy? Somehow, it seems that as I am, I am good enough for God. I am reminded that I am loved and I have been entrusted with being part of God’s plan for the world, part of the plan for salvation, redemption, and renewal. But I must remember, always remember, to

Open the map to him and make a start,
And down the dizzy spirals, through the dark,
his light will go before you. Let him chart

And name and heal. Expose the hidden ache
To him, the stinging fires and smoke that blind
Your judgement, carry you away, the mirk 

And muted gloom in which you cannot find
The love that you once thought worth dying for.
Call him to all you cannot call to mind.
       (excerpt from “Through the Gate”, Malcolm Guite)

This poem recalls the beginning of the journey, when I first set out with Jesus into the desert. Have I let him chart the course, to name and heal? Have I exposed my hidden aches to him? It’s a reminder to constantly go back to the source of life and healing and to keep turning myself over to him.

The waters cleanse us with his gentle touch,
And here he shows the full extent of love
To us whose love is always incomplete,
In vain we search the heavens high above,
The God of love is kneeling at our feet.
Though we betray him, though it is the night.
He meets us here and loves us into light.
(excerpt from “Maundy Thursday”, Malcolm Guite)

This journey does not end here; it will continue into the new life of the resurrection. But for now, there is nowhere else to go except to the cross. I go to offer myself in love and adoration to the one I love, the one who has journeyed with me through the desert.


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Mary Ward Week 2018

Tomorrow marks the final day of our week-long celebration of Mary Ward. We began with her birthday on January 23rd, and on January 30th, we remember the anniversary of her death.

As one Institute – the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Congregation of Jesus – we have been praying together this week with a beautiful booklet of reflections written jointly by IBVM and CJ sisters and friends. I would like to share a couple of excerpts here that continue to speak to me.

“The felicity of this estate was a singular freedom…to refer all to God. Being grounded in this (the virtues of freedom, justice and sincerity), we should gain at God’s hand true wisdom and ability to perform all such other things as the perfection of this Institute exacteth of us.”
[From Mary Ward’s letter about the ‘Just Soul’ experience, St. Omer, November 1, 1615]

 

Mary Ward had free and open access to God. How free she was, a woman with a burning desire to follow the will of God despite her suffering. She invites us to follow her way, knowing that we are one with many companions across the world. We are all seeds which will bear abundant fruit in the places where we live.

We are the descendants of an incomparable woman
We abide in truth
We love sincerity
We are a voice of justice,
We live in freedom and refer all to God
We are carriers of Christ
We are contemplative in action.
We desire more
We love to Be more
We love to Do more
We give and reach out more.

[From Cecilia Insuk Lee, CJ (Korea) and Selvi Adaikalam, IBVM (East Timor)]

What emerged as a key element of the conference (“Friends of Mary Ward”) was the sense that we are not called to be about living in the past, but rather to be willing to embrace this new thing that God is doing in the hearts and minds of all those who love and follow Mary Ward.

The virtues Mary Ward wrote about in 1615 after a very significant prayer experience are not only an ideal for sisters or women in general; they are relevant for all those who want to follow Jesus today. Mary lived out these virtues – freedom, sincerity and justice – and became for us, her companions, a vivid model and example. Even in times of trial and darkness, when her faith was put in danger by the Church’s leaders, she chose to follow the path of truth. Her attitude is a lesson for us in the 21st century. Our society needs the sincerity and transparency proposed by our founder, and as Mary Ward’s friends, we are called upon to live them in our context.
[From: Ann McGowan (Mary Ward Centre, Canada) and Anu Tampu, CJ (Romania)]


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Witness to hope

Photos courtesy of Facebook – Canadian Women’s Foundation

Yesterday, like thousands of other women across Canada, I gave my voice and my feet to the collective cause of women’s rights. I joined the throngs of inspired and lively women gathered in Nathan Phillips Square to cheer and to raise one another up, but most importantly, to listen attentively to each other. In an act of communion and solidarity, we joined together as women with diverse beliefs, backgrounds, and visions for the future of Canada, but with the common understanding that the only way to make lasting change is to work together.

As one body, we listened to the passionate voices of young women working hard to make their communities safer and more responsive to the needs of women. We listened to stories of pain and suffering: the brutal treatment of Rohingya women in Myanmar, and the equally brutal treatment of our own indigenous women in Canada. Their stories are our stories. We listened to the voices of women, rich in life experience, counsel sustained passion and patience for what they know may be a lifelong struggle for justice.

Each individual voice, expressing a unique story and perspective, was a vibrant part of the whole, the common voice of hope. Hope for the future and an unwavering belief in a Canada and a world that can be different and will be different. Not just some day but in our day. Our feet embodied the hope that filled us as we marched through the streets of downtown Toronto. We gave witness to our solidarity and to our commitment to improve the lives of women, to work as long as it takes, and to not back down in the face of opposition.

As a religious sister, I am called to witness to hope, and especially to the hope that is rooted in my Christian faith. God is with us. We are working with God to build a more just world so that all may enjoy the fullness of life. As a Mary Ward woman, I am called to service, particularly in response to the needs of women and girls in our time. On January 23, we will begin a weeklong celebration of Mary Ward, the feast of our Institute. We will honour our foundress who believed in the capacity of women to do great things. May she continue to inspire our Institute to work for the good of women and all of society, and may she intercede for our world in such need of healing.

Mary Ward, pray for us.

 

There is no such difference between men and women that women may not do great things. I hope in God it will be seen that women in time will do much. Women should and can provide something more than ordinary.
– Mary Ward


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Welcoming the New Year

A frosty start to 2018.

A new year has begun.

The start of a new year always excites me. It’s a clean slate. A fresh beginning, with so many possibilities for what lies ahead. Like many people, I perform a little ritual each year. I spend some time taking stock of the previous year and I look ahead to the new and see what changes I might want to make to my life and what I might want to accomplish.

I like to make extensive lists of resolutions, mapping out the different components of my life – health and well-being, spiritual, economic, etc. I savour the act of setting goals and making plans to accomplish them. I find it energizing. And even if I don’t accomplish what I set out to do, I don’t get down about it because each new year gives me a new chance to do things differently.

This year, however, I don’t feel drawn to the same kind of lengthy list-making. My list is shorter and perhaps more integrated than in past years. This year I am doing some pondering along the lines of the IBVM vow formula and the two ancient commandments: to love God with all of my heart, my soul, my strength, and my mind, and to love my neighbour as myself. I am taking time this week to recall how I have loved over the past year as well as how I have not loved.

As I peer into 2018, I notice my desires for the year. How do I desire to love God with all of my heart, all of my soul, all of my strength, and all of my mind? How do I desire to love my neighbour as myself? I know that there are many areas of my life to work on – my relationships with others, my prayer life, and aspects of my health and well-being – how do these affect my ability to love? Where is God calling me to be and to act? This year I have set no goals for perfection, but I have a deep desire for transformation, for greater openness and a greater ability to give and to receive love.

Just as Pope Francis’ 2015 homily in New York City has been a touchstone for me these past few years – his reflection on “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” has given me consolation and inspiration – so too has the poetry of Malcolm Guite become a touchstone and guidepost for me. His poem Be Opened haunts me. There is no better word for it. The poem is Malcolm’s reflection on Mark 7:31-37, the healing of the deaf and mute man. This beautiful poem speaks to me of my desire to give and to receive love even as it reminds me of my many flaws and limitations. It rouses a deep yearning within me. I want to be opened, broken wide open, by God, so that this desire to love can be realized and manifested in the small actions of each day.

And so, as 2018 unfurls, I am guided by my heart’s deepest desires. As I face each day’s challenges, and as I fret about some thing or other, I will listen for God’s transformative words: Be opened.

Be Opened

Be opened. Oh if only we might be!
Speak to a heart that’s closed in on itself:
‘Be opened and truth will set you free’,
Speak to a world imprisoned in its wealth:
‘Be opened! Learn to learn from poverty’,
Speak to a church that closes and excludes,
And makes rejection its own litany:
‘Be opened, opened to the multitudes
For whom I died but whom you have dismissed
Be opened, opened, opened’, how you sigh
And still we do not hear you. We have missed
Both cry and crisis, we make no reply.
Take us aside, for we are deaf and dumb
Spit on us Lord and touch each tongue-tied tongue.
– Malcolm Guite


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True life is brimming

This is my first blog post as a professed member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. What a thrill! I now write as a Loretto Sister. (I can’t stop smiling as I write this!)

Two weeks ago, I made my first profession of vows. I vowed poverty, chastity, and obedience to God for one year, according the constitutions of the IBVM, in the witness of community, family, and friends. I felt totally surrounded by love as I made my vows. I rested in the love of God and in the love of so many of the ones I love who were there with me. Afterward, how we celebrated!

Now, we are almost at the end of Advent. Christmas is on the near horizon. As I look back on the readings I chose for my first profession, I see how beautifully Adventish (Advent-like? Adventful?) they are.

The first reading I selected is from Isaiah (Isaiah 9:1-4, 6), which we do usually read during the season of Advent:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time, he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shone. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Those who have read some of my other blog posts will know that these verses are particularly dear to me. I have referenced them before, when writing about Manila and about New York City, when I have looked for inspiration to the homily Pope Francis gave on these verses at Madison Square Garden in 2015.

My novice director, Jane, noted my love for this homily in the reflection she gave during the profession:

Pope Francis gave a homily in New York City in 2015. His reflection was on Isaiah’s words: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” His words have deep meaning for Sarah.

This is some of what he said.  “In every age, the People of God are called to contemplate this light; a light meant to shine on every corner of this city, on our fellow citizens, on every part of our lives.”  “Go out to others and share the good news that God walks at our side. … “God is living in our cities.”  …”God removes us from the fray of competition and self-absorption, and God opens before us the path of peace – that peace which is born of accepting others, that peace which fills our hearts whenever we look upon those in need as our brothers and sisters.”   

What strikes me this Advent are the lines: “God removes us from the fray of competition and self-absorption, and God opens before us the path of peace – that peace which is born of accepting others, that peace which fills our hearts whenever we look upon those in need as our brothers and sisters.”   

I feel a constant nudging from God to open my eyes to the needs of those around me, especially those on the margins of society, and to respond with love. I know that I am being nudged to something more, and especially to look at my own life and to ask myself if I am truly at peace or if this is a superficial contentment. Do I look on those in need as my brothers and sisters? If so, how can I accept injustice? These questions poke and prod me and they invite me to trust that God will show me how to respond.

As a second reading for my profession, I selected an excerpt from a letter Mary Ward wrote to her spiritual director, Fr. Roger Lee, SJ, in November 1615. The excerpt describes Mary’s vision of ‘The Just Soul’, that is, a description of the ideal qualities of a member of her Institute – a woman of freedom, justice, and sincerity.

It seems a certain clear and perfect estate, to be had in this life, and such a one as is altogether needful for those that should well discharge the duties of this Institute. I never read of any I can compare in likeness to it. It is not like the state of saints, whose holiness chiefly appears in that union with God which maketh them out of themselves; I perceived then an apparent difference, and yet felt myself drawn to love and desire this state more than all those favours.

The felicity of this state (for as much as I can express) was a singular freedom from all that could make one adhere to earthly things, with an entire application and apt disposition to all good works. Something happened also discovering the freedom that such a soul should have had to refer all to God…I seemed in my understanding to see a soul thus composed, but far more fair than I can express it.

It then occurred and still continues in my mind, that those in Paradise, before the first fall, were in this estate. It seemed to me then, and that hope remains still, that our Lord let me see it, to invite me that way, and because He would give me grace in time to arrive at such an estate, at least in some degree. That word justice, and those in former times that were called just persons, works of justice, done in innocence and that we be such as we appear; and appear such as we are – these things often since occurred to my mind with a liking of them… I have moreover thought up-on this occasion that perhaps this course of ours would continue til the end of the world, because it came to that in which we first begun.

Again, from my novice director’s reflection: …on the front cover [of the Mass booklet] is our founder, Mary Ward, travelling lightly, moving forward, free, apt for all good works. It connects to Mary Ward’s vision of a just soul that we heard in the second reading.  Here is an authentic person, without attachments, with an attitude of openness, and a freedom to refer all to God.  Knowing Sarah, how could she not be drawn to become like such a person?

During Advent, I reflect upon Mary Ward’s words and I see that these are just the qualities I desire in order to encounter Jesus at Christmastime. Christmas is a time of profound mystery – we read the stories of Jesus’ birth and we ponder how it is that God could come to us in the form of a helpless child. How do we prepare ourselves to meet this mystery? How do I prepare myself to meet this mystery? I look to Mary Ward and see a way forward. Using Mary Ward as my example, I strive to grow as a woman who is free, a woman who is just, and a woman who is sincere. I strive to be a woman who will meet Jesus in the manger at Christmastime and who will follow Jesus as his disciple until the end of her life.     

I think I will end this blog post with more words from Jane, who ended her reflection so perfectly (you can see where I borrowed the title for this post): I end with these words from Sarah’s favourite poet and songwriter, Malcolm Guite. He captures what I feel is Sarah’s disposition right now:

The heart is wide open, the true life is brimming
And yearning to come flowing through
I lay down my burden and walk to the well head
And drink and then bring some to you


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Looking back

As I look back through photos from the past few years, I am reminded of the incredible experiences I’ve had since joining the IBVM. I find it hard to believe all that has happened, and, oh, the places I have been. I am in awe of it all and filled with gratitude.

Arriving at Loretto Abbey in September 2014. I was struck by how beautiful it is.

Received as a candidate with the IBVM.

Helping Marren to dress for a Canadian winter. 

Our evening tea time at the Abbey.

My first visit to New York City and the United Nations – March 2015.

Halloween at the Abbey – October 2015.

 

Received as a novice – December 2015. 

Memories of the Philippines and Vietnam – 2016. First year/canonical year of novitiate.

My second visit to New York City and a chance to intern at the IBVM UN NGO – April to July 2017.

Discernment retreat for profession of first vows. Pondering the future – August 2017. 

This prayer of Thomas Merton has accompanied me for much of my adult life and it has been in my heart many times over the past three years:

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
– Thomas Merton

It still rings true to me now, even with my first profession just a few weeks away. There is always an element of risk in life; we cannot ever be completely certain of where we are going or what will happen. Certainly over the past three years much has happened that I could not predict, and I suspect the future will be the same. I have come to see that religious life, despite sounding quite tame and restrictive, is anything but. There is a lot that is unknown and much joy that comes in the discovery.