Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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Summer days

A month and a bit have passed since I left New York City. (The withdrawal pains have subsided.) It has been a busy time with lots of activity and travel and not much time to tend to this blog. It has been a relaxing time as well, like an extended summer holiday.

I left New York for Saskatoon and made a five-day retreat with twenty-one other young religious from across Canada, facilitated by the wise and insightful Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI (more to come on the talks from the retreat in a future blog post). It was an energizing experience and consoling to meet other religious who share similar concerns, hopes, and dreams for the future of religious life in Canada.

The view of the South Saskatchewan River from Queen’s House Retreat Centre in Saskatoon

After the retreat, I spent time with family in Rosthern, SK and then in Calgary, AB. It was so good to be reunited with family and friends again, most of whom I hadn’t seen in about two years, before I went to the Philippines for the canonical year of my novitiate. Naturally, there was lots to share and to catch up on. It felt a bit strange at times relating my experiences of the Philippines because my year there seemed like a year out of time. There was an odd feeling of time displacement; I couldn’t keep track of the time I’d been away. Regardless, it was so good to see everyone and to feel connected again. Being with my family reminds me of who I am and where I have come from, and I am grateful for that. My family is very much a part of my spiritual journey even though I don’t get to see them very often.

The statue of Our Lady of the Prairies at Queen’s House

After a week or so back in Toronto, I made a trip to Ottawa. I hadn’t been to Ottawa for nearly two years so again there was that sense of time displacement. It was coupled initially with a feeling of nostalgia for my old life. I visited my old house (even did a bit of yard work there), met with friends and colleagues, and visited my old parish (I happened to be there just in time to celebrate the installation of its two new pastors). I had time to catch up with good friends and to glimpse again the life that I have missed off and on these past few years. As the visit progressed, I noticed that the feeling of nostalgia lessened and was replaced by a feeling of deep gratitude for all that I had experienced in Ottawa during the 10 years I lived there. I came to recognize that that part of my life is truly over now and I do not desire to go back and resume it. It was a beautiful and life-giving season in my life but now I am called to something else and to be somewhere else and I desire with all of my being to give myself to this new life and new path that I am walking along.

I think this is a good place to be – mentally, spiritually, etc., – as I prepare to make a discernment retreat next week that will lead up to making my first vows (potentially in December). I am not caught up in false feelings about the past and I am not bound by expectations for the future. I feel that I am calmly in the present, ready to be with God in a sacred space, and to talk about all that has gone on in my life over the past few years and all of the graces, gifts, and opportunities that God has been giving me as I move closer to making my first vows.

Please keep me in your prayers starting Monday as I make an eight-day silent retreat at Loyola House in Guelph. I will keep you in my prayers as well. Love and blessings to all!


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Sacred Reading

“Reading seeks for sweetness of a blessed life, meditation perceives it, prayer asks for it, contemplation tastes it.  Reading, as it were, puts food whole into the mouth, meditation chews it and breaks it up, prayer extracts its flavour, contemplation is the sweetness itself which gladdens and refreshes.”
      – Guigo II, Carthusian Monk

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We have begun the practice of weekly Lectio Divina in community. Each Thursday we gather to read the gospel for the coming Sunday. Our practice is simple. We read the text three times, listening carefully and savouring the words.

After the first reading, we pause for a moment and then share a single word or short phrase that captures our attention. After the second reading, we share a bit further, maybe a longer phrase or sentence that moves us. After the third reading, we may feel drawn to offer a brief reflection, maybe relating it to our day or a recent experience. We may end with an intercessory prayer as well or instead. This sacred reading of the gospel text opens me to the Holy Spirit, ready to go where the Spirit leads. Each time of prayer follows the same pattern but always produces newness and variety.

The practice of Lectio Divina is relatively new to me. I practiced it previously in a parish young adults group that I was part of but I have not practiced it consistently. Our current weekly practice took a bit of getting used to at first but I now find it deeply enriching. I appreciate the time for quiet contemplation of the Sunday gospel as well as the sharing that results from our group practice. I am finding that the practice of sacred reading of the gospel text has encouraged me to adopt a practice of “sacred reading” in daily life – looking at the world around me, open to the Spirit, noticing where I am drawn, and seeing all life around me as holy, belonging to God.

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I became more interested in the practice of Lectio Divina last year while I was in the Philippines. I’ve mentioned it previously on my blog but I really got hooked on listening to podcasts while I was there. It became a way for me to relax in the evenings and I’ve continued to listen to them since. One of the podcasts I began listening to last year is Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. It’s fantastic! The hosts are graduates of Harvard Divinity School and they treat the much-loved Harry Potter series as a sacred text to be read in a similar way to the Bible, Torah, Koran, etc.

Each podcast episode covers a chapter of a Harry Potter book (they just finished season 2 and the second book in the series – The Chamber of Secrets) through the lens of a particular theme. For example, in the second book, they looked at chapter 16 through the lens of grace and chapter 18 through the lens of love. The podcast is fast-paced and witty and incorporates spiritual practices throughout, including Lectio Divina, imaginative contemplation (yay, Ignatius!), the Jewish practice of Havruta, and each episode ends with a blessing. The podcast is so creative and it encourages the listener to apply these spiritual practices and to see the sacred in the everyday. I can’t wait for season 3!

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Go to http://www.harrypottersacredtext.com!!

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As a final note, The Liturgists podcast, which I’ve mentioned previously as well, just happens to be promoting Lectio Divina right now. For their patreon members, they are offering daily recorded Lectio Divina meditations during Lent. Check it out!

Happy and blessed reading!


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Living Simply

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Five weeks on and I’m getting used to being home. I’m diving into my classes and meeting new people on campus and in the neighbourhood. I’m not quite sending down roots yet but I’m getting to know the soil, preparing to be planted.

So much of what I experienced in the Philippines last year is present with me here in Toronto. I think of my boys at Sarnelli often and of my experience with them, living simply and openly. I desire to live as simply as possible here in Toronto. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about what that might look like.

As part of our Institute’s celebration of Mary Ward Week, we participated in a workshop entitled “Living Simply, Living Well”, facilitated by Ann McGowan from the Mary Ward Centre. Ann shared a variety of resources with us and invited us to challenge our understanding of economic growth and wealth. We briefly talked about alternatives to current models of growth and consumption and about investment in things aimed towards the common good (for example, libraries, the arts, etc.).

That discussion continued through my participation last week in a Jesuit Forum discussion group focused on Pope Francis’ encyclical on the care of creation, Laudato Si. Our group had a fascinating and far-ranging discussion about Canadian mining practices, current U.S. politics and recent protests, as well as alternative cultural movements like minimalism and freeganism and freecycling. I went away feeling buoyed by the way the Holy Spirit seems to move through small grassroots movements. When I get discouraged by the seemingly unstoppable societal movement towards excessive consumption and waste, these counter-cultural movements bring me a whole lot of consolation – increases in peace, love, and faith.

I’ve already written about the vow of poverty that I will eventually take, here and here, but poverty and living simply continue to be on my mind. I’ve started volunteering to serve breakfast to the homeless on Saturday mornings and it has increased my desire to not only live simply but to get to know and accompany those who are truly materially and spiritually poor. I feel like God is really pulling me (or pushing me?) in the direction of being with the poor and I am doing my best not to stand in God’s way. I don’t know where this will lead but I trust that consolation will follow. I have a feeling that living simply will be an evolving act of faith.

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In between

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The city surrounds me

I’m home now, back in Toronto with the IBVM (Loretto) community in Canada. I’ve been home for 3 weeks now and yet in some ways I still don’t feel like I’m fully home. I’m in a limbo space at the moment, also known as a liminal space – that threshold between the old and the new.

It’s odd that after spending a year in a country that felt so foreign to me for so long, my old, familiar surroundings have taken on that foreign feeling.

Mind you, my life is no longer quite the same as when I left Canada in 2015. I am no longer working at my job in the federal government. I have started part-time theology studies and I am living in a new community of sisters at Loretto College. And I am no longer the same person I was when I began the novitiate. I have been stretched and I have grown in ways that I will become more aware of as I settle back into being home.

In the liminal space there is both comfort and discomfort, both mourning and joyful celebration.

It has been so good to come home, to be back in the familiar. My body, for one, is grateful for it. I could feel my body physically relax as I stepped out of the airport upon my arrival in Toronto and I felt the cool winter air. Home. My body finally feels comfortable again. The dramatic change in temperature from the Philippines winter to the Canadian winter didn’t feel very dramatic to me. It was a relief. I can feel my body operating at a higher capacity than it was able to in the Philippines and I am enjoying that.

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Snow! A beautiful sight when I arrived home.

Aside from the physical comfort, there has also been much joy in coming home. I was so happy to reconnect with my beautiful sisters at Loretto Abbey, to hear their stories of the past year, and to share my own with them. I was surprised (shocked, to be honest) to hear that the community followed my blog posts so faithfully and that the sisters were so interested in and attentive to what was happening in our novitiate community (for example, it has been noted that I have not yet written about the vow of obedience! Stay tuned for that…). It was actually very humbling to discover how faithfully the community had been praying for me and the novitiate community.

I have moved from the Abbey now to Loretto College and am getting my bearings here. I have gone from one extreme to another in the course of a year – from the simple living conditions of our novitiate house in Manila to the very generous and comfortable environment of the College, where I am living in a larger institutional setting.

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Being welcomed by my new community

I am in school now, too. Navigating two theology courses – scripture and Christology – trying to wrap my mind around new terminology and concepts and opening my mind and heart to new ways of understanding and thinking about God.

In this liminal space, I have not yet fully made the transition from my experience(s) in the Philippines to this familiar yet new environment I am living in and the new mission of studies and ministry I am undertaking.

I find that I miss things about the Philippines more than I thought I would. Of course, I miss my companions a lot (which I had anticipated, and thank goodness for instant messaging and skype to keep us connected!) but I also miss the relaxed culture of the Philippines. I was really struck, especially upon moving to downtown Toronto, by the pace of life at home. People walk quickly, are so focused on getting to their destinations, and are often talking on or looking at their phones. It seems weird to me even though I was very much a part of that lifestyle not so long ago. But now it feels too quick and impersonal.

Another jarring experience has been, or I should say, continues to be, the sight of homeless men sitting on street corners. It makes me feel deeply uneasy. I notice them immediately and I also notice how people pass them by without even glancing at them. After my experience of witnessing poverty in the Philippines, I am really bothered by the sight of poverty in Canada. Poverty is widespread in the Philippines. It’s a very poor country and there is a shocking level of corruption that prevents social issues from being adequately addressed. But Canada is rich. Way richer than I had realized before. And we don’t have the same problems with government corruption. So what the heck is going on in our country that we allow people to live in such poverty and dire conditions?

In this liminal space, on the threshold of the old and the new, I am asking myself many questions. If I have truly experienced the inner transformation that I have claimed to have had last year, how am I going to live differently now that I am home? What am I going to do about injustice? Am I going to listen and respond when my best friend tells me to act?

 


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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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Grounded

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I am reading through my retreat notes from my 30 day retreat. I felt drawn to return to these notes in order to ground myself in the graces I received. With so much time spent on study and learning these days, through my course, our novices program, and our in-house formation, I’ve felt a desire to consciously bring the retreat graces into this new phase of formation.

I am currently reviewing notes from the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises, re-living my experiences of being immersed in God’s love and starting to see and love myself as I am. I’ve also been reading poetry by the Australian poet, Marlene Marburg, inspired by her experiences of the First Week. Her poem, toe print, touched something in me and I would like to share it with you.

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In my first step,
I put my toe-print
on God’s rejoicing earth,
and all else I am
stirs in hopeful breath.

And as I grow
in gripping steps   I think
my toe-print is my own.
I do not think
where it has come from
or where it is going.
I do not hear,
beneath my feet, the praise
of leaves and stones,
of puddles, ants and snails,
the tones of other toe-prints
longing for our God.

But as I grow
in trusting steps
I sense within
each line, each whorl,
a belonging to God’s infinite
labyrinth           and each step,
a humbling one of many
given
just to me.

– Marlene Marburg, Grace Undone: Love

From her biography:

Marlene’s poetry has been published widely in journals and anthologies. Grace Undone: Love, Marlene’s first collection of poetry, is largely extractly from the early section of her thesis, and focuses on a First Week experience of praying the Spiritual Exercises in which helpful and unhelpful patterns of living are explored in the light of God’s love. Marlene is a senior lecturer and formator of spiritual directors at Sentir Graduate College of Spiritual Direction, University of Divinity, Melbourne, Australia. In her spiritual direction and supervision work, Marlene companions people from the perspective that all of life invites authenticity and interior freedom.

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In follow up to my previous post on prophets and prophecy, I recently listened to two very interesting podcasts about the subject. There is a group in the U.S. called The Liturgists. They host a podcast about contemporary issues from the perspectives of science, art, and faith. I really enjoyed the conversations they had about Prophet or Ass and The Voice of God. If you feel so inclined, check them out!

 


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Light in the city

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For nearly a year now I have been captivated by the words Pope Francis spoke when he visited New York City last September. I have gone back to them time and again, and held them in my heart, especially this year in Manila. During the Mass he celebrated at Madison Square Garden he said:

“In every age, the People of God are called to contemplate this light [referring to the words of the prophet Isaiah]. A light for the nations, as the elderly Simeon joyfully expressed it. A light meant to shine on every corner of this city, on our fellow citizens, on every part of our lives.”

“God’s faithful people can see, discern and contemplate his living presence in the midst of life, in the midst of the city. Together with the prophet Isaiah, we can say: The people who walk, breathe and live in the midst of smog, have seen a great light, have experienced a breath of fresh air.”

As I walk the streets of Manila, I often struggle to see the light of God in the midst of the city. I walk to the supermarket and I choke on the fumes of the traffic, sometimes so much that I have to hold my handkerchief against my nose and mouth. A month ago, I walked home from the LRT station and was splattered with urine by a man living on the street. I’ve been spat on by careless passersby several times. I’ve come home during a heavy rain and discovered that my feet and legs stink of excrement from wading through puddles. My heart aches when I pass by a polluted river or stream, so full of garbage and waste that it cannot support life. Many times I have caught myself judging this city. Why is it so foul? Why is there so much filth everywhere? It’s disgusting! In Canada…

“In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath “the rapid pace of change”, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no “right” to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.”

I walk to church and I pass men and women sitting on the side of the road or next to a pile of rubbish. I see children, skin blackened with dirt and grime, begging for change. I see hordes of young men standing on the street corner unable to find work or engaged in work without meaning or outlet for their gifts. I see young people with passion and potential shining in their eyes who are unable to express their creativity and talent. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, the more that I see these people, day in and day out, the less I really see them. Like Pope Francis says, they become part of the urban landscape. They blend in with the broken walls I pass and the crumbling pavement I step through each day.

Where is the light of God in all of this? Where is the hope?

“Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that he is part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope. A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others, for the life of our city. A hope which frees us from empty “connections”, from abstract analyses, or sensationalist routines. A hope which is unafraid of involvement, which acts as a leaven wherever we happen to live and work. A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as he continues to walk the streets of our city. Because God is in the city.”

When I feel overwhelmed by what I find outside my door (which is often), I call upon God in prayer. Usually I talk to Jesus and I tell him that I feel repulsed and angered by what I see outside, by the injustice done to his people. I tell him that I want to help. I want to do more than pass by. I want to engage with his people. I tell him that I feel fed up that this year of novitiate is focused more on prayer than on ministry. I ask, why am I here, in a place that is screaming for assistance on every street corner, and I cannot go out and spend my energy there? I tell him that what I do is not enough. Let me do more.

In my prayer, Jesus basically agrees with me. It’s not enough. I could never do enough to fix all of the problems I see. But I can do what I am called to do. I can engage deeply where I am called to be engaged. I can consciously bring Jesus with me wherever I go, walk the streets of Manila with him, and ask him to show me the light in the city, where hope is to be found. Because there is hope. There is always hope. In my very limited humanity, I can’t always see where hope lies. The details overwhelm me and make me feel powerless and angry. But regardless of my limitations, there is hope.

On Wednesday mornings I volunteer as a caregiver at an organization that looks after street children and youth. I work with babies and toddlers, playing with them, reading to them, cuddling them, giving them as much love as I can for the 2.5 hours that I have with them each week. It’s not enough. The neglect they have experienced in their young lives is evident and they need much more than I can give. But I am present to them for those 2.5 hours and the love I give them is all I have to give. It takes the same amount of time to travel to and from the organization – a train, a taxi, and a jeepney ride each way – and most days it’s a real slog. But reaching the children’s home and seeing their beautiful faces makes it absolutely worth it. It is in the faces of these children that I see the hope of Jesus. In this tiny way that I contribute to the enormous problems of the world, in the concrete way that I am with them, playing with them, and loving them, and in the way that they are loving me too, God is present in the city.

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