As it all becomes real

When I arrived home from our 30-day retreat, after making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I quickly unpacked my suitcase. I hung up my clothes and put my books in order on the shelf. I put away my toothbrush and my shampoo and I settled back into the routine of regular life.

But the graces of the retreat I am unpacking at a much slower rate. Slower than a snail’s pace. In a sense, it feels like I am not so much unpacking the experiences of the retreat but that the graces, or gifts, that I experienced during the retreat, are making themselves real in my everyday life.

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Love

I received the grace of God’s love in many ways during the retreat. Perhaps the most powerful, or foundational, experiences of God’s love, were felt in the first week. As I immersed myself in the various moments of prayer each day, I was slowly able to  recognize God’s presence and love in all aspects of my life, from the moment of my birth until the present. I felt, powerfully, that I am God’s child and that I am loved unconditionally. That grace, which continued to build throughout the four weeks, has only strengthened in the time that has passed following the retreat. Each day I wake up in the morning and I know that I am loved. I may not always feel the “warm fuzzies” of love but I know in the core of my being that I am loved. And that knowledge makes each day a joy to be discovered and savoured.

 

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Freedom

I received the grace of freedom in myriad ways during the retreat: through deeper self-knowledge and self-acceptance, through understanding my sinfulness and relinquishing my sins before God, and through the desire to surrender all of myself and my life to God. Again, it was in the first week that the foundations of the grace of freedom were laid. When I had truly experienced God’s love for me, I was able to look at myself honestly, without the masks I have worn during my life, and to see my sinfulness (and my beautiful potential), and offer it all to God. I made a general confession (a confession that covered all of the sins of my life) which made me quite nervous at first but was my liberation. I felt such a sense of freedom and release from all of the things that had been holding me back from living my life fully and from being fully present to God. The feeling of freedom grew during the retreat and I believe it was crucial to my ability to receive the subsequent graces of the retreat.

Back at home now, the grace of freedom is active in my life. I feel greater freedom in relationships, in experiencing the ups and downs of the novitiate, and in discerning this vocation and whatever the future may hold. It’s a feeling of being open to God working in me, leading me, and guiding me, and of trusting in God.

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Friendship

The most profound grace I experienced during the retreat was the grace of friendship with Jesus. All of the graces felt profound, of course, but when I experienced the gift of friendship, I had the sense that this changes everything.

During the second week, I experienced some significant resistance in prayer and I struggled to stay engaged. At one point, I got so fed up, feeling that the Exercises were contrived and I was being forced to try to experience things that I just couldn’t experience, and I was about to give up. In the middle of my interior fury, Jesus told me to go for a walk. I have rarely experienced what I consider a direct intervention from God, but in that moment, I heard Jesus, through my inner voice, tell me to go for a walk. So I went for a long walk with Jesus all over the retreat grounds. I experienced, almost tangibly, his presence, walking beside me and talking to me. He encouraged me and loved me, and he basically told me to get a grip. It was just what I needed. He made me laugh at myself and he pulled me out of desolation. In that moment, I understood in my heart that Jesus is truly my friend and he is walking through life with me.

Later that week, the knowledge of friendship was confirmed in my scriptural reflections. During one of my contemplations on the mission of the disciples, I had a joyful revelation that to share the gospel, to tell people about Jesus, is to talk about my friend. I felt a strong desire deep within to tell the whole world about my friend and about all of the amazing things he has done for me and how he has loved me.

In the fourth, and final, week of the retreat, I received the grace of knowing that Jesus is my best friend. Not just that Jesus is my friend but that Jesus is my best friend and he has always been with me. It was in that moment that I knew that this grace changes everything. I can see that my best friend has always been with me and will always be with me.  No matter what happens this year in the Philippines, or later in my life, I know that my best friend is with me through it all and is leading me. And because I trust my best friend and believe that he loves me and wants only the best for me, whatever I experience, whether joy or suffering, is a gift from my best friend. Most of all, I know that I want to live my life for my best friend. Since coming home from retreat, this grace has sustained me and given me energy and life each day. It’s exciting to live each day knowing that my best friend is at my side, sharing it all with me, and I don’t need to be afraid, no matter what happens.

 

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Discipleship

The grace of discipleship seemed to flow from the graces of freedom and friendship though they are very much intertwined. When I prayed with the mission of the disciples during the second week of the retreat, I felt an outpouring of graces, including the freedom and friendship I’ve already described. Freedom and friendship led me to an intense desire to be a disciple of Jesus (in my retreat journal, I named the grace as being ‘a radical disciple’). I’ve never experienced that kind of desire before. Generally, in the past, I have been hesitant to even use the word disciple to describe myself for fear of being seen as a sort of ‘Jesus freak’ and risk being rejected. But I think all of the retreat graces I have received have given me courage (although courage may be a separate grace altogether!), and through my prayer, I saw that what I truly want is to be a radical disciple of Jesus. I desire to leave everything behind and follow him, to go out into the world with nothing (the disciples went without food or money or an extra tunic!) except the freedom to share the good news with all that I meet.

The grace of discipleship has been made more real since the end of the retreat. For the past few weeks we have been studying our IBVM Constitutions (the rules and guidelines that govern our community), and many of the passages we have studied have resonated with that grace. I can see that my life as a sister in the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary is how I can live as a radical disciple of Jesus in total freedom and love.

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Compassion

The final retreat grace I would like to share is the grace of compassion. This particular grace I actually only recognized after the retreat ended. I didn’t notice it specifically during the retreat but I can see that it was a gift that I received. Certainly, over the course of the retreat, I learned to see myself with compassion – to see my faults and failings and my sinfulness, and knowing that I am loved by God, I am able to better love myself. As I prayed with the passion and death of Jesus, I was often moved with compassion for his pain and suffering, and felt greater love for him. In the days after the retreat, however, I can see most clearly the grace active in me. In the last couple of weeks, I have had to confront a couple of challenging situations that I know in the past would have caused me to become defensive and resentful. Instead, I felt a deep compassion that led me to be more loving, open, and understanding. It was proof to me that I am being transformed by God.

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What I have experienced so far after the retreat is, I know, just the tip of the iceberg. I experienced much more during the retreat than I am able to understand and process right now. I am grateful to have a journal full of the riches of my prayers that I can look back on, and I believe that God will continue to deepen my understanding and experience of these graces throughout the rest of my life.

Playing with dolls

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Last week our noviciate house had the great privilege to welcome Sr. Geraldine Kearney, sgs, a member of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St. Benedict, to lead us in a week long session on intercultural communication.

Given that we are a household composed of Australians, Vietnamese, an Indian, and a Canadian, intercultural communication is a vital part of our daily community life. Before the workshop, I wasn’t aware of how many layers of culture and personality are embedded in how we communicate. I also wasn’t aware of the very Canadian values and assumptions I bring to communication. I am happy to say that I learned a lot over the course of the week.

Sr. Geraldine skillfully led us through a series of exercises and reflections on culture and identity, values, assumptions, what it means to come from a high context culture (such as Vietnamese and Indian culture) and from a low context culture (such as Canadian and Australian culture), and how we exhibit all of these cultural traits through the way we communicate.

Part of the session felt a bit like a refresh on cultural studies I had done in social studies classes in junior high and high school, but it was really far more personal and meaningful than that. Each of us shared cultural symbols (I shared the maple leaf, as emblazoned on the bottle of maple syrup I lugged with me from Canada), and personal stories about our lives in our respective cultures. It was a wonderful time of bonding as a group.

For me, the best part of the whole week was the morning we spent playing with dolls. As part of a module called “The Play of Life” we created representations of particular periods in our lives (generally a time before the age of 10 years old) using plastic dolls and other decorations to act as symbols of that time. I chose the period when I was 8 years old and my parents had decided to separate. There was a surprising amount of emotion stirred up in me as I created my scene, but I was also struck by how I could look at my life much more objectively from that vantage point. As a child I really could only see myself in the situation but as an adult I can now see more clearly the roles of my father, mother, and brother and other extended family. The exercise gave me a better sense of perspective and understanding of myself and my life.

26th Avenue: The Cabin in the Woods (a snapshot of life at age 8)

Throughout this noviciate, I am continuing the interior work I began during my candidacy year, particularly with respect to my mother’s struggle with alcoholism (and my own struggle with her alcoholism), and I think that playing with dolls will actually be a very helpful and creative way to do that work. I’ve been asking God in my prayer to show me how I can look back on some of my past experiences (and that assumptions I’ve made as a result) in order to see them more objectively and then to release the power they hold over me. I think playing with dolls may be a key part of the answer.

Praying with our life stories at the end of the week
Sr. Gerry left us with the gift of transformation (butterflies!)

Encountering mercy

This past month has been an intensely reflective time, both personally and collectively within our noviciate group. Over the past few weeks our community has spent much time in reflection on the themes of mercy, care of creation, and intercultural communication.

During our first week we prayed on the theme of mercy (inspired by the Year of Mercy and Pope Francis’ letter Misericordiae Vultus) using one of the First Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. We had rich moments of sharing on the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and the fruit of our collective reflection can be found in a web-based resource that we developed called Richness of Mercy.

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I would encourage anyone who would like to reflect on mercy to take a closer look. You can adapt the suggested exercises for a group or individual reflection. I found this reflection to be a helpful lens for me as I continue to struggle with the poverty I see here in the Philippines. There is no easy answer for me except to see within myself a growing recognition of God’s presence in the world around me and the gift that God has given to me in inviting me to participate in the works of mercy.

Our second week of reflection was on the care of creation. We prayed with the Papal Encyclical Laudato Si, using again one of the First Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. This week of prayer for me was an equally powerful period of self awareness and awareness of God’s presence in my life. I was able to see how integral the natural world, and the experience of my body in the natural world, is to my prayer. I looked back on periods of my life (especially those spent in Ottawa) when I was active in the outdoors (i.e. running along the Rideau Canal, and taking my dog for walks in the Arboretum and Experimental Farm) and saw these as moments of spontaneous praise to God. I also recognized that I haven’t experienced prayer and praise in quite the same way since I moved from Ottawa and I would like to reflect further on that. I would also like to reflect on how to praise God in the natural beauty that exists, albeit in somewhat hidden ways, in the urban environment of metro Manila.

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The beautiful Experimental Farm in Ottawa

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Our third week of reflection was on intercultural communication. We had a special guest with us for a full week leading a workshop on intercultural communication. I won’t say more about this now because it is the subject of my next post.

So…month 2 of the first year of my noviciate is nearly over, and the discovery (and adaptation) is in full swing! God is working in me, pulling back the layers of my assumptions and perceptions about myself, shining a light on bits of myself I would rather ignore, and helping me to grown more fully into myself.

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Praise be God in all creation, especially in dogs named Bernie

Discovering Noviciate Life

Hello again!

I’m returning to my blog after a little hiatus and a very long journey. It is now going on 6 weeks since I arrived in the Philippines and I began the first year of my noviciate. The past 6 weeks of relative disconnection from the outside world have been a great blessing. The time has allowed me space to transition to the noviciate and to be present to new experiences.

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As I think back on these past weeks, a major theme stands out for me: discovery and adaptation.

Discovery

Each day holds something new to discover. On the first day I arrived (January 1st, which was auspicious, I think) I was confronted with a whole lot of new at once: new country, new culture, new climate, new environment, new community, and new way of life. Since then I’ve been slowly unpacking all of the newness.

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St. Michael’s House, IBVM Formation House in the Philippines

Prayer. The most beautiful and life-giving discovery I am making is in my prayer life. The time and dedication to prayer during this part of formation gives me the opportunity to pray without interruptions (not to say that I don’t get distracted in prayer!), but also to take time to pray in the ways that I know give me life and help me relate to God. In particular, I have been able to return to a daily practice of Ignatian contemplation (scriptural contemplation) and it has been so beautiful and grace-filled. The first time I sat down to pray using the method of Ignatian contemplation, I felt like I received the most loving welcome back from God. Already in this short time, I can feel my relationship with Jesus (because it is Jesus I speak with during my prayer) flourishing and deepening.

Community. Another life-giving discovery I am making is within the community here. I am living with 3 other novices – 1 from Australia and 2 from Vietnam. Our novice director is also Australian and our assistant novice director is Indian. We are a truly an international community and I am learning so much from everyone. We share our respective cultures through meals and celebrations together, and we share our life stories and vocation journeys during times of reflection. I am discovering a world far beyond the world I knew in Canada and my heart and mind are expanding.

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A gathering of members of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Congregation of Jesus for our Mary Ward Week celebration

Spirituality and Religious Life. I am also discovering the person of our foundress Mary Ward through reading and reflecting on her prayer life and at the same time discovering the heart and soul of the IBVM. I am learning more about discernment in the Ignatian tradition, and experiencing the First Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. I am learning about the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience and discovering their beauty.

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The garden outside our chapel doors

I’m also discovering things that create challenge.

Poverty. I’m discovering that poverty is everywhere. There are many homeless men, women, and children in Quezon City. There’s a slum a short distance away from our house. The causes of poverty are varied and complex. It often feels overwhelming because the poverty is on such a large scale. And yet, the spirit and generosity I have witnessed among the very poor takes my breath away. My heart yearns to find some way to contribute to reducing their poverty and to stand in solidarity with them.

Environmental Pollution. I’m also discovering that Quezon City is very dirty. Pollution is widespread. The air is polluted from the exhaust from the cars, buses, and jeepneys. The waterways and streams are polluted from garbage and sewage. The ground is littered with piles of rubbish. Again, the causes of the rampant pollution are varied and complex, and it will take a lot to create change. I am concerned for the current generation and future generations of Filipinos.

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Painting of Our Lady of the Philippines, Manila Cathedral

Adaptation

I could come up with a list of ways I have had to adapt that would potentially be as long as my list of discoveries, but when it comes down to it, I have one main method of adaptation: surrender. I am learning to surrender to the newness. To surrender my expectations and my biases (which is proving challenging!), to surrender my need to always be physically comfortable (on the hot days I find it impossible to be completely comfortable), to surrender my desire to have control (over knowing the schedule of the day, over what I eat, over relationships with friends and family that are now long-distance relationships, over being able to fix the problems I encounter, etc.), and to surrender to experiencing whatever it is that God wants me to experience in the here and now of the day. This quote from Mary Ward’s spiritual journal summarizes well what my experience has been like so far: God is with me, and I have freedom to speak to Him, and to ask of Him all I would have or know.

All in all, the past 6 weeks have been fruitful and full of the grace of God. I am happy to be here, open to learning new things and to deepening my relationship with God. I hope to post more regularly now and will delve into some of these issues in more detail in the future.

prophets of peace

rt_pope_911_02_lb_150925_12x5_1600Image source: abcnews.go.com

Like many people, I have been glued to the tv and to online streaming over the past few days to watch Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. It has been a delight to witness (even from behind a screen) his addresses to Congress and the U.N., and his outreach to the homeless and poverty-stricken in both Washington and New York City. He is inspiring, with his loving yet challenging words, and his authentic presence. To me, he embodies the Jesus that I recognize from the Gospels.

In his whirlwind day in New York City today, he made a stop at the 9/11 memorial to participate in an inter-religious prayer service. I wasn’t able to catch his remarks online but I found the transcript later. His words are deeply moving and are made even more so by the beauty and simplicity of the memorial. I am posting his words here so that I can look back on them later.

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Interreligious Meeting
Ground Zero Memorial, New York
Friday, 25 September 2015

 Dear Friends,

   I feel many different emotions standing here at Ground Zero, where thousands of lives were taken in a senseless act of destruction. Here grief is palpable. The water we see flowing towards that empty pit reminds us of all those lives which fell prey to those who think that destruction, tearing down, is the only way to settle conflicts. It is the silent cry of those who were victims of a mindset which knows only violence, hatred and revenge. A mindset which can only cause pain, suffering, destruction and tears.

   The flowing water is also a symbol of our tears. Tears at so much devastation and ruin, past and present. This is a place where we shed tears, we weep out of a sense of helplessness in the face of injustice, murder, and the failure to settle conflicts through dialogue. Here we mourn the wrongful and senseless loss of innocent lives because of the inability to find solutions which respect the common good. This flowing water reminds us of yesterday’s tears, but also of all the tears still being shed today.

   A few moments ago I met some of the families of the fallen first responders. Meeting them made me see once again how acts of destruction are never impersonal, abstract or merely material. They always have a face, a concrete story, names. In those family members, we see the face of pain, a pain which still touches us and cries out to heaven.

   At the same time, those family members showed me the other face of this attack, the other face of their grief: the power of love and remembrance. A remembrance that does not leave us empty and withdrawn. The name of so many loved ones are written around the towers’ footprints. We can see them, we can touch them, and we can never forget them.

   Here, amid pain and grief, we also have a palpable sense of the heroic goodness which people are capable of, those hidden reserves of strength from which we can draw. In the depths of pain and suffering, you also witnessed the heights of generosity and service. Hands reached out, lives were given. In a metropolis which might seem impersonal, faceless, lonely, you demonstrated the powerful solidarity born of mutual support, love and self-sacrifice. No one thought about race, nationality, neighborhoods, religion or politics. It was all about solidarity, meeting immediate needs, brotherhood. It was about being brothers and sisters. New York City firemen walked into the crumbling towers, with no concern for their own wellbeing. Many succumbed; their sacrifice enabled great numbers to be saved.

   This place of death became a place of life too, a place of saved lives, a hymn to the triumph of life over the prophets of destruction and death, to goodness over evil, to reconciliation and unity over hatred and division.

   It is a source of great hope that in this place of sorrow and remembrance I can join with leaders representing the many religious traditions which enrich the life of this great city. I trust that our presence together will be a powerful sign of our shared desire to be a force for reconciliation, peace and justice in this community and throughout the world. For all our differences and disagreements, we can live in a world of peace. In opposing every attempt to create a rigid uniformity, we can and must build unity on the basis of our diversity of languages, cultures and religions, and lift our voices against everything which would stand in the way of such unity. Together we are called to say “no” to every attempt to impose uniformity and “yes” to a diversity accepted and reconciled.

   This can only happen if we uproot from our hearts all feelings of hatred, vengeance and resentment. We know that that is only possible as a gift from heaven. Here, in this place of remembrance, I would ask everyone together, each in his or her own way, to spend a moment in silence and prayer. Let us implore from on high the gift of commitment to the cause of peace. Peace in our homes, our families, our schools and our communities. Peace in all those places where war never seems to end. Peace for those faces which have known nothing but pain. Peace throughout this world which God has given us as the home of all and a home for all. Simply PEACE. 

   In this way, the lives of our dear ones will not be lives which will one day be forgotten. Instead, they will be present whenever we strive to be prophets not of tearing down but of building up, prophets of reconciliation, prophets of peace.

 

God went mad out of love for us

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I’ve been reading a lot these days (admittedly, this is not new behaviour).

I just finished an excellent biography of Flannery O’Connor (Flannery by Brad Gooch) and I’m partway through Ignatius of Loyola: The Psychology of a Saint by W.W. Meissner, SJ. It’s a weighty book, both physically and mentally, but very interesting. On my subway journeys, however, I am reading Seek God Everywhere: Reflections on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius by Anthony de Mello, SJ. (Can you sense my current Ignatian theme?) Anyway, this morning I became totally engrossed in it (so engrossed, in fact, that I missed my subway stop and had to loop around back – whoops!). This passage had me caught up:

At the root of pure creation there is an act of infinite love. God falls for us; this is the unbelievable news. That means he would lose himself for us. This is too shocking that God would be a victim of the passion that we call love. Then we are told the shocking thing that God loves us so much that he gave up his goodness for our sake! Hello! This is a bit too crazy. God went mad out of love for us. Then we must be very lovely. What we have stressed in the past is how lovely God must be that he can love us like this. But nobody has yet said how lovely we must be, that God could fall for us like this. Both are true.

Think of it! God went mad out of love for me and you!

That’s something to savour on the way to work each day.

Malcolm Guite

Blog for poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite

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