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

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

Renewal – Attire

A depiction of Mary Ward wearing the traditional IBVM habit although
it’s unlikely that she dressed quite like this.

I’ve decided to end my blogging spree on Vatican II renewal with an issue that is a bit of a thorn in my side. Often, the biggest critique I hear about the effects of Vatican II has to do with clothing. I’ve heard complaints that women religious went wild after Vatican II, rejecting the habit, which somehow means that they also reject church teaching and authority, and are therefore a lesser version of their sisters in habits. I’ve seen this mentality in posters advertising Catholic conferences for which admission is free for men and women religious, as long as they wear their habit.

To be honest, I’m not too bothered about the clothes. When I was discerning a vocation and investigating religious communities, I didn’t care whether or not the sisters wore a habit. I was looking for a community in which I could be fully myself and contribute the gifts I have been given by God. I understand and respect the symbolic nature of the habit and I respect those communities who do wear one but I also don’t see it as a sign of lesser commitment to religious life to not wear a habit.

The IBVM did wear a habit for a long time even though Mary Ward did not wear a habit and did not want her sisters to wear one. In order for Mary Ward and her sisters to be effective in their mission and to work among the people, they did not wear a habit. However, successive generations of sisters were introduced to the habit by church hierarchy and eventually it became a requirement under canon law. Those generations of sisters did adopt the habit and it became an important part of their identity.

However, with the renewal of Vatican II, religious communities were encouraged to go back to their roots and the vision of their founders and foundresses. The IBVM, after careful discernment, decided to return to habit-less life, as per Mary Ward’s vision, wearing contemporary clothing. This occurred gradually over many years, beginning with a modified habit before the sisters were donning street clothes. I believe in Mary Ward’s vision for her Institute and in the dignity of women religious who do not wear a habit. Whenever I hear criticism about the clothing worn by women religious, I will go back to this statement by Mary Ward, shared during the 1967 Chapter of Renewal:

Our attire should be such as can provide an example of Christian modesty and the other religious virtues to seculars and others: such as poverty, elegance (good taste and appropriateness) and religious decorum. Our clothing should accord with the type that honourable women of the region where we are needed or dwell, wear. We should be ever alert to opportunities for greater perfection and at the same time always rejecting anything that savours of the slightest worldliness or vanity. Submission to God and the common good should be the guiding line of our progress.
        – From Mary Ward’s Memorial to Pope Paul V

Renewal – Poverty

The pilgrim Mary Ward, free to refer all to God, free to live the vow of poverty.

Poverty continues to be something I wrestle with, especially after my experiences in the Philippines. I am drawn to it, desire it, long for it. And I am challenged by how to live it here in Canada. I find comfort and inspiration in the words coming from the 1967 Chapter of Renewal.

Poverty is not dependent solely on lack of material things, nor even modern ‘insecurity’; rather it is dependence upon God from whom we receive all we have, a dependence which should also be a ‘shining’ witness.

Common life, devotion to labour, sharing with the poor, and ‘frugal’ living are all manifestations of the reality of the spirit of poverty. Ultimately, poverty means total dedication – of time, talents, all circumstances – a gift of self to Christ in others, a response to Christ who emptied Himself.

Mary Ward’s Vision of the ‘Just Soul’ would seem to embody our Foundress’ concept of the total dependence upon God and ‘perfect liberty…(to) refer all things to God’ – in that state before the Fall when, receiving everything, they experienced no clinging, and in reality were never so poor.

Renewal – Obedience

Mary Ward’s obedience to the will of God led her to found her Institute

The vow of obedience is a topic I haven’t yet broached on this blog. Last October/November I wrote about the vows of poverty and chastity but didn’t get around to obedience (a Freudian slip?). I became engrossed in my immersion experience in Lipa and didn’t feel drawn to write about obedience after that. But the lack of a post has been duly noted and will be rectified at some point in the nearish future.

As I read through the archive material on obedience I became very aware of how differently the vow was lived out in the pre-Vatican II world of IBVM religious life. I have great respect for the sisters of that time who lived the practice of being sent for mission without any consultation. That would be a great challenge for me. I have to admit that I feel deep gratitude that I am living in an era of religious life where that is no longer the practice. Here are a few selections from the 1967 Renewal Chapter that stood out to me. I suspect that the living out of the vow of obedience has continued to evolve since that time.

The apostolic nature of obedience is basic to our vocation and its ultimate norm is the will of the Father, sought and found through a deep spirit of faith in the decisions of superiors whose role it is to “serve rather than please”.

A key aspect of the newer approach to obedience is the prior consultation with the sisters before the superior makes a decision. This is rather a mutual ‘discernment of spirits’, listening to the Spirit, than a democratic majority rule…

The stress today is upon total life commitment rather than minute prescriptions, upon the importance of forming one’s conscience, upon obedience as ‘being sent’, upon individual discernment regarding exceptions, upon personal responsibility for the permissions one asks, upon the necessity for mutual openness and humility.

Renewal – Chastity

Chastity frees us to move out into the world and to respond with love

I’ve written about chastity before so I won’t go into much detail here. But as I read the Chapter of Renewal notes, I was struck again by the beauty of the vow of chastity and its gift of opening us up to the world.

The motive of Chastity is love of God; the result of Chastity is instense love of neighbour; it is nourished by a spirit of prayer. Our Chastity frees us for deep, personal relationships with one another. Rather than a protective attitude, it engenders a continual growing in love, and a continuing going out to others. 

This makes demands on us: openness to the Holy Spirit’s urging; a learning to accept love; mutual acceptance and reciprocal giving. It is God Who first loved us and Who gives us the capacity to love. The test of love is not emotion, but trust and service; ultimately love is a mystery.

Renewal – Vocations

Mural depicting scenes from Mary Ward’s life

As I read through the minutes of the 1967 Chapter of Renewal, I was struck by the concern about vocations, and particularly the shortage of vocations to meet the demands for ministry. It seems to me that the vocation shortage then can’t begin to compare with what we are experiencing now, however, it helped me to see that the decline in vocations has not been sudden but has been in effect for some time. I was struck by the Institute’s reflection on the cause of the decline in vocations and I wonder if it is still applicable today.

There is a need of study into the causes of the present vocation shortage: the unstable culture of the astro-jet age; the widened opportunities in the lay apostolate; and the ‘identity crisis’ in religious life itself.

Might we not be being called now by the Holy Spirit to draw others through the sign of loving community. Perhaps the problem lies with our ‘image’ within the community, where lack of charity weakens mutual trust and forebearance. Today’s young women are especially sensitive to a lack of real community witness to the “Communion of Saints”. At reception, each is accepted as ‘a child of the Institute’. How can this be realized more fully?

Renewal – Friendship

Mary Ward’s Circle of Friends

Friendships are an important, frankly, essential, part of religious life. Friendship strengthens community and is a source of grace for living out the vows. Allowing deeper friendships within community life was recognized during the period of renewal.

From the 1967 Chapter of Renewal:

Our interpersonal relationships depend upon our experience of love in our houses – there exists great room for ‘shading’ here – and basically on our relationship with Christ.

The young finally professed have special need for our understanding. A beginning might spring from a real awareness that things are different today, that we do not yet have the ‘answer’. Particularly effective is the ‘apostolate of (one’s) presence’, the power of ‘one kind, loving, understanding woman”.

Renewal after Vatican II – Religious Life

Mother Theresa Dease, founder of the IBVM Canadian Province.

For the past month or so I’ve spent a couple of hours each week reading in our Loretto archives. I’ve long been curious about the modern history of the IBVM in Canada and so for part of my second-year novitiate formation, I am doing a sort of independent study. My interest at the moment is Vatican II and the effects of renewal on the Institute in Canada.

To gain a full appreciation of the changes that took place after Vatican II, I had to start my reading much earlier. I began my reading where our earliest significant documentation has been collected, around 1900, with the records of Chapters (major decision-making gatherings of the Institute). It’s intriguing to read about the monastic customs the Institute had adopted and to see the attention and detail paid to very minute aspects of daily life. It’s definitely not the way of life of the Institute I recognize today.

I’ve since worked my way up through the decades. For the past couple of weeks I have been immersed in the 1960s, fascinated by the Renewal Chapter of 1967 and the follow up Chapter in 1969.

From the documents I have read, mostly preparatory materials and meeting minutes, I get a sense of the excitement of the time. Prior to these Chapters, there was extensive consultation with Institute members. I have scanned through stacks of questionnaires related to community life, prayer, and mission. It’s a fascinating look at the Institute’s response to the Vatican’s suggestion that religious institutes go back to their roots and re-discover themselves through the vision of the founder.

I was amazed by the exhortation I read from a priest advisor to the Chapter encouraging the Sisters to experiment. He urged them to experiment widely – for the next 20 years! – and listen to the Holy Spirit to see where it leads. I am struck by the openness and the bravery of the Sisters to discern beyond what they knew and what they were comfortable with regarding religious life.

There’s so much that I would like to share that it’s too much for a single blog post. So instead I will share a quote or two each day on one aspect of renewal. To begin, here is a selection on the beauty of religious life that I have taken to my prayer.

Religious are to be signs that are not only seen and heard, but which become ‘carriers of a message’ in order to help others to ‘ratify’ their commitment to Christ, to effect a change of heart, of attitude (in Japanese: ‘how your heart lies’)…The sense of person, and growth in deeper love depends upon reverence. Relationship to persons, ‘real community’, ‘to make others joyful’, is the test of Christian maturity.

Yet our witness must be meaningful in this world (not the moon). We have need to render our witness plain, to eliminate whatever blurs that witness. The more natural we are the more supernatural witness we give. Only then does our witness – through the renunciation of the positive personal values involved in the vows, a renunciation fired with love – become a representation of love for God, and the request for return of love in living faith. Our existence partakes of the ‘scandal’ of the Cross which points outside itself to the ‘explosion of divine love’. It is an anticipation of Christian death freely chosen now as a loving decision for God. ‘Normal in any field’ we are nonsense unless Christ is alive, the Lord, now! We are the answer to the ‘death of God’; we witness not only to the existence of God, but His presence of love.

Taken from: Minutes of the 1967 General Chapter of Renewal, June 28 – July 30, First Session, Book 1

Loretto Abbey, Toronto
Malcolm Guite

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