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.

Poverty (II) – Free to Give and to Receive

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Living the vow of poverty is an invitation to live in interdependence – mutual giving and receiving. It sounds fairly simple and straightforward but in practice it isn’t all that easy. Growing in interdependence is appealing to me but also makes me apprehensive. Up to this point in my life, I have been growing in independence – going from living at home to studying at university to embarking on a career to becoming financially successful and being totally responsible for myself. It sometimes feels scary to think that I am actively working on giving up security and control over my life.

When I left my job in the federal government last year, I was making a six-figure salary. I had never dreamed that I would earn a salary like that, and yet, there I was, in my mid-thirties as a single woman, earning more than some families do with two incomes. I had a house, a car, and a dog. I thought I was set. But now all of that is getting turned on its head. My life aspirations have changed dramatically over the last few years and now I’m in the process of formation for a lifestyle that will see me hand over any future paychecks to the IBVM and be reliant on the community to have my needs met. This really is a process of growth, not something that happens all at once. I am being stretched to see my life very differently and I’m being challenged to both let go and to embrace.

Letting Go of Stuff

When I first entered the IBVM as a candidate two years ago, I was quite concerned about my stuff. I had put my house up for rent and I had a storage unit full of the furniture and accessories of my former life. In the process of moving, I gave away several things to friends and mailed sentimental items home to my family, and yet I still managed to bring a lot of stuff with me to Toronto (two carloads full!). Stuff I thought was really important (perhaps even essential) to my well-being and happiness (for example, my collection of Wes Anderson films on DVD). Some of the things I brought with me have been useful and have made my new home feel like home, but at the same time, some of the things that I brought with me were about making me feel secure in my new environment.

Living in the Philippines is giving me a broader perspective on stuff. When I arrived in January, I brought the maximum weight allowance possible with me – two suitcases full of clothes, books, various medicines, etc. – just in case I needed something important and couldn’t find it here. I’ve since discovered that while most of things I brought have been useful, some definitely have not and could have been left at home.

And actually, the less stuff I have, the more free I feel inside. Less to keep track of or be distracted by. I’ve discovered how little I truly need to be happy and content. (I think the popularity of current minimalist movements demonstrate a desire people have to be free of too many cumbersome possessions.)

Of course, interdependence is not only about having less stuff, but for me, having less gives me greater interior freedom which I believe leads to greater generosity.

Letting Go of Social Status

Another area in which I am growing towards interdependence is my shifting perception of social status – moving away from thinking of myself (and others) based on occupation, income, societal power, etc. I feel kind of conditioned to think this way but the vow of poverty invites me to let go of valuing my work based on the income it earns, or its associated prestige, and to let go of valuing myself based on what I earn or do.

I admit that working for the government had a certain element of prestige to it and made me feel special. Working to support the government in power and the people of Canada made me feel good about the work I did. I was fortunate to travel internationally a few times to participate in meetings and I met some well-regarded and important government officials. I don’t yet know what the future holds for me in terms of employment or ministry work but it probably won’t involve hobnobbing with government officials or big decision-makers.

So I am being called to embrace any kind of work for the glory of God and to value myself and others for who they are and not what they do.

Letting Go of Financial Control

Another way that I am moving towards interdependence and learning to live the vow of poverty is letting go of control of my personal finances. When I joined the IBVM I had a house, RRSPs, a pension plan with the federal government, insurance policies, bank accounts, etc. I still have these things actually but I’ve entrusted them to my father during my novitiate. Before I make my first vows, I will need to take the next step and sell my house and convert my financial assets into a patrimony.

My patrimony will consist of the assets I acquired before entering religious life. It will be set aside for the duration that I live in religious life. I won’t be able to access any money from it but it will be there if one day I discern that religious life is not where God is calling me to be. Basically, I am letting go of control of my own financial security and learning to trust that I will be taken care of by the community. And I am committing to taking care of others with what I contribute.

Embracing Interdependence

The point of all of this letting go, of course, is to embrace interdependence. By letting go of independence (in mostly financial and material ways at present), I am opening myself up to receive what is offered by the mutual giving and receiving that occurs in community. It really mirrors my relationship with God and the journey I have been on during this year of novitiate: emptying myself to be able to receive what God wants to give me and to be able to give myself freely to God. Growing in generosity as well as in vulnerability.

I think our Constitutions (Vol. II) express this so well:

4.16     We live the vow with liberality and gratitude,
supporting and encouraging one another
to distinguish between needs and wants.
We strive to be free from acquisitiveness
that we may give;
free from self-centredness that we may readily share,
free from self-sufficiency that we may receive.

 

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.

toe print

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!

 

In search of a prophet

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The Prophet Elijah by Sieger Koder

“To us a single act of injustice – cheating in business, exploitation of the poor – is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to world.

Their breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria. We ourselves witness continually acts of injustice, manifestations of hypocrisy, falsehood, outrage, misery, but we rarely grow indignant or overly excited. To the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions.”

“The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind…Almost every prophet brings consolation, promise, and the hope of reconciliation along with censure and castigation. He begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.”

“The prophet does not judge the people by timeless norms, but from the point of view of God. Prophecy proclaims what happened to God as well as what will happen to the people. In judging human affairs, it unfolds a divine situation.”

Therefore, the prophetic speeches are not factual pronouncements. What we hear is not objective criticism or the cold proclamation of doom. The style of legal, objective utterance is alien to the prophet. He dwells upon God’s inner motives, not only upon His historical decisions. He discloses a divine pathos, not just divine judgment. The pages of the prophetic writings are filled with echoes of divine love and disappointment, mercy and indignation. The God of Israel is never impersonal.”

     – Excerpts from The Prophets, Abraham J. Heschel, 1962.

 

I’ve got prophets on the mind. Thinking about prophets, the act of prophecy, and what it means in the world today. I’m taking a course at a local theology school on the prophets, taught by Sr. Helen Graham, a Maryknoll Sister, who delights and challenges me in every lecture.

I have limited knowledge of scripture (i.e. almost none). A few bible study programs at my former parish and that’s about it. I approached this course with a bit of trepidation, wondering if I would even ‘get’ what was being taught. So far, each class has only served to whet my appetite to learn more. After each class I make my way to the library and I stroll through the stacks of books and make lists of which I will borrow and which I will look for upon my return to Canada. I am restricted to borrowing one book at a time, which is a huge disappointment when all I want to do is peruse page after page.

But…back to the prophets. I am drawn to them right now because I am drawn to world events, and to events in the Philippines, that disturb me. I am angered by acts of violence and by the indifference to these acts that I encounter. I guess I am also angered by my own feelings of helplessness in the face of indifference. I am searching for the prophet who will bring society to its senses.

The prophet sees the world around him or her and is so moved by injustice as to feel God’s own response within, compelling them to speak out. In the Old Testament the prophets railed against Israel for being faithless and for falling away from God. Redemption was possible but there was a cost – to turn away from sinfulness and greed.

Where are the prophets today? Can we hear them? Our world is in chaos. Atrocities occur every day and become commonplace. We become used to reading about bombings and terrorist attacks. We see images of poverty and war and environmental degradation. We become mired in our own infighting. Sometimes we respond to global injustice by posting messages of love and solidarity on social media. Sometimes we reprimand our governments and urge them to do things differently. Are we all prophets when we act in this manner? Or does a prophet do something more?

I don’t have a complete answer to this yet. I’m still learning. Sometimes I like to think of myself as a prophet, pointing out injustice. But maybe I’m just a complainer. I’ve been complaining about life since I learned to speak. It’s a craft I have honed over many years. But surely prophecy is more than complaining.

A great part of that more is contained in the prophet’s union with God, in the expression of God’s response to a situation. I look at myself and I know that I am not there (yet?). One of the biggest gifts I have received this year is the freedom to see myself clearly (or at least with growing clarity). And what do I see when I look at myself? I see a hypocrite. I see someone with mixed motives. I see someone who is trying to be more concerned about others around her than she is about herself but she’s not quite there yet. I can see that I am more of a false prophet than a true prophet. My complaining is more about my own desire than about God’s.

So the true prophet, I think, is someone who has a certain freedom of motive (i.e. not acting based on his or her own interests), and therefore is open to union with God and seeing through God’s eyes. However, the passion aroused in the prophet comes from within the prophet and is a personal response at the same time as being a response from God.

It’s tricky to articulate this clearly and I’m probably not doing a good job. Perhaps I’ll get further along in my course and come away with a different perspective on the prophet – who knows. But what I do know right now is that the world needs prophets. In every age, and in this very moment, we need people who can see the world through the eyes of God and speak the truth to us.

The painted life

“Look around. Look at what we have. Beauty is everywhere—you only have to look to see it.”
– Bob Ross, American painting instructor

A few weeks ago, Rachel and I watched an episode of The Joy of Painting on Netflix. We listened to Bob Ross’ soothing voice tell us we could paint anything if only we could picture it in our minds. He told us that there are no mistakes, only happy accidents. He made painting look so easy and natural and fun. He made us believe we could be painters too.

We decided to give it a try. A trip to the bookstore yielded the basic supplies to get started.

Two paintings down, we are hooked.

We began with “The Silent Forest”. Painting alongside Bob and listening to his gentle encouragement, it was easy to get lost in the flow of painting. I didn’t follow every step he suggested (we didn’t have all of the paint he used or all of his brushes and tools); I listened to my inner artist and let the paint appear where it would. The end result was a bit darker and a bit scarier than Bob’s happy forest but it’s a masterpiece nonetheless.

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My haunted forest.

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Rachel’s beautiful forest.

We painted along with “Pastel Seascape” next. I had so much fun with colour and form, trying to make clouds in the sunset sky and waves on the ocean.

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My wild and rough ocean.

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Rachel’s serene sea.

There’s a real freedom in painting that I hadn’t anticipated, especially because I’m not too concerned about the final product. It’s a great release to just let go and let the paintbrush dance along the canvas (or paper) and see what takes life.

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The palette of the artists-in-residence.

IMG_5334A painter’s hands.

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A painter’s joy.

“You can do anything here — the only prerequisite is that it makes you happy.”
– Bob Ross

Women at the heart of the church

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Studying the Constitutions at the Eco Park

I am in love with this way of life. The more that I learn about the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the deeper I want to go and the more that I find that resonates with the graces I received on retreat. We are currently studying our Constitutions together, taking it section by section. Rather than a series of rules and regulations, the Constitutions read more like a guide for living a full and happy life with God. It’s such a rich document. It relates the history of the Institute as well as setting out the way of life we are called to live.

It amazes me that it was only recently (in the 1980s) that the IBVM was finally able to fulfill Mary Ward’s vision for her ‘least Institute’: to take the same as the Society. Meaning that we have the same Constitutions as the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). In her time Mary Ward was only able to go so far as to adapt the summary document of the full Constitutions, the Institutum (adapted and presented to the pope in 1622), but she wasn’t able to get it approved by the Holy See. It was considered quite radical to suggest a community of missionary apostolic women who would engage in spiritual matters. Here’s a selection that outlines the vision and mission of the Institute, although the language we use today to describe the activities of the mission is not quite the same (e.g. we don’t really use words like ‘evil living’ or ‘women of profligate life’ anymore).

From IBVM Constitutions Volume I: Institutum:

1.       … She is a member of a Society founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defence and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine.

  • by helping them be brought back from heresy and evil living to faith and goodness and to a certain special obedience to the Holy See,
  • by gathering together and disposing the people for public preaching, lectures, and any other ministration whatsoever of the word of God,
  • and further by means of the Spiritual Exercises, the education of girls and unlettered persons in Christianity,
  • by teaching Catechism and the reverent use of sacred things and by giving that education to them in schools and communities which seem most suitable for the common good of the Church and their own particular good whether they have chosen to spend their lives in the world or in religion;
  • and finally by leading such people to the spiritual consolation of Christ’s faithful and by disposing them for Confession and the other Sacraments, and by arranging for Preachers and Spiritual Fathers to be send to the country and to the more neglected places;
  • also by seeking out women of profligate life and preparing them to receive grace through the Sacraments so that Doctors, Preachers and Apostolic men of the Church of God may have more leisure to attend to greater and more universal affairs.

Moreover she should show herself ready to reconcile the estranged, compassionately assist and serve those who are in prisons and hospitals, and indeed to perform any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good.

Given the restrictions placed on women at the time, I think it’s incredible that Mary Ward and her companions undertook these activities and gave their lives to God out of great love. It took centuries for the Church to fully understand the gift of women’s apostolic congregations and to approve them in the manner that their founders had been divinely inspired. (Praise God for the Second Vatican Council!) Reading our Constitutions provides a mini history lesson as well as a manifestation of the working of the Holy Spirit. The sisters who have gone before me were incredibly tenacious and generous women. They were scorned, misunderstood, and at times manipulated, and yet they continued to strive for Mary Ward’s vision for the Institute.

From Constitutions Volume I: General Examen, Chapter 1:

{1} This least Institute was not brought into being by human means. Mary Ward’s inspiration in 1611 was to take the same of the Society [of Jesus] so understood, as that we were to take the same both in matter and manner, that only excepted which God by diversity of sex hath prohibited. In 1631 Pope Urban VIII ordered the suppression of her Institute. Nevertheless, through the heroic efforts of Mary Ward’s faithful followers, the call to work for the defence and propagation of the faith and for the education of women and girls continued.

…In 1877 the Institute was confirmed by the Holy See; it was not until 1909 that Mary Ward was acknowledged as its founder.

….In the renewal following Vatican Council II, the whole Institute reflected on Mary Ward’s vision and her desire to adopt the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus for her Institute. As a result of this reflection new Constitutions were approved: for the Roman Branch in 1978, for the Irish Branch in 1985, and for the North American Branch in 1986.

In 2009, coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the founding of the IBVM, a renewed Constitutions was approved by the Holy See. The ‘modern document’, as we refer to it, is an updated version that clarifies certain sections of the Ignatian Constitutions that are no longer valid due to changes in canon law. It is also breathes a beautiful new spirit into the Institute and is written like a piece of poetry.

From Constitutions Volume II: Chapter 1:

1.2 We are companions of Jesus,
women at the heart of the Church,
called to follow Christ
in a discipleship of love,
ready to labour
with freedom and joy,
that in all things God may be glorified.

1.3 The Ignatian tradition,
interpreted through a woman’s eye,
is our graced heritage.
In prayer, Mary Ward was led to see
that this was the way God wanted for her Institute;
this was the pathway to holiness
that she and her companions were to walk.

As I reflect on the Constitutions, I am drawn back to my retreat graces of discipleship and friendship with Jesus. I can see how life in this Institute is my pathway to holiness and that it allows me to live fully the graces I received and as the person I was created to be.

As we continue to study the Constitutions I will write more about them. In this post I’ve basically described some of our history rather than our manner of living so stay tuned for more!

Easter Sunday

Happy Easter everyone!

I hope you’ve all had a beautiful and blessed Easter celebration! Our internet has been a bit wonky the last few days (it always seems to fade in and out unexpectedly on holidays) so I’m a bit late with the Easter Sunday photos. But here they are!

CIMG4340At 5:30am we arrived at the church just in time to witness a beautiful Filipino tradition:a procession enacting the Risen Christ meeting his mother. Although this encounter is not described in the bible, it surely happened that Jesus went to see his mother after the Resurrection.

CIMG4344To re-enact this encounter, there are two simultaneous processions. The men of the parish follow the Risen Christ around a particular section of the neighbourhood while the women follow Mary, Jesus’ mother. Mary, who is deep in mourning, wears a black veil.

CIMG4347And then Jesus appears! At first in the distance.

CIMG4349And then he draws closer.

CIMG4354An angel announces their meeting.

CIMG4356Mary’s veil is removed and she sees her son!

CIMG4359There is much rejoicing and cheering! The angels send out a shower of flower petals upon the earth.

CIMG4362Filled with the joy of this encounter, we enter the church for the 6am Mass, passing by the Risen Christ.

CIMG4364We enter the church which is decorated in Easter splendour and packed with people.

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A tropical garden fills the sanctuary for Easter Sunday.

After the Mass we continued the celebration at home – delicious coffee and Easter chocolates were consumed, and perhaps even a crepe or two (or three)! And in the afternoon we had a magnificent Easter banquet at Mary Ward House with 23 IBVM and CJ sisters, topped off with even more chocolate (including the brownies made before the Mother of all Vigils!!). A glorious Easter all around.

Alleluia!

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.

Malcolm Guite

Blog for poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite

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