Living in the Philippines for a year brings the gift of experiencing faith through a new culture. I have been looking forward to experiencing Lent, Holy Week, and Easter with new eyes. Holy Week is now upon us but rather than give any commentary on the celebrations this week, I would like to simply share images. Below are photos from Palm Sunday.
Making and selling palm branches along Broadway Avenue
Many different styles
Palms in progress
With colourful paper flowers
Selling by the roadside
The sanctuary of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on Palm Sunday
As mentioned in my last post, I was really moved by an activity we did with Sr. Gerry called “The Play of Life”. We each created a snapshot of a time in early childhood using little dolls and decorative materials to create the scene. I received a lot of insight about myself from this activity and I knew that I wanted to return to it. But first I needed a bit of space to process it and let it settle into my mind and heart.
I should also mention that I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. I find our internet connection is pretty dicey in the evenings. It can be hard to watch tv or a movie or even something on YouTube so I’ve gotten into the habit of downloading podcasts during the day when the internet connection is more reliable and listening to them at night. Lately, I’ve been listening to The RobCast (hosted by Rob Bell) and I have been really moved by his messages. They’re positive and thought provoking and challenging. One of the podcasts in particular (19 Letters!) has fueled me to look at the story I have been telling myself about my childhood and adolescence, and to think about how I can retell the story in Christ (anakephalaiosasthai – listen to the podcast!).
Feeling encouraged by the podcast and thinking that I would recreate the activity with different periods from my life, I went on a hunt to find some dolls (not Barbie dolls) that could be a reasonable facsimile of my family. I was not successful. Then someone suggested I make figures of my family with modeling clay. At first I laughed it off (the figures would be lucky to look like human beings let alone my family) but when I really couldn’t find any suitable dolls, I thought I would give it a try. I bought some modeling clay and put it in my cupboard while I let “The Play of Life” percolate inside me.
And there the modeling clay still sits. Instead of creating clay facsimiles of my family members, during my prayer last weekend I felt God tell me to not worry about being busy creating new scenes or making figures, but to just sit with a photo of the scene I had made with Sr. Gerry. Just sit with it and really look at it.
So that’s what I did. For five days this week, for an hour at a time, I sat with that photo and let God speak to me. And what did God say? God said, remember when…
All of a sudden I remembered what it was like when my parents decided to separate and all the stuff that went on and how scared and uncertain I felt. And then I could see it and I knew it (deeply knew it) so clearly: our parents really loved us (me and my brother Daniel). They really loved us. I could see all the ways they tried to put us first, to help us with the divorce, to make us feel loved throughout it all. They loved us so much. I just sat there, feeling all this love, and I started to cry. It was simple and beautiful.
It happened every day. Each day I looked at a different section of the photo – my Woodford family, my Rudolph family, my friend Jana – and I remembered all the love and the joy and the fun times. All of the laughter. There was so much laughter. All of the goodness over my childhood that helped to balance out the stuff that was not so good. I felt so loved by my family and friends and by God, and I was overflowing with love for all of them. In the midst of all that love, God was teaching me other things too. Teaching me about compassion and forgiveness and freedom.
And now, at the end of this week, the grace I have received astounds me. God has shown me important truths about myself and about my life. I have always been loved and I have always been enough. And then, even bigger: at all times and in all places, I am loved and I am enough.
What to do with this gift, with this grace that is given so freely and has taken me by surprise with its intensity? The only thing I can do: say thank you, God. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I know that this grace is not meant for me alone. I am grateful for it but I know that this grace belongs to everyone and God wants to give it to everyone. It is truly possible to see the story of our lives in a fresh way, to learn important truths about who we are. If you are reading this blog post and you feel a tug in your heart, maybe a desire to look with new eyes at a story you’ve been telling yourself, please give yourself the freedom to do it. First, I suggest you listen to The RobCast podcast I link to above (it’ll give you the boost you need!), and then make time and space to listen to God’s nudgings. God knows you and will guide you in whatever way is best for you. The grace is there to be received.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The beautiful Experimental Farm in Ottawa
Exploring God’s creation
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.
Praise be God in all creation, especially in dogs named Bernie
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.
As I think back on these past weeks, a major theme stands out for me: discovery and adaptation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One more sleep and I’m off. Off on the next step of this journey. To parts unknown and people unknown, and basically, a life unknown. The early hours of New Year’s Eve will find me flying over the U.S. and then across the Pacific Ocean to my new home away from home in the Philippines. For the next year, I will be living in the IBVM Formation House in Quezon City (part of metro Manila) with three other novices. We will live together as an international community comprised of Australian, Vietnamese, and Canadian women.
I’m looking forward to meeting my new companions and I’m also excited to spend the next year learning more about Mary Ward, the history of the Institute, Ignatian spirituality, religious life, and spend more dedicated time in prayer. The anxieties and worries I’ve felt over the past few months have slowly been subsiding and are being replaced by happy anticipation and a feeling of adventure.
Over the last couple of weeks I have been preparing for my move as best as I can. [With a wonderful Christmas interlude, of course, filled with festive fun and recreation – and the requisite happy hour(s)!]
Reading about the Philippines islands, the people, and the culture, as well as Australian and Vietnamese culture and customs, has fueled my excitement to travel and experience a new way of life. I’ve been stocking up on what I will need for the year (appropriate summer clothing – not easy to find in the midst of a Canadian winter!, books, etc.), and taking time for prayer and reflection.
During this time of preparation and transition I have been seeking the intercession of one of Mary Ward’s first companions, Winifred Wigmore, to help me on this journey. Although I don’t know a great deal about her (I hope to learn more over the course of the year!), I admire her spirit. She was a great friend of Mary Ward, she was counted on to undertake difficult tasks, and she was even imprisoned for supporting Mary’s work. I think her pluckiness and deep love for her friend is a good model for me to follow, and I have confidence that she will help me along the way.
I hope to continue my blog throughout the next year but I expect there will be a break of a month or so while I get settled in and transition to life as a novice in formation. I will do my best to update you all as soon as I can. In the meantime, I will be praying for you all and I ask you to please pray for me too!!
Goodbye for now! Paalam muna sa ngayon!
Last Thursday, December 10, 2015, the feast day of Our Lady of Loreto, I was received as a novice to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loretto Sisters) here in Toronto.
As the day approached, I felt a mixture of joy and fear. Joy for this next step in my discernment and formation with the Institute, but also fear of the unknown and all of the newness that lies ahead when I go to the Philippines.
To prepare myself to be received, I spent time in prayer and reflection, using a booklet on consecrated life as my guide. I really only used the first couple of chapters of the guide, focused on the heart and mind of the consecrated person (identifying the call to religious life) and the response of the consecrated person (saying yes to the call). These alone provided plenty of fuel for reflection.
Experiencing a call to religious life is mysterious. It is hard to explain the drive and longing felt by someone called to religious life: the desire to give fully of oneself in the service of God and God’s people, and the profound desire to know God. I find it very difficult to express how much I long to know God, to understand God’s plan for the world. I have so many questions for God. I also feel a deep desire to serve God by caring for all people. And over time, I feel more and more drawn to life in community. I pondered all of these things as I waited to be received.
During the reception, I felt peaceful and joyful. I was moved by the joy of the sisters who participated in the reception, and I felt (and feel!) so grateful to be part of this community. There is so much life and love here.
I received the Loretto cross (which I happily and proudly wear) and gifts to help with my discernment during novitiate: a bible, the IBVM Constitutions, and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. All of these will come with me to the Philippines and help to guide me.
So now, as a newly minted novice, I am trying to live fully each day with the community here and love these sisters as much as I can before I depart. And I am continuing to pester God, to try to know him better, and be open to the gifts and graces he has given me.
Venerable Mary Ward, foundress of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pray for us.