Not a season of nature – it’s not autumn yet – but a new season of discovery. I begin my final year of theology studies tomorrow. I will be off and running until April.
After the unusual spring and summer of covid-19, I am hoping this new season will bring with it a sense of stability (even as there are worries about a second wave). I cannot say normalcy because I don’t really want online learning to become normal. I already miss being together with my friends and classmates in person. Nevertheless, this new season, with all of its screen time, will bring a certain stability and routine, which I definitely appreciate.
What’s more, I begin this new season in a new space. A new community setting that is intercongregational, intercultural, and intergenerational. New and new and new. And also familiar, in a way. I love domestic life and I am grateful to be living again in a house where I can do domestic things like cooking, and cleaning, and even a bit of decorating.
We are blessed to live close to High Park and to the lakefront. Each day I go out for a walk along the water or among the trees, discover some new sight, and I feel restored and reconnected. Ready for whatever comes next.
And with this new season, I am turning again to poetry (after a spring and summer off) and I find Malcolm Guite (of course) says it so well and with such beauty, especially this excerpt from his poem Strange Surprise:
None of this need have happened, all of this,
These unexpected gifts, this overflow
Of things we know, and things we’ll never know,
None of this had to be, but here it is,
The here-and-now in all its strange surprise;
A space to be ourselves in, and a grace
That spins us round and turns us to the source
Whence all these gifts and graces still arise.
This afternoon as I sat on our rooftop patio, enjoying the afternoon sun, my mind travelled back to 1990, to this day 30 years ago when my mom received a heart transplant. She was 36 years old.
That day is a bit of a blur now but I remember pieces of it. No doubt each member of my family remembers something different. I was 9 years old and in grade four. The day before she would have her transplant, Mom and I had been at my softball game. Her pager went off. She went to find a payphone to call the hospital to see what the news was. She had been on the transplant list for several months by that time. We were living in Calgary but had spent several months the previous year living in Edmonton in anticipation of her surgery. During that time, her pager had gone off sporadically and she had called the hospital each time only to discover that it was a false alarm. But this time, she came back to tell me that she had to go. There was a heart available and she had to go to Edmonton right away. Being 9, I didn’t really think through the consequences of what she was saying and I told her I would prefer to stay at my softball game until it ended and then meet her back at home.
I was lucky to see her before she left. When I arrived home a while later, my aunts and two of my mom’s closest friends were there. My aunt Jessica was going to accompany Mom to Edmonton on the plane that had been arranged for them. I arrived just in time to say goodbye to her as they hurried out the door. Mom later said that I had been so calm and brave but I think I was just oblivious because as soon as they left the house, I burst into tears. It wasn’t easy to sleep that night, wondering what was happening to her, waiting to hear news about the surgery. The next morning my brother and I stayed home from school, hoping for an update. When one hadn’t arrived by lunchtime, we both decided it would be better to be busy at school than sitting around at home, waiting.
I remember sitting in the classroom during the afternoon recess (I was catching up on what I had missed in the morning) when the principal came in (a tall man I found intimidating and a bit scary) to say that he had just received a call from home and that my mom had come through the surgery and was in recovery. I was so relieved. I am sure we celebrated at dinner that night.
But it wasn’t the end of our waiting.
In 1990, organ transplants were fairly new and so recovery was quite different than it is now. Mom had to stay in Edmonton for three months, in the ICU for several weeks and then in an outpatient residence. My brother and I weren’t allowed to visit her while she was in the ICU. I remember the first time we made the trip to Edmonton we had to stand behind a glass partition and wave to her. It was heartbreaking for all of us. The only joy I had was exploring the University of Alberta Hospital with my cousin. We wandered along all of the hallways and discovered the vending machines on each floor, testing them to see if they would randomly yield their delights. Once, we were rewarded with a free root beer.
Finally, Mom was moved to a different floor of the hospital and we were able to go in and hug and kiss her. In a way, it was like meeting a stranger. Her face was puffy and red from the steroids she had to take and she had a long scar that ran from her breastbone down along her abdomen. I was fascinated by it. I think she was self-conscious of it later on because the scar only faded so much, but each time I saw it it made me happy. It was a sign of the new life she had been given, a gift for all of us.
Mom eventually came home in August (and saved me from attending a day camp that would have had me riding my bike all over the city – no doubt it would have been good for me but I equated it with torture). It was like having a special guest come to stay. My brother and I were so happy to finally have her home. Each year on May 16th, we would celebrate the anniversary of her heart transplant. I would bring her flowers and it would be like a second Mother’s Day. Every year, even as a kid, I remember being so grateful that someone had offered their organs for transplant so that Mom could keep being my mom.
When she died on May 7, 2003, she was two weeks shy of her 50th birthday, and nine days shy of her 13th heart anniversary. I think of her often during the month of May, sometimes with sorrow on the day of her death, always with gratitude on the day of her heart transplant and with joy on her birthday. Her life, like all lives, unfolded as she did not expect but she met each challenge with courage, generosity, forgiveness, and love.
I’m working on a research paper for an Old Testament class, exploring the life and exegetical work of Josephine Butler (1828-1906), an Englishwoman and social reformer dedicated to women’s equality. The more that I read about her and by her, the more profoundly I am inspired by her character and her work.
Through her deep faith and prayer life, she grew to personally identify with marginalized women – the poor and destitute, prostitutes and women in prisons and workhouses – and dedicated her life to working for social change that would improve their lives.
I came across a passage in her memoir that beautifully describes her struggle with God as her vocation to advocate for others emerged.
For one long year of darkness the trouble of heart and brain urged me to lay all of this at the door of the God, whose name I had learned was Love. I dreaded Him – I fled from Him – until grace was given me to arrive and wrestle, as Jacob did, with the mysterious Presence, who must either slay or pronounce deliverance. And then the great questioning again went up from earth to heaven, “God! Who art Thou? Where art Thou? Why is it thus with the creatures of Thy hand?” I fought the battle alone, in deep recesses of the beautiful woods and pine forests around our home, or on some lonely hillside, among wild thyme and heather, a silent temple where the only sounds were the plaintive cry of the curlew, or the hum of a summer bee, or the distant bleating of sheep. For hours and days and weeks in these retreats I sought the answer to my soul’s trouble and the solution of its dark questioning. Looking back, it seems to me the end must have been defeat and death had not the Saviour imparted to the child wrestler something of the virtue of His own midnight agony, when in Gethsemane His sweat feel like great drops of blood to the ground.
It was not a speedy or an easy victory. Later the conflict was renewed, as there dawned upon me the realities of those earthly miseries which I had realized only in measure by intuition, but later still came the outward and active conflict, with, thanks be to God, the light and hope and guidance which He never denies to them who seek and ask and knock, and which became for them as ‘an anchor of the soul, sure and steadfast.’
Looking my Liberator in the face, can my friends wonder that I have taken my place, (I took it long ago) – oh! with what infinite contentment! – by the side of her, the ‘woman in the city which was a sinner,’ of whom He, her Liberator and mine, said, as He can also say of me, ‘this woman hath not ceased to kiss my feet.’”
Her passion and commitment to the sufferings of women reminds me, of course, of the passion and commitment of Mary Ward, another strong and faithful Englishwomen. I look forward to continuing my study of Josephine Butler and undoubtedly I will have more to share here.
It’s challenging to live under these extended quarantine conditions. Whatever novelty there might have been in the beginning has long since worn off. I continue to be anxious about the state of the world and to pray for the many people who are suffering and for those who care for them and who keep our society running. But I am also experiencing psychological fatigue. One day I am feeling up and the next day I am feeling down.
In the midst of this angst, however, I watched an online retreat/talk given by Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI in which he presented principles from his new book Domestic Monastery. I find them particularly apt for this pandemic experience and they are helping me to change my attitude.
The principles are derived from the Rule of St. Benedict, and lessons from other monks and mystics. For me, they offer an alternative viewpoint that is liberating and helps me to imagine a way to get through this temporary time of forced enclosure.
Ten Principles for Turning Your Home into a Domestic Monastery
“Regulate your life by the monastic bell” While I do live in a religious community, we do not live by the monastic bell. We do, however, especially in this pandemic time, have a fairly set schedule of activities – particularly prayer and meal times. My monastic bell is also the schedule I set for myself each day – exercise, work on my theology studies, cooking, connecting with family and friends, etc. It helps to find order and flow in the day. It is also intended to remind me that my time belongs to God and not to me. This helps me to find balance, to set boundaries, and to be able to move freely from one activity to the next.
“Stay inside your cell” Rolheiser suggests that this phrase, for us non-monks, means being faithful to our commitments. To stray away from these things is to leave our cell. For me, this means staying faithful to my religious vocation but also to the commitments I have made that have become more challenging to meet during the pandemic. This includes community life, studies, academic committee work, and ministries that have moved online, as well as finding ways to keep in touch with loved ones and to communicate regularly during this time of distancing.
“Let your cell teach you everything you need to know” I find this principle a hard one to live out. Rolheiser says that our fidelity to our commitments will teach us what we need to know. This is a challenge for me. Right now, I feel a lot of resistance and resentment build up because of this forced enclosure. My cell, i.e. school, community, family/friends, ministry, etc. is often teaching me things I’d rather not know – about myself in particular, but also about others, and about the world. Rolheiser says that these things force us to “grow up,” to become more mature, and I suspect, to be more effective agents of God’s love. I take hope that during this pandemic, the moments in which I struggle most with resistance are the moments in which I will be able to experience the greatest transformation.
“Ora” – pray This is essential. Given my current position of comfort and good health and well-being, committing to prayer is one way that I am able go beyond myself and my environment when it is so easy to stay locked within. Praying for the world – for all who are sick and dying, for all those who care for them, for those who continue to serve our society, for those who struggle with financial insecurity and lack of employment, and for everyone who struggles to cope in this uncertain environment. All of these needs of the world draw me out of my selfishness and my limited perspective and force me to encounter the greater reality of this pandemic.
“Labora” – work This principle is all too easy for me. My default setting is to work (at least on the things that I am interested in) and I have been able to find many things to keep occupied during this time. However, work is not meant for work’s sake. Work is meant to remind me of my vocation as a human being to serve God in all that I do. This is something I need to keep calling to mind when I get absorbed in what I am doing and am tempted to forgo other activities in order to keep working on a project.
Live in quiet – be in touch with “the mild” a. Be in touch with what is gentle inside of yourself, others, the world, God b. Be in touch with nature c. Be in touch with your food Living in the quiet has been both calming and unnerving. To live in a quiet Toronto has been very strange even though it is a necessary measure. Within the confines of my home, this principle speaks to me primarily of being quiet within, of seeking a gentleness of heart in a stressful time that tends to bring out the worst in me. It’s a reminder to be gentle with each person in my life and also with myself. Being open to receive the gentleness of God, especially when I am feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Rolheiser’s sub-points b. and c. remind me to appreciate the natural world around me, especially when I go out for a walk in the neighbourhood, and to appreciate and enjoy the food that I am blessed with each day.
Understand your family as a “school of charity” This principle relates to the third principle: “Let your cell teach you everything you need to know.” This experience of the pandemic is a teacher and I am definitely a student. Because this situation seems to frequently bring out the worst in me, I also need to at least try to let it bring out the best in me, too. In his presentation, Rolheiser speaks of a stone being polished by other stones. The little irritations I feel each day, then, if opened up to God’s grace, can polish me as well.
Do “vigils” when the angel of the night summons you Rolheiser refers to the angel of the night as the grudges, resentments, and unresolved tensions that surface at night and either keep us from sleep or wake us from it. Certainly, these days I feel like the angel of the night is a frequent visitor as I struggle to sleep well. I continue to wake up in the night and to worry about all of the “what ifs” and I battle with the resistances I feel in not being able to live as I would like. It is time to do “vigils” – to confront and find a way to make peace with the angel that disrupts my sleep.
“Celebrate” the joys, particularly the joys of community and simple living – but all the joys of life This is an important principle for these difficult days. It can be easy to focus on the negative right now and to discount the positive. I know that I struggle to allow myself to really celebrate when so many people are grieving, but I think it is necessary. I resolve to find more opportunities to create, celebrate and embrace moments of joy during this time of confinement – simple pleasures like eating lunch on our rooftop patio, watching the tulips bloom in our front garden, and laughing with family and friends over Zoom.
“Persevere” – give your family the gift of your fidelity Perseverance is probably the most necessary guiding principle right now. I must remain faithful to what needs to be done: staying at home, washing hands, and practicing physical distancing, especially when I am tempted to slack off because I am bored, or lonely, or just tired of following rules. Perseverance is assisted by love: being motivated by love for others pushes me to go beyond and do what I might not do solely for myself.
These principles, while not easy to live by, are helpful to me, especially during this time of uncertainty. They have given me much to reflect on, to change my perspective on what it means to live within restriction, and to find a way to navigate through the doom and gloom that rises in my heart when I am not attentive. There is much wisdom to be learned from these monks.
We’ve wrapped up the third and final week of the Mary Ward summer school. This has been a shorter week – only three and a half days – but it has been equally intense. We examined the period of Mary Ward’s life after she arrived in Rome in 1621 up until her death in England in 1645. The years between 1621 and 1631 were a time of rapid expansion of the Institute and of tensions with Church authorities, resulting in the suppression of the Institute.
This period of Mary’s life gives something of a balance to the earlier period of her life in that it gives us a reality check on who she is: a woman with flaws. Our earlier studies, and especially the study of her spirituality and her inspirations for founding the Institute (‘Glory’) and its manner of life (‘Take the Same’) and the qualities of its members (‘The Just Soul’) emphasized the virtues and courage Mary exhibited. This latter part of her life, while still demonstrating virtue and courage, also showed us the actions of a woman who made some poor decisions. During this time, she was often severely ill, likely extremely fatigued, burdened by administration and care for the well-being of her Institute members, and consequently, appears to have made some imprudent decisions.
Mary’s tombstone in St. Thomas Parish
While it is true that Mary strove for a new form of religious life for women in a period of Church history that was not ready for it, her burst of apostolic activity [expansion into Cologne and Trier (1620-21), opening a school in Rome (1622), setting up foundations in Naples (1623), Perugia (1624), Munich and Vienna (1627), and Pressburg (1628)] without the Institute being approved by the Holy See, and in certain cases, without permission of the local bishop to step up shop, was not good strategy for being accepted by the Church. We also learned that the foundation in Liege had suffered terribly in Mary’s absence, its members suffering from poverty and hunger, and, in fact, dying from these conditions. Given the suffering in one of her foundations, it is hard to understand why Mary put so much effort into expansion.
We can interpret her activity as being based upon her conviction that she was following the will of God for her Institute, believing that “by their fruits ye shall know them” and attempting to demonstrate the value of her Institute to the Church, thereby securing approval for it. However, the reality of the political situation at that time really required more careful diplomacy from her. In addition, she was initially defiant in response to the suppression of her houses, seemingly based on misinformation, which did not help her cause either. The actions of one of her companions, Winifred Wigmore (who I love for her feistiness but who I suspect had a difficult personality), also contributed to the subsequent Bull of Suppression in 1631.
A letter from a school visit to Mary Ward’s tombstone
Of course, it is easy from this point in history, when we have access to all kinds of information and have a better understanding of the political and religious lay of the land than Mary Ward did, to point out the flaws in her judgment and in her strategy. She did what she was able to do.
This week, then, has been about seeing Mary Ward in, perhaps, a more realistic light. She was truly a visionary woman, grounded in Ignatian spirituality, who believed that women had a significant role to play in the Church and in spiritual and religious formation/education, and she was tenacious in her efforts to have her Institute approved. But she was also a woman so focused on her divine ambition that she expected her members to make significant sacrifices, she didn’t pay careful attention to the conditions of some of her foundations, and she didn’t play the political-religious game well, to the detriment of her work and of members’ well-being. She was, in short, a woman like the rest of us: a woman of divinely inspired potential, striving for the greater glory of God within the limitations of her humanity.
At the end of our summer school program, we made a little pilgrimage to Osbaldwick, the site of Mary Ward’s burial. Her tombstone hangs in the parish there although we don’t know for sure whether she is still buried in the churchyard or if her body had been moved elsewhere at some point in history. Regardless, it is a meaningful place for all Mary Ward women, the galloping girls, to visit. We ended our summer school together with a time of profound prayer and unity with each other and with our foundress, inspired by the words on her tombstone:
To love the poor, persevere in the same, live, die, and rise with them was all the aim of Mary Ward who having lived 60 years and 8 days died the 20 of January 1645
These words have taken on a deeper meaning after our studies, now that we can interpret them more fully. She loved the poor (the materially poor, the spiritually poor – in England and elsewhere), persevered in the same (of the Society), lived, died and (will) rise with them (the members of her Institute). Mary Ward’s mission and charism are there for the world to see.
With the end of the summer school, it is time for this galloping girl to head home. With a suitcase and a heart full of treasures.
The participants of the Mary Ward Summer School 2019
(I took these photos when I visited the Heidelberg Project in Detroit in 2013. Begun partly as a political protest, the Heidelberg Project is revitalizing the blighted neighbourhood of McDougall-Hunt. I was fascinated by this community’s efforts to change their city. )
In her message for Passover, Rabbi Sharon Brous recalls the wisdom of a friend who taught her to challenge the narrative of a story, whether Scripture or the story of her life. She shares three questions we can ask ourselves when we contemplate our own narratives.
We begin by asking ourselves, “When have I been a victim in my life? Can I name one specific moment where I was the victim?” We have all experienced times when we were the victim of a circumstance or of another’s actions. It is important to recognize these moments because they hold a truth about that experience. However, we must not stop there. We need to continue and ask the next question. Looking at the same story, we ask ourselves, “How was I the hero of the story?” Oftentimes, in challenging circumstances, we have been both victim and hero. We have suffered because of external conditions but we have also been graced with agency and the ability to act and take responsibility for ourselves. It is important to acknowledge these moments in our lives, too. And finally, we look again at the story, and we ask, “What did I learn?” We see that in all stories, we may be victims and we may be heroes, but we are also learners. We are always disciples seeking truth. Rabbi Brous says we are “learners on a timeless journey from narrowness to great expansive possibility”.
The Resurrection opens us to great expansive possibility. Pope Francis, in his homily for the Easter Vigil, makes this clear. He suggests that in our lives we often come up against the stone that blocks the tomb. He says, “At times it seems that everything comes up against a stone”. In the readings for the Vigil, we are reminded of the stones that mark salvation history: the beauty of creation but also of the reality of sin, the liberation of the Israelites but also their infidelity to God, the promises of the prophets and the indifference of the people. The stones that mark salvation history mirror the stones that mark our own lives.
In the Resurrection, however, the narrative is changed. The stone is rolled away. And all because of a simple question that is asked of the women who go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body. A simple question, one we need to ask ourselves, day after day: Why do you seek the living among the dead?
This is the question that changes the narrative. From failure to victory. From victim to hero. From victim to hero to disciple. Jesus is not dead, he is risen. Why do you seek the living among the dead? This question calls us (and calls me very loudly!) to look carefully at our own lives and ask the questions: In what ways am I looking for the living among the dead? Do I even realize that this is what I am doing?
Waking up this morning to news of the bombing in Sri Lanka was devastating. To learn of innocent lives taken and senseless violence that destroys families and communities does not square with Easter joy. It is not easy to encounter the violence that exists in the world, in our cities, and even in our homes. Where is the Risen Christ in a violent world? There are no easy answers.
In the Easter season, however, not only are we being asked to challenge the narrative of our lives, but to do so within the hope of the Resurrection. I experienced this hope profoundly in the Easter Vigil celebration last night. I was reminded that I, and all of us, have been given the Light of the World. Symbolized in the stark beauty of the Easter candle alit with new flame, I saw that the flame is undiminished no matter how it is divided. In fact, the more it is divided (symbolized in the tapers we lit last night), the flame glows all the more brightly and vividly. We take the hope of the Risen Christ, the flame of the Light of the World, out into the world with us and we challenge the narrative of the violence of our world. It is not an easy task but we are disciples who learn along the way, who journey from narrowness to expansiveness.
I’d like to end this blog post with excerpts from the Exsultet, that ancient prayer of the Easter Proclamation. It never ceases to give me goosebumps when I hear it chanted. It proclaims the victory of Christ, the victory of the light over darkness. May it give us the hope our world so desperately needs.
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered today in the United States. I am a relative latecomer to his sermons but I have been deeply moved by the power of his rhetoric. My favourite of his sermons is “Paul’s Letter to American Christians”. In it, he speaks as the Apostle Paul, offering a critique of American society. His words continue to resonate and are significant for many societies around the world, including Canadian society. I’d like to share an excerpt from that sermon. Its words speak to my heart and are needed more than ever in today’s world where so many of our actions emerge from a place of fear rather than a place of love. This excerpt is taken from “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” found in the anthology Strength to Love published by Fortress Press.
American Christians, you may master the intricacies of the English language and you may possess the eloquence of articulate speech; but even though you speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, you are like sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.
You may have the gift of scientific prediction and understand the behaviour of molecules, you may break into the storehouse of nature and bring forth many new insights, you may ascend to the heights of academic achievement, so that you have all knowledge, and you may boast of your great institutions of learning and the boundless extent of your degrees; but, devoid of love, all of these mean absolutely nothing.
But even more, Americans, you may give your goods to feed the poor, you may bestow great gifts to charity, and you may tower high in philanthropy, but if you have not love, your charity means nothing. You may even give your body to be burned and die the death of a martyr, and your spilled blood may be a symbol of honor for generations yet unborn, and thousands may praise you as one of history’s supreme heroes; but even so, if you have not love, your blood is spilled in vain. You must come to see that a man may be self-centred in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. His generosity may feed his ego and his piety his pride. Without love, benevolence becomes egotism and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride.
The greatest of all virtues is love. Here we find the true meaning of the Christian faith and of the cross. Calvary is a telescope through which we look into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking into time. Out of the hugeness of his generosity God allowed his only-begotten Son to die that we may live. By uniting yourselves with Christ and your brothers through love you will be able to matriculate in the university of eternal life. In a world depending on force, coercive tyranny, and bloody violence, you are challenged to follow the way of love. You will then discover that unarmed love is the most powerful force in all the world.