Josephine Butler

Image credit: The London School of Economics and Political Science

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.’”

Josephine Butler, Josephine E. Butler: An Autobiographical Memoir

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.

Learning from the Monks

Credit: The British Library
Copyright: ©The British Library Board

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.

Taking a time out

Coming out of the First Spiritual Exercises (FSE) retreat that recently concluded at Regis College, I made the resolution to make a retreat day once a month. Nothing too formal, just a day set aside to be with God and to hang out the way I hang out with friends. A time out from the usual routine.

So today I purposefully spent the day with God. We walked over to see the old Loretto convent on Brunswick Avenue, now turned into beautiful condos called “The Loretto”. Then we went to Indigo to browse the books and inadvertently stumbled upon Canadian icons. Sharon and Bram (of Sharon, Lois, and Bram fame) were there giving a children’s concert and talking about their book Skinnamarink.

It was a childhood dream come true. I remember watching their show in the mid-’80s and being terribly jealous of the children who got to perform on their show and sing with them (those darned beautiful children with their adorable lisps and slight off key-ness). How I wanted to be up there on stage singing along with “Tingalayo” and “Little Rabbit Foo-Foo”. Well, this morning I had my chance. Not to sing on stage with them. The requisite adorable kids were already there and beat me to it. But I did get to wander along looking at books in the science fiction section, singing along to “Tingalayo” and a new-to-me classic, “I Had an Old Coat”. It was bliss. 

This afternoon I continued my retreat by going out for tea. I wanted a chance to read old journals and to write in my current journal. And why not do so in the company of strangers with a chai latte? Questions came up during my FSE that I wanted to explore, and part of that exploration required going back into the past. So, I read a couple of journals from 10 years ago. They made me laugh (and a few entries made me want to cry) and I realized, my God, I am really me. I am so me. While the external circumstances of my life have changed dramatically over the past 10 years, I haven’t actually changed all that much (except hopefully, ever so slightly, for the better in some respects). My preoccupations and anxieties are pretty much the same, just transplanted into a new context. Realizations that I have about myself now are just a bit further along compared to the realizations I had then. In large part, it was consoling to read my journal, to see that I am growing, in baby steps for sure, but growing nonetheless. 

The always inspiring Eucharistic prayer.

This evening I went to the Church of the Redeemer for their monthly Rock Eucharist. Tonight the Eucharist featured the music of Alanis Morissette. How could I resist? If Sharon, Lois, and Bram provided the soundtrack for my childhood, Alanis Morissette provided the soundtrack for my teenage years and early adulthood. It was a beautiful liturgy, albeit with a couple of surprising song choices (I hadn’t expected “All I Really Want” to be the offertory song), but it was meaningful and thought-provoking. The pastor gave a beautiful sermon and spoke about the tensions we all hold in life. Like Alanis sings, “I’m sad but I’m laughing, I’m brave but I’m chicken shit.” We are rarely one or the other. We are both. And often both at the same time. 

My old journals reminded me of the tensions I held 10 years ago, which, it turns out, are not so different from the tensions I hold now. In one entry I wrote: You know, for awhile I thought Ron Rolheiser had it all figured out. [I had been reading several of his books.] He knows about loneliness, sadness, feeling unfulfilled, but he seems content to live the tension out. Prolong it, enjoy it almost. It seems so difficult to me. My patience hinders me, well, my lack of patience.

I think Ron Rolheiser does have it figured out. Not that I particularly enjoy the tensions inherent in my life, but by the grace of God, I think they are getting a little bit easier to hold.   

‘Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket…

The garden at the UN

During my internship last year with our IBVM NGO at the UN, the gardens at the UN headquarters were closed to the public due to maintenance and landscaping. I was delighted to discover that they are open now. What a fantastic place to sit and contemplate the day’s discussions and actually enjoy some silence (or relative silence) amid the usual commotion.

Here are a selection of photos from the gardens, including some of the statues and works of art that have been given to the UN by various Member States.

The rose garden was pretty much past its prime but I couldn’t resist taking a few photos!

 

High Level Political Forum 2018 – Week 1

The first week of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development wrapped up last Friday. It was an intensive week of investigation and discussion on Sustainable Development Goals 6 (clean water), 7 (clean energy), 11 (sustainable cities), 12 (sustainable production and consumption), 15 (sustainable ecosystems), and 17 (international partnerships).

The CJ/IBVM delegation took in as many of the sessions and side events we had the stamina for. During the HLPF there is enough to keep one going 12 hours a day! There were many highlights during the week for me.


There were some thoughtful discussions of the SDGs during the main sessions, guided by presentations from expert panels, and featuring lively debate among Member States and civil society organizations.

A side event to showcase the intersection of the arts with the SDGs. Our delegation attended the SDG Film Fest. One of the films shown was “The Box” – see the trailer below.

Another interesting side event was hosted by the NGO Major Group on creating a toolkit for NGOs. The side event consisted of keynote and endnote presentations with thematic discussions in between on the topics of policy development, interlinkages of the SDGs, and sustainable financing.

We had the luck to attend a side event on the Peace Boat, an international NGO dedicated to global citizenship education. We heard from many speakers about opportunities for youth to become engaged in achieving the SDGs as well as options for youth to attend various educational tours aboard the Peace Boat itself as it visits different regions of the world. A great way to learn about other cultures and the impact of globalization.

*****

At the end of the busy week, I was more than ready for a bit of time in the community garden!

And took time to check out the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination exhibit at the Met.

We finished off the weekend with a birthday dinner for Sr. Cecilia O’Dwyer, our IBVM UN representative!

 

 

NYC on the Inside

This immersion had been incredible for so many reasons. Already on my blog I’ve written about some of my experiences at the UN and out in the city – sightseeing, volunteering, and getting a sense of community life here. But since this immersion is part of my novitiate, there has also been a lot of other stuff going on too, stuff that isn’t so visible. Living in New York and being at the UN has really stirred up my spiritual life and has given a depth and richness to my discernment. I feel a very strong sense of mission and identity forming within me, and perhaps even a fledgling understanding of a personal theology. I’ve been trying to think for a little while how to share this on my blog but I struggled to find words that were adequate. Going through my prayer journal, I realized that I already had the words. Below, then, are some excerpts from my prayer journal to give you a sense of how I am experiencing God during this time.

May 9

This time in New York is a mystery to me. I had only been kind of looking forward to it (even as I was excited about the immersion in theory) but since I have been here, I have felt so full of life, so happy, and like I am truly on an adventure. I am learning and growing, I feel like a flower blossoming in the springtime sun. I am happy here even though I am more alone than I was in Toronto. Somehow, I feel more connected and alive. Your hand is on all of this, on me, in this moment, at all moments. You give so much beauty. I am so grateful to you. You give me so much. I receive it all with gratitude, knowing that I am undeserving. I receive it and I give you my love.

May 14

I think of the resurrection this morning and I can only smile and refer to the resurrection I feel within myself. Being here in this city, the renewed contact with the policy world of international relations, having the freedom to go out and explore and try new things, I feel so happy and renewed in my being. I feel alive and so grateful.
      I know it is the grace of God that gives me these daily gifts. There is nothing I did or can do to compel this joy. It just is. And it is from God. The newness opens me, I don’t feel frightened. It feels good and right to be here now and to be doing all of the things I am doing.
     I think the disciples must have felt a dramatic renewal after the resurrection. They lived as witnesses to you. My joy is my witness to you, my gratitude is my witness to you, my freedom is my witness to you, my love is my witness to you.

May 24

These days are packed. I am surprised by how much I am enjoying the Forum on Financing on Development. It brings me back to my days studying international relations and learning about development economics. I am delighted to be here.
       More and more, I feel certain that this work, whether at the UN, or through the IBVM network, or through an NGO – however it works out – is what I am called to do, is what I deeply desire to do. To work for the common good, to proclaim the common good, and to work for justice (your justice, not retribution). This is manifested in many ways – advocacy, raising awareness, listening to those particularly affected by injustice, and helping to make space for those voices, standing together with love, in solidarity. It’s manifested in writing and speaking, in opening myself up and making myself as vulnerable as the ones I love and desire to fight for.
      And all of this comes from my life, has its roots there deep below – even from the pain of Mom’s alcoholism and my own healing and growth. But I see it more clearly from my experiences in Dubai, from working at the Inn from the Cold and at Shepherds of Good Hope, from my ministry in parishes, undoubtedly from my time with my boys at Sarnelli, and of course, from my professional life. All of it reaching out, listening, and connecting with those in need of something, some kind of justice.
       This desire was there, too, in the seed of the call to religious life I received when I saw on television the church gathered for John Paul II’s funeral – the world was gathered there. And it was there when the call to religious life was burning within me when I watched the Catholicism series and I saw how beautiful the church is in its diversity – I love the world represented in the church – but I feel sure that my mission goes beyond the confines of the institutional church.
        I see this incredible gift you’ve given me, Lord, in the path of my life, the journey that has felt so haphazard and unclear so often. And yet it is working for a purpose beyond me, I am sure of it. In my limitedness I see so little of it, and I struggle to see how it’s not all about me, but I know that it’s about so much more even if I can’t see it. My life is a gift beyond compare. My God, you must love me so much to give me a gift such as this.
        I turn the gem and I see its 70 faces – all the experiences of my life – all these gifts – all this making me who I am and giving me the mission I am embarking on. It’s all here, Lord, inside my life, inside of me. Let me live it for you and with you.

May 26

“As you go about your day and you face the usual sorts of annoyances and grievances, pay attention to what it’s doing to you. Remind yourself that all things are yours. [reference to 1 Cor 3:21-23] Imagine yourself rooted and established in love. When you find yourself engaging with people who come from vastly different background and perspectives, be the first to celebrate whatever is good and true and beautiful in your midst, regardless of where it comes from or who says it or how it arrived there.”
– Rob Bell, “What is the Bible?”

May 30

“The creative operation of God
does not simply mold us like soft clay.
It is a Fire that animates all it touches,
a spirit that gives life.
So it is in living
that we should give ourselves to that creative action,
imitate it, and
identify with it.”
–   Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

I come back to the desire to express something about the way I feel  – my sense of vocation is wrapped up in this – it is not merely a profession or way of looking at the world.
        It’s the participation in the world order, a sense of moving, working with the Spirit at a global level (because I cannot seem to go higher than that). It’s a sense of the sacred in this work, in the relationships, in the principles of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, in the sense of cooperation that is fostered and encouraged, in the dramatic struggles, in the unified sense of humanity that I find here. It’s in the history, in the present moment, and in the hope we have for the future. It’s expressed (even in the dullest and driest terms) in resolutions, declarations, convenants, conventions. It’s in the language that is spoken at the UN and other multilateral organizations. It may not sound at all religious, it may not align with all religious beliefs or practices, but it is still spiritual. It is the essence of humanity – what we need to live well and fully – expressed in words written and spoken.
        It is God present, whether invoked or not, in all of the minutiae of details and all of the global planning and perspective.
       I am so drawn to it. It gives me life and it fascinates me. I am drawn to the beauty of cooperation, the idealistic workings, as well as the deeply flawed workings. Humanity, at its best and at its worst, is present and represented here. It is not perfect but it is beautiful and it will be what we make it.
      It is not a replacement for church or faith – I do not have faith in it as I do in God – but it is a way for humanity to work together, to struggle together, to stumble along together towards common good, towards full life for all.

“The sense of the Earth
opening and exploding upwards into God;
and the sense of God taking root
and finding nourishment downwards into Earth.”
– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

May 31

It gives me great joy, Lord, to discuss social justice/development/international relations – whatever we want to call it. I love it. It fills me with energy – it has for a long time – it’s a recurring passion. I desire to fuse it with faith, not so much as a moral theology, but as a way to view the world with fullness/wholeness that comes from you and is expressed in how we live in the world and how we interact with one another at the global level. Part of it is a fascination with the diversity of humanity, of creation, that is easier to see at a higher level. It instills in me an awe and a reverence for creation – all of creation – and especially the Creator. I love you more and more, my God, as I do this work and live in New York and spend time at the UN. I love you in the complexity of all of the different issues we grapple with in the world and the complexity of all of the voices that need to share their stories. My God, I love you in the simplicity of a quiet moment (rarely found) and in your presence in the jumble of the city.
          We are together in the small actions of each day – the meetings, the emails, the conversations, the walks to and from the office and to and from the UN. We are together walking the streets of New York, loving each other and loving creation.

Breaking free from obligation

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Sometimes prayer feels easy and natural and I can’t wait to have some quiet time to spend with God. Other days it feels like a chore and I have to battle with myself to slow down and do it, all the while fighting off distracting thoughts and the desire to be doing something else. These days, particularly, as I am wrapped up in the “ending of my normal life” (which sounds rather melodramatic but is true) I find it hard to pay attention.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have talked about the Examen, a daily prayer recommended by St. Ignatius and a key tool for discernment. What I haven’t really mentioned is my own struggle to pray the Examen regularly, and frankly, to sometimes even be interested in praying it. It’s not completely about a lack of discipline on my part because I do pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day without fail, so I think the problem is more about motivation.

I find that the traditional formula for the prayer doesn’t quite do it for me right now, or rather, that it is too big and too broad for me. I get lost in it. These are the steps to the Examen, as directed by St. Ignatius:

  • The first Point is to give thanks to God our Lord for the benefits received.
  • The second, to ask grace to know our sins and cast them out.
  • The third, to ask account of our soul from the hour that we rose up to the present Examen, hour by hour, or period by period: and first as to thoughts, and then as to words, and then as to acts.
  • The fourth, to ask pardon of God our Lord for the faults.
  • The fifth, to purpose amendment with His grace.

Although the prayer is supposed to last only about 10 or 15 minutes maximum, I often become fixated on a specific point in my day or on my sins and the 15 minutes stretches into 20 minutes or longer. 20+ minutes of intense self-criticism – not at all the purpose of the Examen. I tend to put the emphasis on reliving the various events of my day rather than on seeing them in relation to God’s working in me. As a result, I often pray the Examen without a lot of enthusiasm, mostly out of a sense of obligation, and rarely feel enriched by it.

However, all of that is changing thanks to Reimagining the Examen by Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ.

I noticed this book on the bookstore shelf and flipped through it, after having seen it advertised online. I skimmed the introduction and thought I would give it a try. The author offers 34 varieties of the daily Examen, including the traditional version. Each follows a particular theme from Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, such as:

  • Spiritual freedom
  • A particular relationship
  • Habits
  • Gratitude
  • Repulsions, inspirations, desires

I’m about halfway through the book and already my practice of the Examen has changed quite significantly. I’m sticking to the 10-15 minutes daily quota but the 15 minutes is a richly focused reflection and dialogue with God (a crucial element that was not so robust in my previous practice). I enjoy the guided instructions – they help me to keep on track and keep to 15 minutes with minimum distraction or my mind wandering off.

The fact that each day is different and, at this point, since I am still making my way through the book, new, I find that I am actually excited to pray and I anticipate it during the day. I am also finding that keeping a journal of my Examen prayer is a very helpful way to see how God is present in my life. It’s only one sentence but it summarizes that day’s experience and it helps me to keep fresh in my mind how God has been active in my life that day.

So for anyone who may want to start the practice of the Examen or for those who may currently find it a challenge, I recommend that you READ THIS BOOK.

a prayer for our world, a prayer for Paris

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God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world:
peace in the hearts of all men and women
and peace among the nations of the earth.
Turn to your way of love
those whose hearts and minds
are consumed with hatred,
and who justify killing in the name of religion.

God of understanding,
overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy,
we seek your light and guidance
as we confront such terrible events.

Grant that those whose lives were spared
may live so that the lives lost here
may not have been lost in vain.

Comfort and console us, strengthen us in hope,
and give us the wisdom and courage
to work tirelessly for a world
where true peace and love reign
among nations and in the hearts of all.

  • Pope Francis