Breaking free from obligation

DSCN1031

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.

distracted, impatient, and restless

I have been feeling very distracted lately.

When I try to pray, either my own personal prayer, or the Liturgy of the Hours, or even at Mass, my mind struggles to stay focused. After a few brief quiet moments, my thoughts go off on a tangent and I get caught up in something unrelated to what I am trying to mediate on. I begin to notice whether I feel hot, cold, anxious, tired, energized, bored, alert, or restless. I’ve been feeling restless a lot.

Part of it may be a sort of spring fever feeling – I want to get up and move around and enjoy the sunshine whenever it’s out. I’ve taken up running again, and even though I’m sluggish and out of shape, it feels like such a gift to be outside and be alive.

But part of the restlessness is also related to what I am trying to pray about. I am still praying for healing. It’s hard. Even though, by the grace of God, I have made progress and I generally feel much lighter and freer than when I began, I know I still have a long way to go. My triggers still trigger anxiety and insecurity (confronting my negative self talk is on my current ‘To Do” list). And I feel impatient to just “be healed” once and for all and never have to worry again.

I met with my spiritual director yesterday and talked to her about this feeling of impatience. She laughed with me about it and could sympathize. As we talked, it became clear to me that God isn’t using the lightning rod method of healing with me because there’s more that I will learn from the slow and steady route. I think God wants to give me gifts that can only be received this way (even though it’s not my preferred route – instantaneous would be fine by me!). Perseverance is the key.

I desire so much to understand, really understand, what my life is about – what it is that I am called to do on this earth. It seems so hidden from me. Sometimes I feel like I am on the brink of understanding. I get a tiny glimmer, and a sliveriest bit of meaning, and then it’s gone and I am back to my usual restless self, sighing and impatient.

**

My candidacy director has given me a book about the Catholic faith to make sure I know the basics before beginning the novitiate next year (although frankly each sentence of ‘the basics’ is a world of theology unto itself). For someone who has gone to Mass quite regularly throughout her life, and went to Catholic school, I am realizing that there is a whole lot I don’t know about the Catholic faith. I was probably taught more than I recall, but I can’t seem to retrieve that information from my memory banks!

Happily, this means I’ve had plenty of “eureka!” moments as I have been reading. And no doubt this is helping me along the road to understanding myself better (and my restlessness), understanding Jesus (and God) better, and opening me up to understand what it is I am called to do in this life. These passages have been roaming around in my mind for the past few weeks:

“Again, let us remind ourselves, Jesus was not putting on an act, or doing something extra. He was merely acting as a creature should act. He was simply open to the ever-present gift of his Father’s love. He let it enter and empower his every thought, feeling, word and action. It was what kept him alive: ‘Doing the will of him who sent me…is my food’ (John 4:34).

But if Jesus is already the perfect loving child of the Father, why did he have to die?

Because giving up one’s life is the total gift. Anything else would be less than perfect. There is nothing greater to give than life.

So Jesus had to give up his life because there was no greater way he could show his love of the Father. He had to give up his life because anything else would have been a lesser gift, and he wanted to do the perfect human thing.

But there is another reason Jesus had to die. He came to a world lost in sin. How could he save the world? By showing it how God acts in the face of hatred. God refuses to be vindictive. He wants no pound of flesh. He wants only to forgive, to heal, to reconcile.”

****

“No wonder we shy away from the cross. Our problem is not that it is painful, but that it is too great a sign of love. We do not love that way, and we are embarrassed when God does.

Our life of faith, it would seem, is a gradual coming to accept the unbelievable tenderness of God.

– Leonard Foley, OFM. Believing in Jesus: A Popular Overview of the Catholic Faith.

*******

My mind has also been taken up with thoughts of seeing friends and coworkers when I am in Ottawa this week. I am really looking forward to spending time with people I love and miss.

When calamity strikes

ourhist_opencircle

By nature, I’m a fairly conscientious person. I like to get things done. I make timetables and lists, and I check the “To Do’s” off as I finish them. I like itineraries. I guess what I really like is predictability and a sense of control.

I’ve noticed over the course of the last few months, however, that the more I try to order and schedule my life, maximize my time, and be the most efficient I can be, I end up getting knocked totally off course! Case in point: for the past couple of weeks, I had diligently spent time in prayer and reflection in order to prepare for our big Canadian Provincial meeting that was to take place at the end of March. It was my first time participating in such an event and I was really excited about it. I had my notes carefully prepared, and I was looking forward to sharing my thoughts with the sisters. But then last Wednesday, calamity struck!

15 sisters, 3 de la Salle brothers, and several of the staff at the Abbey came down with norovirus. The next day, 4 more people were hit (including me, which makes this illness #4 or #5 I’ve been stricken with since Christmastime – which, by the way, better not be indicative of my future in religious life!). By the weekend, only a handful of people had been spared. I’m happy to say that everyone is recovering well, but we did have to postpone the big meeting. I was disappointed. Even amid severe stomach cramps, I had hoped that somehow we could still make it happen.

Instead, I used the quiet time (immobilized on my bed) to read about Mary Ward’s companions. Since reading a few biographies of Mary Ward earlier in the year, I have been very curious about the lives of her first companions. Not much is known about these women other than what is revealed in correspondence and some of the Institute’s historical documents. These women were quite young (some joined as young as 15 years old!), adventurous, dedicated, and faithful. They endured severe poverty, illness, uncertainty, and persecution. They were put in charge of schools and the formation of novices, were put in positions of authority in foundations in foreign lands, and were required to make difficult decisions. They often went years without seeing Mary Ward, with only letter correspondence to stay in touch. Many of them died while still young (30 years old and younger). Yet they were faithful to Mary Ward’s vision, to their call to religious life, and to the community.  They inspire me and I aspire to grow to be like them – to be steadfast and faithful (in sickness and in health!) and to be open and responsive to God’s working in my life.

And maybe, just maybe, to relinquish the “To Do” lists once in a while.

New York, New York

In two short sleeps, I will be making my way across the skies to New York City. I can’t wait! For years I have dreamed of visiting iconic New York. Home of television, movies, art, theatre, music – culture and cuisine and people – so many millions of people. I have longed to visit for such a long time and I always figured I would go when the time was right. And happily, the time is now!

I am flying out on Wednesday afternoon to arrive in time to attend a civil society briefing at the United Nations on Thursday morning. One of the IBVM sisters (an Irish woman who is part of the Spanish Province) heads the IBVM UN NGO and she has graciously arranged for me to visit the UN and learn about the work the IBVMs are doing. The timing is fantastic. Right now the UN is hosting the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (March 9 – 20) so there will be workshops and events to participate in and learn from. It’s going to be incredible. And I’ll take a tour of the UN itself.

I’m also hoping to do as much sightseeing as I can cram into a couple of days. I’m planning to go see the Thomas Merton Exhibit at Columbia University (I love Thomas Merton), and I have tickets to take a tour of Rockefeller Centre (would have loved to go on an NBC Studio Tour if it was up and running), and then I will just walk and walk and walk. And walk. And take in as much as I can.

Happenings

I think I am giving in to the February blahs these days. I’m finding it hard to be motivated to write a blog post, even though there has been a lot going on.

I think I mentioned the Mary Ward celebration previously. As part of Mary Ward week, we celebrated a special Mass together on January 25th. It was really beautiful. We all gathered in the Abbey chapel, which doesn’t happen too often. Many of the sisters from the infirmary joined us, which made it even more special, and all of the sisters renewed their vows. Afterwards we had a festive happy hour, naturally (and got to celebrate the 101st birthday of our Sr. Herman!), and dinner.

DSCN0469
DSCN0472

A couple of weeks ago I attended a Mass for consecrated life at St. Paul’s Basilica with a number of the sisters. While the Cardinal gave a lovely homily, the Mass itself felt a bit flat. It didn’t have much of a celebratory feel to it at all (our Mary Ward celebration was much more enthusiastic!), which was a real shame. With all of the diversity and rich tradition found in the religious communities in the GTA, I thought it would be a lot peppier! Perhaps next year. After the Mass I attended a Mary Ward dinner at Loretto College, the women’s residence on the UofT campus. Since it was a formal occasion, the young women were all beautifully dressed (a few were wearing red carpet worthy gowns!) and the dinner was elegantly served (Greek food – yum!). One of the women read a brief biography of Mary Ward, and then we listened to music from the 17th century while we ate. It was a lovely event and much livelier than the Mass!

I also recently had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion on consecrated life at Regis College. There were 4 speakers – 2 women religious (a Xaviere Sister, and a Sister from the Institute of the Incarnate Word) and 2 men religious (a Jesuit and a Spiritan) – who each gave a brief testimony about how they found joy in religious life. They were very inspiring. I was especially moved by the Xaviere Sister. The community live simply and are rooted in Ignatian spirituality, and in trying to find God in all things. They don’t wear habits, and work in whatever fields they have been trained in prior to entering the community. One sister in their community is an engineer, another is an investment banker. They bring their spirituality into the workforce with them which I think is fantastic. It’s a very hard thing to do these days.

I’ve got more to write but not so much motivation today. My candidacy director and I have been contemplating Mary Ward’s charism over our last few meetings together. There’s too much to say about it in this post here so I will try to write another one soon to share what I am learning. The sisters here are making a retreat next week, starting on Sunday. I’m sure that in the silence that will soon pervade the house I’ll find more time and energy to write!

the freedom to refer all to God

On Wednesday, we had an evening reflection entitled “Praying with our Experience”, facilitated by Sr. Margaret Kane, CSJ.  As the first in a series of special community sessions for the Year of Consecrated Life, Sr. Margaret led us through a reflection on Mary Ward’s gift to the IBVM and to the world.

We were given a series of images of Mary Ward (posted below) to meditate on and questions to guide our reflection. It struck me as the sisters were sharing their reflections, how much they love Mary Ward, how she continues to inspire them, and how she has influenced their lives.

Many of the sisters talked about her courage, her determination, her resolve to follow God’s will no matter the opposition or obstacles she faced. The images show Mary Ward as a woman of vision, a woman who is grounded in the person of Jesus, a woman who was free to always move forward.

Sr. Margaret then talked about one of Mary Ward’s gifts to the IBVM community: the freedom to refer all to God. Much like St. Ignatius of Loyola, Mary was able to find God in all things – in her apostolic work as much as her contemplative prayer life. Her sense of freedom extended to her relationship with God, whom she called Parent of Parents and Friend of Friends. For Mary, God was at the centre of life.

Sr. Margaret encouraged us to be like Mary Ward and to pray using our daily experiences. Through the daily Examen prayer, we can look upon our day through God’s eyes, moved by the Holy Spirit to see God working in the stuff of our daily lives, and find the freedom to give all that we have to God.

DSCN0466

Tomorrow we celebrate the Feast of Mary Ward (we have been celebrating Mary Ward week this week, beginning with Wednesday’s reflection, and school Masses on Friday, and culminating tomorrow). We will have a special Mass and community gathering to remember Mary Ward and reflect upon her life. I feel very happy to be here for this celebration and to witness the impact Mary Ward has had on the women I live with and the larger community in Toronto.

Image of God

As I travel to and from work on the subway I am reading a book shared by my candidacy director. God of Surprises by Gerard W. Hughes, SJ has given me so much to think about and pray about over the last couple of weeks.

There are so many passages that I would love to copy and paste into this blog, but I think I would end up reproducing the whole book! Better, perhaps, to focus on smaller portions at a time.

Right now I am struck by what he says about having a false image of God. In Chapter 3 – Inner Chaos and False Images of God – he presents an illustration of the kind of image we can have of God, when we have been introduced to God by our parents and other adults when we were children:

“God was a family relative, much admired by Mum and Dad, who described him as very loving, a great friend of the family, very powerful and interested in us all. Eventually we are taken to visit ‘Good Old Uncle George’. He lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff and threatening. We cannot share our parents’ professed admiration for this jewel in the family. At the end of the visit, Uncle George turns to address us. ‘Now listen, dear,’ he begins, looking very severe, ‘I want to see you here once a week, and if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to you.’ He then leads us down to the mansion’s basement. It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as we descend, and we begin to hear unearthly screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle George opens one. ‘Now look in there, dear,’ he says. We see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing furnaces with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those men and women and children who failed to visit Uncle George or to act in a way he approved. ‘And if you don’t visit me, dear, that is where you will most certainly go’, says Uncle George. He then takes us upstairs again to meet Mum and Dad. As we go home, tightly clutching Dad with one hand and Mum with the other, Mum leans over us and says, ‘And now don’t you love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?’ And we, loathing the monster, say ‘Yes I do,’ because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace. At a tender age religious schizophrenia has set in and we keep telling Uncle George how much we love him and how good he is and that we want to do only what pleases him. We observe what we are told are his wishes and dare not admit, even to ourselves, that we loathe him.

Uncle George is a caricature, but a caricature of a truth, the truth that we can construct a God who is an image of our tyrannical selves. Hell-fire sermons are out of fashion, but they were in fashion a few decades ago and they may well come in again. Such sermons have a great appeal to certain unhealthy types of mind, but they cause havoc with the more healthy and sensitive.

Our notion of God is mediated to us through parents, teachers and clergy. We do not come to know God directly…Intellectually, I may know that God is not like Uncle George, but it is my feelings about God which determine how I approach him, and they do not change as easily as my ideas. Uncle George is not easily exorcised from my emotions and, although I may know in my my mind that God is not like that, I may still experience a strong disinclination to approach him, without knowing why, and find a thousand reasons for not praying – I am too busy, I prefer to find him through my work, etc. We have to pray constantly to be rid of false notions of God, and we have to beg him to teach us who he is, for no one else can.”

To me, this is fascinating. I think about my own ideas of God and I see that they are contradictory. I believe that God is loving, is in fact Love itself, and offers unconditional love, and yet I still feel that I need to do things to earn God’s love. There are the right prayers, right actions, right thoughts that will earn me God’s love. So somewhere in there, in the recesses of my mind and heart, there is a battle between my images of God – a God who is all loving but is also a taskmaster I have to please. Maybe it is the result of the condition of our society where we constantly strive to prove ourselves and earn respect and admiration, and even friendship, from others. So somehow I also want to earn the respect and admiration of God (and surely, entering religious life has got to be a surefire way to do that!). It’s going to take me quite a while to wrestle with this.

 

Candidacy Reception

program cover
program cover

This evening I was formally accepted into candidacy with the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The program was beautiful and touching.  I feel very loved by this community and it is very humbling.  It’s a bit overwhelming, really.  I managed to hold off the tears until the end, when I received a congratulatory hug from the vocations director, and then I couldn’t keep it in any longer.  It’s hard to express the gratitude I feel to have reached this point.  Nine years to get here and it’s really only the beginning.

Today we also celebrate the feast of Christ the King and so I know that this day, in fact, belongs to God and not to me.  I feel blessed to have found this community, led here by God, and my heart is open to whatever lies ahead.

 

A trip to the capital

I was in Ottawa for a few days this week for work. It was wonderful to reconnect with coworkers and friends. Even though I’ve only been in Toronto for 7 weeks or so, it feels like much longer to me. It was a whirlwind three days, but lots of fun.

I was happy to be able to go to Ottawa to join my colleagues for our National Child Day celebrations. Our department is responsible for organizing federal activities for this day – November 20th – also known as Universal Children’s Day. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child so there were many events taking place around town.

We went to the annual National Child Day Senate Breakfast in the morning, facilitated a webinar on public health and children’s rights in the early afternoon (a collaborative effort between our department, CHNET-Works!, and presenters from UNICEF Canada, the Canadian Red Cross, and a youth panel from the Students Commission), and attended an event at the Landon Pearson Resource Centre for the Study of Childhood and Children’s Rights in the late afternoon. I was exhausted by the end of the day but so happy to experience the passion people have for human rights, and for the rights of children. I don’t know what the future will hold for me in religious life, in terms of work, but I do hope to continue to work on children’s rights in some way. There is so much that needs to be done!

Tonight I have been preparing for a special celebration that will take place tomorrow afternoon. I am officially being received into the community as a candidate. It’s very exciting! I have been given a copy of the program (which I will post tomorrow after the celebration has taken place). It has been beautifully and thoughtfully put together by my candidacy director – I have a feeling that I will end up crying by the end of it!