Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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Time to say goodbye

It’s time to say goodbye to my favourite city.

The past three weeks in New York City have been a total joy. I am deeply grateful to Cecilia and Cynthia in our NGO office to making the arrangements for me to attend the High Level Political Forum. And I am grateful to my formation director, Mary, for allowing me to pursue this opportunity. It has been incredible.

This year I am aware that I leave New York City having received many blessings.

The blessing of personal renewal through my engagement at the UN and the chance to do something I love and learn about issues I am passionate about.

The blessing of friendship through my time spent with Cynthia, Cecilia, Veronica, Nancy, Mary, Sheila, and other friends met through the UN.

The blessing of adventure through all of the fun Cynthia and I had exploring the city together (Kabbalat Shabbat at B’nai Jesherun synagogue, kayaking on the Hudson, yoga in Central Park, Amateur Night at the Apollo, Auburn Seminary, America Media – and going to a taping of The View with Veronica) and the chance to re-visit places here that I love (91stStreet community garden, Zabar’s, the Met Museum, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, St. Francis Xavier parish, 9/11 memorial).

Each day I have encountered a God of abundance. A God who is generous and gives unexpected gifts. And a God who gives hope and courage amidst the sufferings of the world – hope and courage to keep working to create the conditions for God’s grace to work through.

I want to end this post with a beautiful prayer Cecilia shared with Cynthia and I yesterday as we had a debrief of the HLPF. Written by Bl. Oscar Romero in 1979, it captures perfectly what we are about.

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

(Archbishop Romero, El Salvador. 1979)


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It’s a wrap!

The High Level Political Forum (HLPF) wrapped up in a flurry of activity last week. Sessions from Monday to Wednesday were devoted to country presentations a.k.a. Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). I was particularly interested in listening to the country presentations where the CJ/IBVM has a presence. Nine of our countries were up for review and I was able to be present for five out of the nine countries.

I paid special attention to the country review from Canada, of course, and was very interested to participate in the session as a member of civil society. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed in the Canadian presentation. The programs and investments that were highlighted as responding to the SDGs were the same that I have heard brought out to highlight Canadian commitment to maternal and child health. In my prior work as a public servant, I had referred to the same investments time and again. I was disappointed that the government did not have anything new to offer. The good news, however, is that there is a newly created federal structure – an SDG unit housed at Employment and Social Development Canada – that will be the coordinating body for the achievement of the SDGs in Canada. That means there is a point of contact for future consultations and participation.

The most enjoyable part of my time at the UN during the HLPF was the opportunity to work with Canadian civil society organizations. The group of Canadian NGOs that gathered at the UN were inclusive and open to collaboration. If they were surprised to have a Catholic Sister working with them on the interventions, they were quiet about it! Together we prepared two statements with questions that were delivered during Canada’s VNR. (The questions went unanswered, sadly.)

Members of our CJ/IBVM group also attended two civil society events with the Canadian government. The first, an informal meet and greet at the Permanent Mission where the Ambassador and Minister Duclos spoke. Thanks to a resourceful member of our group, we left with a contact for future follow up! The second event we attended was the launch of Alliance2030, a network of Canadian civil society organizations devoted to SDG achievement in Canada. At that meeting, we met representatives from a number of other organizations, including a passionate group of Canadian youth who want to make their voices heard.

The biggest lesson that I learned from my experience at the HLPF this year was the importance of an engaged and committed civil society presence (including religious or faith-based organizations) in development work – whether the work is undertaken domestically or abroad. I’ve long had an appreciation for civil society organizations, and I worked with a number of them as a public servant, but my experience of being ‘one of them’ at the UN was a real gift. I witnessed commitment, passion, resourcefulness, and readiness to work hard to achieve goals.

It’s almost time for me to bid New York a fond farewell – three weeks have flown by!  But this year I return to Toronto equipped and ready with ideas and tools for moving the SDGs forward at home and within our international CJ/IBVM network!


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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!

 


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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!

 

 


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True life is brimming

This is my first blog post as a professed member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. What a thrill! I now write as a Loretto Sister. (I can’t stop smiling as I write this!)

Two weeks ago, I made my first profession of vows. I vowed poverty, chastity, and obedience to God for one year, according the constitutions of the IBVM, in the witness of community, family, and friends. I felt totally surrounded by love as I made my vows. I rested in the love of God and in the love of so many of the ones I love who were there with me. Afterward, how we celebrated!

Now, we are almost at the end of Advent. Christmas is on the near horizon. As I look back on the readings I chose for my first profession, I see how beautifully Adventish (Advent-like? Adventful?) they are.

The first reading I selected is from Isaiah (Isaiah 9:1-4, 6), which we do usually read during the season of Advent:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time, he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shone. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Those who have read some of my other blog posts will know that these verses are particularly dear to me. I have referenced them before, when writing about Manila and about New York City, when I have looked for inspiration to the homily Pope Francis gave on these verses at Madison Square Garden in 2015.

My novice director, Jane, noted my love for this homily in the reflection she gave during the profession:

Pope Francis gave a homily in New York City in 2015. His reflection was on Isaiah’s words: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” His words have deep meaning for Sarah.

This is some of what he said.  “In every age, the People of God are called to contemplate this light; a light meant to shine on every corner of this city, on our fellow citizens, on every part of our lives.”  “Go out to others and share the good news that God walks at our side. … “God is living in our cities.”  …”God removes us from the fray of competition and self-absorption, and God opens before us the path of peace – that peace which is born of accepting others, that peace which fills our hearts whenever we look upon those in need as our brothers and sisters.”   

What strikes me this Advent are the lines: “God removes us from the fray of competition and self-absorption, and God opens before us the path of peace – that peace which is born of accepting others, that peace which fills our hearts whenever we look upon those in need as our brothers and sisters.”   

I feel a constant nudging from God to open my eyes to the needs of those around me, especially those on the margins of society, and to respond with love. I know that I am being nudged to something more, and especially to look at my own life and to ask myself if I am truly at peace or if this is a superficial contentment. Do I look on those in need as my brothers and sisters? If so, how can I accept injustice? These questions poke and prod me and they invite me to trust that God will show me how to respond.

As a second reading for my profession, I selected an excerpt from a letter Mary Ward wrote to her spiritual director, Fr. Roger Lee, SJ, in November 1615. The excerpt describes Mary’s vision of ‘The Just Soul’, that is, a description of the ideal qualities of a member of her Institute – a woman of freedom, justice, and sincerity.

It seems a certain clear and perfect estate, to be had in this life, and such a one as is altogether needful for those that should well discharge the duties of this Institute. I never read of any I can compare in likeness to it. It is not like the state of saints, whose holiness chiefly appears in that union with God which maketh them out of themselves; I perceived then an apparent difference, and yet felt myself drawn to love and desire this state more than all those favours.

The felicity of this state (for as much as I can express) was a singular freedom from all that could make one adhere to earthly things, with an entire application and apt disposition to all good works. Something happened also discovering the freedom that such a soul should have had to refer all to God…I seemed in my understanding to see a soul thus composed, but far more fair than I can express it.

It then occurred and still continues in my mind, that those in Paradise, before the first fall, were in this estate. It seemed to me then, and that hope remains still, that our Lord let me see it, to invite me that way, and because He would give me grace in time to arrive at such an estate, at least in some degree. That word justice, and those in former times that were called just persons, works of justice, done in innocence and that we be such as we appear; and appear such as we are – these things often since occurred to my mind with a liking of them… I have moreover thought up-on this occasion that perhaps this course of ours would continue til the end of the world, because it came to that in which we first begun.

Again, from my novice director’s reflection: …on the front cover [of the Mass booklet] is our founder, Mary Ward, travelling lightly, moving forward, free, apt for all good works. It connects to Mary Ward’s vision of a just soul that we heard in the second reading.  Here is an authentic person, without attachments, with an attitude of openness, and a freedom to refer all to God.  Knowing Sarah, how could she not be drawn to become like such a person?

During Advent, I reflect upon Mary Ward’s words and I see that these are just the qualities I desire in order to encounter Jesus at Christmastime. Christmas is a time of profound mystery – we read the stories of Jesus’ birth and we ponder how it is that God could come to us in the form of a helpless child. How do we prepare ourselves to meet this mystery? How do I prepare myself to meet this mystery? I look to Mary Ward and see a way forward. Using Mary Ward as my example, I strive to grow as a woman who is free, a woman who is just, and a woman who is sincere. I strive to be a woman who will meet Jesus in the manger at Christmastime and who will follow Jesus as his disciple until the end of her life.     

I think I will end this blog post with more words from Jane, who ended her reflection so perfectly (you can see where I borrowed the title for this post): I end with these words from Sarah’s favourite poet and songwriter, Malcolm Guite. He captures what I feel is Sarah’s disposition right now:

The heart is wide open, the true life is brimming
And yearning to come flowing through
I lay down my burden and walk to the well head
And drink and then bring some to you


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Catching up

I need to catch up on my blog! Over a month has passed since my last entry. (This appears to be a habit…) So much has been going on that I intend to write about soon – I’m back into theology studies, involved in several exciting and rewarding ministries, and I’m starting to prepare for my first profession of vows with the IBVM.

But first things first. The discernment retreat! I haven’t shared about it yet.

To some extent the retreat is a bit hard to describe. It was very unlike the first 8-Day Ignatian retreat I made 4 years ago (when I was discerning to become a candidate with the IBVM) and nothing like the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises I made in the Philippines in 2016. It didn’t feel like work at all, it felt like a vacation.

At Loyola House, the grounds beckon.

I arrived at Loyola House at the end of August fully armed with what I thought I needed to make a good retreat – a stack of the journals I’d kept for the past three years, a bible, and a book on Mary Ward’s spirituality. To me, they seemed like the perfect resources for a discernment retreat. What a great decision I was sure to make if I consulted these books. Naturally, I spent the first day of my retreat taking full advantage of them – praying, reading, reflecting, and making notes to share with my retreat director. I was happy because I thought I was doing good work.

When I met with my retreat director the next day, however, we both realized that I was going about the retreat all wrong, despite my good intentions. I had embarked on the retreat prepared to wrestle with God, to work hard at making a decision about first vows. But I discovered that I had, in fact, already made the decision about vows (after all, I have been discerning for the past three years). Instead, God was inviting me to play. I was totally surprised. I was unsure whether it would be a real retreat if I didn’t follow a structured schedule of prayer. After much reassurance from my retreat director that I wouldn’t be goofing off, I spent my remaining retreat days marveling at God’s creation and delighting in each day’s new discovery.

The first thought that came to mind when I saw this bench was: ‘it’s Tardis blue!’ What a great place to sit and wait to meet The Doctor…or maybe God will turn up instead.

I walked a lot. Two or three hours a day, all around the property. One day I was captivated by texture. I stopped to caress, to really touch and feel the different textures and composition of the flowers, stones, tree trunks and bark, wild grasses, and leaves that I came across. Another day I was captivated by the sunlight and how it played off of the hills and valleys, the trees and fields. And on another day, I was drawn to hidden places – the light behind a grove of trees, a tiny flower nestled in amongst a tangle of grass, the sun peeking out from behind a cloud. I felt that God was beckoning me to explore hidden places within myself.

I also played in the arts and crafts room with the paint, pastels, and collage materials. I tapped into my childhood joy of creating with bright colours, without worrying whether the final products were any good. It was spontaneous and fun and made me wonder why I don’t play like this more often.

The entire retreat was suffused with a sense of peace and contentment and fun – a real joy at just being with God rather than being caught up in doing. It was more contemplative than active, and such a different experience than I had expected. My retreat was a confirmation of my vocation to religious life and a confirmation of my desire to become a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I can’t deny the sense of rightness and happiness I feel when I think about life as a Loretto Sister. The retreat also confirmed that God is always with me and I don’t have to constantly work at the relationship; God wants me to enjoy it.

And now here I am, a month later, and life is very busy again – filled with studies and prayer and meetings and friends and celebrations and more. All the bits and pieces of ordinary life that God makes so extraordinary. I feel God’s invitation to enjoy it all, the ordinary and the extraordinary, and to continue to live in gratitude and awe as I eagerly anticipate my first profession of vows.

 

 


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A Litany of Thanks

It’s my final day in New York City. At least for now. I hope to come back someday soon.

The past three months have been a dream come true. Even more than a dream come true, really, because I had no idea what these three months could hold. I’ve titled this post A Litany of Thanks because the overwhelming emotion that I feel right now is gratitude. I thank the IBVM for recognizing my personal and professional interests and for letting me explore them at the UN in such a meaningful way. I thank Cecilia, our IBVM representative at the UN, for hosting me and for giving me freedom to engage in the UN system and to contribute to the work of our NGO and other NGO committees. I thank Libby for bringing a bit of Australia to New York City and for sharing her wisdom and humour and making us all laugh at the right moment.

I thank God for guiding me along the way and for being with me here in New York and at the UN in a way that I had not yet experienced in my life. For the first time, I have felt a total unity between what I would consider my professional life and my private life – I have truly experienced God in all things. In all places and people and in all moments. I haven’t experienced this kind of unity before. Previously, I had felt a huge divide between my work life and my private life, especially my involvement in my parish. A big gap between the secular and spiritual. But now everything is spiritual, everything belongs to God and is of God. Divine life is everywhere!

I thank the UN (inasmuch as I can thank an institution) for the spaces and opportunities to join with other people to dialogue and debate, to learn and to grow, to listen and to be moved. It is a great privilege to be here and to be exposed to so many of the world’s struggles and achievements and, most of all, to witness incredible resiliency and determination to make the world a better place for all. At times, I have been caught up in a swell of optimism and idealism, and other times I have been brought low by realism or even pessimism. But it’s all part and parcel of the onward movement of humanity. In a moment of frustration, I once joked to Cecilia and Libby that we are at the intersection of dysfunction here at the UN. We experience the dysfunction of the various NGO committees, the dysfunction of Member States, and the dysfunction of the UN system itself. Not to mention our own personal dysfunction and NGO dysfunction. We’re in the middle of a vortex. So no wonder things are tediously slow and disorganized at times! But even in the midst of all kinds of dysfunction, I know that I love this work and I believe in it with all of my being.

And last, but definitely not least, I thank New York City for giving me a home and a playground to explore for the past three months. The first week I was here, I was bit shocked by the noise and wondered if I would ever find a quiet space. But then all of a sudden, I didn’t hear the noise and it didn’t bother me again (except for the occasional late night siren or slamming door in the hall that disturbed my sleep!). The noise became the hum of life. The energy of the city gave me energy and really brought me to life. I’ve gone out to do and see so much.

I’ve volunteered on weekends at the 91st Street Community Garden and with Franciscans Deliver, a food pantry outreach at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Midtown. I’ve traversed the length and width of this island many times, discovering its neighbourhoods, parks, museums, and churches. I’ve been to concerts and plays, a comedy club, a late show taping, and taken a tour of the NBC studios at Rockefeller Centre. I’ve hunted down landmarks that have special meaning for me, places that Madeleine L’Engle, Helene Hanff, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day brought life to. I’ve encountered the most unusual people walking down the street (an old man in pink lingerie riding a scooter, as one example) and of course, I have also witnessed the most shocking poverty and neglect in the homeless people I’ve encountered on every street. With visiting friends, I’ve laughed until my stomach has ached and I’ve cried desperate tears. I’ve celebrated Canada Day and the Fourth of July with equal gusto. I’ve gotten to taste an amazing slice of life in this city and I devoured it with great delight.

For the past three months and all they have contained, I say: thank you.