A trip to the Mekong Delta

One of my favourite experiences during our visit to Vietnam earlier this month was a trip to the Mekong Delta. It was a fantastic experience, organized by one of our sisters. Even though we participated in an organized tour, I felt like a true adventurer (my childhood dream was to be Indiana Jones!), especially as we paddled along one of the channels of the Delta.

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The Mekong Delta produces over half of Vietnam’s rice as well as many kinds of tropical fruit, like jackfruit, mangosteen, bananas, and others. The vegetation is lush and exotic, particularly to my Canadian eyes.

On the day of our trip, we left Ho Chi Minh City early in the morning and traveled two hours to a spot along the Mekong River. From there, we took a boat down along the river to explore a few different islands. On our first stop we observed how rice paper is made. We also had a delicious traditional Vietnamese lunch – fish, pork, greens, and yummy fresh spring rolls. At each stop there were tourist souvenirs on display.

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Coconut monkeys!

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Wending our way through the jungle.

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The river is brown but it’s not dirty. It is rich with mud and sediment that keeps the Delta fertile.

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Rice paper drying on racks.

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A paste of rice is bubbling away. Soon it will be rolled out into paper.

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I was so tempted to buy a Vietnamese hat.

 

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Our feast! Notice the remains of the elephant fish. It was delish.

After lunch we were taken to another island to visit a bee farm and to taste delicious honey tea.

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I found the water mesmerizing.

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Honey tea – nectar of the gods!

From the bee farm we were led by donkey to a local restaurant to listen to traditional South Vietnamese music and to enjoy a selection of tropical fruit.

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It was a rather bumpy ride.

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Not a great shot but I was trying to capture the ornamental dogs on top of the gate posts. I noticed a lot of houses with ornamental dogs or dragons.

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A feast of fruit! Watermelon, longan, pineapple, dragon fruit, and rambutan.

Finally, we went to a third island to learn how to make coconut candy and try a sample (or two!).

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Coconut candy being mixed. It had an enticing aroma.

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Samples on offer.

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Coconut candies drying and ready to be cut and packaged.

My favourite part of the trip was our jaunt along one of the Mekong channels. It was beautiful and enchanting.

 

At the end of the day I was exhausted but I felt so blessed to have had a little taste of Vietnamese culture.

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Beautiful Vietnam

The members of our novitiate house had the incredible opportunity to travel to Vietnam last week to visit the IBVM community there. It was a whirlwind week of new sights, sounds, and tastes. I loved exploring Ho Chi Minh City with our sisters (usually on the back of their motorbikes) and learning about their culture. I really fell in love with the city, the culture, and the people. Such an intoxicating mix of East and West.

More to come soon on our visit but first a selection of photos to whet your appetite!

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The Post Office – a beautiful example of the French architecture found in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City.

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A portrait of Ho Chi Minh is prominently displayed in the main hall of the Post Office.

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At Ben Thanh Market.

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Bags, bags, and more bags!

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Bowls made from coconut.

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Amazing embroidery work – gorgeous scenes stitched by hand.

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“The Church of 3 Bells” or the “Dominican Church” – an extraordinary example of the fusion of East and West. The church was built in the style of a traditional pagoda as a way to incorporate the Catholic faith into Asian culture.

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A pair of dragons greet you at the entrance to the church.

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A mountain of fresh spring rolls!

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I visited the museum that commemorates the American War (Vietnam War) – shocking photographs of the atrocities of war and the effects of the war on generations of Vietnamese. A lot of propaganda as well.

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After the museum, I visited Independence Palace – the seat of the Vietnamese government in the 60s and 70s.

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If you visit Ho Chi Minh, look up! Tangles of wires greet you everywhere.

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It’s a work of art.

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A hem (lane) leading into a Japanese neighbourhood.

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Beautiful Vietnam!

Light in the city

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For nearly a year now I have been captivated by the words Pope Francis spoke when he visited New York City last September. I have gone back to them time and again, and held them in my heart, especially this year in Manila. During the Mass he celebrated at Madison Square Garden he said:

“In every age, the People of God are called to contemplate this light [referring to the words of the prophet Isaiah]. A light for the nations, as the elderly Simeon joyfully expressed it. A light meant to shine on every corner of this city, on our fellow citizens, on every part of our lives.”

“God’s faithful people can see, discern and contemplate his living presence in the midst of life, in the midst of the city. Together with the prophet Isaiah, we can say: The people who walk, breathe and live in the midst of smog, have seen a great light, have experienced a breath of fresh air.”

As I walk the streets of Manila, I often struggle to see the light of God in the midst of the city. I walk to the supermarket and I choke on the fumes of the traffic, sometimes so much that I have to hold my handkerchief against my nose and mouth. A month ago, I walked home from the LRT station and was splattered with urine by a man living on the street. I’ve been spat on by careless passersby several times. I’ve come home during a heavy rain and discovered that my feet and legs stink of excrement from wading through puddles. My heart aches when I pass by a polluted river or stream, so full of garbage and waste that it cannot support life. Many times I have caught myself judging this city. Why is it so foul? Why is there so much filth everywhere? It’s disgusting! In Canada…

“In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath “the rapid pace of change”, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no “right” to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.”

I walk to church and I pass men and women sitting on the side of the road or next to a pile of rubbish. I see children, skin blackened with dirt and grime, begging for change. I see hordes of young men standing on the street corner unable to find work or engaged in work without meaning or outlet for their gifts. I see young people with passion and potential shining in their eyes who are unable to express their creativity and talent. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, the more that I see these people, day in and day out, the less I really see them. Like Pope Francis says, they become part of the urban landscape. They blend in with the broken walls I pass and the crumbling pavement I step through each day.

Where is the light of God in all of this? Where is the hope?

“Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that he is part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope. A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others, for the life of our city. A hope which frees us from empty “connections”, from abstract analyses, or sensationalist routines. A hope which is unafraid of involvement, which acts as a leaven wherever we happen to live and work. A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as he continues to walk the streets of our city. Because God is in the city.”

When I feel overwhelmed by what I find outside my door (which is often), I call upon God in prayer. Usually I talk to Jesus and I tell him that I feel repulsed and angered by what I see outside, by the injustice done to his people. I tell him that I want to help. I want to do more than pass by. I want to engage with his people. I tell him that I feel fed up that this year of novitiate is focused more on prayer than on ministry. I ask, why am I here, in a place that is screaming for assistance on every street corner, and I cannot go out and spend my energy there? I tell him that what I do is not enough. Let me do more.

In my prayer, Jesus basically agrees with me. It’s not enough. I could never do enough to fix all of the problems I see. But I can do what I am called to do. I can engage deeply where I am called to be engaged. I can consciously bring Jesus with me wherever I go, walk the streets of Manila with him, and ask him to show me the light in the city, where hope is to be found. Because there is hope. There is always hope. In my very limited humanity, I can’t always see where hope lies. The details overwhelm me and make me feel powerless and angry. But regardless of my limitations, there is hope.

On Wednesday mornings I volunteer as a caregiver at an organization that looks after street children and youth. I work with babies and toddlers, playing with them, reading to them, cuddling them, giving them as much love as I can for the 2.5 hours that I have with them each week. It’s not enough. The neglect they have experienced in their young lives is evident and they need much more than I can give. But I am present to them for those 2.5 hours and the love I give them is all I have to give. It takes the same amount of time to travel to and from the organization – a train, a taxi, and a jeepney ride each way – and most days it’s a real slog. But reaching the children’s home and seeing their beautiful faces makes it absolutely worth it. It is in the faces of these children that I see the hope of Jesus. In this tiny way that I contribute to the enormous problems of the world, in the concrete way that I am with them, playing with them, and loving them, and in the way that they are loving me too, God is present in the city.

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Island hopping

For three days last week we were the IBVM beach babes.

After a 2.5 hour bus ride and a 1.5 hour ferry ride, we arrived at Talipanan beach on the island of Mindoro for our first (mini) vacation! We spent a glorious three days enjoying the sun and surf.

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It was so good to get out of the city for awhile, to breathe fresh air and see the sparkling ocean. It was actually a startling reminder of how polluted Manila is when I saw how beautiful and clean the ocean is in other parts of the country. The water was turquoise and crystal clear. I felt a spiritual lift just seeing it.

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We stayed in a little house owned by Amami Beach Resort. It wasn’t quite as cute as the cottages below but it had a lovely view of the sea.

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We had the beach to ourselves!

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When the rain came we sat on the front porch and watched nature at work. The force of the rain and wind was pretty spectacular.

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The calm after the storm.

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Lots of places to swim and relax. And then enjoy a cappuccino.

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Talipanan was a gorgeous place to escape to and experience the beauty of the Philippines. We’re already planning a return trip!

Thrown into the deep end

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We began an inter-congregational novitiate program last week. Nineteen different congregations (including the Missionary Society of St. Paul, Daughters of Wisdom, Redemptorists, Carmelites, and many more) from all over Asia, and parts of Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Europe (Malta). Two of us are from North America: 1 Mexican and 1 Canadian. We range in age from 18 years to over 40 years. It’s a diverse group and large in size. When we are all present, we number close to 90 participants.

Our first week together was intense. None of us knew what to expect. We assumed ‘orientation’ meant orientation. But, in fact, several of us were immediately thrown into leadership roles and made to carry the program forward. At a pre-orientation meeting earlier in June, I was elected co-chair of our novices’ steering committee. It was a very random election, based on my introduction (name and country), and with no job description provided. When I arrived at the module last Tuesday, I was informed that the other co-chair (who was meant to be ’in charge’) wouldn’t be joining the group until August so until his arrival I would be the one to lead!

I don’t consider myself a particularly spontaneous person but Tuesday morning I became intimately acquainted with the art of improvisation. All of a sudden I was the emcee for a three-day module I knew nothing about. I knew nothing about our schedule, our speakers, or even our purpose over the three days other than ‘orientation’. By the grace of God, and under the guidance of one of the priests who was the head of formation, I learned the ropes. Normally I would hate being in charge of something without knowing details in advance but I learned to go with the flow and to enjoy the experience.

And, anyway, I wasn’t on my own in the deep end. Many others were there with me. Our haphazardly assembled steering committee came together to organize some of the necessary components of the module: prayers 3 times a day (morning, noon and closing), animation sessions (basically icebreaker songs or games), recaps of the day’s lesson, introductions of the speakers, and preparation of thank you cards and gifts. It was a tall order for a group of people who barely knew each other’s names but it was a great success and the collaboration ended up being a lot of fun. I love working in a team environment where others are energized and excited to contribute and I experienced such positive energy and enthusiasm in this group that it was a pleasure to work together. And I am sure it will continue to be a pleasure to work together for the next several months.

I also learned something very important during the module (aside from two disturbing lessons about attitudes toward food safety and sanitation – but now’s not the time to get into that!). I learned how important it is for women to have a voice. Having a voice is something I take for granted in Canada. I don’t worry so much about sharing my opinion. I feel comfortable voicing my ideas and opinions at home and at work, and at church when the opportunity presents itself. However, I see that in this particular environment (the novitiate program), it is harder for women to be heard. Despite the fact that in the Philippines there are many strong women involved in politics, including past female Presidents, in religious life, or perhaps in the church, women’s voices are harder to hear. Men are being trained to be priests, to become preachers, and as such, they are given many opportunities to speak. Women do not have the same opportunities, nor is there the same expectation for women to speak.

The majority of the men in our program appear to be very confident speakers. In fact, some of them seem to use the opportunity to respond to a question to give a quasi-sermon to the group. They are very friendly and helpful guys but there seems to be gender power imbalance at play (such as an unfortunate incident where a man asked a woman to wash his lunch dishes for him!) or at least a limited understanding of women’s roles and abilities. The women, it seems, need some coaxing in order to share their ideas and opinions. They struggle to volunteer their thoughts. I am not sure the reason why. It could be more than gender. It could be age. It could be feeling less confident speaking in English. Regardless of the reason, it’s so important that we hear their voices. We have women from all around the world gathered here, women with diverse backgrounds and from diverse cultures, all with unique points of view that would enrich our dialogue.

I like to think that my next couple of months (or however long it ends up being) in a visible leadership position will help to encourage the other women in the program to speak up. We’ve already had a conversation about it as an IBVM community and we are going to use every opportunity to participate and have a voice and to encourage the other women in the program to join in as well. If we all feel comfortable sharing our views, we will all come away from this time of formation with a rich experience of what it means for men and women in the church to collaborate and to learn from one another.

Please keep us in your prayers!

Sharing the mystery

CIMG3677Gazing at the mysterious

I have an uneasy relationship with Facebook. To me, this form of media is part blessing and part curse. I love that I can stay connected to my family and friends while living thousands of kilometres away from them but I dislike the distraction it can become when I read my newsfeed and I get caught up in the lives, and frequently, the opinions, of others. Especially when I feel I ought to be present in the moment of my day and living my life fully right now. Facebook often seems to take from my life rather than to give.

But this week I have been pondering mystery. Mystery abundant and at work in my life and in all of our lives. By mystery, I mean the mystery of God. I’ve been thinking about my life journey thus far (especially as I am getting closer to the halfway mark of my year in the Philippines) and about how God has been guiding me.

Sometimes I’ve caught myself thinking what am I doing here? Not in the sense that I want to go home, but just, why am I in the place that I am now? As much as I think about it, I can’t really explain it. I don’t know why I have a preference for religious life over marriage and family life or even just being single. It seemed to me growing up that I would get married and have a family but then…. I didn’t. I discovered that it isn’t what I desire for my life. For some reason, this life, where I am right now, is what I desire. I recognize that I am living in mystery.

As I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed this week, I am struck also by the mystery of other peoples’ lives. The mystery of God working in them, shaping them, giving them rich and abundant lives, whether what they share on Facebook is joyful or sorrowful, angry or fearful. We’re sharing mystery all over the place. It’s in the photos of my younger brother’s high school graduation. It’s in the photos and posts of my older brother’s job and travels in Vancouver. It’s in my friends’ photos and posts about their children and growing families. It’s in posts about death and grieving. It’s in posts about tragedy and wide-scale suffering. It’s in the opinions and rants that show the world what we care deeply about. Facebook is permeated with the mystery of life. And it’s beautiful.

This week, by the grace of God, all I feel is gratitude for the way that social media allows us to reveal, to some degree, the mystery of our lives. When we share, it helps us to understand that we are interconnected. Our lives our important to one another, just as they are important to our creator. Our lives are the constant revealing of mystery.

To live the Constitutions

A follower of Mary Ward, just like a Jesuit, can only be someone who has experienced what it is to be loved unconditionally by God, who has at least to some degree attained indifference, who knows (again experientially) what is it is to be a forgiven sinner, who has been profoundly attracted by the person of Jesus Christ and become committed to his project, who has learnt the art of discernment through being wisely accompanied, at least once, in making a life-changing decision, who has entered into the suffering and death of Jesus Christ and received intimations of his risen life and glory, who embraces herself, her life, other people and all creation as gift, hence becoming sensitized spiritually to recognize God in all things. Without these graces no one can understand, still less live, the Constitutions. They are not addressed to anyone else.

From: O’Leary, Brian. “‘Hither I Must Come to Draw’ Mary Ward and the Ignatian Constitutions.” The Way 51.3 (2012). p.35

I love this passage. I came across it during my reading last week and it has stayed with me. I have been pondering it for several days. For me, it sums up beautifully the relationship between the Spiritual Exercises and living out our Constitutions. We live by grace.

 

The flora and fauna of paradise

I’m still reflecting on the graces I received during the retreat and am taking time to process everything that happened but I wanted to share more photos of the retreat centre and its grounds. Here are my favourite photos of the beautiful plant and animal life that made the retreat centre such a special place.

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This was my usual view for my first prayer of the day. It was so wonderful to be outside.

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These flowers were fiery bright – I loved seeing them in the morning sun.

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These trees with aerial roots were amazing.

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I could see this tree out of my window. It became very special to me during the retreat.

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When we arrived it was so dry and the earth was cracked like this everywhere in the property. When we left it had begun to rain so the cracks were beginning to close up.

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My favourite place to pray in the late afternoon with the golden sun.

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The yellow version of this beautiful flower.

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I took this picture at the end of our retreat. You can see the grass is starting to turn green again.

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A seed pod beginning to open. It was the size of a corn cob!

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And here are the seeds embedded in a sort of cotton.

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Another favourite place to pray in the late afternoon.

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The sheep had free reign during the day to graze where they liked. They tended to follow a very particular route and timetable as they travelled the property. I usually saw this parade of sheep around 8:30am.

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Our beloved “mini lamb”, or “lambie”. Also known by his given name, “Cha-Cha”. As a little lamb with fleece as white as snow, he was spoiled by everyone. He was later adorned with a little cross pendant, like a little monk.

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A rear view of the two other lambs – they did not want to pose for a picture.

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The nocturnal amphibian.

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We couldn’t escape the roosters, even at the retreat centre – another noisy bunch.

Next steps

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One more sleep and I’m off. Off on the next step of this journey. To parts unknown and people unknown, and basically, a life unknown. The early hours of New Year’s Eve will find me flying over the U.S. and then across the Pacific Ocean to my new home away from home in the Philippines. For the next year, I will be living in the IBVM Formation House in Quezon City (part of metro Manila) with three other novices. We will live together as an international community comprised of Australian, Vietnamese, and Canadian women.

I’m looking forward to meeting my new companions and I’m also excited to spend the next year learning more about Mary Ward, the history of the Institute, Ignatian spirituality, religious life, and spend more dedicated time in prayer. The anxieties and worries I’ve felt over the past few months have slowly been subsiding and are being replaced by happy anticipation and a feeling of adventure.

Over the last couple of weeks I have been preparing for my move as best as I can. [With a wonderful Christmas interlude, of course, filled with festive fun and recreation – and the requisite happy hour(s)!]

Reading about the Philippines islands, the people, and the culture, as well as Australian and Vietnamese culture and customs, has fueled my excitement to travel and experience a new way of life. I’ve been stocking up on what I will need for the year (appropriate summer clothing – not easy to find in the midst of a Canadian winter!, books, etc.), and taking time for prayer and reflection.

During this time of preparation and transition I have been seeking the intercession of one of Mary Ward’s first companions, Winifred Wigmore, to help me on this journey. Although I don’t know a great deal about her (I hope to learn more over the course of the year!), I admire her spirit. She was a great friend of Mary Ward, she was counted on to undertake difficult tasks, and she was even imprisoned for supporting Mary’s work. I think her pluckiness and deep love for her friend is a good model for me to follow, and I have confidence that she will help me along the way.

I hope to continue my blog throughout the next year but I expect there will be a break of a month or so while I get settled in and transition to life as a novice in formation. I will do my best to update you all as soon as I can. In the meantime, I will be praying for you all and I ask you to please pray for me too!!

Goodbye for now! Paalam muna sa ngayon!

Manila Philippines from the air Aerial Pictures Metro Manila

Newly minted novice

Last Thursday, December 10, 2015, the feast day of Our Lady of Loreto, I was received as a novice to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loretto Sisters) here in Toronto.

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As the day approached, I felt a mixture of joy and fear. Joy for this next step in my discernment and formation with the Institute, but also fear of the unknown and all of the newness that lies ahead when I go to the Philippines.

To prepare myself to be received, I spent time in prayer and reflection, using a booklet on consecrated life as my guide. I really only used the first couple of chapters of the guide, focused on the heart and mind of the consecrated person (identifying the call to religious life) and the response of the consecrated person (saying yes to the call). These alone provided plenty of fuel for reflection.

Experiencing a call to religious life is mysterious. It is hard to explain the drive and longing felt by someone called to religious life: the desire to give fully of oneself in the service of God and God’s people, and the profound desire to know God. I find it very difficult to express how much I long to know God, to understand God’s plan for the world. I have so many questions for God. I also feel a deep desire to serve God by caring for all people. And over time, I feel more and more drawn to life in community. I pondered all of these things as I waited to be received.

During the reception, I felt peaceful and joyful. I was moved by the joy of the sisters who participated in the reception, and I felt (and feel!) so grateful to be part of this community. There is so much life and love here.

I received the Loretto cross (which I happily and proudly wear) and gifts to help with my discernment during novitiate: a bible, the IBVM Constitutions, and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. All of these will come with me to the Philippines and help to guide me.

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So now, as a newly minted novice, I am trying to live fully each day with the community here and love these sisters as much as I can before I depart. And I am continuing to pester God, to try to know him better, and be open to the gifts and graces he has given me.

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Venerable Mary Ward, foundress of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pray for us.