Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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The way of love

Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered today in the United States. I am a relative latecomer to his sermons but I have been deeply moved by the power of his rhetoric. My favourite of his sermons is “Paul’s Letter to American Christians”. In it, he speaks as the Apostle Paul, offering a critique of American society. His words continue to resonate and are significant for many societies around the world, including Canadian society. I’d like to share an excerpt from that sermon. Its words speak to my heart and are needed more than ever in today’s world where so many of our actions emerge from a place of fear rather than a place of love. This excerpt is taken from “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” found in the anthology Strength to Love published by Fortress Press.

American Christians, you may master the intricacies of the English language and you may possess the eloquence of articulate speech; but even though you speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, you are like sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.

            You may have the gift of scientific prediction and understand the behaviour of molecules, you may break into the storehouse of nature and bring forth many new insights, you may ascend to the heights of academic achievement, so that you have all knowledge, and you may boast of your great institutions of learning and the boundless extent of your degrees; but, devoid of love, all of these mean absolutely nothing.

            But even more, Americans, you may give your goods to feed the poor, you may bestow great gifts to charity, and you may tower high in philanthropy, but if you have not love, your charity means nothing. You may even give your body to be burned and die the death of a martyr, and your spilled blood may be a symbol of honor for generations yet unborn, and thousands may praise you as one of history’s supreme heroes; but even so, if you have not love, your blood is spilled in vain. You must come to see that a man may be self-centred in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. His generosity may feed his ego and his piety his pride. Without love, benevolence becomes egotism and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride.

            The greatest of all virtues is love. Here we find the true meaning of the Christian faith and of the cross. Calvary is a telescope through which we look into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking into time. Out of the hugeness of his generosity God allowed his only-begotten Son to die that we may live. By uniting yourselves with Christ and your brothers through love you will be able to matriculate in the university of eternal life. In a world depending on force, coercive tyranny, and bloody violence, you are challenged to follow the way of love. You will then discover that unarmed love is the most powerful force in all the world.


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Feelin’ the love

A little over a week ago I made a return visit to Sarnelli Center for Street Children in Batangas. My fellow novices joined me and I was delighted for them to meet ‘my boys’. 


What a happy reunion! My heart danced with joy to be with them again. We arrived in time to have lunch with them and spent the afternoon playing games and sports, reading stories, and watching a movie together. I felt right at home with them again. 

When it came time to leave and return to Manila, it was with a much lighter heart that I said goodbye to the boys. I left them knowing that they are forever in my heart but that I will also keep in touch with them by mail and email and I will do whatever I can to assist them from Canada. 


I trust that God has brought them into my life to be loved and that God will find ways for me to keep loving them from afar.


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Falling in love

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Helping with homework at Sarnelli Center for Street Children (Note: for safety reasons I am unable to post photos of the boys’ faces.)

A week ago I returned from a 10-day immersion experience with street children in Lipa, Batangas province. I haven’t been the same since. I have symptoms of withdrawal. I feel fidgety and restless. I check my watch often and I ask myself “What are they doing now?” My heart aches. I really miss my boys.

For 10 days I lived with 8 other novices (5 women, 3 men) and 20 boys aged 9 to 15 years. I would get up with the boys in the mornings and help them get ready for school, eat meals with them, assist them with homework, play with them, pray with them, and care for them like an older sister.

After a couple of days of getting to know them, I began to feel close to them. And then I fell in love with them. Being in love taught me a lot about love.

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Praying The Examen for Children.

Love bridges any cultural or linguistic divide.

I can’t speak Tagalog very well. Or at all, really. At dinner on the first night with the boys, I rattled off the list of Tagalog words I know (basically limited to please and thank you and terms about riding on a jeepney), and made them laugh when I said para po, which means stop, please. They took it upon themselves to beef up my vocabulary and so slowly I learned the words for fork and knife, bowl and cup, rice and fish, and being full (busog). I delighted in learning from them and they delighted in teaching me. I was also schooled in the proper way to use a fork and spoon to eat (do not try to use the spoon as a knife unless you want to be ridiculed!), and I learned to eat rice twice a day (three times proved to be too much), mixing it together with the meat and broth to make a tasty little stew. Each of my successes at mealtimes brought me closer to the boys at my table and was a way for us to show that we cared about each other.

Love gives generously.

I think of all the little ways I gave and received love during those 10 days. I discovered that I can endure discomforts and inconveniences for the sake of love. Lack of sleep, unusual food (i.e. too much rice), and occasional emotional discomfort (being stretched) seemed like nothing because I just wanted to spend time with the boys. I discovered that loving others motivates me to go beyond myself in a way that I find difficult to do when I am focused on myself. For those beautiful boys I felt like I would have done anything.

They loved me in their individual ways too. Often it was through material gifts. One boy gave me a little candy or a packet of biscuits every day from his pocket money. He receives only 10 pesos a day to buy a morning snack at school yet he saved a bit of it for me every day. The boys’ love also took the form of playing together after school each day (badminton championships – Canada vs. Philippines!) and reading together every night. At the end of the immersion, I received several little notes and beautiful works of origami expressing their love and appreciation – treasures from the heart.

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Getting ready for the next badminton match.

Love is not bound by distance.

I was heartbroken when I had to say goodbye to the boys last week. Due to unfortunate circumstances we had a very abrupt goodbye and I am still recovering from the experience. I actually feel pain to be separated from them. But I know that I must continue with my formation and they must continue with their lives too. Even though we are separated now, a piece of my heart will always be with them and a piece of theirs will always be with me. I pray for them and think of them every day and I will continue to do so when I return to Canada. Their love has forever shaped me.

Love is the root of vocation.

During those 10 days, I received significant consolation from God. I felt confirmed in my vocation to religious life and I know that I am called to love those who are neglected or abandoned by society. Throughout my discernment, and at times during this year of formation, I have struggled off and on wondering whether religious life is a selfish way of life. I would think of the job I had in Ottawa and my house and the fact that I could give a child a very good life. I’ve wondered whether I should adopt a child instead and focus my life on giving a child in need a good and loving home. But during the immersion, I really felt a confirmation that God is calling me to religious life and to a freedom to love as many people in need as possible. It does mean that I will not raise a child or devote myself solely to the well-being of one person (or family) but I will be available to love as many people as possible as deeply as I am able.

In the midst of both rejoicing and mourning my experience with the boys, I feel a sense of gratitude for the gift I have been given. And I know that like the 30-day retreat I made in April, the fruits of this experience will only deepen and grow over time.

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My group of novices during the immersion experience.


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As it all becomes real

When I arrived home from our 30-day retreat, after making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I quickly unpacked my suitcase. I hung up my clothes and put my books in order on the shelf. I put away my toothbrush and my shampoo and I settled back into the routine of regular life.

But the graces of the retreat I am unpacking at a much slower rate. Slower than a snail’s pace. In a sense, it feels like I am not so much unpacking the experiences of the retreat but that the graces, or gifts, that I experienced during the retreat, are making themselves real in my everyday life.

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Love

I received the grace of God’s love in many ways during the retreat. Perhaps the most powerful, or foundational, experiences of God’s love, were felt in the first week. As I immersed myself in the various moments of prayer each day, I was slowly able to  recognize God’s presence and love in all aspects of my life, from the moment of my birth until the present. I felt, powerfully, that I am God’s child and that I am loved unconditionally. That grace, which continued to build throughout the four weeks, has only strengthened in the time that has passed following the retreat. Each day I wake up in the morning and I know that I am loved. I may not always feel the “warm fuzzies” of love but I know in the core of my being that I am loved. And that knowledge makes each day a joy to be discovered and savoured.

 

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Freedom

I received the grace of freedom in myriad ways during the retreat: through deeper self-knowledge and self-acceptance, through understanding my sinfulness and relinquishing my sins before God, and through the desire to surrender all of myself and my life to God. Again, it was in the first week that the foundations of the grace of freedom were laid. When I had truly experienced God’s love for me, I was able to look at myself honestly, without the masks I have worn during my life, and to see my sinfulness (and my beautiful potential), and offer it all to God. I made a general confession (a confession that covered all of the sins of my life) which made me quite nervous at first but was my liberation. I felt such a sense of freedom and release from all of the things that had been holding me back from living my life fully and from being fully present to God. The feeling of freedom grew during the retreat and I believe it was crucial to my ability to receive the subsequent graces of the retreat.

Back at home now, the grace of freedom is active in my life. I feel greater freedom in relationships, in experiencing the ups and downs of the novitiate, and in discerning this vocation and whatever the future may hold. It’s a feeling of being open to God working in me, leading me, and guiding me, and of trusting in God.

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Friendship

The most profound grace I experienced during the retreat was the grace of friendship with Jesus. All of the graces felt profound, of course, but when I experienced the gift of friendship, I had the sense that this changes everything.

During the second week, I experienced some significant resistance in prayer and I struggled to stay engaged. At one point, I got so fed up, feeling that the Exercises were contrived and I was being forced to try to experience things that I just couldn’t experience, and I was about to give up. In the middle of my interior fury, Jesus told me to go for a walk. I have rarely experienced what I consider a direct intervention from God, but in that moment, I heard Jesus, through my inner voice, tell me to go for a walk. So I went for a long walk with Jesus all over the retreat grounds. I experienced, almost tangibly, his presence, walking beside me and talking to me. He encouraged me and loved me, and he basically told me to get a grip. It was just what I needed. He made me laugh at myself and he pulled me out of desolation. In that moment, I understood in my heart that Jesus is truly my friend and he is walking through life with me.

Later that week, the knowledge of friendship was confirmed in my scriptural reflections. During one of my contemplations on the mission of the disciples, I had a joyful revelation that to share the gospel, to tell people about Jesus, is to talk about my friend. I felt a strong desire deep within to tell the whole world about my friend and about all of the amazing things he has done for me and how he has loved me.

In the fourth, and final, week of the retreat, I received the grace of knowing that Jesus is my best friend. Not just that Jesus is my friend but that Jesus is my best friend and he has always been with me. It was in that moment that I knew that this grace changes everything. I can see that my best friend has always been with me and will always be with me.  No matter what happens this year in the Philippines, or later in my life, I know that my best friend is with me through it all and is leading me. And because I trust my best friend and believe that he loves me and wants only the best for me, whatever I experience, whether joy or suffering, is a gift from my best friend. Most of all, I know that I want to live my life for my best friend. Since coming home from retreat, this grace has sustained me and given me energy and life each day. It’s exciting to live each day knowing that my best friend is at my side, sharing it all with me, and I don’t need to be afraid, no matter what happens.

 

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Discipleship

The grace of discipleship seemed to flow from the graces of freedom and friendship though they are very much intertwined. When I prayed with the mission of the disciples during the second week of the retreat, I felt an outpouring of graces, including the freedom and friendship I’ve already described. Freedom and friendship led me to an intense desire to be a disciple of Jesus (in my retreat journal, I named the grace as being ‘a radical disciple’). I’ve never experienced that kind of desire before. Generally, in the past, I have been hesitant to even use the word disciple to describe myself for fear of being seen as a sort of ‘Jesus freak’ and risk being rejected. But I think all of the retreat graces I have received have given me courage (although courage may be a separate grace altogether!), and through my prayer, I saw that what I truly want is to be a radical disciple of Jesus. I desire to leave everything behind and follow him, to go out into the world with nothing (the disciples went without food or money or an extra tunic!) except the freedom to share the good news with all that I meet.

The grace of discipleship has been made more real since the end of the retreat. For the past few weeks we have been studying our IBVM Constitutions (the rules and guidelines that govern our community), and many of the passages we have studied have resonated with that grace. I can see that my life as a sister in the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary is how I can live as a radical disciple of Jesus in total freedom and love.

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Compassion

The final retreat grace I would like to share is the grace of compassion. This particular grace I actually only recognized after the retreat ended. I didn’t notice it specifically during the retreat but I can see that it was a gift that I received. Certainly, over the course of the retreat, I learned to see myself with compassion – to see my faults and failings and my sinfulness, and knowing that I am loved by God, I am able to better love myself. As I prayed with the passion and death of Jesus, I was often moved with compassion for his pain and suffering, and felt greater love for him. In the days after the retreat, however, I can see most clearly the grace active in me. In the last couple of weeks, I have had to confront a couple of challenging situations that I know in the past would have caused me to become defensive and resentful. Instead, I felt a deep compassion that led me to be more loving, open, and understanding. It was proof to me that I am being transformed by God.

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What I have experienced so far after the retreat is, I know, just the tip of the iceberg. I experienced much more during the retreat than I am able to understand and process right now. I am grateful to have a journal full of the riches of my prayers that I can look back on, and I believe that God will continue to deepen my understanding and experience of these graces throughout the rest of my life.


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prophets of peace

rt_pope_911_02_lb_150925_12x5_1600Image source: abcnews.go.com

Like many people, I have been glued to the tv and to online streaming over the past few days to watch Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. It has been a delight to witness (even from behind a screen) his addresses to Congress and the U.N., and his outreach to the homeless and poverty-stricken in both Washington and New York City. He is inspiring, with his loving yet challenging words, and his authentic presence. To me, he embodies the Jesus that I recognize from the Gospels.

In his whirlwind day in New York City today, he made a stop at the 9/11 memorial to participate in an inter-religious prayer service. I wasn’t able to catch his remarks online but I found the transcript later. His words are deeply moving and are made even more so by the beauty and simplicity of the memorial. I am posting his words here so that I can look back on them later.

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Interreligious Meeting
Ground Zero Memorial, New York
Friday, 25 September 2015

 Dear Friends,

   I feel many different emotions standing here at Ground Zero, where thousands of lives were taken in a senseless act of destruction. Here grief is palpable. The water we see flowing towards that empty pit reminds us of all those lives which fell prey to those who think that destruction, tearing down, is the only way to settle conflicts. It is the silent cry of those who were victims of a mindset which knows only violence, hatred and revenge. A mindset which can only cause pain, suffering, destruction and tears.

   The flowing water is also a symbol of our tears. Tears at so much devastation and ruin, past and present. This is a place where we shed tears, we weep out of a sense of helplessness in the face of injustice, murder, and the failure to settle conflicts through dialogue. Here we mourn the wrongful and senseless loss of innocent lives because of the inability to find solutions which respect the common good. This flowing water reminds us of yesterday’s tears, but also of all the tears still being shed today.

   A few moments ago I met some of the families of the fallen first responders. Meeting them made me see once again how acts of destruction are never impersonal, abstract or merely material. They always have a face, a concrete story, names. In those family members, we see the face of pain, a pain which still touches us and cries out to heaven.

   At the same time, those family members showed me the other face of this attack, the other face of their grief: the power of love and remembrance. A remembrance that does not leave us empty and withdrawn. The name of so many loved ones are written around the towers’ footprints. We can see them, we can touch them, and we can never forget them.

   Here, amid pain and grief, we also have a palpable sense of the heroic goodness which people are capable of, those hidden reserves of strength from which we can draw. In the depths of pain and suffering, you also witnessed the heights of generosity and service. Hands reached out, lives were given. In a metropolis which might seem impersonal, faceless, lonely, you demonstrated the powerful solidarity born of mutual support, love and self-sacrifice. No one thought about race, nationality, neighborhoods, religion or politics. It was all about solidarity, meeting immediate needs, brotherhood. It was about being brothers and sisters. New York City firemen walked into the crumbling towers, with no concern for their own wellbeing. Many succumbed; their sacrifice enabled great numbers to be saved.

   This place of death became a place of life too, a place of saved lives, a hymn to the triumph of life over the prophets of destruction and death, to goodness over evil, to reconciliation and unity over hatred and division.

   It is a source of great hope that in this place of sorrow and remembrance I can join with leaders representing the many religious traditions which enrich the life of this great city. I trust that our presence together will be a powerful sign of our shared desire to be a force for reconciliation, peace and justice in this community and throughout the world. For all our differences and disagreements, we can live in a world of peace. In opposing every attempt to create a rigid uniformity, we can and must build unity on the basis of our diversity of languages, cultures and religions, and lift our voices against everything which would stand in the way of such unity. Together we are called to say “no” to every attempt to impose uniformity and “yes” to a diversity accepted and reconciled.

   This can only happen if we uproot from our hearts all feelings of hatred, vengeance and resentment. We know that that is only possible as a gift from heaven. Here, in this place of remembrance, I would ask everyone together, each in his or her own way, to spend a moment in silence and prayer. Let us implore from on high the gift of commitment to the cause of peace. Peace in our homes, our families, our schools and our communities. Peace in all those places where war never seems to end. Peace for those faces which have known nothing but pain. Peace throughout this world which God has given us as the home of all and a home for all. Simply PEACE. 

   In this way, the lives of our dear ones will not be lives which will one day be forgotten. Instead, they will be present whenever we strive to be prophets not of tearing down but of building up, prophets of reconciliation, prophets of peace.