Monday, August 29, 2016

Learning from Leaving

(left) A prayer one of our oldest students wrote for the first day of class. (right) My co-teacher and two of our students read a book before class begins.

"You're never coming back are you?"
The little disappointed face familiar with the act of leaving and smeared with the peaches we just shared pleaded me to contradict her. It broke my heart, knowing that I probably would never again see these children, who I had grown so fond of during the last week.

"I don't know if I'll be back." I responded honestly but full of regret, "I want to come back next summer, but I can't make that decision for myself." The disappointment stayed on the little girl's face and now I was surrounded by the other children peppering me with all kinds of questions and responses.

"So we'll never see you again?"
"I'm going to miss you!"
"Will you play on the slide with me one last time?"
But it was the unspoken sentiments I could see in their eyes that tugged on my heart the most. "Its ok. We're used to people leaving us and never coming back anyways. Just more of the same."

In June, the Novitiate Community had the opportunity and pleasure to teach catechism classes to children living with their families in migrant camps on the vast farmland outside of Toledo, OH. We were there only for a week, but other groups would continue teaching the children throughout the summer. Before embarking on this adventure, I had never heard of a migrant worker. I didn't know what that meant for their way of life or what needs we could minister to. The week ended up being an education for both the children and myself.

Migrant workers travel the country following the crops. They travel with their whole family and any belongings that fit in the car. The children have very little. The housing at the migrant camps is not much better than a camping cabin. And because the families travel so frequently to different states, the children are familiar with leaving and being left. Uprooting and leaving everything, friends, teachers, home, several times a year can be challenging. But there is some beauty to the simplicity of a migrant child.

These children had wild imaginations that could be sparked by the littlest thing. During our break, I watched my nine-year-old student pick up an empty popsicle tube and fill it with clover and grass blades saying "this is poison and I'm finding the remedy." When we had a lull in the lesson and our class got a little antsy, my co-teacher and I would declare it was time to play a game. Immediately the children yelled out at least a half-dozen games that could be played with just our persons. Their enthusiasm, energy, and ideas were endless. Their simplicity challenged me in how I am living the vow of poverty and the virtue of simplicity. Do I need a shelf full of books to keep me busy or stacks of pictures and nick knacks to remind me of connections I have made and people I have left? Can my memory and imagination be sufficient? What am I attached to? If I had to fit all of my belongings in a car could I, and are the items that cannot fit necessary?

The migrant children I taught were also incredibly flexible and resilient. When we lost our inside teaching space they immediately accepted the outdoor classroom we set up on two sheets. When their families leave for the season, they will pick up all they have and move to the next place, easily making friends and learning to live someplace else. I was amazed at how much the children seemed to be at home with their temporary surroundings and how settled they seemed to be. They haven't been at the camp long this year and were already used to life. From my own experience, I know that it takes me months, even a whole year to feel at home and settled in a new place. For me, the frequent moving and flexibility that comes with the vow of obedience is a challenge. But these children, who have been living a vow of obedience to their parents for their whole lives, are practiced at the art of flexibility. I complain about moving every year and being in constant transition during formation. How can I be more flexible and open to my circumstances?

Seeing the value of simplicity that brings on imagination and flexibility that brings resilience in these little ones, inspires me. I strive for simplicity and flexibility because of their value. I live the vows poverty and obedience because of their value and not because it is required of me.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Tears for Others

All I want to do is cry.

That was my first thought after attending a Panel Discussion on Police and the Black Community last night. Panelists included the Mayor, two Police Chiefs, and leaders from Black Lives Matter Cincinnati, Cincinnati Children's Law Center, and New Prospect Baptist Church. Being in that room, I felt like an outsider looking in. I am not black. I do not have any ties to the police. But I see the injustice, and I want to do something about it. I feel helpless. Last night I experienced not only my own helplessness, but the helplessness of the black community, and the helplessness of the government and law enforcement.

We are all helpless.
We are all hurt.
We are all angry.

With every passing comment, question from the community, and statement from the panelists, I was more aware of the intensity and depth of the hurt on all sides. Even though I could never feel this specific hurt, the intensity of the hurt in the room was palpable. I felt like I was on a boat in a storm, taking on more water each time a new wave of hurt hit my ears. I could drown in all this water. I could drown in all these tears.

All I want to do is cry.

While the panel discussion was challenging, I am ultimately glad I went. Seeing the hurt in the eyes and the voices of the attendees keeps me emotionally connected to the unjust racial situation in our country. I cannot personally feel the emotions of discrimination, but I can empathize and remember times when I have been hurt in other ways. I could do nothing amid the storm and constant waves of hurt last night - except bring it to prayer. High emotions may be uncomfortable, but they keep me connected to others and running to God. In running to God and staying connected to those who hurt, I hope to find a role to play in righting this injustice in our country.

All I want to do is cry.

I do not cry for myself.
I cry for Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Sam DuBose, and all other black men murdered at the hands of the police.
I cry for Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and all black children who are growing up in our violent world.
I cry for the police and their families who have been thrust into sadness by a mistake.
I cry for Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Lorne Ahrens and all police officers killed in the line of duty.
I cry for the unjust system that is our government and criminal justice system.
I cry for the unending violence in our world.

At the end of the night, after hearing of another act of violence I thought:
I don't think I can handle any more hurt. But God can.
All I want to do is cry. All I can do right now is pray.
God, never let me feel disconnected from my brothers and sisters who hurt.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

God is an 101 Year-Old Nun

Sometimes, I get so caught up in what I am doing day-to-day that I forget the reasons I am living like this. Somehow, this un-ordinary life of living in community with adult women, praying and going to mass every day, and dedicating my time to serving others and serving God has become my new normal. I have a routine I am used to and I am not in a state of transition anymore. What seemed like an odd way to live at first became exciting once I started living the life with passion, and has now moved to a more stable existence. If I were talking about a dating relationship I would say that we've left the honeymoon phase.

Novitiate life is not new anymore. I am not adjusting to living a new life or in a new place or with new people. There is less spontaneity and more routine. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, because stability and routine can strengthen and deepen a relationship. It is in this place that I am most called to remember why I am here and tend to that "why" in a deeper way. But most of the time it's hard to think back to when I first started "dating" this life and remember my reasons. The "whys" of my life have become hidden by "musts". I "must" learn this to get through formation. I "must" deepen my relationship with God during formation. I "must" move here, live there, serve this role to make the most of formation. My "why" had become "formation". Which is a TERRIBLE "why" for a drastic life change. But just like in a dating relationship when the reasons you love a person become obscured, taking a moment to remember how you felt at the beginning puts it all in perspective.

I had some help in finding my perspective. Recently, the Covington province welcomed 10 women and 6 SND vocation directors from around the country. Mayra and I got to join them for an SND Spirituality Retreat. During the course of the weekend where we explored both our own spirituality and SND spirituality, I realized that for me, the two match because I have a piece of SND spirituality within. Having to witness to these women what it is like to be a novice and recounting my vocation story over and over forced me to remember how I felt at the beginning. I remembered the passion, the love, and the joy that has come with answering God's question with my whole self. And I got to see this same passion, love, and joy in the women on the retreat and in my sisters as they interacted with the women.

Retreat Team (left) and Retreatants (right)

My favorite moment of the weekend was taking some of the women to visit our older sisters in Lourdes Hall. We started with our oldest sister and never got much farther because she kept us talking for about an hour. I will never forget the all-consuming smile that dominated her face the whole visit. You could see the joy of service radiating from her. And that day she did the greatest service, encouraging women on their spiritual journey and fostering hope. I met God that day.

Sr. Kelley and I took some retreatants to visit Sr. Paul, our oldest sister.

I am here because of the joy it brings me to serve and walk with people. I am here because I see that same joy in my sisters. I am here because this life helps me to be my most true self. I asked God to remind me of my "why" and I never thought the answer would come from 10 discerning women and our 101 year-old sister. God speaks in the most unexpected places.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Cultivating Life

Growing up, gardening was always a chore. My mom loves to garden and has always taken special care with her flowers. Our entire backyard doesn't even have grass. Piece by piece, my mom has transformed it into her little oasis. She tried to get my sisters and I involved at different times in our lives, to pass on the gardening gene and get some help with weeding. But I always saw it as an unpleasant task. I never quite understood how my mom could enjoy working in her garden for hours on a hot, sunny Saturday when she could be enjoying the pool or a good book. To me, gardening was sweaty labor that never amounted to anything because the weeds always grew back. Plus, I was never very good at gardening, I often forget to water and I liked to say I kill anything I touch.

Well, I am proud to report that finally, I have successfully grown things. And I kind of like it. I now understand what my mother was getting from the soil, sun, and flowers. She got to cultivate life.

Cultivating life has been important to me recently. Prior to this year of prayer, I always had some kind of project to direct my energy towards. Whether it was my research, a school project, or even planning an event for my sorority, each project usually involved some kind of problem solving (let's face it, I'm an engineer, so every project had to solve a problem). But now, my environment has changed. I'm not in school, I'm not a leader in any organizations, and I'm not working. My usual sources of projects and cultivating life are purposely not a part of this stage of my life. So I've turned to other creative endeavors like painting, dancing, and ukulele playing. But none of these physically create life. I've found that growing plants and tending flowers is filling that void for me.

I'm also at an age where friends are marrying and having babies. And there is a desire inside of me to create life too. Since I can't create human life, I am creating plant life and bringing beauty to our yard and home. The flowers give me something to nurture, something to be proud of. I have never spent so much time marveling at the amount of buds on a plant or how fast a shoot has grown. I'm proud and excited to show off the beauty of the flowers or the uniqueness of a new growth to the sisters. In fact, I spent most of memorial day just staring at our hydrangea which were beginning to flower. In the course of the afternoon, I memorized which buds were most open and which part of the plant flowered blue or pink. Spending time with the flowers has become a prayer. Their beauty draws me to quiet and their growth draws me to wonder.

(a) A taste of my Mom's garden - where it all began, (b/c) the first hydrangea blooms from our backyard - watching life emerge is captivating, (d) Easter flowers in chapel bring beauty to our home.

Now that I have time to putter in the garden, weeding and watering have become less chores and more loving care for new life. Gardening takes time, more than what it takes to water and weed. Plants speak by how they grow. We, as gardeners, need to listen. A good gardener takes the time to notice the messages flowers send through their petals and leaves. I should know, I watched my mom putter in the garden for 18 years.

Gardening is a chance to cultivate life.
Gardening is a way to care for the earth and for others.
Gardening brings color to our world.
Gardening teaches me to listen and pray.

What desires are stirring in you? How can you cultivate life? What new life is begging to be watered? What are the flowers in your life telling you, through their petals and leaves?

Friday, May 6, 2016

Musings While Hiking

I've been hiking a lot recently, it helps me to clear my mind and pray. I've learned that being in silence with God does not have to be motionless.

Below are some pictures and poems from my hikes in the past couple weeks.

"A weed is simply a flower that someone decides is in the wrong place...It deserves an efficacious spot in which to flourish!" Sister Monica Joan from Call the Midwife

I find myself on a path
with cobwebs on my ankles
waiting for a glimpse
of why I am here

for who could have gone before me
if cobwebs cover the path
yet, who could come after me
if they are already broken

for the cobwebs, they lead
and yet they obscure

the cobwebs make us think of loneliness
and yet speak of something left behind

what could have gone before me?
Some-One had to lay the path.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Nesting Gods

As a child, my family would go to our Nana and Papa's house every summer for a whole week. They lived on a lake with a small beach, so there was plenty to keep us busy outside. But on rainy days, we had to make do with our imaginations and what handful of toys our grandparents had. My sister and I spent hours pretending the basement stairs were in fact bunks in an orphanage that made us scrub the floors like the one in the movie Annie. The springy mattresses in our bedroom made perfect boats. And the built-in bar and bar stools in the basement provided endless opportunities for imaginations to run wild. But sometimes we didn't want to pretend. Sometimes we just played with toys that 20 grandchildren had played with.

My sister and I enjoying time with Nana and Papa on their deck in New Hampshire.

Nana and Papa's toy stash included 5 things.
1) Two big boxes of legos, every future engineer's dream (no wonder several of their children and grandchildren became engineers)
2) Various spatial puzzles given to my Papa over the years including an eagle that balanced its beak on your fingertip (again, with the engineering. You'd think they were brain washing us or something!)
3) A crocodile game that forced game players to put their fingertips at risk of a plastic crocodile bite if the wrong tooth was chosen
4) Various old and forgotten board games like a dusty Monopoly board and Trivial Pursuit 80's edition
5) Russian nesting dolls brought back from one of my grandparents' many travels

By far our favorite was the crocodile (until we hacked the game and found out how to tell which tooth was the culprit). But the Russian nesting dolls brought the kind of fun that tickles your imagination. Sometimes we made them into a family and played house. Sometimes we stacked them into different configurations to see what they would look like. And sometimes we just opened and closed them over and over. The first time I figured out what they did, I was amazed. At first it looks like you have only one doll about 5 inches tall. But when you take it apart, there is another, smaller doll. Then that one comes apart to reveal yet another! The process keeps going until you get to the tiniest doll which does not open up. I just loved finding the smallest doll and marveling at how its small features exactly matched the ones on the big doll.

Nesting dolls remind me of the mystery of our in-dwelling God. This is a mystery that has been especially present in my life this year. I am acutely aware of the fact that Jesus dwells in each and every one of us. When I interact with someone, it is not Nicole speaking to her neighbor, but God communing with Godself through humans. This in-dwelling is our home; the dwelling that each of us is called to live in (see my post about dwellings last week here). If we live from this in-dwelling, we will necessarily be called and sent to form community with others and the God-within them.

At first, this can seem to be contrary to Augustine's popular saying, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in You." But I don't think it is. I imagine a divine nesting doll. The smallest doll, which retains the same intricate features as the largest doll is the in-dwelling God. The small God is placed inside us and we in turn place ourselves in God. Why can't God be everywhere at once? And even then, maybe "resting in God" is more of a metaphor for recognizing the God within and realizing that I am not apart from God - that in fact, God and I are one.

I have been reading Teresa of Avila's The Interior Castle and she talks about prayer leading us to a relational union with God. She describes a transformation that happens in our relationship with God. What was once two entities, me and God, now forms a whole new be-ing, unique from what I was before and unique from any other human-divine relationship. This transformation creates a me-and-God relational energy. God and I are one. I am no longer myself, God helps me to transcend humanity in relational union with Him.

I envision this union as a dance with God as my partner. I do not know the whole dance, in fact I do not even know the next step! All I need to know is how to communicate with my partner wordlessly and gracefully; taking His cues and returning my own, but always working as one. The experience of dancing is much more beautiful when I'm not sure what is coming next.

An image I created that reflects the dance of unity.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

We are all Homeless...

Some sights I've discovered on my outdoor explorations.

I love to explore the outdoors. I bike, hike, meander in fields, and do whatever I can to be with God's creation. Since I moved to a new city in August, I am still exploring what nature has to offer in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati. On one exploration, I found a roughly maintained nature trail which followed the bank of the river close to my house. I pushed my bike as far as it would go, sure that the trail would lead somewhere interesting. But soon enough I found myself in the middle of a bank of grass which dead ended into the side of a bridge overpass. I wondered why the path just abruptly stopped and soon realized the answer. I smelled campfire. And if I looked closely at the brush by the river I could see well worn paths and tops of tents...

I had stumbled upon a camp of people experiencing homelessness! Knowing that strange visitors are often unwelcome in these places, I turned right around and high-tailed it out of there. I promised myself that the next time I went back I would knew the people living in those dwellings. I have not yet been back.

In retelling that story, I stopped at the use of the word "dwellings". Even though these people have shelter to live under (usually a tent or a shack), why do we still call them homeless? And what is the difference between a house, a home, and a dwelling?

I have often heard that "home is where the heart is" and that a home is about the love experienced inside the structure. If this is true, then many people labelled as "homeless" are not truly homeless. I have known people without traditional homes who form much stronger, more loving communities around their shacks and tents than most people who are housed.

Well then, what is the difference between a house and a dwelling? A house is individualistic. It stands alone and is self-sufficient. All you need for life is contained inside, water, food, etc. A dwelling makes me think of a village or a campsite where people rely on community to survive. A dwelling is usually a little more temporary, movable. But a dwelling can certainly be a home and necessarily creates and relies on community.

As I was reflecting on the significance of home, house, and dwelling, I found myself accidentally attending a funeral mass for a man I did not know. Now, I bet you're wondering how do you accidentally attend a funeral? Well, I went to mass one day and instead of the normal daily mass crowd, I was greeted by a hearse and pews full of people dressed in black. I decided to stay and see what message God had for me in the midst of a weird situation. The gospel that day was from John and included the following verses:

"In my father's house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be." Jn 14:2-3

When I heard those sentences, something clicked in my mind. We are all homeless. We are all destined to live in dwellings. Our houses, homes, and dwellings here on earth are just temporary until we reach our true home with God. But why does Jesus prepare a dwelling place for us rather than a house? Because our God is a relational God grounded in community. Could you imagine if in heaven each person had their own individual house? Houses create separation from each other and from God. Dwelling places invite community. I imagine my dwelling place being nestled among the dwelling places of my friends, family, and sisters. Each of us being a unique puzzle piece to complete the wider community of dwelling places. Living in a dwelling place invites me outside of myself to gather the necessities of life from the community and from God. God does not want us holed up in our houses in heaven. God wants us dwelling among people and most importantly, dwelling with and in Him.

God invites us to this same community while living here on earth. So I have been taking time to reflect: do I spend my time living in a house or a dwelling place? How is God calling me, here and now, to dwell among people and with and in God?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Identity Crisis

On Saturday February 20, 2016 I became a sister for the fourth time. The first time, I was 2 years old and proudly held my newly born sister on my mom’s hospital bed. She would grow to first be my biggest annoyance and then my closest confidant. The second time, I was a sophomore in high school and cheerfully welcomed my adopted sister-to-be who would become for me a continual lesson in diversity, inclusion, and love. The third time, I was a freshman in college waiting with excited anticipation to be initiated into the engineering sorority with women who would become some of my closest friends to support me through the rigors and joys of college. And this fourth and probably last time, I nervously waited to process into the chapel of the Sisters of Notre Dame with Mayra as we prepared to become religious sisters. My identity was about to transform. Again.

Clockwise from top left: Me and my newborn sister; my adopted and biological sisters at my graduation; with my good friend and sorority sister; Mayra and I waiting to become novices

I once heard that in our society, we focus our identity on what we do rather than who we are at our core – which is a beloved child of God. So I challenged myself to turn my perspective around and ask, “who am I, undefined by what I do?” My response included how I act, what I value, and what I live for and toward.

I am a young woman…
who is kind, loving, and trusting.
I value setting examples and being a role model.
I am dedicated and passionate.
I am flawed, but created to be perfectly me.
I am a perfectionist learning to love imperfection.
I am an influencer of lives.

A year later, I went back and reflected on who I was at that moment. Since we are constantly growing, the expression of who we are changes, but the essence remains the same. Between these two reflections, I grew internally, but I also changed in outward identity. I went from student to career woman. From discerning to deciding.

I am a young woman…
who loves God more than anything.
who expresses that love by loving all people.
I love everyone and will fight for others to love everyone regardless of color, orientation, or situation.
I value laughter and joy.
I value compassion and kindness.
I am motivated by love to create and show love in this world.
I am His hands and feet.

And now where does that leave me? I find myself with a new outward identity as “Sister”, but what does that mean for me? Gone are the days of conformity in the convent, but I am often approached that way by lay people. They expect a holy little nun who teaches and spends the rest of her day in prayer. Well, all you get is me, with all of my humanness and my flaws. You get my joy and bubbling laughter at a good pun. You get my nerdy need to spout off facts I picked up from God-knows-where. And you get my youthful enthusiasm and desire to dress comfortably and with flair. People may not look at me and think “Oh, she’s a sister”, but that does not take away the fact that it is now a part of my identity. So how do I live into this new identity while still retaining the essence of who I am and who God created me to be, yet still make my new identity a part of my being? Who am I now, undefined by what I do?