Sunday, March 25, 2018

Humility Check

I am NOT the best thing since sliced bread.

My childhood was filled with building up my ego – and this is healthy development. I learned how I was different from others. I learned that I did not need my parents to survive. I developed my own interests, passions, and the ability to make my own decisions. I learned what I was good at, and stayed away from what I didn’t excel in. I learned to love my body and what it could do as my self esteem grew into early adulthood.

But it seems to me that the experience of my adulthood, and especially my experience in formation, has been to breakdown the ego I spent the first part of my life building. Although each person is unique, God has been teaching me about our commonality and unity as being beloved of God. I have realized that while I can survive without asking others for help, in order to thrive, I must rely on the experience and wisdom of others. I am learning that while I am good at many things, I don’t know everything and still have a lot to learn. I recognize that being pushed out of my comfort zone into the realm of things I don’t excel at is necessary to further growth as a person. And this new phase of temporary profession and ministry is no exception.

God has placed within me a passion to accompany others on the journey. He especially has placed on my heart journeying with the poor and all that comes with it. My other passions, science, research, building and creating things, had built in skills developments within my schooling. And now, in pursuing these other passions that God has placed on my heart I am realizing that I don’t know anything. There is no school to teach me what poverty is like for those who live it. No class is going to be able to teach me how to make all the right decisions when walking with a person in a crisis situation. Only experience and listening to the advice and wisdom of those who have done this before me is going to teach me what I need to know. And for now, when I’m still learning, when I’m still experiencing, I need to remember to swallow my ego and ask for help.

After experiencing a situation in my new ministry where I felt over my head and like I couldn’t make the right decisions in the moment because of lack of experience or training, I asked God “how am I supposed to do this? I’m not cut out for this job. I just don’t know how.” I thought, I am broken, so how can I fix anything else?

Exactly, brokenness loves brokenness. Fixing is not the goal, love is.

I have spent so much of my life learning how to fix things, invent new solutions, discover the next best cure. But with ministry, with people, the goal is not to fix it, the goal is love and empowerment. And I need to remember that even when I am looking at outcome measures, even when I am evaluating the attendance patterns of my students, and especially when I am listening to a student’s story. I don’t need to fix you or the situation, I just need to love.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Bonded: A Reflection on First Profession

“I get it now.”

My best friend looked at me with a wry smile on her face and love in her eyes. We were sharing about my first profession as a Sister of Notre Dame just days before.

“At a wedding you’re saying your vows to each other, and the priest is right there, but it was just you, facing the altar, saying your vows to God. I get it now.”

My best friend had walked through all the steps with me. She was one of the first people I told about my desire to be a sister, and I had even practiced my vows in front of her just a week before my profession. She had heard all my doubts and all my joys along the way. She was the one who helped me realize that I couldn’t picture any other future for myself except one dedicated to God through the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. But it took her witnessing me vow my life to God to fully understand.

So what does it mean to me to profess vows? The experience was surreal. At the same time nothing and everything changed. I cherish the moment of surrender as I spoke the desires of my heart in profession. I remember with love the act of abandoning myself to God as I flung my arms out in orans posture and each of my sisters joined me in singing the Suscipe. I found joy in watching each of my family members involved in the special ceremony. But most of all, I cherish that the ceremony and celebration had such an impact on each person who witnessed my profession. Countless persons commented on how different parts of the ceremony moved them. Guests talked about crying. Live stream participants felt connected and present. My sisters remarked at the spiritual renewal my profession was for all. As the focus of the day, I couldn't pin down my emotions long enough to have a connection to what was happening. For me, the meaning of profession has come after the ceremony in living it out. At the same time nothing and everything changed. 

The "Suscipe" in which my sisters join me in abandoning our lives to God.

Singing the Magnificat with my sister, father, and Sister Michelle.
Nothing has changed because I have been living into the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience and preparing for this day for three and a half years. But something is different. Everything is different. I feel a physical difference in how I am, how I relate to God, and how I interact with others. After publicly committing my life to God, I feel more bonded to Him in some mystical way.

About two months before my profession I met with our provincial superior for an interview before I was accepted for first vows. Toward the end of our time together she asked, “will your identity change after professing vows?” As I answered I explained that I have been living as if I were vowed during novitiate. And in fact, following my vocation to become a Sister of Notre Dame is helping me to become more the person God created me to be. The vows, the charism, it was all a part of me from the very beginning. She looked at me with a quiet smile and said “Well, I think you’re ready then.”

So no, after professing vows my identity did not change, but it sure did get stronger and more bonded to the one who calls me into being the best version of myself.

I get it now.

Ready to profess!

With Sr. Margaret, our provincial, and Fr. Oleksiak.

My friends and fellow young sisters came to support me as we have for each other over the years.

My family flew in from all over to be a part of my profession.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Tree is Weeping

 Last weekend I had the opportunity to travel back to the US-Mexico border with a group from Xavier University and Bellarmine Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio. When the immersion trip presented itself I was excited to revisit the space that was so special to me and instrumental to my growth in the past year. This time however I visited the other end of the border - the one between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. We were only there for three days, but I experienced and learned more about the immigration crisis in three days than I thought possible.

But those stories are for another time. Today I want to tell you about a tree I encountered in the desert. On Sunday our group took a hike on some migrant trails. We were walking in the footsteps of those who are fleeing to freedom in the US. These migrant bands are often led by a guide from the Mexican Mafia. Our guide was Fr. Pete, who had spent the last 9 years exploring these paths and seeking to understand the migrant journey. Our group of 8 struggled to keep up with him as we passed through thorny bushes, overgrown grasses, and sandy riverbeds.

We finally arrived at a space that looked like it was once an overnight camp for a band of migrants. There were backpacks, sweaters, tin cans, and other debris all around us. As we took in the scene, we imagined what could have happened here and who could have been here. What were their stories? Why were they crossing? Did they make it? I noticed a little girl's pink sweater by the tree and thought, someone brought their daughter. The rusty cans told us they ate here, and the black bottles were a sign they had water with them. But why did they leave their things here? Did they get caught? Did they need to lighten their load to continue the journey? How would I decide what to leave and what to take with me?

As I played these scenarios in my mind and continued to take it all in, Fr. Pete also commented on what could have happened in this space. "We will never know what really happened here, but I do know that this was an overnight camp because when I first found this place there were women's panties and bras hanging on that tree." I looked where he pointed and found a tall-for-the-desert tree, about twice my height. It was gnarled and had some low hanging branches parallel to the ground. Its bark was dark and textured and all of the leaves were gone from its branches. Fr. Pete continued, "that is probably what we call a rape tree." The name "rape tree" tore through the sacredness of the space and I closed my eyes to brace myself for the next words. I guessed what would come next, but I didn't want it to be true. "The guides lead bands through, and when they stop, they rape the women and put their undergarments on a tree as a kind of trophy."

The "rape tree"
A wash of sadness, anger, and horror overtook my being and I couldn't listen anymore. I wanted to cry, to scream, to curl up in a ball. How could I live in a world where this happens, where I let this happen? When given time for reflection I started walking toward the tree. I had to get closer. As the trunk came into view I noticed a patch running up and down the tree that was darker than the rest. It glistened in the sun as if it were wet. Was it sap? Water? Char from a fire?

The tree is weeping.
I had no way of knowing, but what I do know is: the tree is weeping. Weeping for the violation it witnessed, weeping for the women who had no choice but to submit themselves, weeping for the guide's need to exert power over another. The tree is weeping, and I wept with the tree.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Total Eclipse of the Heart

Ok, so of course I wasn't going to miss the solar eclipse! And I had a pretty neat reflection afterwards.Watch below as I reflect on my experience witnessing the solar eclipse on Monday.

This is the dance I reference in my reflection. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Eyes to Listen and Hearts to Respond

The activity I did the most while in Texas was listen. This may seem odd, since I didn't know much Spanish when I arrived and most of what I listened to was in Spanish.  But I learned other ways to listen. When words don't make sense, when there is a language barrier, a deeper sort of listening sets in. I learned to listen with my eyes.

The showers at the respite center.
About 3 weeks before I left Texas we went back to the Sacred Heart Humanitarian Respite Center for the last time (not sure what that is? Click here to see my blog post on it). I was helping with the showers when a woman emerged and sat down to put on her shoes. I don't know what prompted her, but she launched into her story immediately after sitting down. I couldn't understand most of what she said, but I could understand her gestures, her emotions, and the pain in her eyes. She had a heavy burden she needed to unload, and she chose me. I didn't need to know what her words meant to know what she said, what she was feeling, and what she needed. And even though I couldn't say much more than a few sentences to her, she didn't need me to give her a lecture or to babble on. She needed me to listen intently with my eyes trained on hers, touch her arm gently, and reassure her of her safety. And that much I could do without knowing much Spanish. We are a part of the human family and we have a universal language of love.

That same night, I met a brother and sister who crossed a river in their journey to arrive to the US. Their clothes were still wet and they wanted desperately to take a shower. They couldn't stay apart from each other very long because the boy couldn't hear or speak and his sister communicated with him using gestures in some kind of home-grown sign language. She said he never went to school and just learned this at home. Despite all of this hardship, he had a constant smile on his face. And even though we could not communicate with words, or even gestures, his eyes spoke. He could not stop looking at me. And I didn't want to look away because he made me uncomfortable. I didn't want him to feel shame. So I looked back, with love. His eyes spoke of curiosity, of kindness, and of loneliness. I hope that my eyes spoke too, and that they spoke of love.

Maria's son tried to take a picture of us on my last day in Texas.
L to R: Sr. Nicole, Sr. Marla, Sr. Maxine
Listening was also an important part of visiting the Colonias (neighborhoods in Spanish). One of the women we accompanied was Maria (click here for another story about Maria). Maria has internalized much of what her abusive husband has told her over the years. Each time we met, we listened to Maria and her needs, her fears, her evident love for her children. We comforted her in her sorrow and pain and we laughed with her in her joys. On the last day I visited her, she told us about each of her children and what they are like. Light danced in her eyes as she thought about each one and how she loved them. She described with great detail how each child is with her, how they care for each other, and what their passions are. I could see a reflection of God's unconditional love in her as she thought about her most precious possessions, her children. Listening to her was not about the stories she told, it was about being present to her, taking an interest in her life, and showing her the unconditional love she showed her children. Since she doesn't get much in the way of unconditional love from her husband, she is unable to visit her parents, and limited in who she can talk with, we were her only source of friendship and love. Upon parting and reassuring her that we would always be with each other, I told her that I loved her. She paused and said, "Te quiero mucho porque me quieres sin conocerme." or in English, "I love you very much because you loved me without knowing me."

Her pain, her fear, her inadequacies were evident in that one sentence. And the power of God's love allowed me to be a conduit and show Maria what is possible with God. Unconditional love has not been a part of her reality and I am humbled to have been able to show her a first glimpse of it. I could not have done that without listening to Maria and slowly building a relationship with her over time.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Saying Goodbye

I have now been in Texas for almost three months and will be leaving this adventure for another in the next few days. I just felt like I have hit my stride. I am comfortable with where I am and what I do. I’ve figured out my living situation and who my friends are. And now, I have to say goodbye. Leaving is never easy, but after moving around job and living locations a few times, I’ve learned some things that make it easier.

Remember Ritual
Ritual is a way for me and those I am leaving to get closure to the relationship. Realistically, I am not able to keep in touch with each person I leave. For many, this will be the last time we see or talk to each other. For others, the nature of the relationship will change. I find that without some ritual of goodbye, a card, a dinner, or a personal conversation, feelings can be hurt and people can feel cast aside. The nature of being a sister means I will move around a lot. Moving for me does not mean I am unhappy with where I am, like it does for most people. Moving for me just means going to the next thing. I will always keep those I have met in my heart, and they need to know that.

A simple ritual of goodbye can be giving cards or a meaningful trinket. The children I teach in Mexico will each get a handmade friendship bracelet and I will tell them how much they mean to me. I will remember them by a matching bracelet. We will continue to be connected. With my adult students and friends we might go out to dinner to celebrate and exchange phone numbers. Regardless of the specific ritual, the important part is that they will know what impact their life had on mine.

Share My Experiences
Sharing my experiences not only helps others to learn what I am doing and possibly find a replacement, but also helps me to put words to my experience. Finding words to describe my love of a place and for a people helps me to remember and let go. Part of this letting go happens here in my articles and my ability to share my experiences with you. Other times it is in conversations with family and friends.

Teresa and I enjoying ministry in Texas.
But sharing my experiences in person with others who might take my place is the most life-giving for me. I love sharing my joy with others. I love introducing others to the people and places who mean so much to me. I love seeing the light in their eyes when they experience something for the first time. I love seeing the wheels turning when something new comes along. This week I have had the privilege to share my experiences with a young woman named Teresa. It has been a joy to get to know her and I enjoy hearing her reflections on things that I experienced for the first time only a couple months ago. Sharing my experience with her has been a wonderful way for me to say goodbye to all that I treasure here.

My Lenten reflection based on my experiences here in Texas.
Another important outlet for sharing my experiences is in journaling and painting. I keep a journal so I can remember what I experienced. I can go back to it and remember how I felt in this new place and how I felt leaving. My paintings express my feelings in a more visual way and allow me to process my experience beyond words.

Planning for the Next
I know it can be dangerous to plan ahead before it is time, but I find that planning for the goodbye, psyching myself up for it, makes the goodbye much easier. Instead of just leaving, I think about how I want to leave. So how do I want to leave the Rio Grande Valley? I would love to be able to leave promising a return, but I cannot. So I have to say goodbye like it is the last time. I want to leave the valley with love. I want the people I have met to know that “because I knew you I have been changed for good” as a song from the musical Wicked says. I want to leave blessing the land and promising my prayers. I want to leave with all the lessons I have learned intact and engraved on my heart.

And after leaving, there is always a new beginning. So how do I want to begin at my next location? It’s never fun to be one place physically and another place mentally. People don’t want to hear you pining for where you wish you could be, but want to hear your stories. Being mentally absent will only hurt me. I want to be fully present where I am, but still remembering how I have changed through the lessons I have learned in the valley. I want to remember where I was and integrate this experience into who I am, but still enter fully into where I will be. Will this be hard? Yes. But with the help of God and my friends, I hope to make it a reality.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Meaning of Ritual

Being a religious sister, ritual is very important in my life. And, I would suspect, that ritual is important in many lives. I don’t only mean religious ritual, but also the ritual of what I do each day, the self-care rituals I engage in, and the social rituals that keep me grounded. I have learned that having certain rituals enhance my experience of life and keep me sane. This year, Holy Week and Easter were full of new (and old) experiences of ritual.

I have always enjoyed learning about and experiencing other cultures. My parents raised me on tum yum goon, Indian curry, and tabbouleh – none of which are a part of my heritage. They enjoy trying new things and teaching my sisters and me to do the same. Of course we love our Italian comfort food too, but the value of respectfully learning from other cultures was instilled in me from a young age. My father taught me how to observe before participating and my mother taught me how to throw my whole self into the experience. So you can imagine how thrilled I am to be immersed in the sub-culture of the Rio Grande Valley.

Walking the viacrucis on our pilgrimage to the church.
The highlight for me was Santa Viernes, Good Friday. I have always loved the somber atmosphere of Good Friday which gives me a chance to reflect on God’s love for me. This year, a new ritual allowed me to walk with Jesus in a whole new way. At 2pm, a small crowd gathered at a park near the church. Leading the pack was a wooden cross carried by a teenage boy dressed as Jesus. A girl dressed as veronica, complete with a veil bearing the face of Jesus, walked beside him. We processed through the streets, singing and praying el viacrucis, the Way of the Cross. I felt like the women of Jerusalem, following Jesus in the streets as he showed us how much he would suffer in the name of the justice he stood for. As we arrived at the church we prayed the last station and entered the church in silence. The culture here is an expressive culture, and I appreciated the ability to express my sorrow for the suffering of the world and to physically see God’s love for us in his actions.

Later that day, after the passion play put on by the children of the parish, I participated in yet another new-to-me ritual. We gave our condolences to Mary. The idea is to give condolences to Mary on the occasion of her son’s death, just as you would with a friend. We said a special rosary that led us to meditate on times Mary had to let go of her son and watch him do God’s work. It was touching to watch mothers, who have to let go of their own children, meditate on what it must have been like for Mary to do the same.

We were greeted with this beautiful altar as we prayed our condolences to Mary.
About a week after Easter, I had the opportunity to participate in a Mayan cleansing ritual called a temazcal. Unlike the other rituals, this one did not have a familiar basis for me. I had no idea what to expect and I was not given much description ahead of time. The ritual cleanses body and spirit, inside and out. One participant described it as going into the womb of the earth. The whole ritual reverences nature and thanks the elements and mother earth for the gifts of healing. Before the ritual, a small hut with a tiny door flap is built and a fire is lit to heat the stones at the bottom of the wood. I loved the reverent preparation. Each person was blessed with a type of incense before entering and I was asked to pray “for my relationships” with my forehead to the earth at the entrance of the temazcal. Once all were inside, “hombre fuego” dug some rocks out of the fire and delivered them to a hole in the ground at the center of the hut. We welcomed each rock with “Bienvenido abuelita!” (welcome grandma in English). Once the door was closed, water with different herbs were poured on the rocks to create steam and an incredibly hot room. The door was opened four times and each time, more rocks were added and a different herb was infused in the water. The first two doors felt like being enveloped by a car on a hot day. The heat was comforting and cleansing. The third door was so hot that I had to lay down. I left with the fourth door because I had reached my limit. After the ritual I was doused by cold hose water to close my pores and shock me back to normal.

After the ritual I felt energized and at peace. Inside I was disoriented, but once I emerged and was doused with water, I was somehow more present. Even though I hardly knew the names of most of the 19 people participating in the temazcal, I somehow felt bonded to them after our mutual experience. There is wisdom to rituals, no matter what tradition they come from. And opening myself to these new experiences has been invaluable.

Happy toes in the Gulf of Mexico.
The final ritual I engaged in this Easter is one I am quite familiar with. I have a ritual of taking a quiet day once a week if possible. This time I spent the day at a local retreat center near the Gulf of Mexico. A blanket of quiet covered the place as I encountered wildlife and the tangible presence of peace. At the end of the day I drove the five miles out to the retreat center’s private beach on the gulf. How exhilarating it was to be consumed by water!

No matter what ritual it was, each one helped me to live in the present moment and get a taste of this new-to-me culture. What a blessing to be able to learn from others!

*Note* I apologize for the long absence of posts this last month. I have a back-log of stories, so you should be getting one a week for a while!