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By Sister Judith Benkert, OP
I’m inspired to write about my gift of faith and the grace accepted. Grace is offered many times a day and it’s up to me to accept the grace, to engage and act as a Christian according to my baptismal gift. I would like to identify two specific graces that are an integral part of my life. I received the grace of Baptism very early in my family life and it’s that grace that urged me to accept a second grace, later in my life, that of a call to be a member of religious life, a Dominican Sister. Of course, I ask “Why me? Why not another person, who am I that I have been graced twice with regard to my vocation?” At the time I wanted a family and I wanted to become a sports star (the sports star was a real overreach). Well in one way or another I have accomplished that and much more. As a mother I would have been a guide to my family. As a Sister, I became a guide to many families over my years as an RN and a Certified Nurse-midwife. God’s gifts are only limited by our imagination. I continue to minister even now as an RN in a parish with a commitment to the homeless and service to frail seniors. I’m still preaching with my hands both being ‘in-touch’ and ‘touched’ by the people of God.
What is the direction in your life and are you open to God’s Grace?
Every good life choice is grounded in self-esteem. With self-esteem, we reverence and respect our own person as a gift of God. We are not trying to look or be like someone else. This brings to mind the familiar story from the Talmud about Akiba.
When Akiba was on his deathbed, he complained bitterly to his rabbi that he felt like a complete failure. The rabbi moved closer and asked why, and Akiba confessed: “I have not lived a life like Moses.” He then broke down in tears, admitting that he feared God’s judgment.
At this, the rabbi leaned into his ear and whispered gently, “God will not judge Akiba for not being Moses. God will judge Akiba for not being Akiba.”
With self-esteem, we embrace our true self with unconditional love. In turn, we make decisions that bring about our own flourishing and the betterment of our world.
As you reflect on important choices in your life, will the decisions you make reflect a careful attention to what nurtures your authentic self and brings the fullness of life God so wants to give you?
An ongoing friendship with God requires our choice to be receptive to God’s hidden closeness in our lives. Auburn Sandstrom told her own true story of openness to the grace of God at The Moth, an organization dedicated to the art of storytelling. In 1992 Auburn was 29, the mother of a three-year-old son, caught in an abusive marriage and an addict. One night she hit rock bottom. She was writhing in pain on the floor of her filthy apartment wrestling with withdrawal from a drug she had been addicted to for several years. In her hand, she gripped a small piece of paper with a phone number on it of a Christian counselor her mother had given her in one of those rare moments of interaction. Finally, in total despair, she called the number. It rang. A man answered.
“Hi, I got this number from my mother. Do you think I could talk to you?”
The man hesitated, “Well, okay, what’s going on?”
For the first time, Auburn poured out her story. She told him that she was hurting, that her marriage was abusive and that she had a drug problem, that she was terrified. The man didn’t judge. He just sat with her and listened. Auburn was encouraged by his empathy and kindness. It was two in the morning. The man stayed up the whole night with Auburn, just talking, listening and being there until sunrise. By morning she had calmed down. The raw panic had passed. She was feeling stable.
She felt thankful, “Hey, I really appreciate what you’ve done for me tonight. Aren’t you supposed to be telling me to read some Bible verses or something? Because that’d be cool, I’ll do it, you know. It’s okay.
He laughed and said, “Well, I’m glad this was helpful to you.”
“No, really. You’re very good at this. You’ve helped me a lot. How long have you been a Christian Counselor?”
There was a long pause at the other end of the line. “Auburn, please don’t hang up.
I’ve been trying not to bring this up.”
“I’m so afraid to tell you this. But the number you called…” He paused again. “You got the wrong number.”
Auburn didn’t hang up. They talked a little longer. Auburn never got his name or called him back. She survived the night. She’s now a successful writer and teacher; she raised her little boy alone to become a wonderful athlete and scholar who graduated from Princeton. She concludes her story of that night.
“…the next day I felt this kind of joy, like I was shining. I think I’ve heard them call it ‘the peace that passes understanding.’ I had gotten to see that there was this completely random love in the universe. That it could be unconditional. And that some of it was for me…In the deepest, blackest night of despair, if you can get just one pinhole of light…all the grace comes rushing in.”*
What has been your “pinhole of light” where grace came rushing in?
*Story found in Connections, June, 2017, 1-2.
Developing our relationship with God requires the skill of listening to God in all the ways that God is present to us: in the wonders of nature, in our daily human experience, in sacred scriptures and preeminently in Jesus Christ. In what has been called the “mysticism of ordinary life,” we learn to recognize and name the grace we experience day to day.
One of my favorite mediums for God’s life-giving presence is the beauty of nature. God has a way of luring me out of myself into the sensuous beauty of nature manifest in the exquisite scenery spanning from coast to coast. God is that dynamic, unitive and life-giving presence that permeates all creation and desires to draw us into communion with the divine. Thomas Merton writes of how he listens for God’s voice in the comforting speech the rain makes at night. He says,
“What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone,
in the forest, at night, cherished by this
wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech,
the most comforting speech in the world,
the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges,
and the talk of the watercourses
everywhere in the hollows!
Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it.
It will talk as long as it wants, this rain.
As long as it talks I am going to listen.”*
The God of many names, speaks to us continuously in the elemental language of water, fire, wind, and earth. How do you experience the presence of God in ordinary life?
*Thomas MERTON, in Elizabeth ROBERTS—Elias AMIDON (eds.), Earth Prayers from Around the World (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) 165.
Just as married couples celebrate wedding anniversaries, women religious celebrate what we call Jubilees or years of loving service as a Sister. Every year we celebrate our Sister “Jubilarians,” who have served 75 years, 70 years, 60 years, 50 years, and 25 years of religious life. This week close to 70 Jubilarians will come together at our Motherhouse in Adrian, Michigan to celebrate their Jubilee with families and friends! It’s a wonderful homecoming! I would like to share with you a poem that Sister Lorraine Réaume, OP, wrote this year in honor of our Jubilarians.
Five and six
Combined, hundreds of years
Of love, of generosity, of faith, of witness
Lives full and rich and varied
Lives blessed and blessing
Listening to the quiet whispers and surprising summons
To begin something new
To go somewhere untested
To turn strangers into neighbors and friends
Walking with the shy soul of another
Preaching to a crowd
Passing gifts on to others
Generating and generative
The word made flesh in new ways
And familiar prayers
Jesus as friend, brother, companion,
Prodding, guiding, encouraging,
The ministry is never done alone
But always in the name
Decades, five and six,
Hundreds of years
What a witness
What a gift
What magnificent lives
We thank you
We bless you
We continue to walk with you
As you walk the faithful journey
With our God
A Sister friend of mine was nearing her final vows when she would make a permanent commitment of her life to God. She recounted how she happened to be taking a bus ride one beautiful day. She was enjoying the sights when on the bus came a young woman her age who was pregnant. She said, “The woman sat down on the seat opposite me; we could see each other face to face. The woman began to embrace her womb, her pregnant self. I felt my hand go to my womb. At that moment I gave to God the sacrifice of never having my own child. I heard God saying to me, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m sure.’ It was a beautiful moment.”
While the vow of consecrated celibacy deprives us of the experience of giving birth and raising our own family*, the experience of giving and sustaining life can take many forms. Our capacity to give life also includes our multifaceted creativity, inventiveness, playfulness, and our ability to bring life into human relationships through good communication skills, appropriate sharing of feelings, being a good listener, being sensitive to the needs and concerns of other, and reverencing the dignity of people. It includes the willingness and ability to deal with conflict as well as the skills to make peace and work through difficulties inevitable in human relationships. Generativity also includes joining in the building of resilient communities where economic, political, and social justice is upheld for everyone, especially people who are poor and most vulnerable. In the broadest sense, being a generative person means being someone whose spirit-filled and loving presence facilitates the growth and flourishing of others and all creation. Giving life is a labor of love open to all people.
*Some women take the vow of consecrated celibacy after being widowed or after their marriage is annulled and their children are grown and living independently.
Young women discerning a call to religious life often ask if living a vow of celibacy means giving up their sexuality. I usually begin my response by saying that the vow of consecrated celibacy is a radical way of loving God, self, and others with our whole heart, mind, body, soul, and strength. God’s gift of self to me invites my mutual self-gift in return. In my personal response to God’s call, I commit myself totally to God to the exclusion of any other primary commitment to spouse, family, or projects. By living this vow I desire to embody with my life the profound truth that the multifaceted love of God satisfies the deepest longings of the human heart for a lifetime.
Celibacy clearly requires abstinence from genital sexual activity. In making this commitment to God, I freely and knowingly set limits on my human experience. I will never love and be loved as wife and mother. These important dimensions of my sexual identity I will never experience. Like any major life choice, my choice to live a life of consecrated celibacy involves legitimate suffering and letting go as well as joy and abundance. Anything of value comes at a high cost. My vow of celibacy, however, does not mean giving up my sexuality or my capacity to be creative.
The most fundamental aspect of human sexuality is our need for intimacy, our need to be lovingly related and connected to other human beings and to all of creation. As a celibate lover, my need for intimacy is as great as that of a married person. As Father Clark puts it, “Intimacy is as much a part of my sexuality as it is part of a married person’s. Human sexuality is about intimacy.”* Real intimacy requires a multiplicity of personal skills from self-esteem to compassion, caring presence, appropriate confiding, trust, loyalty, fidelity, as well as a number of skills for personal freedom. We learn to channel our sexuality into a broader way of loving. A celibate does not deny her sexuality; instead, she uses that God-given energy to love and serve generously.
*Keith Clark, Being Sexual…and Celibate, (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1985), 30.
My childhood God was a caring, parent-like figure who lived up in heaven and ruled the world from afar. Early childhood specialists tell us that children begin to create images of God that represent their parents’ way of being. At the same time, they also internalize parental standards, values, and expectations as well as the rules of religion and society. They see God as a loving parent who intervenes in our world, rewarding good behavior and punishing wrongdoing. Their God is all-loving, but also rule-making, judgmental, guilt-evoking and at times terrifying. Healthy adult spiritual development requires the transformation of our childhood images of God into the living God imaged by Christ.
Here is an example from my own life of the gradual change in my God imaging. In my early twenties, I was reading The Diary of Anne Frank. I was impressed with her self-esteem and love of life despite the fact that she was hiding in an attic with her family to escape the Nazis. She valued her experience enough to keep a diary where she shared what was happening in her life: her new boyfriend, problems with her mother, etc.
I began to think, maybe if I keep a journal I will catch her spirit and experience the joy of living, no matter the circumstances. You may recall that Anne gave her journal a name, “Kitty.” She began every entry like a letter, “Dear Kitty.” “Kitty” became her friend and confidant. My question was, how do I want to name my journal? Who do I want to be my friend and confidant?
I wanted this kind of personal relationship with God. So I began my journal, “Dear God,” and I started to write down everything that was going on in my life. In the middle of this, however, I started to think, “This is really stupid! My ordinary, everyday life is not important to God Almighty. A friendship with God is simply not possible.” I finished the letter anyway and signed it, “Love, Sara.”
That weekend I went to Mass at our little parish church. The priest was a visiting priest and to my surprise, his whole sermon was in the form of a letter from God addressing all of us with love. I just sat there in awe! My letter to God had been answered! I was in tears! God is closer to us than we realize. My image of God changed. God is unthinkably humble and is seeking a friendship with us, even more than we are seeking a friendship with God! How has your image of God changed as you have matured into adulthood?
Based on a reflection by Sister Romona Nowak, OP
Our journey of life can at times take us to a place of unbearable suffering where we would rather not go. As Jesus gently warns Peter, there will come a time when “you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will put a rope around you and take you where you would rather not go” (Jn 21:18). Our Sister Romona shares with us her own reflection on suffering as she struggles with terminal cancer. She leans on Christ who is with her on this road. She writes:
I have been in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus asked his Father for exactly what he felt and truly what he wanted, “Don’t let me suffer anymore.” Finally, he was able to say, “Not my will but your will be done.” Like Jesus, my tears have flowed. They express my fears, hurts, and longings. I learned that my suffering and my cross is my cancer, and the journey is my way of the cross. When the pain is so deep that I cannot even pray, I hold my rosary cross and in holding it I remember that Jesus is holding me. This is a blessed assurance of what is most important—remaining one with my God.
My struggles have been many: acceptance of my journey, review of my life with its sinfulness, grief in letting go of what I know, etc. Cancer, and especially metastatic cancer, has left me feeling out of control of my life; a basic human need. I am incredibly vulnerable, dependent, and so often confused. I sought another medical opinion just to verify my untreatable condition. A sobering thought to hear, “no treatment will change the course of the cancer.”
I needed friends that would help me think through my thoughts and get the feelings out. I believe it must be nearly impossible to go through cancer alone… I am blessed by many wonderful friends. You have affirmed me when I have been so hard on myself. You have been an incredible blessing that has not only helped me accept, but also stop the temptation for withdrawal that accompanies fear and anxiety. God’s action is amazing through you.
Just like most of humanity we strive for perfection. My failings, faults, and mistakes in mind and action (i.e., being overly critical, judging others, pride, etc.) make me aware of the constant need for forgiveness... Discouragement comes. Faith helps me find peace. When I turn my weakness and my whole life to God, sometimes in a mantra of just the name of “Jesus”, or scripture, or a short “Have mercy on me” I experience a calming. Other times the fear of death overwhelms me. I’m too sinful to be welcomed by God. Then someone reminds me that God didn’t ask us to be perfect, just to trust in him. “Jesus, I trust in you.” Please hold me in your prayer, because the battle with these temptations, especially self-forgiveness will continue because of my humanness.
I am still alive. This length of days is for God’s mission. Although I will not be physically cured, hopefully, this journey will enable spiritual healing. The cross doesn’t get lighter nor the suffering easier, but I can embrace the journey with your companionship in presence and prayer until I am one with my Beloved—in the great surrender.
What has been your experience of religious faith in hard times?
Sister Romona’s reflection was informed by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, The Gift of Peace, Michael Paul Gallagher, Into Extra Time and Jim Willig, Lessons from the School of Suffering.
Do you ever struggle with being kind and compassionate toward yourself, especially in times of personal suffering? Even though one of the foundational pillars of Christian Spirituality is the love of self, we tend to be harsh and judgmental about our own flaws, failings, and limitations. In his teaching on friendship, the great Dominican theologian, Thomas Aquinas, asserts that since we are more closely united to ourselves than to any other person, all the good we desire for our loved ones, we most want for ourselves. Therefore, the heart of wisdom is to love and accept ourselves as our own best friend. This counsel suggests that when times are really tough and we are experiencing suffering, we give ourselves the patient caring and tenderness that we need.
Human development specialist, Dr. Kristen Neff, has developed what she calls a “self-compassion break.” This five-minute break in time of suffering consists of three main components. First, we must recognize that “this is a moment of suffering” and to speak gently to ourselves in naming our pain. She encourages us to say something like, “Sweetheart, this is really hard right now.” We then simply allow the difficulty to be present and we soften toward it. Second, she suggests that we remind ourselves that “suffering is a part of life.” Instead of feeling alone and cut off from the rest of the world, it is important to remind ourselves that suffering is a part of the human condition. Other people are suffering in a similar way as we are suffering. Third, we say, “May I be kind to myself in this moment.” We offer ourselves soothing and comfort with gentle kindness. She encourages us to put our hand on our heart and feel the care streaming through our fingers. See her website. Learning to love ourselves in this way enables us to love others; when we befriend ourselves, we can be true friends to others. Likewise, this friendship with ourselves also helps us to better open up to the friendship of Christ.
I invite readers to share in the comments:
What has helped you to love and accept yourself?
How has being a friend to yourself helped you be a friend to others?
How has being a friend to yourself helped you to be a better Christian?
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Get out your bell-bottoms and platform shoes, because DISCO is here!
Okay, so it's a little less dancing, a little more talking... Sisters Lorraine Réaume, OP, and Sara Fairbanks, OP, have a video series called DISCO (Discernment Conversations): Dancing with the questions of life!