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The unexpected voice of Advent has the power to set people on a wondrous path of new life. Advent tells the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, who are childless in their old age but give birth to a son, John, because God fulfills impossible dreams. Mary hears the angel’s voice, “Do not be afraid, O highly favored daughter, you will give birth to the Savior.” She responds wholeheartedly, “Be it done unto me according to your word.” And in a dream the unexpected voice of an angel consoles the brokenhearted Joseph, encouraging him to change his plans and take Mary as his wife. They give birth to a son and they name him “Emmanuel,” meaning God is with us. All of these Advent figures listened and trusted the unexpected voice of God. As a result, their lives, and ours, have been transformed in miraculous ways.
This unexpected voice of God still speaks today in the story of Ted Shawn, a young divinity student who was suddenly stricken with polio. From somewhere deep within him came a most unlikely voice calling him to, of all things, dance. So, with great difficulty, he quit divinity school and began to dance, and slowly and miraculously, he not only regained the use of his legs, but went on to become one of the fathers of modern dance.
This Advent recall a time in your own life when the unexpected voice of God came to you, perhaps in a time of great vulnerability, and showed you the way to new life and happiness. Give thanks to God and ask yourself: Am I still listening?
Without a healthy self-love, there can be no love of God and neighbor. According to the Desert Fathers and Mothers of early Christian times, we cannot begin to learn how to love God and others without first learning how to claim for ourselves a self to do that loving. To many contemporary Christians, loving means that as Jesus sacrificed himself for others, so Christians must also in their everyday lives sacrifice their very selves for the sake of others.
While it is true that love requires self-giving and discipline to respond to the needs of family, friends, community and those we serve, it is misguided to think that love is of such a self-sacrificing nature that Christians ought not have a self at all. One sign that we lack a self is the feeling that our worth is determined by others’ approval or liking of us. If we are captive to the need for approval, we may well refuse to make the right decision we know is true to our convictions out of anxiety over what others may think of us. As Christians, we need to realize our intrinsic value as created in the image of God. Our true identity rests in God and our primary relationship is with God.
For this reason, the Desert Fathers and Mothers told their disciples to be like the dead when it comes to other people’s opinion:
A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, “Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.” So the old man said, “Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.” The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, “Didn’t they say anything to you?” He replied, “No.” The old man said, “Go back tomorrow and praise them.” So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, “Apostles, saints, and righteous men.” He returned to the old man and said to him, “I have complimented them.” And the old man said to him, “Did they not answer you?” The brother said no. The old man said to him, “You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of human beings or their praises, and you will be saved.”
The clear message in Macarius’ teaching is that if we are able to understand that our authentic identity is not linked to others’ evaluations of us, we are free to be our true self. Only then will we be able to respond to the call of Christ to love God and neighbor as self.
By Sister Maureen Barzantni, OP
I went to Standing Rock, North Dakota, with a delegation of Dominican Sisters, to be in solidarity with the Native American Sioux Tribe, which has taken on the role of protecting the water and their sacred places from the Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The Sioux fear that the pipeline will leak crude oil into the Missouri River and poison the water supply of downstream communities such as Fort Yates, the tribal center of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
What makes this even more troubling is that the pipeline was originally set to run north of the mostly white town of Bismarck, but the route was changed when the Army Corp of Engineers decided that was a “high consequence area.” The Sioux Tribe spoke out against the obvious implications that their community is an area of low consequence for an oil spill. The non-violent actions taken by the activists, who call themselves “water protectors,” have at times met with police in riot gear who have fired water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades to disperse the activists.
To stand with the Sioux Nation was not a difficult decision to make. I wanted to go because I value the traditions of the Native American communities and hope to learn to live in a way that reveres Mother Earth. The people at Standing Rock have a great sense of leaving Earth in conditions that will benefit the future generations. I heard repeatedly, “We have no choice. It is for our children.” Their choice, however, comes with pain. They are living in teepees, yurts, tents, and campers among thousands of strangers who have come to support them. The Dakota winter is severe. Some have suffered injury from police action against them. Could I do that?
I do not know how this will play out. My guess is that the pipeline will win, but the decision each “protector” made to engage in the struggle to value life over profit is not in vain. The Standing Rock Community is a beacon of hope, hope that we can get our priorities in order even while faced with the power of greed. As I finish this reflection, the lyrics of Trevor Hall’s song, “If You Are a Rock, Stand up Like a Mountain” are running through my mind.
When we are stuck in a state of restless dissatisfaction—“I want this, I want that”—we can fail to see the value of life and focus only on what is wrong with the situation, ourselves and other people. We may relentlessly push ourselves to achieve success and independence because we want what do not have. And once we have it, we want something else. When we are caught in this dynamic, we do not value the good things we have in life or take joy in God.
The remedy for this unhappy state is simple: gratitude. It should not surprise us that people who feel thankful acknowledge inner richness and deeply appreciate small things that many of us take for granted—good health, the beauty of nature, a kind word. Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, often speaks about the joy of breathing!
Are we supposed to be thankful even in times of suffering? How are we to respond to the tragedies and evils that cause us such great pain and turmoil? Gratitude does not mean ignoring hardships in life. True gratitude exists only where compassion and awareness of evil are present. It is strange but true: when we have struggled with illness, we appreciate health; when we experience a broken relationship, we rediscover the importance of friendship, when we have experienced the agony of defeat, we appreciate the sweetness of success.
In good times and bad, may we allow gratitude to open us to the presence of God. May we learn to savor God’s loving relationship, who gives us this day our daily bread. As Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart states, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”
As you celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, take time to reflect on your practice of gratitude. Do you easily give thanks for the many gifts in your life in a spirit of inner contentment for what you have, or are you easily caught up in the sense of dissatisfaction with life, forgetful of your blessings through lack of time or attention? How might you cultivate gratitude in your life?
Sister Carol Coston, OP, has brought to our Motherhouse a new vision of Earth ethic, called permaculture, (permanent agriculture). This new vision serves to correct the skewed vision perpetuated by the food industry. As Sister Carol writes, “Currently, much food production is viewed as big business for profit—not as a response to each person’s right to eat. Efficiency is measured by total profits rather than by the quality of the food or the condition of the soil. The land is often abused rather than “cared for.” Seed-bearing plants are not seen as a gift from God to be shared but as the first step in a vertical integration of agribusiness.”
Permaculture is a design based on natural ecosystems that would put food production back into the hands of local farmers with the support they need to sustain it. Cities and communities would be arranged in such a way that people would have direct access to locally grown food instead of importing it from thousands of miles away. Tax breaks, water subsidies, price and other supports would be designed to aid small farmers rather than agribusiness. A key principle of permaculture, Sister Carol states, is “to give back to Earth as much or more than you take from her.”
As you look at the world, what new vision is needed to promote the reign of God which includes the care for the entire earth community? What actions are you willing to take to make your personal vision a reality?
Even though we elect our public officials, I believe that God elects every human being to serve the world according to their unique giftedness. For God, there is no need for campaign speeches and ballot boxes to prove our worthiness to love and make a contribution to the common good. In the eyes of God, there are no winners or losers, only the victory of God’s love embracing all of creation. All people are created with an innate dignity and special capacities to make the world a better place. The real challenge is discernment, that is, making a decision in conversation with God about how and what we will do to promote the reign of God’s justice and peace on earth.
In this “land of the free,” are we making life-decisions from a place of internal freedom? God always works through interior freedom, never forcing us, but allowing us to respond out of our deep desire for love. The famous Jesuit, Father Pedro Arrupe, puts it this way: “Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love—and it will decide everything.” What love is worthy of the commitment of your freedom? What love has your vote?
Only 48% of American Catholics are certain that you can have a personal relationship with God (Pew Religious Landscape Survey, 2008). Only 5% of “practicing” Catholics are what Sherry Weddell* calls intentional disciples, that is, women and men who have a growing personal relationship with Christ, and have made a definitive choice to dedicate their lives to God through prayer, study, virtuous living in love of neighbor as self, service for the common good and public witness to their faith. The majority of Catholics, she says, are in one of the earlier, essentially passive, stages of spiritual development characterized by trust, curiosity, and openness but have not yet reached the levels of serious seeking and the commitment to a life of discipleship.
How does this information about American Catholics resonate with you? Are you certain that you can have a personal relationship with God? Who is Jesus for you? Are you taking conscious steps to grow in your prayer life, theological understanding of your faith, personal maturity, commitment to serving the last and the least in our society, and willingness to publicly witness to your faith?
*I attended the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC) this past week. One of our keynote speakers was Sherry Anne Weddell, co-founder, and co-director of the Catherine of Sienna Institute, an affiliated ministry of the Western Dominican Province. Over the past twenty years, Sherry has developed a variety of formation resources and has worked with an international team that has formed Christian disciples in hundreds of parishes, in 137 dioceses on 5 continents.
In Hans Christian Anderson’s classic fairytale, “The Little Mermaid,” the love-struck mermaid, Ariel, gives up her beautiful voice in exchange for legs. She makes a deal with the evil Sea Witch to become what she is not in order to achieve her idea of success—to become human and marry the handsome prince. This seemingly innocent fable illustrates our contemporary temptation to lose our true self in order to achieve our ideal of success.
A colleague of mine, who is now a career development specialist, shares with college students how he had fallen victim to this very temptation. As a college student, he knew he had a real talent for working with people and took great joy in listening to others and helping them find their way in life. And yet, because careers in public service were not high-paying, he sacrificed his real calling for a career in accounting. He got married, had children, and made a lot of money. Like Ariel, he silenced what made him special in order to meet his definition of success.
The consequences of this false bargain bore fruit several years later when he fell into a deep depression. He hated accounting and each day was a drudgery. He realized that he had traded in his true self and vital access to God for a bigger paycheck. Only through honoring his true nature could he begin to survive on the inside, where it counts.
Have you ever suffered from what we could call the Little Mermaid Syndrome? Have you ever silenced some essential aspect of yourself in order to be loved, to be successful? What were the consequences? Consider what you need to do in order to be reconnected to that dimension of yourself that seems to be lost at sea.
This week's blogger is Sister Judith Benkert, OP.
There is a definite warning in that old saying, “Give and inch, take a mile.” I grew up with it. I was told to be careful, don’t get over involved. Don’t let “them” take advantage of your generosity. Guard your heart.
Then there is the other side of the coin of life echoed in Jesus’ words to me. If someone asks for your shirt give your coat as well. Love your enemies; do well to those who hate you. Search for the common good and perhaps you will find your heart and soul for the Beloved.
I just returned from the School of the Americas (SOA) Watch: Convergence at the Border. SOA Watch traditionally holds protests every November at Fort Benning, Georgia, the site of the School of the Americas. This U.S. government-run school trains military officers from Latin American countries how to engage in warfare tactics, which are often used against their own people. The traditional November rally calls for the close of the SOA, whose graduates have committed countless murders and human rights violations against their own people.
This year, we met at the border between Nogales Mexico and Nogales Arizona to protest the militarization of our border. We were a group of hundreds of people, young and old, men and women, able bodied and handy capable, with no competition or ownership. We were putting on Christ and learning to express the mind of Christ. We walked and prayed, shouted slogans referring to injustices that became very apparent during the gatherings in workshops. Everything associated with the Convergence was geared to educate toward becoming a more just and inclusive world.
It isn’t the ‘wall’ that was so apparent in Nogales. The Disconocidos (Unknowns) are not only those lost in the desert but those lost at sea, shut out of countries, and in the ravages of climate tragedies throughout the world that need the assistance. How am I able to open my heart to put on Christ and be of help to the suffering peoples and places on our Earth? Go ahead, Judith, give the inch and let it become a mile.
Sister Carol Coston, OP, reflects on her personal discernment process: “As I think back on these experiences and on the way I have changed over the past six and a half decades of my life, I recognize that my personal transformation has been more evolutionary than epiphanic. The movements have involved gradual changes, a sort of unfolding, rather than abrupt shifts— although, once I complete the internal shift, the external decisions to act on the internal change have always come quickly.”
Three deep impulses have guided Sister Carol’s life: her quest for God, her struggle against racism and class prejudice, and her commitment to social justice and care for Earth. She helped found, and for 10 years served as the first director of NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, based in Washington, DC. Sister Carol was also a founding member of the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Portfolio Advisory Board, serving as the Board’s chair for 12 years and representing our Congregation in dozens of shareholder resolutions on issues of justice in the global economy.
She founded and directed two Partners for the Common Good loan funds, raising more than $11 million in religious investments to provide low-interest credit to low-income communities in the United States, Latin America, and South Africa. She also co-founded and co-directed Santuario Sisterfarm, a sanctuary for cultivating diversity and sustainable agriculture in the Texas Hill Country.
Sister Carol is the first and only sister to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal, given by the President of the United States “in recognition of U.S. citizens who have performed exemplary deeds of service for our nation.”
What internal change are you noticing in your own life? How has this internal shift borne fruit in external action? What deep motivations guide your life?
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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!