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?
This week’s blogger is Sister Marilyn Barnett, OP.
What led me to promote racial equality throughout my life? Maybe it was because my parents were born in Jamaica, or maybe it was the cultural diversity of my own birthplace and years of growing up near Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was taught at the side of my parents that God loves every one of us, we are all made in God’s image, and every nation on Earth is held in the gentle palm of God’s loving hand. I know that God’s call to enter religious life and encounter people of different cultures came while working with the Hispanic community in southern Colorado.
As a young person, I observed the actions of others in my neighborhood – those who would have nothing to do with persons of color or those who would cross the street if there were people who were not part of “their group.” I remember being told by older people that it was probably not “wise” to associate with different races since we had nothing in common with them, i.e. language, features, customs, food, and religious affiliation.
At the time these so called “words of advice” caused me to wonder, and later to brood over this seemingly widespread attitude of discrimination. I began to clearly recognize the subtle and overt ways minorities were portrayed, and the dislike, cruelty, and hatred that developed. I began to study, read, and immerse myself in actions that would promote racial equality wherever I ministered.
The Adrian Dominican Sisters have recognized, encouraged, and supported this deeply profound truth of God’s love for all. Our Vision and Enactments, both past and present, have given me the freedom to live this truth.
True love, the foundation of discernment, never avoids conflict. This kind of discernment is the most difficult to practice. It arises out of a situation in which we are suffering from a situation that we think is caused by the person or community that we love the most. We might refuse to ask the person or community for help in understanding and dealing with our hurt.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, tells of a young Vietnamese man who went off to war, leaving his pregnant wife behind. When he returned after three years, his young wife and son welcomed him home with tears of joy.
When his wife went out to buy food for their celebration, the young father tried to get his son to call him daddy. The little boy refused, saying, “You are not my daddy. My daddy is somebody else. He visits us every night and comforts mommy when she cries. Every time my mommy sits down, he sits down, too. Every time she lies down, he lies down, too.”
The young father was stunned, heartbroken, and humiliated by these words. When his wife returned, he refused to talk to her or even look at her. He stormed out of the house and spent the day at a bar. This went on for several days. Finally, the young woman was so distraught over her husband’s change in behavior that she threw herself in the river and drowned.
When the young man heard the news, he returned home, and lit a lamp. Suddenly, the little boy exclaimed, “Look, it’s my daddy! He’s come back!” He pointed to the shadow of his father on the wall.
In reality, his mother had been so alone in the house that every night she had to talk to her own shadow. Now her husband’s false perception was corrected, but it was too late. His wife was dead.
We all fall victim to our misperceptions every day. When in a painful situation of conflict, we must check things out with the other person before taking action if we want true love to guide our lives.
Sister Sara Fairbanks, OP
This week’s blogger is Sister Ellen Burkhardt, OP.
“I don’t believe you brought me this far to leave me.”
These words are from a hymn we sing in my parish in Detroit, one of my favorites. We sang it one week while I was discerning a call to religious life, and honestly, I thought the words were jumping off the page and into my heart with a message specially formulated for me! God seemed to speak directly to me through the words “I haven’t brought you this far just to walk away from you now. Trust me, now and into the future.”
As is often the case for those struggling with a discernment issue, I was filled with questions: How can I know that this is where God is leading me? Why won’t these questions go away? I also had concerns about giving up my home and a career I loved. I worried about entering religious life and then discovering that it doesn’t fit me. What would I do then?
Over time, with the help of prayer and spiritual direction, I came to a deeper trust that the same God who led me this far, will accompany me today and each day that follows.
In The Book of Awakening, Mark Nepo offers us this colorful piece of wisdom about discernment: “The instant fish accept that they will never have arms, they grow fins.” In other words, we will never discover who we are meant to be until we accept who we are not. Most of us have tried to be someone we thought we could or should be in our grandest fantasies of ourselves, only to discover that it was not in our nature to be like the person we so admired.
In high school, I played the trumpet and dreamed of being a professional musician—the next Louis Armstrong! Once I discovered that I did not have the disposition nor the natural talent necessary to achieve that goal, I could let go of my desire to be famous and instead focus on enjoying music and the companionship of my friends in the band. Once I could accept who I was not, I could freely embrace my true self and develop the gifts and talents I did have, making for a much happier me.
Take some time to reflect on your relational life, career path, or lifestyle choices. Are these dimensions of your life nurturing your true self or blocking your path to authenticity and your real purpose in life? Are you at home with yourself, or are you trying to look like someone else? While people may say to us, “You can be whatever you want,” why be someone you are not? When we decide that who we are simply is not good enough, and we strive to look like someone else, we become just like a fish that is trying to grow arms.
Can a forest help you discern? Reflecting on this “Season of Creation” (September 1 – October 4) that Pope Francis has asked us to celebrate has me thinking of the perspective that nature can give us. Whenever I take time to walk in nature, I am in awe of all that is going on around me. I become aware of all the life in plants, insects, and various creatures, all oblivious to my existence. Walking a nature trail always seems to give me a helpful perspective: all this life goes on whether I am here or not. The energy and vibrancy of God’s creation is so vast, yet I am often not conscious of it.
I come away from my walk in the woods reminded that the world and all creation are so immense and that I am so small. Not that I don’t matter. To the Creator of the universe, we all matter. But I am a part of something so much bigger that I can’t fully grasp. That awareness brings me a sense of both awe and peace. My struggles matter, but they are just one part of a vast universe. I can go forward a little more calmly and make a humble decision, trusting in the God who created all.
Gaze at something in nature today, even a weed breaking through concrete, and see what message it has for you.
This week's blogger is Sister Judith Benkert, OP.
For many years, I was a practicing midwife. I used the undergraduate science degree to become a registered nurse. Some years later, I was working with Nurse Midwives at our hospital in Santa Cruz, California, and then became a certified nurse-midwife.
When I look back on the path I chose, it seems obvious that the pieces of the puzzle of discerning a ministry were rather clear. I’m not the type of person who discerns using a list of pros and cons or a great deal of discussion. My discernment comes in the form of putting one foot in front of the other, and the path seems to open before me to the next step. My answers come in the form of excitement and comfort that the path is right for me.
Another part of discernment is trust. Sometimes it’s a little shaky putting your foot out in a space that is not tested. As a midwife, I felt a major part of my work was to help a woman trust her body. We spent a major part of the prenatal time building trust, letting the woman know that her body was doing the “right thing.”
A midwife is a guide. In discernment, the Spiritual Director is a guide to help us develop trust in the call of God and to become the witness we are called to be. The best we can do is simply to ask God to show us the footpath.
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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 new video series called DISCO (Discernment Conversations): Dancing with the questions of life!