At different times in our life, we all have encountered the frightening face of death. As much as we would like to avoid death and dying, death is an undisputed fact of life. As the poet Emily Dickinson amusingly wrote, “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.” While we know the fragility of life and the inevitability of death, death is something that human beings have never been able to accept as something that ought to be.
This Holy Week I had a quite unexpected brush with death. Some dear family members from out of town came to visit. It was a beautiful, blue-sky day and the three of us were enjoying an idyllic afternoon at the lake. Two of us were out on the lake in a paddleboat, while the other was watching birds from the shoreline. All of a sudden, we heard a jarring cry from the middle of the lake “Help, help!” A kayaker had flipped over into the icy water and could not swim. We were the only people out on the lake. We immediately started peddling our paddleboat toward him as fast as we could, while the one on shore jumped into a rowboat and headed toward the capsized kayak. In less than ten minutes we reached the young man who managed to pull his numb body into the row boat. In the safety of our boats, we were all deeply grateful that our sunny, fun-loving lake had not become a watery grave.
Our different scrapes with death push us to ponder more deeply the mysteries of life and death. According to our Easter faith, the basis for hope that death is not only bodily disintegration, but also the triumphant integration of life in eternal fullness is the resurrection of Jesus. As John Sachs asserts, “Jesus’ resurrection was not a personal privilege or reward for Jesus but an act of God ‘for us and for our salvation.’... What the Spirit accomplished in Jesus is the work of the Spirit in all of us.”* This is the reason why Paul gleefully asserts: “Death has been swallowed up in victory” with Christ’s death and resurrection and taunts: “Where, O Death, is your sting?” (I Cor 15:55). For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus is the source and model of our own resurrection.
Today, let the mysteries of death and resurrection help you to ponder what gives real meaning and purpose to your life. Does your Easter faith free you to take risks for the sake of Christ and his Gospel?
*John R. Sachs, The Christian Vision of Humanity: Basic Christian Anthropology (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 76.
A number of different people have told me that because of their personal experience of suffering and the misery in the world, they no longer believe in an all-loving God. Without doubt, human misery can shatter belief, not only in God, but in the goodness of humanity as well.
As we enter into Holy Week, the Church invites us to reflect on how Jesus viewed his suffering and death. Throughout his ministry, we know that Jesus freely accepted suffering as the cost of his revolutionary proclamation of the reign of God. As his death approached, he felt deep anxiety in the face of suffering, sweating blood as he prayed to be spared the inevitable. Nevertheless, he resolved, with God’s help, to stand in fidelity to his mission. Then, in the throes of his agony on the cross, it seemed that even God, whom Jesus had preached as compassionate and loving Abba, had forsaken him. He cried out the opening line of psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mk 15:34), expressing his real experience of the absence of God. Yet, at the heart of his vulnerability, was an unwavering belief in his own goodness as well as a deep trust in the psalm’s promise of God’s help and vindication. The hidden closeness and strengthening love of God within him was made visible when Jesus offered forgiveness to those who crucified him, (Lk 23:34) promised paradise to the penitent thief, (Lk 23:42) and entrusted the care of his mother to the beloved disciple (Jn 19:26-27). Even as Jesus was lifted up in crucifixion, his loving communion with God was made available to all people in their most perilous experiences of suffering and death. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says of his death, “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12:32).
In his Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, (I 59) Rainer Maria Rilke portrays our loving God, who walks with us through life, encouraging our trust especially in times of suffering. Rilke writes:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
Then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
Go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
And make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
This Holy Week, may you experience the hand of God take yours in everlasting love.
By Sister Judith Benkert, OP
Last week I was listening to an interview of one of our Sisters. Sister Ann has given 60 years of ministry in a variety of settings. When asked what three words she would like on her tombstone, Sister Ann paused a moment and said, “I always said yes.” If you have a chance click here to view the entire interview on YouTube—it’s amazing!
It’s true that, when the Congregation asks a Sister to consider a ministry, we take it very seriously because we believe God works through the Congregation in calling us to serve the people of God. Over the past forty years, the ministry of Sisters has changed. We slowly turned schools and other institutions over to very capable educators and administrators who carry the mission and ministry forward. We strive to “Preach with Our Lives” in a variety of ministries. New members will find a place in ministry in areas of social justice, law, ecology, health care, education, parish ministry, campus ministry, and more. The future belongs to new members who stand on the shoulders of Sisters who walked before them and said “yes” to God.
Will you come follow these Sisters and say yes?
After a winter of snow, ice, and freezing weather the new blossoms of spring seem so far away. We hear of a new wave of cold arctic air to hit the Northeast. And yet the first blossoms are bravely opening with the urging of the warm sun.
Discernment was for me a chilling winter. Where was the answer to my seeking? Where was the God I so believed in? Give me an answer, and soon! Then one morning I was out the back door and peeking through the winter soil was the small point of a peony plant. I lived in the Midwest. I was able to see the warmth of the sun bring the decision to light. I haven’t looked back. Spring blossoms are always reminders for me to believe in the warmth of God’s grace.
Do you have the water? Or the jug? Or are you thirsty? A regular Lenten reading is the Samaritan woman at the well. In a way, the Samaritan woman could be any of us. She is coming to get water, to get what is needed for her and her family to survive, but she is tired of having to come day after day. The thought of receiving water that would quench her thirst forever sounds like a wonderful idea to her!
Our Lenten practices can help us become aware of what we truly need. By giving something up, we can no longer use that food or habit or thought to distract us, and we can encounter our own deep thirst. If we don’t realize we are thirsty, we will fail to drink the water we need. When we become aware of our spiritual and emotional thirsts, we can bring them to God and ask for that life-giving water only God can provide.
The wonderful gift of encountering our own thirst, and allowing God to ease it, enables us to then offer water to others. We know what it is like to thirst. We can share in that struggle with someone. We can help them lower the bucket to their depths in order to receive true water. Where are you this Lent? Are you avoiding your thirst? Are you allowing God to quench it? Are you called to help someone else lower the bucket into the well?
Sister Lorraine Réaume, OP
Change can shake-up our image of self, others and God. While we naturally fear and resist major changes, change can help us to grow and develop in ways that create more trusting and loving relationships. In her book Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction, Susan Phillips describes a man she calls John whose experience illustrates how even unwanted changes can yield unexpected benefits (80-85).
John had been a pastor at a conservative evangelical church for many years. At some point, political currents within the faith community changed and he was asked to resign. Unemployed, he turned to gardening and part-time factory work while he looked for another church to serve. His self-image suffered a big hit because he was strongly identified—by himself and others—as pastor. Moreover, it was painful for him to accept that his wife was now the main breadwinner in the family.
At his new factory job, everybody knew he was a pastor and they were not sure they could trust him. Many of these workers thought differently than he did, many had lived rougher lives, some were gay. Gradually, however, they got to know him and began to invite him to go out with them after work. Likewise, he slowly warmed up to them and a sense of acceptance and companionship developed. As trust built, the men began to seek out his counsel. John remarked how strange it was: “I am not a pastor of a church, but I feel more like a pastor than I did at the church.” There is very little God-talk, but “I listen to what’s in people’s hearts.” John explained that as pastor in his church he focused on what was wrong with people, their sinfulness or lack of faith that God’s light exposed. Now in his new role, he focuses on the good in people as God’s beloved children. Seeing them in this way has helped him to see himself in a more positive light as well.
Reflect on the important changes in your life. How have they been opportunities for growth in love and trust in your relationship with yourself, with others and with God?
I do not know about you, but my love for self, others, and God is far from unconditional. For example, there are a number of conditions I lay down before I will love myself. I need to be successful in my work, have friends who treat me according to my will and have things go my way, just to name a few. Here is an everyday example of what I am talking about. When I am driving on the back roads of Michigan, I am peaceful, content, driving along as fast as I want, enjoying the scenery. This loving feeling changes quickly, however, if I happen to get behind a car that wants to take their time going 45 miles per hour. Suddenly, I am no longer peaceful, content and enjoying myself. I have become more and more frustrated and resentful that I’m stuck behind this driver, and there is little opportunity to pass. I have put a condition on my love for myself, that is, things must go my way. The good news is that when we catch ourselves in the act of loving conditionally, we can make a change. I have learned to take a deep breath, and enjoy the scenery even more because I am now going at a slower pace. I will give myself the feelings of peace and contentment no matter the conditions. The love I give myself is enough. As the author of The Presence Process Michael Brown says, “There’s no reason, excuse, or justification for treating ourselves with anything less than unconditional love” (208). God loves us with an unconditional love and calls us to do likewise. When we learn to love ourselves unconditionally, we can more easily love others and God this way as well. How unconditional is your love? What conditions do you place on yourself, others and God before you will love them?
Sister Sara Fairbanks, OP
Lent is an opportunity to respond to God’s call. “Return to me with all your heart” (Joel 2: 12). The forty days of Lent echo Jesus’ own forty days in the desert -praying and fasting, listening to God and wrestling with temptations. He grew stronger and came out ready to unite his heart with the heart of God in his mission for others. Like Jesus, we renew our dedication to the love of God and to the love of neighbor as self through prayer, fasting, and generous service to others, especially to people who are poor and vulnerable.
Jesuit priest Father Mark Thibodeaux gives one example of how he renews his life in God through what he calls “the most amazing prayer you’ve never heard of.” This amazing prayer is St. Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercise, called the Examen. Father Mark explains why he loves this way of praying:
What I long for is to have Christ join me in all the adventures and tedium of my active day. I love Christ so much that I want to share every minute of it with him….I want to feel his presence always! …. I want to share with him even the smallest details of my life: the irritating email…the pleasant smile of the women at the post office; the dread in my heart for the difficult meeting…Sure, I want to share with Christ the really big things…but the closer I grow to Christ, the more I want to share with him the seemingly insignificant things as well. I know he’s there, in the midst of it all.
Mark Thibodeaux, Reimagining the Ignatian Examen (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2015), vii-viii).
The Examen is a short prayer where for fifteen minutes every day you review your day. In five easy steps you: (1) Give thanks for all the things that went well in your day and the many gifts in your life; (2) Ask the Holy Spirit to review with you your whole day; (3) Recognize where you failed to love God, yourself or others today in big ways and small; (4) With self-compassion, feel the negative feelings that may surface and, if you have sinned, ask for forgiveness; (5) Look ahead with God to tomorrow and resolve to live it well.
This is only one way to rededicate your life to God. How much do you want to share your life with Jesus? As you reflect on your plans for Lent, how will you give God more of a role in your life?
Young adults who are discerning their vocation from God often ask me, “How do I hear God’s voice in my life?” Sometimes we think that God’s will for us comes from beyond us, outside our world, like the Ten Commandments delivered to Moses on stone tablets. Yet, a closer look reveals that God is present and active within us and among us through the ordinary circumstances of life and through all the decisions we make that shape our lives.
In reflecting on my own life, I realize how my vocation to be a Dominican Sister was realized through many years of paying attention to how God was meeting me in my life and how my response to God’s presence brought me a deep sense of joy and fulfillment that only God can give.
Here is just a glimpse at one meeting with God which happened my junior year in college. I was a history major. My academic advisor told me that I needed to take a course on the Protestant Reformation because that particular split in Christendom had powerful political ramifications for all of Europe. So, quite unexpectedly, I ended up taking my first college religion class. This situation has God written all over it!
During one class, our professor explained to us that one of the great themes of the Protestant Reform was the right of every Christian to read the Bible in his/her own language. At the end of the discussion, our professor said, “I challenge each one of you to pick up the Bible and read one of the Gospels all the way through.” Can you hear God’s voice echoing in this challenge?
Since I didn’t even own a Bible, I borrowed a Bible from a Protestant friend. One night I decided to take up the challenge. I opened to the Gospel of Matthew and started to read it. At one point, I got to the passage in the Sermon on the Mount: “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.” I sensed, for the first time, the presence of God with me, speaking these words directly to my heart, awakening me to a divine love that I had never known before, a love unsurpassed. “Ask and you shall receive!” What open-handed, unconditional love! It wasn’t “Get good grades, and I will love you!” or “Do what I say, and I will love you.” Rather, I experienced God’s presence as a lavish, unconditional love. I was in tears. This experience was totally unexpected. God’s love was real!
This meeting with God, which happened through very ordinary circumstances, became a beginning step on the way toward fulfilling my religious vocation. Through the help of many other faithful Christians, I gradually learned how to develop my relationship with God through prayer, community, and service to the poor and those in need.
How do you sense God is working in your life? What is your response?
You become. It takes a long time.
That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.
Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby.
But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand...
- Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
Early on in my nursing career, I cared for Jillian, an eight-year-old girl who had had a kidney transplant. Jillian's parents flew her from Australia to have the transplant because of our reputation as a world-renowned transplant center. Rejection issues and other complications placed Jillian on reverse isolation for seven months after her surgery. Every day, at least eight hours a day, we watched The Velveteen Rabbit on video. I might add that I spent the remaining hours reading The Velveteen Rabbit to her.
Jillian loved to have me paint her nails and fix her hair. She also insisted on looking at herself in a mirror. I have often wondered what this young girl felt as her hair fell out and her joints became stiff. On days when she looked really bad, I would say, "No mirror today," but she insisted. She would smile and tell me to be "Real."
Jillian died in July of 1974. Her body had rejected the kidney. Dialysis and all other treatments failed to save her young life.
After Jillian died, her dad gave me her copy of the book. I have read it often and wonder why it takes us so long to become our true self. Knowing we are loved by our God and others is often not enough. Our culture pushes us to be perfect. I challenge you, as Jillian did, to look in the mirror daily and love who is looking back at you. It is never too late to become "Real."
by Sister Peggy Coyne, OP
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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!