By Sister Nancyann Turner, OP
Last Friday afternoon, a distraught mother sort of pushed her 8-year-old daughter into my office so that I could talk with her. The little girl, Alice, had a crumbled paper indicating that she had already served a one day “in-school” suspension and now had just been served a one day “out of school” suspension for outbursts, defiance, and talking back.
I asked Alice to tell me all that had happened. She pretty much agreed that she explodes, has outbursts, and often has great trouble controlling her behavior. We talked briefly about how important it is to think before reacting and screaming angry words. She told me that my previous idea of counting to ten just didn’t work for her; did I have any other ideas?
I mentioned that sometimes I take some deep breaths or I ask God to help me calm down. Alice seemed startled at my answer and asked if I really believed in God. I assured her that I did. She, then, related to me that she wasn’t sure yet if there really was a God; she was still trying to decide that.
We talked a few more minutes and she asked about the devil. “My brother says I have the devil in me…in my heart. Do you think I do?” Naturally, I disagreed.
“No, I don’t think you have the devil in you. In fact, I think you have great love in your heart. But sometimes you forget that you have it—and love has great power. So remember that you have love and remember to use it.”
After a few minutes, she seemed quite satisfied with these thoughts and thanked me for our conversation. Our theology and spiritual life session was finished. And I renewed my belief in God.
How do you experience the great power of Love in your life? What actions result when you put your belief in God into action?
By Sister Corinne Sanders, OP
The Gospels portray Jesus as a great teacher. He teaches and suddenly things happen. Jesus not only carries authority in his teaching but he carries power to heal and bring freedom. His presence, his authority, and power will continue to amaze and astonish as he speaks of the presence of God among us. His teaching will also frighten some and threaten others.
We know the world is longing for hearts and souls whose voices carry authority; strong voices that cause us to sit up, to take notice and to respond. My life has been shaped by these voices as I have heard those who speak of the rights of nature and I find myself taking delight in listening to Earth with a new heart.
I have been shaped and inspired by those who speak with passion and urgency on behalf of immigrants. And I have been freed over the years by women who teach and speak from a feminist perspective releasing my spirit to new ways of knowing and expressing faith in my God.
I am sure you can name those who have taught with authority and have shaped your lives, calling you deeper and deeper into mystery. As disciples, each of us has this responsibility to step out in whatever ways we can and to speak of God’s presence among us. In what ways are you being called to spread God’s truth in our world? How do you teach with your life?
Have you ever thought of yourself as a mother of God? We tend more to speak of ourselves as brothers and sisters of Jesus, and children of God. But Jesus even said, “For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:35). The famous Dominican Mystic, Meister Eckhart, said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”
This question can give a different perspective on discernment. How am I called to give birth to God in the little acts I do this day? Every interaction we have, the way we treat people we encounter at the store, on the road, in our homes – all of these can help give birth to God in our midst, or not.
The question really fits well when we are discerning the larger life choices: Will this job help me to bring God to birth in our city, our neighborhood? Is the relationship I am in witnessing to God’s love in the world and helping to share that love? Is the path I am on for my life the way I can best give birth to God with my life?
Take a look at your life this day and ask yourself how you are helping God to be born.
By Sister Carleen Maly, OP
As we reflect on God’s call in our lives, there seem to be some common characteristics:
I like to call these the “had it not been for…” moments. These people or events can be the instruments of God’s invitation, messengers, if you will, who are filled with God’s presence and understand what it means to be used as disciples.
As followers of Jesus we have all had our “had it not been for…” moments when we have heard God’s call. These are stories of trust in our ever-faithful God who continues to call us. What are some of your “had it not been for…” stories? What is happening in your life right now that seems to have God written all over it? May you listen and be attentive to the promptings of your hearts.
More than simply making a decision, spiritual discernment is decision-making that is rooted in self-knowledge as well as a deep awareness of God’s loving presence and action in our lives. Because we know God as our creator and redeemer, we lean on that graced friendship with God to help us make a good and life-giving decision.
There are many tried-and-true tools that help us prepare the soil for a fruitful discernment process. First, we need to define prayerfully the issue for discernment. It is helpful to focus our issue carefully enough to be able to state it in the form of a question that can be answered yes or no. So for example, rather than ask a more general question like, “What shall I do with my life?” we can fine-tune the question to ask something more specific like, “Will I apply to become a sister with the Adrian Dominicans?” Once the decision before us is well defined, we need to apply the tool of fact-finding. What kinds of relevant data do we need in order to make an informed decision? Once all of the facts are gathered, we can begin to assess and evaluate the data. In this process, we stay attentive to all of the thoughts and feelings that arise as we consider the different dimensions of our decision. The tool of journal keeping is helpful here.
Another handy tool in the toolbox of discernment is dialogue with others. We need to share the different aspects of our decision with the wisdom figures in our life, those who know us well and care deeply about our well-being. Equally important is the tool of solitude, where we invite God into our decision-making process. We need to confide in God our hopes, dreams, expectations, doubts, and fears. We then listen carefully to how God responds to us. A good spiritual director can help us in this discernment process.
Dominican Sister Cathy Arnold shared a useful tool of imagination that she used in discerning her call to religious life. Her spiritual director advised her to imagine herself in each choice for two weeks. So for two weeks, she lived as if she had made the decision to become a Dominican Sister. She reflected on how she felt when she woke up in the morning. What were her thoughts and feelings throughout the two weeks? Then she reversed the process and lived as if she had made the opposite decision. How did she feel? Was she relieved or devastated by the change? Click on the following link to hear Sister Cathy’s discussion on discernment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwWPM4QtGwY.
Finally, how do we know that our choice represents God’s deepest desires for us? Signs of validation include feelings of inner peace and joy with our decision, as well as the confirmation of the others who have shared in our discernment process.
Are you discerning an important life decision? What are your tools for the discernment process?
The hidden assumptions we hold when we begin to discern an important decision can easily derail a healthy life choice. If we automatically assume that certain options are undesirable, unthinkable, or impossible to attain, we will rule them out before we even consider our course of action. Detecting and assessing our hidden assumptions can open the way to finding God’s call in our lives through our concrete decisions.
When I was in my early twenties, I assumed that following God’s will for my life had to involve doing something explicitly religious. I wanted to pursue doctoral studies in European history with the hopes of becoming a college professor. In prayer, I shared my doubts with God; how could studying history possibly draw me closer to Christ or be an expression of discipleship? God, however, seemed to be affirming my desire for studies. I earned a scholarship that paid for my education, and although I never became a historian, I gained a wealth of research and writing skills. These newly acquired skills served me well as I later earned my doctoral degree in theology and became a university professor. I learned through this experience that following God’s will has a diversity of forms and need not only occur in a religious context.
Often our hidden assumptions show up in what surprises us or make us resistant or defensive. When I was a member of the Covenant House lay community in New York City, again in my twenties, I was asked to consider going to Fort Lauderdale, Florida to help open a Covenant House there. At first, I was totally against the idea. As a Vermonter, who loves the four seasons, my thought was, “I won’t be caught dead in Florida.” Dare I say that I warmed up to the idea, and took the assignment? In the end, I loved my time there. In fact, had I not gone to Florida, I probably would not have met the Adrian Dominican Sisters and become a Dominican sister. Only by letting go of my hidden assumption that God’s will must unfold in my preferred climate and geographic location, was I able to embrace God’s deepest desire for me.
What have been some of your hidden assumptions when discerning God’s call? Where have you not wanted to listen? How has God surprised you?
In this week between Thanksgiving and Advent, I thought I would share with you part of a Thanksgiving reflection given by our Sister Maria Goretti Browne, OP, that focuses on the sometimes hard work of practicing gratitude. Suffering is an unavoidable part of life and at times we need to lament and share our grief with others and with God. By embracing suffering in this way we can grow in our ability to love life unconditionally.
Sometimes, however, we may choose to intensify the difficulties of life by incessant complaining, stirring up resentments, nursing grudges and basically being a walking wet blanket. There is another more healthy option: gratitude. Research tells us that if we learn how to appreciate life in all its dimensions, we will feel better, be less prone to stress and sickness, sleep better, and live longer and healthier lives.
Sister Maria Goretti challenges us to give thanks in all circumstances of life. She recounts a rather extreme response of giving gratitude in the unbearable circumstances of war. She writes:
I read one time that during the war in Southeast Asia, there was a young Vietnamese boy who would sing as he worked in the rice fields, even as the bombs burst all around him. He explained that he could not stop the war, but he could keep the fear of death from overtaking his heart; he had to fight to be peaceful and happy inside while the horror and sadness of war swirled around him.
Maybe gratitude is an attitude. Most of us take very good care of our bodies, even try to walk – what is it – 10,000 steps? We practice each day, and eventually we will get to the 10,000 number. How about us practicing gratitude – Each day being more grateful than the day before, being more and more conscious of the blessings in our lives. Just look around. Thank God for our vocation, be it religious life, or married life, or single life; we are blessed with wonderful spouses or companions, wonderful co-workers, blessed with beautiful families, blessed with talents too many to enumerate, blessed with the ability to spread God’s love. Everywhere we look we see where we can spread that love and gratitude.
We know the account in Scripture of the three young men who were thrown into a fiery furnace. What’s the first thing they did? They broke into a song of praise and thanksgiving for all that God had made. Theirs was such an attitude of gratitude that their suffering was secondary. They danced among the flames unharmed (Daniel 3).
What about us? Do we find ways to give thanks to God in all circumstances?
The feast of Thanksgiving with family and friends ushers in the Advent season when Christians begin our preparations for the celebration of Christ’s birth in our world. This spirited season proclaims the awesome mystery that, in Jesus Christ, God became one of us and found a home in our midst.
Jesus, who in his very being houses divinity, calls us to do the same: to be the presence and action of God for our world. In fact, Jesus tells us that if we follow God’s love commands, God will dwell in our hearts in intimate communion. God’s loving presence actually takes up residence in the inner recesses of our being.
Can you imagine what God’s home in us would look like? God’s home would have walls of welcome, solid floors of fidelity with plush carpets of compassion. There would be high ceilings of inclusivity and wide windows letting in nature’s beauty and the multi-faceted light of wisdom. The furniture would circle around a fireplace of forgiving warmth. There would be chairs of charity, couches of consolation, sofas of serenity, and tables of tender togetherness. And, like in every godly home, there would be bookcases full of challenge, new learning, and adventurous opportunities.
In our world so wracked by ruinous hatred, violence, and despair, we must do everything in our power to safeguard God’s home in our hearts. As Thanksgiving gives way to Advent’s approach, what actions do you need to take to nurture God’s dwelling place within you?
Centering prayer is an ancient prayer of inner awakening to divine presence in the silence of our being. In this prayer we gently let go of our thoughts, feelings, and anxious planning, and sink into that open space within ourselves where God dwells in hidden closeness. When I practice this prayer I feel somehow free from my personal story. I sense a joy in knowing that God’s presence extends far beyond my thoughts, feelings, and achievements, and resides in the depths of my soul soaring into eternity. This awareness of union with God is at the heart of the spiritual life.
How can sitting in the silence of centering prayer help us to respond effectively to various life situations? Clearly, we are not deliberating on our problems and searching for solid solutions during this prayer of silence. Centering prayer, however, trains us to separate from our thoughts and feelings and to wait for God’s wisdom and guidance rather than jumping to easy answers prematurely. As Albert Einstein once said, “no problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.” By learning to orient ourselves toward God in centering prayer, we learn to see our life situations from a new divine perspective. The direction we need to go becomes clear and we are emboldened to take loving action for the betterment of those around us.
In responding to life situations, is anger helpful or is it self-defeating? Anger can be useful because it alerts us to a problem and motivates us to make change in ourselves or in our world. Twelve-step groups, for example, talk about people needing to feel the frustration of “hitting rock bottom” before they turn their lives over to God in the recovery process. Likewise, anger in the face of social injustice can move us to take collaborative action on behalf of the common good. The Adrian Dominican Sisters Vision Statement states, “impelled by the Gospel and outraged by the injustices of our day, [we] seek truth; make peace; reverence life.”
While anger can serve a positive function in our lives, it can also be self-defeating. Unlike our positive emotions like affection, awe, and joy, anger feels bad and separates us from others. Our inability to handle anger effectively can entrap us in hostility, hatred, and despair. Caught in the volatility of anger, we react with revenge and retaliation against ourselves and others. Interestingly, our interpretation of events can create more anger than the event itself. Here is one example of how it can play out in community life.
I begin with the following premise: if I am a good and loving Sister, the Sisters with whom I live will love me in the ways in which I want to be loved. All is well, until one day I experience what appears to be a rejection by one of my Sisters. Feeling upset, I begin to draw out different meanings from the event that only stoke my anger. I might conclude that I am an unlovable community member who caused or deserves this hurtful treatment. I might also decide that the other Sister is a messed up, dysfunctional person because she is not meeting my ideals. Underneath my anger is the fear of losing self-esteem.
My interpretations of the event are invalid because blaming myself for the other person’s actions is diminishing my self-esteem. Making a monster out of the other person and blaming them for causing my hurt blinds me to the good in the other person and hardens my heart toward them.
Empathy, the ability to understand accurately the thoughts and motives of others, is the best remedy for anger. If I can put myself in the other person’s place and see their struggle, I will have more compassion toward them. I can talk with them about why they did what they did. The fact that they treated me poorly does not mean that I am unlovable or less of a person. I no longer see myself as responsible for their actions and my self-esteem increases. I take responsibility for my own feelings and practice self-compassion. I am now in a place of calm to work through the problem with my Sister.
We need to discern the message of anger by taking quiet time to blow off steam and work through our thoughts and feelings. We need to be willing to do the inner work it takes to have healthy and happy relationships. How have you dealt with anger in 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!