By Sister Judith Benkert, OP
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
This week’s blog is based on a reflection by Sister Maria Goretti Browne, OP.
Jesus has called us to be the “salt of the earth.” In his day salt was connected with purity because it comes from the purest of all things, the sun and the sea. Salt is a preservative; it preserves things from corruption, keeps things from going bad. An obvious quality of salt is that it improves taste. Salt, when mixed with other spices, enhances flavor. Salt, when standing alone, is good for some things, like melting ice, but when mixed with other substances, it becomes much more valuable. Mixed with water, it can clean coffee and tea stains from a cup. When mixed with lemon, it can serve as a bleach.
We all know people in whose presence it is easy to be good and to be holy. We know others in whose presence a shady story can be told. One salt-of-the-earth friend of mine, Sister Barbara, is a campus minister at a Dominican University and is known and loved by her students for teaching them in word and action this little adage:
Raise the praise,
Minimize the criticize,
Increase the peace,
Silence the violence.
To be like salt, then, is to purify, to reconcile, to enhance, to bring joy into the world, to preserve goodness, to bring beauty and flavor into the world. If we do not bring to life the purity, the radiance, the joy of the Risen Christ – then we are not enhancing our world. How are you living out this call in your life? Are you a salty person?
Today we face a number of political crises from global warming, to economic inequality, to wars around the globe—not to mention the recent political developments in our own country where the values of our democracy are radically threatened. It is all too easy to get stuck in fear, anger, and despair, or swamped in apathy and indifference. Do not let these debilitating emotions come between you and God. Rather, we can view these perilous times as an opportunity to develop more powerful spiritual practices and engage in positive actions to make our world a better place. United with Christ, we must embody God’s love and compassion for all people and for the entire creation here and now.
One group that tries to bring the mystical traditions of the world religions together with social activism for the establishment of God’s reign of justice and peace is an international organization called the Shift Network. They call themselves the Shift Network because as they say “it will take millions of connected, activated, inspired citizens to enact the changes that are possible” (theshiftnetwork.com). As they further state, soul force “demands discipline, accountability and a profound surrender to Divine Will. It’s ultimately about becoming a vessel for grace and a vehicle for healing—and a willingness to be the hands, feet, and heart of the Divine, doing what we can to bring more wholeness and wisdom to the world” (sacredpracticescourse.com).
Are you willing turn your upset into creativity, your despair into hope, and your apathy into inspired actions that serve God’s justice, mercy, and evolution?
God dwells within us and is present and active in our lives through our everyday experiences. It is important that we exercise a self-presence that pays close attention to our bodily, emotional and intellectual lives. Only by being present to ourselves can we be truly present to God, to other people and to all of creation.
Today, I focus on making friends with our feelings through self-compassion. Because some of our feelings are so painful, we avoid them, suppress them, sedate them or do whatever we can to distract our attention from them. The problem is, that when we close our hearts to our feelings, we constrict our relationship with ourselves, with others and with God. If we can get better at feeling our feelings, we can learn to love and accept ourselves unconditionally as God does.
Medieval Sufi mystic and poet, Rumi, expresses this point in his poem, “Guest House”:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each quest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Share your feelings with God’s gentle Spirit and allow yourself to be wrapped in love. By befriending your feelings you will experience greater joy and freedom in your life of discipleship.
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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!