Monday, March 4, 2019

God is in the Details


I’ve been reading Jean Vanier’s Community and Growth. It’s organized into sections by topic; the one I read for this reflection is “Living with Every Day”. I’ve been choosing topics that peak my interest, rather than reading it in chapter order. I was interested in this one because I find that the daily living out of my vocation is both the most powerful source of inspiration and the most challenging. It is where I am encouraged and supported by God and my sisters, but it’s also where all the implications play out. I was curious to see what Vanier’s perspective on the topic would be.
                He emphasizes the importance of both the body and spirit in community life. The ideals, regulations, and discipline of life in common are important; so are material things. He focuses more on the ordinary details of a shared life, pointing out that we are called to do them with the extraordinary love of God. That love is manifested in the little things of life that build community, and ultimately leads to communion with God and our brothers and sisters. For example, he describes the value of recognizing the humble, material gifts that people bring into community life. Thanking them for their contribution is essential.
                When I first entered community, I didn’t place much value in the details of daily life. My perspective was big picture In fact, at times I was oblivious to the mundane details of daily life and my surroundings. I was living with sisters who focused on the details of the most incidental aspects of life, and it irritated me. I often listened to them dissect everything into their tiniest parts and discuss them at length, wondering: Why does this matter in the long run? How can they have so much to say about nothing?
As I got used to the different personalities in community, I became more accepting of the detail-oriented sisters. I also entered into the rhythm of daily life, becoming a part of the concerns of that convent. I realized, too, that when I attach importance to a matter, the details do become important to me. When I was a classroom teacher, for instance, I noticed everything my students did. As an archivist and historian now, I work with details daily, and am peaceful about it. I need to connect the minutiae to a larger goal, and when I see how it supports that vision, I can focus in on the details. The same philosophy applies to community life; I value the bonds that we form, so I can see how details support them.
I recently joined a prayer group with young members of other religious communities. Each month, one of us shares a method of prayer that helps her to stay grounded in her commitment to God and community. This month, a Sister of St. Joseph shared the Prayer of the Heart, a form of lectio based on how we experience of God in our lives. The steps are similar to lectio divina, but the words/phrases and reflections shared are from our sense of how the Holy Spirit is working in our lives. After this, we responded to what others shared or what we noticed in the sharing in general. It was a powerful experience of God’s presence. It reminded me, too, of how important it is to live in the present moment, where God is. He is in the details!

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Individualism and Community



              This month, I read Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy by Kraybill, Nolt, and Weaver-Zercher.  I found it in our convent library and anticipated a thought-provoking read about the mercy shown after the schoolhouse shooting. I wasn’t disappointed in that regard. I was pleasantly surprised, though, by the thorough research that was done about the Amish community. The authors used the culture and practices of the Amish as context in their account of the aftermath of the shooting. I was especially struck by the descriptions of the values and life of the Amish community. When I discovered that they wrote a sequel that delved deeper into what it means to be Amish, The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World, I started reading that, too.
              The Amish community centers around its church, which makes and enforces rules about their lifestyle. This goes beyond matters of prayer and worship; it includes strictures about what they are allowed to wear and own.  Conversely, the church’s main focus is community. All churches have a community structure, but they emphasize different aspects. The authors provide two examples: Pentecostals focus on the Holy Spirit, and Catholics on the Eucharist. Community is one of two key values of the Amish. The other is submission, which is linked directly to the community and the church.
              The most powerful example of this communal emphasis is the communion service. One Sunday a month, the church celebrates the Lord’s Supper. The service takes place over the course of a day, and includes reading from the Bible, preaching, and a meal. The purpose of this is to give each member of community a chance to reconcile before receiving the bread. Unity is so important to them that before the bread is distributed, the minister asks if anyone still needs to reconcile with someone. Often, I approach Eucharist more individually; I pray about my relationship with God and my needs. Reading about this practice reminded me that the Eucharist helps Christians to grow as the Body of Christ. This gives me a new perspective when I’m at Mass or Adoration. It reminds me to seek union with all sisters, to communicate, understand, and forgive.
When I was visiting different communities as part of my discernment of religious life, my sister suggested that I visit that community that lives simply and doesn’t use technology. “The Amish?” I clarified. Yes, that was the one she meant. I then let her know why that wouldn’t work for me: they aren’t Catholic. However, as I read this book, I found myself making the comparison to my own experience of religious life. The two have more in common than I realized back then. Exploring what they believe and how it’s lived became an invitation to reflection on my own experience of community life.
Most people find belonging in groups that they belong to. The Amish do, too. It goes deeper than that; their identities come from the community.  They use an acronym that we used on our promotional buttons at one time: JOY. This shows their priorities: Jesus, Others, then Yourself. The church legislates what many would consider personal choices or matters of free will. They reject the individualism of mainstream culture, instead yielding to the wisdom of the community. This includes their church and its leadership. They also draw upon the history and writings for their church for guidance. Members that were interviewed for the book describe yielding to God and community as a lifelong struggle. However, they are totally supported by the community. They believe that the family and the church should take care of the community’s needs. As such, they rely solely on their church to cover medical costs, to the point of rejecting insurance and government aid.
There are obvious parallels between the community life practiced by the Amish and that of religious life. We also adhere to guidelines on how to dress. We cherish the spiritual heritage that the Catholic Church and our foundress gave us. Also like the Amish, we receive complete support from the community while fulfilling our obligations to it. The Amish even have a form of vows that they take; when they’re baptized, they kneel and solemnly promise to obey the church’s laws.
              On a more personal level, the issue of the role of the individual in community resonated with me. I definitely felt tension between my identity as a person and as a community member. It took me a while to figure out a balance; I learned how to go outside of my comfort zone and to prioritize the needs of community and the world. However, I think that my individual identity is part of how God is calling me to serve those needs. Those are the gifts and talents that I bring to my ministries and daily tasks. I think it’s important that I express myself in those ways, too. I’ve also experienced what it means to receive everything I need from community. When I talk to family members and friends, I realize how lucky I am.  Lastly, I know what it’s like to do my part for the community. I have several official (as well as some unofficial) internal ministries. I work each day to contribute to the needs of the community on both a local and provincial level. It’s rewarding to be able to give to the sisters, and even more so because when I use my strengths and talents to contribute to community, what I’m giving is me. Of course, I also do tasks that are a stretch for me, and that’s its own blessing. Either way, I try to give with a loving and cheerful heart.

Monday, December 31, 2018

My 2019 New Year's Resolution

As far back as I can recall, I've been making New Year's resolutions. I would make them after some serious reflection on the past year. I would take stock of the major events of the ending year: its ups and downs, how I grew from them, and what the blessings of year were. This usually involved a lot of journaling as I listed and reflected upon these. Then I would make my resolution based on what I  did and didn't want to carry over into the upcoming year. I made New Year's Eve prayerful; I attended the Vigil Mass for the January 1st feast day and stayed in for the rest of the night. I usually prayed and read, wanting to bring in the new year reflectively.

When I entered the Felician community, I was thrilled to find out that they made December 31st a retreat day.  In the evening, the convents often did Holy Hours; some sisters prayed in the new year by doing an addition hour of prayer from 11 pm to midnight. It really fit with what I was already doing and affirmed my vocation; I felt at home with this practice! I continue to take the December 31st retreat day seriously. I use it to pray out the old year and to pray in the new one.

The way I've done it has changed over the past 10 years, though. I don't always journal with the ideas; I also use art as a way to explore my memories of the past year and my hopes for the new. Sometimes I scrapbook, make collages, or create mandalas. Lately I've been painting as a form of prayer, so that's what I did today. A more significant change is that I don't make resolutions anymore. Instead, I choose something that will inspire me to go in a positive direction with the Lord. This can be a verse or image from the Bible or a more spiritual aspiration. The difference is that what I set before myself can't be evaluated, and thus can't turn into a pass/fail situation. Even if I stray for it, it can continue to inspire me and bring me back on the right track.

Today when I sat down with my art supplies to reflect on this past year, I was struck by the important role that spiritual reflection has played. Using art as prayer has been a big part of this. So has journaling and participation in faith sharing groups. Daily prayer practices such as the examination of consciousness and spiritual reading contributed, too. Even when I had shingles, looking at it from a deeper perspective helped me to acknowledge blessings of self-discovery and growth.

Looking back, I could see how living an "examined life" in 2018 has helped me to live in God's presence. I decided to keep the momentum going in 2018; then I took it a step further and thought of how I would live a reflective life. I'll use my paintings to explain more:


As I painted this, I thought about how as you go deeper into the ocean, there are actually layers of water, with varying degrees of exposure to sunshine. The deeper one travels, the darker it is. I used lighter blues on top and darker on the bottom for this reason. The purpose is to go deeper. Distractions come and go (hence the boats), but reflection means focusing on the presence of God. (By the way, this is a metaphor for Centering Prayer that Thomas Keating wrote about. I can't take credit for it.)

With the idea of going deeper firmly in mind, I pondered how (God and) I can do that. I expressed that in this painting:


The center of a mandala acts as the core; it's essentially the main idea of the piece. I have that warm golden yellow at the center because it's my God color. Living reflectively is about living in the presence of God. The different ways of living more reflectively are related; this is symbolized by the blue circles. They're reminiscent of when one skips a stone and there's a ripple effect.

Ways of living a more reflective life: 
Staying in the present moment: This is the pink section with the roses. It is literally a reminder to stop and smell the roses. (I'm not usually so on-the-nose but I'm absurdly proud of the fact that I can draw a decent rose.)
Paying attention to the details: This is the bright green ring with all the colorful dots and dashes. God is often in the details.
Being quiet and still: The brown sections. This doesn't have to mean sitting in a quiet room alone doing nothing. It's bigger than that. It includes things like not putting on music all the time while I work in my office.
Gratitude: The yellow and orange sun-rays. A positive, thankful attitude will often show where God is present.
Gravity: The purple. God is in the serious moments and the difficult situations, too. Being present to those isn't easy, but that's important, too.

After I paint these, I keep them. Sometimes I hang them up in my room. The ones that I choose to hang are those that either capture a feeling/thought/prayer well or one that represents a crucial moment or perspective. It helps if they're attractive to look at, but that's not the primary purpose of hanging them up. When I see them up on the wall, a painting may call me to prayer or reflection. The mandala about how I want to live a reflective life in 2019 (with the various circles) will be hung up soon. This way, I can be reminded of and inspired to live in God's presence through deeper reflection in 2019!

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Fairy Tales

I've been reading a lot of fairy tales the last month or two. I found out about several young adult authors and series, and have been requesting them from the library. It's light reading; I can read a whole book in one sitting. I explained it to myself two ways: I grew up on fairy tales, particularly in the form of Disney movies, and the magical-happily-ever-after themed books were like the Hallmark movies that I enjoy.

There are a lot of authors putting their own spin on familiar fairy tales. I avoid the books that render them dark or sexy, preferring them to be positive and wholesome. Contemporary authors, too, remove the sexism and replace it with strong women who play an equal role both in the relationship and the adventure. This certainly makes the stories more palatable. Some of those Disney princesses didn't sit right with me! Also, the romantic in me is drawn to the idea of true love.  I personally know of more marriages and families broken by divorce than those that stay together, so the happily-ever-after part is welcome.

These books are spiritual in their own way. Some thoughts on this:

The good vs. evil theme. Every day the forces of good and evil battle in our hearts and lives. In these stories, of course, good always wins. This isn't as different from real life as it seems. Our God is loving and all-powerful, and He can make the best come out of the worst situations.

The settings of the stories are magical lands. Magical forces play an important role in these stories. Love and goodness itself are the strongest kinds. It is often the purity of true love or the virtue of the hero that triumphs over the darker magic. I've made it through some tough situations because of virtues like faith, hope, and love. I wouldn't say that they're magical exactly, but they are powerful.

The quest. Many of them have a task to perform, or a mission to go on, and they grow in wisdom as they go through it. The spiritual journey is the ultimate quest!

It's possible, too, that I like them because my inner child does. That's enough of a reason for me.