From Trip to Pilgrimage of the Heart

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions

I always smile inside when people ask, “How was your trip?” My first inclination is to respond, “If you didn’t read about my trip in the paper or hear about it on the news, it was good!” I think most of us would take the success of air travel and put it in the hands of air traffic controllers, pilots, flight attendants, luggage handlers, booking agents and computers. At least that is how I think we usually perceive it: Someone else is responsible for how my trip turns out.

As you know, the Superiors of religious communities and their novices were invited to the Canonization mass of St. Junipero Serra with Pope Francis at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC two weeks ago and S. Marlene and I accepted the invitation. We had a smooth and hassle free trip all the way from the monastery garage door in Watertown, SD to Reagan Nat’l Airport. With help on the ground there from S. Marlene’s niece and her husband who live and work in the greater DC, area every detail from lodging to commuting around the many road closures was attended to so that we could enjoy our short time there to the fullest.

The morning of the Canonization mass we headed to the Metro from our downtown hotel, with our prized entry tickets in hand to the campus of Catholic University arriving at about 9:45am or so with a relatively small contingent of others who were ready to start passing through the understandably tight security provided by the TSA, Metro Police, Secret Service and Homeland Security.  Our tickets had us entering through the “Purple Gate via Harewood Rd, NE” which on the map, looked pretty simple and not too far from the Metro…unless the Secret Service closes a major road. And close one they did.

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We inched along in the queue thinking we were making our way to the purple gate but were turned away from the Orange Gate, the Red Gate, and the Yellow Gate (we DID NOT even attempt the Green Gate!), were shuffled here, there and around this now very secure campus perimeter. We didn’t really know where we were going because we didn’t have a map but followed behind excited seminarians, young novices and the religious men and women in charge of them. But not all trekkers were moving quickly.

The Catholic U blue-shirted ushers did their best to relieve all the concerns about the unexpected trek through road construction and neighborhoods that took us up & down steep hills toward the now elusive “Purple Gate.” Each time we asked they kept saying “It isn’t too far now, you are almost there.” We encountered those who were hobbling because of poor health or “mature-aged” legs.  We stopped several times in the shade to rest or sip water and talk to others. Little did we know that this detour would end up being almost three miles and that S. Marlene’s mature-aged legs would come to know it.

At about the half-way point while inching our way up a pretty steep hill we looked at each other and said almost in unison, “This is a pilgrimage now.” We wondered about and prayed for the bent over couple who held hands as they slowly hobbled along to see our Holy Father, the many elderly religious we had passed by who couldn’t keep up with their young charges and the man who had tripped on a ragged sidewalk receiving a head injury serious enough for an ambulance call. We prayed they all would make it to the Basilica in time to be cleared by security for mass. Soon enough we started to recall out loud our sisters at home who were in need of prayer, healing or just struggling in some way. This recognition of the struggles, pain, needs, and efforts of others helped us both in small ways: S. Marlene with taking the next step and me not to worry so much about her.

Our trip had morphed into something unexpected and had taken on new meaning. Even though we finally arrived at the elusive “Purple Gate,” passed through security several hours later, got some food and made it to our “appointed sections and ticketed seats” the reality was (and still is) we had arrived, but the pilgrimage was not over. This trip was one leg of the pilgrimage each of our hearts embarks on the day we are baptized and WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR HOW THE THE TRIP TURNS OUT.

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When we think about the word pilgrimage it may bring to mind scenes of an arduous journey with much hardship or sacrifice, but with a great reward and sometimes that is true. S. Marlene and I were inconvenienced and sore but it was not a horrible hardship or an arduous sacrifice. Rather, it was a challenging privilege to travel as representatives of our community carrying the struggles, pain, needs, and efforts of others along with us. But that is what we are called to each and everyday, isn’t it? Carrying others lovingly with us in our hearts, in our prayer as a pilgrim people fully responsible for how it “all turns out.”

In one of his letters, Saint Augustine reminds us that “not by journeying but by loving we draw near to God. To Him who is everywhere present and everywhere entire we approach not by our feet but by our hearts” (Ep. clv, 672, in P. L. XXXII)  I am blessed to have journeyed on varied pilgrimages, some arduous, physically and others an all-out spiritual hardship. While it is a privilege and a blessing go to faraway places that inspire, sharing it with others of importance, we don’t need to travel all over to encounter God, to have a movement of great magnitude within us. No. It is seeking God, encountering God in each leg of our pilgrimage that spurs the restless heart onward to journeys end all the while acknowledging we are the one responsible for how it all turns out.

Novice Barb

There’s No App for That

Tuesday we drove all over DC gazing upon monuments; iconic representations of homage to our nations leaders, veterans and war heroes. We have gotten pretty used to icons since they now surround us in our everyday life adorning our phones, tv’s & even refrigerators, signaling a computer application or “app” that takes us where we want to go. It’s common to hear, “There’s an app for that.”

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The ellipse of Washington DC is sobering, inspiring and
stunning all at the same time. Taking in the immense grandeur of these “temples” which almost deify those we intend to honor is overwhelming. I think about the clamor we’ve made with Pope Francis’ visit, marking it as an iconic event. He would say, “What’s all the fuss about? I’m just a priest in white clerics!”

I think many of the men & women honored in our capitol for their virtuous lives would say the same thing:
“I was just an ordinary soldier.”
“I was elected to serve the U.S. citizens.”
“I wanted to protect our freedom.”

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But there’s more to virtuous living than wanting to or having been elected to perform. Pope Francis has echoed what Jesus said and modeled by his actions:  living a  virtuous life is intentional, challenging and painful, sometimes even to the point of death…and THERE’S NO APP for that!

Novice Barb

Longtime No See…Longtime No Hear

“Longtime, no see” was a phrase we used in our extended family when it had been some time since we’d seen each other. I specifically remember my uncles using it, in a teasing kind of way when we were little.

It has been several months since I have blogged, so it is appropriate to add, “longtime no hear” to that phrase to explain my blogging absence. If you have been following our Facebook or Twitter posts you can get a sense of what we (and I) have been up to. 

 A lot has been going on in our community over the summer months, the “normal stuff of life” that demands attention: planting the garden, conferences, summer traveling, receiving oblates, offering hospitality to travelers, grave illness, witnessing miracles, family reunions, gathering all the sisters for chapter, meetings, planning, discerning and reaping the fruits of the garden. Our life has been full and abundant!

That which demands our attention often changes considering the circumstances in front of our face. But even among the demands of the “normal stuff of life” there is a constant commitment in religious community: prayer and work, the  Opus Dei, the work of heart and mind which fuels us to seek God together. Demand? For me, it is not so much a demand as much as it is a longing to participate in the prayer and work of  our communal life. Fulfilling that longing in the deepest part of me for prayer and work in a communal setting was a huge part of my “yes” and consequent pursuit of a call to religious vocation. 

  
 This week I’m in Washington DC to attend the Canonization Mass of Blessed Junipero Serra with Pope Francis and a zillion other people, including our Prioress, S. Marlene. While I long to see Pope Francis with my own eyes, what is demanding my attention and in reality is the deeper longing of my heart, is to take my place among the people praying at that mass; to be part of the Opus Dei in that moment celebrating and praising the living God whose steadfast Love is truly “the normal stuff of life.” 

Perhaps God’s love is the only thing that never demands attention. It never demands attention because it is gift, gift and invitation to life, abundant life, normal life!

Here’s to life, 

Novice Barb, from Washington DC

The Paschal Mystery in Vivid Living Color

Funerals, births and weddings are the kind of in-your-face life changing transitions that make you stop and think a lot. Mostly they make you stop and think about the people you love…how you love them and why you love them. Or put another way: Have I loved the people in my life with everything I got? And, where is God in it all as I try to love others? The past 10 months I have experienced all three of those life changing events, starting with the unexpected death of my mom 30 days after entering this community. Five months ago my second granddaughter came into the world and last weekend my youngest daughter was married. All of that on top of my decision to pursue religious life. Yes, I have had a lot to stop and think about.

Often transitions are accompanied by a certain amount of worry. Last weekend like any mother of the bride, I was worried for (and with) my daughter concerning the many details of the wedding: Would all of the guests get from point A to point B? Would the groomsmen be where they are supposed to be at the right time (and properly dressed!)? The hair and make-up? Oh my, worrying about the details could surely outrun and overshadow the beauty of the day if you let them! 11098003_880183508684436_2652263564892513422_nThen, on a personal level, I was admittedly worried about being “out in the world” after having been so focused on monastic formation for the last 10 months. I wondered about the questions I would receive from relatives, friends and strangers who would inevitably ask where I was from, what I did in South Dakota and what brought me to New Orleans.  Being certain about my decision to pursue religious life I knew what answers I would share, but one never knows the reactions and follow up questions you will receive. And honestly, I was unsure about the way I would appear to represent the sisters while so far away from my new home and the security of life in community.

A few days before the wedding, I walked about getting things done for my daughter wearing shorts and sandals to combat the New Orleans heat and humidity. I received wide eyed looks of surprise from the woman cutting my hair, the cashier at the art store and the bartender at the pizza place when I answered the inevitable questions with “I am here for my daughter’s wedding, I live in South Dakota and I am in formation there to become a Benedictine sister.” Being such a Catholic place, New Orleanians knew what I meant by “becoming a sister.” With wide eyes, they asked: how is it possible to be a mom, an older woman and BTW here you are wearing shorts & sandals, not a habit. How can you be traveling this road? “God called me” I answered. “And don’t think I didn’t ask myself and God the same questions! But I know that I know I am where I am supposed to be.” Many remarked that I was lucky because I knew what God wanted of me. Others said it must be nice to be “so free.”

As my daughter and new son in-law promised to love and cherish each other all the days of their lives, my granddaughter cooed in her Daddy’s arms behind me. Beside me my Dad wiped away tears of joy and sadness as my daughter’s nuptials reminded him of his married life with my Mom. Our family dynamics are changing and being altered; I am enthralled with this reality that pleads for time to be spent mulling over such things. I have discovered the vivid presence and steadfast love of God in it all. It is the “vivid” part of God’s presence and love that has me enthralled in a new way. Just to clarify, I do mean “vivid” in a living color kind of way; as vivid as the picture below.

Funer116als. Births. Weddings. Die. Rise. Go. This is the list of ingredients for the Paschal Mystery that is happening in vivid living color all around us all the time…God offers us something beautiful in the Paschal Mystery: a piece of heaven on earth.

The task before the monk is to LISTEN to and love God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength…and after taking some time to think about the reality of heaven before one’s eyes, RESPOND. RESPOND to the presence of God, the very Kingdom of God. Dr. Joseph Martos says, “If the kingdom of God is not heaven, what is it and how do we get there? The key to answering that question is the paschal mystery, understood not as something that Jesus did long ago and far away but as something that is permanently available, something that is always open to us, something that contributes to the salvation of the world as well as our own salvation.”

My discernment continues to deepen and widen. I am learning to live and move about in the world as a woman in this Benedictine community. I am coming to better understand my relationship with God and others through responding with everything I got to this call to religious life. I am grateful for vivid reality of the always present Paschal Mystery that allows us to celebrate: a life well lived; the gift of new life and the covenant relationships we all have with our God.

Like an Everlasting Gobstopper, Life has been Simply Complex

Much has happened since I posted a blog the last week in February. I’ve prayed more deeply about God’s call for my life. I entered the Novitiate. Lent came to a close. We celebrated the Risen Lord. Our community has chosen to pray and discern together about our future and what monasticism might look like in the next 5 to 10 years. I finished the 8 month Journey into Spiritual Growth program. The life of this discerner has been, well, simply complex like an Everlasting Gobstopper. What I mean by that “like an Everlasting Gobstopper, simply complex” description is this: when I look at my schedule each day and the places I have to be somewhere to do something, it has not changed much since I entered community.  It is simple really. We pray, study, work, and take part in leisure at the appropriate times. And it is pretty much the same for every woman in the community.

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The Everlasting Gobstopper, a candy from the story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl, is a sweet confection that not only changes colors and flavors but can never be finished and never even gets smaller. That is where things get “simply complex!” As I continue to dive deeper into my relationship with God and others, learning about my strengths and weaknesses, experiencing the joys and challenges of living in a large community and advancing in understanding about who God made me to be, what is set before my eyes are the everlasting, changing colors and flavors of sharing a life in Christ under the Rule of St. Benedict. Wow that was a mouthful, pun intended!

While the commands of Christ are simple and the Holy Rule to the point and succinct, it is we human beings who are complex and multi-layered. Shaped by experience and desires of our own, much has to fall away to enter into discerning any call including the call to religious life. And the reality of each everlasting layer is this: discerning does not end upon entrance into community or at any one of the steps along the path to permanent monastic profession. Discerning is a test of patient endurance. Discernment and the continual response to God’s call are like the Gobstopper…it can never be finished and never gets smaller.

But there is ground gained in the process: Greater clarity and awareness allows one to “Taste and See” in a new way all of the flavors and colors of each layer. Other choices, other calls, other options lose their appeal as each layer is exhausted. As each layer comes into focus, we gain a vivid exposure to what God is asking of us and what we ask of God in return. Honestly, the questions I have posed to God and God’s questions of me have not changed over the years. BUT MY RESPONSES HAVE. My responses are deeper, more meaningful and in a way more truthfully simple because I know myself and God better.

“What could be sweeter than the voice of the Lord calling to us? See how in his love the Lord shows us the way of life.” (RB, Prologue v. 19-20) The work of discerning well shows us “The Way of Life” God intends for each of us.

There is nothing sweeter, not even an Everlasting Gobstopper, than the voice of the Lord calling us to new ways of life! Enjoy exhausting each layer!

Leave it at the shore…all of it.

Grayton Beach, Florida 
October 20, 2013

The above photo was taken at Grayton Beach, Florida in October of 2013.

I’ve never lived further than 40 miles from the beach, be it the Pacific, Atlantic or the Northwest Gulf of Mexico. For the last 23 years I literally lived one block from the warm Gulf waters. For me, the beach has been playground, classroom and chapel; a place of discovery, shared experiences, solitude and prayer. It would be an understatement to say coastal living has been a mainstay of my life.

During these first few weeks of Ordinary Time, we are steeped in the beginning of Jesus’ own ministry and the call that He shared with those who would accompany Him as Apostles. Jesus asked an awful lot of those men; He asked them to put their life aside and follow.

Last Fall and Winter, as I was traveling everywhere but near southern warmth visiting religious communities, the Scriptures of the Sunday gospels, verses used at retreats, notes from sisters and what was coming out of my pen onto the pages of my journal kept repeating one thing: Leave it at the shore. All of it.

‘Come after me and I will make you fishers of people.’ They abandoned their nets and followed Him leaving everything they had at the shore.

I would pray this questioning if not sarcastic response, “Leave it all at the shore and follow You to…South Dakota? God, are YOU really sure about this, because I am not! BTW, I was only kidding when I said the snow drifts looked like sand dunes, honest!” God even answers the sarcastic pleading prayer of discernment. I kept hearing over and over, “Yes, I am sure, daughter of mine.”

Many people have told me they could not imagine giving up coastal living, it would just be too much. That statement is usually followed up with “Why would you trade a Gulf Coast paradise for the cold snowy prairie?” Two simple words are as honest as I can get: Trust and Love. If I am going to let go of all I know and am and own, only to turn to God with empty hands and an open heart longing for them to be filled by the Divine, then TRUST is absolutely necessary. Trust in the Creator who made me. Trust in the truth-bearing song of this call. Trust in the prayer between us. But if trust travels alone it is more likely to be an exercise of risk taking. Trust joined with Love means that I can go places and do things I never thought possible. I can respond to the One that I so dearly love with my “yes” full of trust.

There has been nothing easy about leaving it all at the shore. And although I do literally miss the sight, sound and smell of the beach, God is calling me to more. Giving up and trading in is part of the “Yes” to life as a religious sister but not exclusively. Every Christian has to decide how to be “in the world but not of it” as St. Paul writes to the Romans in 12:2. While what happened a year or more ago in my journey and life with the Divine is important, it is not more important than the answer to these questions: “What do I still need to let go of? How and where are you calling me today, God?”

Next Blog: conversatio morum

P.S. – the snow drifts really do look like sand dunes!

God, what a noodj…

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I worked with a Jewish gentleman for several years in parish ministry. He often used Hebrew or Yiddish words in our daily conversations. One day when referring to someone, he used the word “nudge” pronounced, “noodj.” I had never heard noodj before let alone understood the meaning or context of the word. When I asked, he said it is more than what we might assign to the word nudge. When you get right down to it, in Yiddish noodj means to be a persistent tedious pest. A noodj demands that you pay attention right now. Not just once but over and over, sometimes, until you want to scream.

When we start the process of discerning any weighty thing, that is, something more-weighty-than what shall I wear today or have for lunch, we embark on a search to reach a decision or come to an understanding. In regards to vocation, it is not any old search for there is some impetus behind it that is hard to name. It is almost as if there is a force pushing us, something that is more like a persistent and tedious pest. About six years ago, as I began to ask, “God what is Your will for my life?” the discerning search took off, complete with its own source of fuel. I knew from the start there was something other than the full-time parish ministry I had been involved in for more than a decade and whatever “this other” might be it was more than a job change. As I prayerfully discerned many different opportunities came to light, all full of challenging new possibilities. But one stayed in my line of sight, although I refused to look directly at it: Life as a consecrated religious woman. Ugh. No way. Perhaps God is a noodj.

Like Samuel in this Sunday’s readings, God calls each of us over and over again until He has our attention. (1 Sam 3:3-10, 19) We all need an “Eli” who keeps sending us back to God, to the source of the call. Sometimes there’s some screaming involved. In this case I am not sure if it was the sleep deprived Eli or confused Samuel who might have wanted to scream! I too confess to some screaming in my own discernment process. God does not call us just to see if we are listening or even to make us scream. God calls us with an invitation into partnership with Him. An RSVP is expected and patiently waited for. In a partnership with God, when you respond, “Here I am Lord, I come to do Your will” you do not go it alone. You do not make decisions by yourself and you are not sent forward into the future without the grace to persevere in whatever may lay ahead. God, what a noodj…and a very good one at that.

As I reflect back on the almost six months I have been a member of this Benedictine community at Mother of God Monastery, there are several things I have learned:

  • I have not had to go it alone. Yes, the sisters have walked with me, prayed with me, formed me and put up with me. But even on the few days I thought it was time to pack my car and head back to Florida, God was with me all the way.
  • This continuing discernment process of mine has a full tank of gas. My desire to participate fully in God’s unfolding plan with a listening heart propels me forward in a way I cannot explain satisfactorily to many. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “If you are called, you will know it and you will not be able to explain it to anyone.” Isn’t that the truth!
  • While prayerful discernment takes a lot of focused energy, the process of discerning never stops for those in consecrated life. How can it when one is looking and listening for the presence of God in all things, people and circumstances?

As I begin to evaluate these months of postulancy in preparation to enter the novitiate, I realize that hearing God’s invitation to partnership and my response were two of the most important elements in this journey. But I am not sure that they can surpass God’s noodj-like persistence in wanting to get my attention and keep it. I say this because it took me sometime to realize how God’s love for me was contained in this call to pursue religious life. At times when people have asked me why I am pursuing this vocation my response has been, “Because God loves me.”  For sure that is not a very satisfactory response given that God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us. But it is true that each of us are called by name in a most specific and unique way by the most persistent and loving noodj in the universe. “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will.”