Saturday, April 22, 2017

For Those Who Mourn

Her rocking chair lets out a creak as she leans back. Physically, she's not a commanding presence, to your surprise. If it weren't for her wrinkles, she could easily be mistaken for a child in that chair. But you know different. She's, after all, Saint Louise de Marillac. And she's your director for this year's retreat on the Beatitudes.

She pats the Bible on her lap. She opens her mouth to speak and her voice is comfortingly soft. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted....I believe you know enough about me that you will understand why this has been my favorite Beatitude. I've had a lifetime of mourning. Later in life, I understood my way to holiness was the way of the Cross. I suffered much...beginning with my very birth."

Yes, you knew. Louise de Marillac was born illegitimate. She never knew her mother nor do any of her biographers or historians. While Louise didn't end up in a home for foundlings (as did many other illegitimate children), her relationship with her family was...well, complicated. Her father sent her to live with her aunt, who was a Dominican nun. There, Louise received a great education - better than some of her counterparts - but she never experienced love from her father.

She continues, "I mourned the mother I never knew. I mourned the loss of my family through their rejection. I mourned over breaking my promise to God that I would be a nun - I married Antoine instead. And then, of course, later...later, I mourned the loss of his warm and loving personality when the sickness fell."

Silence. You notice Louise is no longer looking at you. Instead, she's staring off somewhere in the distance. Fighting off the bad memories? Praying? You realize, at that moment, there is more to the story than you'll ever know. What you do know is that, even during his illness, Louise contemplated leaving her husband and joining the convent. It was the time of her Lumiere (Pentecost Experience) that would lead her to found the Daughters of Charity ten years later.

She clears her throat and nervously smooths out her dress, obviously flustered with herself. "I then mourned the loss of my husband's physical presence. And while I would never physically lose my son Michel, I lived in constant fear that I had lost him emotionally and spiritually."

I know you have had your own moments of mourning during your life as well...and not always over deaths.

She lovingly looks intently at you and sympathetically smiles. "Perhaps you've even going through one of those times now?"

Your eyes give away the answer. Suddenly, you share everything with this woman, this stranger, this saint. Yet, something strange has happened. By listening to Louise's story in her own words, in her own voice, she is no longer a holy card, a medal or a character in a biography - she has turned into a real person, maybe even a friend. And she listens more intently than anyone else you've ever met. 

When there's nothing more to tell, she speaks, "What got me through those mourning periods was the belief that somehow God was still in control. It's not an easy concept to grasp. Easier said than done, as you say. But I had to believe I would be comforted - in this life and the next.

She leans in and her hands clasp yours.

And I am comforted. We must trust, dear friend, always trust Him."

(Note: I wrote this in 2014 as a draft for a heritage project about St. Louise de Marillac. The project was originally a 8-day retreat with St. Louise in this style. I ended up going forward with a different idea but this draft survived in one of my writing notebooks.)

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Disciples and Me

I've been thinking of the disciples a lot lately - those crazy screwups like Simon Peter, Andrew and even Mary Magdalene. For three years or so, they knew what their life was. They followed that nomad named Jesus, sat and listened to his preaching, and did some fishing while they were at it. Jesus was unpredictable but they knew what their life entailed.

And then He was gone.

I've been thinking of the disciples a lot lately.
Because for five years or so, I knew what my life was. I followed that nomad community Daughters of Charity, sat and prayed with my community and served the poor while I was at it. Life was unpredictable but I knew what my life entailed.

And then it was gone.
(Granted, it was by my own choice and I do not regret it, but it was still gone.)

In the dark of Holy Saturday, memories probably flooded the disciples - memories of the amazing unbelievable miracles, chatting and laughing with Him in the boat, etc.
In the dark of Holy Saturday, memories flood me - memories of the amazing unbelievable Easter Vigil at St. Vincent's in St. Louis, chatting and laughing with the Sisters in the kitchen (with popcorn or banana bread) after each late-night Vigil, etc.

The difference between the disciples and me is that I have to find my own resurrection.
I have to work at my own resurrection.
But there are so many lessons that I can find in this Holy Week and Easter season: that Jesus felt the same way as me in so many ways, that the disciples also had to live through painful impatience like me, and, that, through resurrection, life completely changes.

But the biggest lesson of all is that resurrection comes.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Why Emilio Estevez was Right about Journeys

Do you have a book or movie that you can go back to again and again and always find something new? For me, it's the movie The Way with Martin Sheen (directed by his son Emilio Estevez).

I recently watched it again and, for the first time, I saw myself in Sarah.
Sarah, the sarcastic angry Canadian.
(And it came from more than the fact I call a friend of a certain generation "Boomer" like she does with Tom.)

Sarah carries a heavy past, a sad story, with her as she walks the Camino. I won't share it because it's up to you to see the movie. I will share that Sarah tells no one and instead masks her journey as a quest to "quit smoking". Tom, our main character, and a very hostile Sarah meet for the first time at a hostel on the Camino and Tom says:
"You sound really angry."
"Yeah. Sure. I'm angry. I gotta quit these and I'm really, really angry about that."

So, how did I see myself in Sarah? Am I really that angry? Am I really that secretive?

The answer is yes, yes, I am.

It's been six months and I'm still very angry about things that didn't happen but should have and things that did happen but shouldn't have.
It's been six months and I find myself questioning basic things about others - trustworthiness, goodness, etc.
It's been six months and most who have met me for the first time since October have no idea I used to be a Sister nor do I really want to tell them.

The truth is I'm not okay. Not completely anyway.
I'm in the process of healing and of grieving. And according to others that I've shared this journey with, it takes awhile. I personally wish it would hurry the hell up.

When does the healing journey end? I know there's an end. There has to be.
Strangely enough, out of everything, I'm not angry with God. I plead with Him and even complain to Him but I'm not angry with God.

Muxia, Spain - the final stop in the Camino for the characters in "The Way"
At one point in the movie, when Tom was walking way ahead of the group, Sarah stopped and said "why does it piss me off so much that I haven't seen him stop to take a break? Why does something that should be inspirational make me so angry? Totally irrational.
The same could be said for this entire journey."

Sarah's right. Emilio Estevez is right. The journey is irrational. But I have to remind myself that "irrational" doesn't have to mean "bad".
God doesn't seem to speak in logic anyway. All is mystery.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

I Can't. You Must. I'm Yours.

To me, the most powerful scene in "Romero" is not his martyrdom. It's not the assassination of his friend, Fr. Rutilio Grande. It's not even when Romero travels through the slums, those families living in the trash heaps or when he's in jail.

It's long after Fr. Rutilio Grande's death. It's when Romero feels abandoned by those who had previously supported him. It's at the height of Romero's personal change, but also the height of his fear and confusion.

Romero goes to visit the graves of Fr. Grande and the two others murdered with him. After walking away from the graves, he falls to the ground, kneeling and says:
"I can't...You Must...I'm Yours...Show Me the Way."

I've prayed this a few times in my life and most notably and recently, the day I waited for news of my sending on mission from the Seminary to San Antonio.

I thought about it again today as I listened to a group sing "Oceans" and "Holy Spirit" and tears filled my eyes.

Now that I've been a lay woman for five months (wow), there are a few things that are hitting me.

I've noticed that my support system has shrunk exponentially. While I do understand that to a point because I've left the family (so to speak), it is still painful.
I feel stuck in the present, living one day at a time. I used to know what my future held, always wearing the Vincentian cross, always surrounded by the same women, praying the same prayers and following the same traditions. Now, the future is a question mark, a scary question mark.
I know that I have to discover who I really am because my identity is no longer determined by my outfit, by the living of the vows, and by the initials after my name.

The truth is this prayer of Romero's is for me right now. This short, profound prayer.

Because I can't. I can't do this by myself. My life is not up to me anyway.

Because, You, God, must. No one else. Not only are You all-powerful and all-knowing but You love me more than I could ever imagine. (You know, considering Romero's mission and ultimate death, I used to think the "You Must" was God speaking back - "no, Romero, you HAVE to do this. You CAN do this." but, as the years past and experiences shaped me, I saw it differently. It's Romero telling God: "You, God, must. It must be You leading, not myself. It must be You I rely on.")

Because I'm Yours. I'm still Yours. I didn't abandon You when I took off the habit. I didn't abandon You when I took off that beautiful cross. I still choose to follow You wherever You lead me.

Please show me the way. I trust in You.



(As a short sidenote, I can thank my friend Nicole - who is one of the writers of Messy Jesus Business - for first introducing me to the depth of this scene. She spoke about it at our VIDES orientation ten years ago and it never left me!)

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Rachel Scott: What She's Teaching Me 15 Years Later

I have a number of heroes in my life.
I have heroes that have passed on long ago, never having known me physically, but somehow reach me and walk with me through life in some way.
And I have heroes who have literally been by my side at the right moment and with their personalities, life stories, and work teach and inspire me more than they know.

Lately, in this time of transition for me, I've been thinking and praying of all my heroes.
And silently thanking them.

I've written a lot about the first type, some of those who lived in seventeenth century France, one who died just a few years before I was born.
But before St. Vincent de Paul, before Ita Ford, there was Rachel Scott.

When I was in high school, I received a copy of The Journals of Rachel Scott: A Journey of Faith at Columbine High (which, by the way, aren't really her journals but writing based on her journals). Rachel and I had lots of differences but I connected with the similarities.

We were Millennial high-school juniors, she being born in '81 and I in '85.
We were aspiring writers.
We avidly journaled our thoughts, fears, and prayers.
We struggled with the faith journey - the joy of finding Him, the grief of His silence, the confusion of not knowing His path.
We believed, against all odds, that we could somehow change the world.

With her, I felt like I had a companion on the journey. Her story pushed me to continue on as I grew deeper into figuring out life and faith and the future. It didn't matter to me whether her life ended with the "do you believe in God?" question or not. I still felt that I had a hero that taught me that people like me could change the world.

 As my life went on, Rachel and her story phased out of my mind. New heroes came in, accompanying me in new ways that I needed at the time. She didn't appear again until I saw on Facebook that a movie, I'm Not Ashamed, was being made about her life.

At first, I was just excited that a movie was being made about one of my heroes almost twenty years after her death. But now, watching I'm Not Ashamed, I realize the movie's timing, Rachel Scott's story re-entering my life, was Providential for me.

It's easy to narrow Rachel's story down to her not being ashamed of Jesus. After all, that's the thought process behind the title and I could certainly understand why. It's something to admire about her - something I admire - but I think it's just a piece of the bigger message for me (and probably a message that everyone can relate to):

Be true to who you are.
Don't pretend to be someone else just for the convenience of it.
Because it's you, the true you, that will change the world.

Or, in her own words,
"Don't let your character change color with your environment. 
Find out who you are and let it stay its true color." - Rachel Scott

It's a very appropriate message for a high school student. Peer pressure, trying to figure out who you are, discovering the depths of faith and all that.

But it's also a message for me now. Almost 20 years later after her death, 15 years after reading the book.
The truth is, when you leave a religious community, you lose an identity. You're no longer "Sister". You're just you, a face in the crowd. But if being "Sister" was an identity that you discovered never fit you anyway, there's some soul searching to do.

Who is my true self?
How do I show my faith now?
How will I change the world?

And then this question appears - is "changing the world" youthful naivety?
In a way, yes. I no longer believe that the entire world can change because of someone I did or said or wrote. I'm 31 now, not 16...
...yet I think of those heroes in my life that I mentioned earlier - the ones who have physically been at my side. They've changed my world for the better, giving me the inspiration to do the same for others. That's changing the world.

I'm still trying to figure it all out but I'm following the example of Rachel -
I'm letting myself be me, even the parts of me that may not be too popular;
I'll wrestle with the words and deeds of the faith journey;
and continue to believe that one day, I will change the world.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"To Hearts Broken": On My Anniversary

In a chapel in St. Louis, a Sister belted out Psalm 34, the quintessential psalm for any Daughter of Charity: "The Lord hears the cry of the poor, blessed be the Lord..."

It wasn't just any day. Or any Sunday. 
It was January 20, 2013 - the day of my Incorporation, the day I officially became a Daughter of Charity. 

"I will bless the Lord at all times, with praise ever in my mouth. Let my soul glory in the Lord, who will hear the cry of the poor..."

It was the first time I wore the habit, when I signed the dotted line, when I received the Vincentian cross, when I first felt increasingly paranoid my coiffe (veil) was slipping off  my head (and it was), when I first met so many wonderful Sisters in St. Louis, when I first saw my name written as "Sister Amanda".

But now, everything's different.

Back in 2013, I thought I had everything figured out. It was the start of my new life...a new life that was laid out for me. And wow, was I so excited to start it. I had the community to fall back on when nothing else worked out. I had a community to be with, to pray with, to minister with.

I haven't regretted my decision since I left but man, anniversaries suck.

The anniversary hasn't even happened yet and it's already getting to me. I snapped at a friend today because of something it turned out they didn't even do. After three frantic apology emails, I realized what this was truly about - the anniversary.

I'm in a spot I've never been in before. 
Have I lived alone before? Yes. 
Have I had professional jobs before community? Absolutely. 

But I've never before been a 31 year old living on my own with no idea what happens next. Most 31-year-olds are already well on a career path; most are already married and/or parents; some have already graduated grad school...or more. I'm behind the curve - not just in an academic subject or a hobby, but in life.
The world is wide open to me. People tell me that that's exciting. To me, it's completely terrifying. And even sad.

"Let the lowly hear and be glad: the Lord listens to their pleas; and to hearts broken, God is near, who will hear the cry of the poor..."

I did have a plan for my life. But, to my surprise, it was the wrong one. And now it's gone.
It's time to start over. 

But God is near.
And He'll grieve with me.
And walk with me on the new path.

(sidenote: sorry to everyone that I may snap at this week)

"Ev’ry spirit crushed, God will save; will be ransom for their lives; will be safe shelter for their fears, and will hear the cry of the poor..."

Monday, January 16, 2017

Lessons in Faith & Humanity from MASH's Father Mulcahy

2016 took one of its last celebrity victims in William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy on MASH. Five years earlier, I had written a post on what his character could teach us about religious life.

My life has gone through many twists and turns since I wrote that post, especially in 2016, and now I see Father Mulcahy's lessons as much more universal than I did back then. His character is much deeper than just the token chaplain or a moral compass to tell this shameless cast of characters to calm the heck down. No, Father Mulcahy is there to give us lessons in service, faith and humanity.

One of the biggest lessons that he taught us - all of us - was that to be kind, to be good-hearted in a world full of chaos doesn't require perfection.

He was human, not a robot priest or a flowerly saint too perfect to aspire to be like.
He was just a Christian, trying his best to be as Christ-like as he could.

One of my favorite scenes with Fr. Mulcahy is from the episode "Dreams" (Season 8, Ep. 22). Being the human and overworked religious that he is, he falls asleep while hearing someone's confession. He dreams of becoming Pope. Instead of passing the position up like a “humble priest”, he's elated and even more so that his Mass seems full to the brim. If you've ever seen MASH, you know that Father's Masses (or even ecumenical services) are very sparsely attended.

Like the rest of us, he has selfish ambitions.
Like him, I grow elated when I'm praised and recognized for something, like when a client comes to thank me for something I've done, a coworker praises me for a job well-done, or when I'm chosen for a special task.
Try as one might to be Christ-like, everyone has selfish ambitions. It's what makes us human - and that's okay.

But there's something more to Father Mulcahy's dream. Father Mulcahy – now Pope Mulcahy – is at the altar celebrating Mass when he feels something from above drip on his shoulder. Drip, drip, drip. He looks up. Christ on the crucifix, just as it should be. The Father Pope continues.
Drip, drip, drip.
He looks up again. This time, the camera very quickly pans to the crucifix above him. 

The crucifix no longer has Christ.
The crucifix holds a wounded American soldier...whose blood is dripping on Pope Mulcahy's shoulder.

Screenshot from this blog:
http://p-pcc.blogspot.com/2007/12/mash-season-8-episode-191-dreams.html

With that look up, Fr. Mulcahy is brought back to the present as the characters operate around him and life continues as normal.

When he saw Christ - particularly, in that American soldier - Fr. Mulcahy is taken out of his completely normal human selfish ambition back to what it's really about -
"Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to Me." (Matthew 25:40)

Who are the least? 
It's that wounded soldier.
It's that single mother struggling to make end's meet.
But it's also everyone around us, including ourselves.
But, most frustrating of all, it's our enemies.
Like Christ, we're all suffering our own crosses, seen or unseen.

Constantly circling back to that verse, to meeting Christ crucified and encountering God's goodness in those we meet, is what carries on any Christian during the ups and downs of this crazy journey of having faith and doing the best we can. God is here.

Or it's what carries me on, anyway. 

And I like to believe that, if he were real, it would be what carried on Father Mulcahy too...especially on those days he wished he could just get the heck out of there.
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