Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Contradiction of Vocation: Choosing to Stay

Tomorrow, a young woman is about to step into a plane, heading back to Bolivia. She'll return to the orphaned, abused, or abandoned girls she loves, to the little town of cows and cobblestone streets, to a language of indigenous vocabulary, to a city of snow-capped mountains, and to a climate of sweatshirts and scarves in mid-August.

Amber with some of the girls of
Hogar Maria Auxiliadora, July 2010
Her name is Amber (here is her blog). She arrived in Bolivia soon after I left and she's returning to spend yet another year there - her fourth year, to be exact. I don't know Amber extremely well. As I said before, we just missed each other when it comes to arrivals and departures. I met her when I came to visit a year after I left and we've communicated occasionally through Facebook, letters and Skype. But I know her well enough to admire her. Recently, during her time helping out with the orientation of the Salesian Lay Missioners this summer, we were able to have a conversation over Skype.


She said something that I immediately wrote down and knew that I had to write a blog entry about it.
"It's definitely a hard thing for people to understand. Mission work or religious life. We have extremely low and challenging moments, but it's something we freely choose anyway and then have the audacity to claim it's our source of joy and fulfillment. That's something that only God's wisdom can explain."

Mission life is not without its difficulties, and neither is religious life. Ask any missioner, ask any Sister, ask any priest or brother.

The mystery is that we stay. Not only that we stay, but that we choose to stay.
We, in religious life, stay despite the fact that the majority are older than us.
They, in mission life, stay despite the stress of new language, of new culture, and sometimes the stress of more work than can possibly be handled.

As everything within us begins to run away, it is God pulling our sleeve, and pulling us back to stay. And every time we encounter a difficulty - whether it be loneliness or overwork - if it is His will, He pulls us back even more.

The mystery is that as the pull becomes stronger, somehow we become happier. We find that He is not actually pulling us to stay, rather He is pulling us closer to Him. We find that it is in the life we live, frustrations and all, that we are most fulfilled. It is contradictory to those that don't understand. It may even seem contradictory to ourselves, yet we know this is what makes our soul come alive, this is what sets our hearts on fire and, most importantly, this is where we most experience God...despite the times we feel lonely, despite the times we yearn for a little time to ourselves, despite the times we are frustrated with our work, despite the misunderstandings, despite the times we look at our suitcases and wonder.

Amber is right. Only God's wisdom can explain it. But it is vocation - it is that same pull that led Moses to keep going on the way to the Promised Land, that led Joseph to stay with Mary despite her pregnancy, that led Simon Peter to not run away during Jesus' trial (despite the denials), that led Paul to continue his work despite the persecutions. It is a pull that has spanned the centuries...yet also a pull that is unique to each and every one of us.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Peace is More than Just Words: St Vincent's Take on Peace

Some famous Catholics, like Merton or Day or Francis de Sales, have written unceasingly about peace - both our need for it and how it fits into Christian theology.

Saint Vincent de Paul, though, remains mysteriously silent on the topic. He writes (or talks, as in the case of the Conferences to the Daughters of Charity) about everything else under the sun, but nothing specifically on peace or violence - at least, not anything quotable.

I'm currently reading a collection of letters from Dorothy Day, an obvious pacifist, so this bothered me. How could Saint Vincent, the founder of my religious community, really have nothing to say about the topic?

But oh, he did. Only, in typical Vincentian fashion, he did through action, not words.

Vincent, a Frenchman, lived through a century of wars. And, of course, as anyone will tell you, the first to suffer in war is the poor. People were starving, their lifestyle of farming was gone, and many were fleeing. In today's day, we can imagine crowds of African refugees walking, with nothing no longer to call their own, fleeing war to live in white tents. I recall a particular scene (the last scene?) of Hotel Rwanda. This, indeed, was the French equivalent of that three centuries earlier. His accounts from the war-torn areas are haunting.

No tongue can express… no tongue can express nor ear dare to listen to what we have witnessed from the very first day of our visits: almost all the churches desecrated, sparing not even what is most holy and most adorable; vestments pillaged; priests either killed, tortured, or put to flight; every house demolished; the harvest carried off; the soil untilled and unsown; starvation and death almost everywhere; corpses left unburied and, for the most part, exposed to serve as spoils for the wolves.
 The poor who have survived this destruction are reduced to gleaning a few half-rotted grains of sprouted wheat or barley in the fields. They make bread from this, which is like mud and so unwholesome that almost all of them become sick from it. They retreat into holes and huts, where they sleep on the bare ground without any bed linen or clothing, other than a few vile rags with which they cover themselves; their faces are black and disfigured. With all that, their patience is admirable. There are cantons completely deserted, from which the inhabitants who have escaped death have gone far and wide in search of some way to keep alive. The result is that the only ones left are the sick orphans, and poor widows burdened with children. They are exposed to the rigors of starvation, cold, and every type of misery and deprivation (CCD., IV:151-152).

As I read this, I can imagine Vincent's shock upon arriving that first day. I can imagine him writing with a shaky quill, still re-playing those memories from that first day, and the words not coming. You can hear his shock "no tongue can express nor ear dare to listen to what we have witnessed from the very first day of our visits..." He knew that no one could understand their misery unless they saw it with their own eyes as he did; he even wrote to Pope Innocent X "they must be seen and ascertained with one’s own eyes" (CCD., IV:446)

He knew that, not only did the war-ravaged poor need priests (both for material and spiritual aid) but they also needed someone influential to plead for peace. And so, Vincent, a friend to both the rich and the poor, did just that. Not only did he write (including to Pope Innocent X), but he also traveled, meeting directly with the rulers themselves who could bring peace. Travel in a war-torn country wasn't too easy nor safe in the seventeenth-century but Vincent, in a holy stubbornness, was determined. On one such trip, to plead with Anne of Austria, Vincent's carriage was attacked by villagers with pikes and guns. If one of the villagers hadn't recognized Vincent as his former pastor and stopped his companions, Vincent's story may have ended there. Later in the journey, he encountered a flooded river - his only means of reaching Anne of Austria. But as I said before, he was determined so the elderly 68-year old Vincent got on his horse and forded the river.

There is no way to determine if Vincent's words brought any peace, but he knew that it was something he had to do. Because of what he first saw in the war-torn areas, he was now committed to the pathway of peace. Not only did he send Vincentian priests to serve there, he also organized relief efforts for the victims of war among the rich and influential he knew - he created leaflets containing their stories and distributed them in parishes all around Paris. Vincent organized a relief effort very similar to how Catholic relief organizations gain collections today. He provided seeds, axes and other farming tools to the war victims, explaining "in this way, they will no longer be dependent on anyone, if some other disaster occurs which could reduce them to the same wretched state."

Throughout his work for peace, plagued by the misery of those affected by the war, by their starvation, by their illnesses, by the destruction, he wrote words that still resonate today and words that truly show how the war-torn poor had indeed traveled to the core of his heart and soul:
After that, what can be done? What will become of them? They must die: I renew the recommendation I made, and which cannot be made too often of praying for peace.... There’s war everywhere, misery everywhere, In France, so many people are suffering! O Sauveur! O Sauveur! If, for the four months we’ve had war here, we’ve had so much misery in the heart of France, where food supplies are ample everywhere, what can those poor people in the border areas do who have been in this sort of misery for twenty years? Yes, it’s been a good twenty years that there’s always been war there; if they sow their crops, they’re not sure they can gather them in; the armies arrive and pillage and carry everything off; and what the solider hasn’t taken, the sergeants take and carry off. 
After that, what can be done? What will become of them? They must die. If there’s a true religion … what did I say, wretched man that I am …! God forgive me! I’m speaking materially. It’s among them, among those poor people that true religion and a living faith are preserved (CCD., IV:189-190).

Vincent teaches us that peace is not words. You won't find eloquent or flowery words from Vincent about peace. You will, however, find action, which as Vincent shows us, is the only way of truly being a Christian who stands for peace.

(I owe much thanks to Fr John Freund's response to my email, in which I asked about the Vincentian response to war and violence, and his research (you can also search "peace" on famvin), including David Carmon's study on Vincent and Peace)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Inventive, Even to Infinity: The Story of Sister Hilary Ross

Saint Vincent de Paul said to the Daughters of Charity "Love is inventive, even to infinity". That inventiveness is something that first struck me about the Daughters of Charity - whether it's doing art ministry like Sr Maria or teaching at a university like Sr Anne.

Sister Hilary Ross was one of those inventive ones.

I first saw her picture in an article about the "Women of Spirit" museum exhibit traveling around the United States. And, of course, it's pretty unmistakable that Sr Hilary was a Daughter of Charity.

Sr Hilary was not a doctor or a nurse or even a physician's assistant. No, she was a biochemist and a pioneer scientist. She published in many scientific journals and soon became renown for her research in Hansen's Disease (leprosy) Meanwhile, she lived and worked in a leper hospital in Carville, Louisiana.

But researching leprosy at Carville isn't where her story ends nor where it begins. Sr Hilary was a Californian, the daughter of immigrants. At the age of 11, tragedy struck when her father drowned in the San Francisco Bay. Just a few months later, the famous San Francisco earthquake took everything. So, the Ross family, both fatherless and homeless, lived in emergency shelters until they were able to afford a house in Berkley, CA. Affording the house, however, meant that everyone in the family, even the children, had to work to pay the bills - including Hilary, once she finished eighth grade.

Meanwhile, Hilary, along with the rest of her family, was baptized Episcopalian but she frequently branched out into other Christian religions. She volunteered with the Salvation Army and also frequently attended Catholic Mass with a friend. Eventually, at the age of 19, she reached the decision to become Catholic. Her conversion made quite the splash in her house. It became the butt of jokes for her brothers and her mother was so upset that she constantly cooked meat on Fridays to spite Hilary.

Things must have calmed down by the time that Hilary announced she wanted to be a Daughter of Charity two years later. Her mom consented, although she didn't want her to go. As a Daughter of Charity, Hilary became a nurse (a quite popular occupation of the Daughters at the time) It wasn't before long that her newly-learned skills were put into practice, as the influenza pandemic of 1918 hit her hospital in Milwaukee. It grew to be something she'd never forget - the hospital filled to the brim, so many dying around her.

Shortly after, Hilary, now Sister Hilary, had to get a mastoid operation - an operation to remove an infection in the mastoid bone (the bone behind the ear). The surgery was somehow botched. she was left with facial paralysis. Since the first surgery was unsuccessful, Sister Hilary went for two more. Both would have great complications - first she contracted typhoid fever, then pneumonia, and then headaches that would never leave her for the rest of her life. When asked about it years later, Sr Hilary shrugged it off, saying "one learns to live with one's ailments"

Mainly because of her facial paralysis (which slowly decreased but never went away), she could no longer be a nurse. The Daughters of Charity, instead, sent her to study pharmacy. Soon, she was sent on her first mission as a pharmacist - to Carville, Louisana to the Carville National Leprosarium, one of only two leper hospitals in the United States. It was a mission that probably terrified her family and friends, who probably thought for sure she'd catch the contagious disease. But she herself had no fear - "I just had a job to do – and I had to give God the best of what I had. He’s always been my boss, you know."

Her job as a pharmacist soon turned into that of a biochemist. From 1927 on, she began to publish medical studies, especially on the changes that take place when the Hansen's bacteria enters the body. Thanks to her investigations, the world would have a greater knowledge of all the aspects of Hansen's Disease (leprosy). She, a humble Sister who never even went to high school, became recognized in the science industry as a pioneer. When an interviewer commented on her various awards and how great it was that she was now an international figure, she replied, probably with a roll of her eyes or a wave of her hand, "That’s all a lot of bosh. I just did my job as well as I could. And there were a lot of other good Sisters and people doing much better than I."

Sr Hilary stayed at Carville - researching, investigating and generally caring about the welfare of her poor sick - for 37 years. In 1960, she retired at the "old age" of 66. Perhaps people thought she'd finally slow down now that she was officially retired - but Sister Hilary thought the opposite, saying she still had much more life to give to the poor. Instead of taking it easy, she volunteered for the foreign missions - more specifically to Wakayama, Japan - to work in a hospital for crippled children.

And this is where Sister Hilary's story turns black for me, as I couldn't find any other details about her past her move to Japan, except this interview of her on the Daughters of Charity website. I do know that she died in 1982, at the age of 88, still living and working in Japan.

Sister Hilary was truly inventive in her love for the poor. (After all, do you know any other Sisters that are famous biochemists?)
She was courageous.
She was a fighter.
She was strong.

Yet, following in the footsteps of Saint Vincent de Paul, she was so humble in the face of such international fame, saying "I just did my job. Now you take Father Damien of Molakai. He’s the real hero in the fight against leprosy. I’ll have a lot to tell him when we meet in heaven!"

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Cheat-Sheet for Discerners of Religious Life

I don't know about you but I loved that time in junior/senior year of high school when colleges began to "recruit". Why? Because that meant lots of mail from different colleges, which meant, for me, lots of anticipation and excitement for the future. As I flipped through the pages of their brochures and magazines, I tried to imagine myself there. And there were so many choices, so many places to imagine. But the number of choices were also overwhelming at times. So overwhelming that, in fact, I applied to five different colleges - not making a final decision until shortly before graduation.

Discerning religious life can be a lot like that. Sometimes it seems that there are just as many religious communities as there are colleges. Each one has its special quality, each one has something that makes it different than the others, each one attracts someone in its own way. And just like a college, not every single religious community is for you. And unless you live in Catholictown, USA (hint: it doesn't exist), there is no way for you to encounter every single community out there. And sometimes you have no idea what you're even looking for.

Because of that, when you're discerning, the Internet can be your best friend. 

And so can something called Vision Vocation Guide, who just came out with their new 2013 issue. (no, they didn't pay me to say that) Because, unlike those mailings by individual colleges, Vision sends you a "catalog" of all religious communities in the United States - both mens and womens (there are also some great articles in there, like one called Why Catholics Care About People Living in Poverty from a fellow Sister blogger (Musings of a Discerning Woman). If you're afraid to get it sent to your house (...and I totally get that), there's also a digital version available. And be not afraid - you won't be contacted by any religious community unless you contact them first.

Each listing of a religious community includes a small description of their mission, ministry, etc and contact information in case you do decide to take the leap (...and yes, I do know it is a leap!) Afraid to take the leap and contact the vocations director, yet there's still something gnawing at you about that community? Investigate. Go to their website. See if they have a blog or two. (Shameless plug: some Daughter of Charity/Vincentian blogs are on the sidebar of this blog, as is the website) Check out their Facebook page or Twitter account.

So, don't feel overwhelmed. Breathe. 

Think about what it is that attracts you in a community - do I want to live in a monastery? do I want to teach? do I want to serve the poor? do I want a small community or a large one? do I want a habit? etc (and there are many more!) - and go from there. If religious life truly is your calling, you'll find the religious community where God wills you to be. But it's up to you to take the first step. 

You may even realize that the answers to those initial attractions may change with time, as they did with me. After all, at first, I wanted a non-habited American community with a focus on foreign mission. And now here I am, in a habited French community with a mission on serving the poor wherever they may be found. The journey changed but it was taking those first steps that led me here.

Be curious. Investigate. Create that first footprint. Be not afraid!

(On another note, speaking of "catalogs", the Response Directory, created by Catholic Volunteer Network, is a great way to find Catholic volunteer service opportunities. I used it to find VIDES+USA, which led me to Bolivia!)
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