Saturday, June 9, 2018

Encounters of Grace

Grace in ministry: the encounter with women seemingly forgotten by the world.
Grace in the classroom. 
Grace in the Dominican Family.
Grace with companion pilgrims in the InterCommunity Novitiate.
Grace in communal prayer, private prayer, reflection days, retreat.
Grace in preaching and postils.
Grace in the park, the gardens.

Missouri Botanical Gardens

Forest Park

Grace in community.
We listened, spoke truth, laughed, shed tears.

Grace from home: our congregations, family, friends.
They did not forget us.
Rather, they carried us in prayer.
In my own prayer, I petitioned, almost daily, for openness to grace in its many forms.

June is here, but it isn’t finished: not the work of openness, not the discovery, and—blessedly—not the supply of grace. 
We make a lifelong journey, a pilgrimage.
You, Beloved Giver of grace…
You call us further along the path of discovery.
You heal us.

You draw us deeper into Your light, Your love.
You bid us preach Your love—every one of us.
We must scatter the seed. Sometimesindeed, oftenthe soil will be rocky.
But You will be there.
You have been here, too, in many ways, in many faces.
Now we go, and You go with us.

We praise You.
We bless You, Your creation, Your people.
We preach You.

We thank You. And we thank our companion pilgrims and all who have made this year possible!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Gratitude for the Journey: Discernment, Revision, and Widening Circles of Stories

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity at the CDN:  orientation for next year’s novices and directors, the wrapping up of Intercommunity Novitiate gatherings and Aquinas Institute coursework, Megan McElroy’s Doctor of Ministry graduation (congratulations, Megan!), ordinations of some of our Dominican brothers (congratulations, brothers!) and now end-of-year cleaning, packing, and organizing before the four of us depart St Louis. 
After so many full days, my co-novice Gina and I were more than ready for a week of directed silent retreat at the Mercy Retreat and Conference Center.   Retreat allowed me a chance to rest, reground, and reflect on the journey of these past ten months as a canonical novice.  Amid the call of barred owls and singing of robins as I walked the nature trails or sat in the Blessed Sacrament chapel in centering prayer, I sensed a knitting together of experiences since my reception last August. I reread my journals from these months and traced the graces and struggles of this intensive period of Dominican formation.  

“Discernment is God’s gradual revelation of who we are to ourselves,” was a line I came across in my journal, spoken by an Intercommunity Novitiate presenter.  Of all the definitions of discernment I’ve seen since entering religious life, this one feels most true to my experience. 
Unlike our sisters who were novices sixty or seventy years ago, canonical novitiate for us is focused primarily on inner work and integration.  Topics covered include transitions, communication, conflict, love and intimacy, family dynamics, personality theory, boundaries in personal and ministerial relationships, and community living.  All the material is intended as grist for the mill in our question of call, intended not just for the head but also the heart and gut. 
“If you want to give yourself to God, you should know who that self is,” said another ICN speaker as he challenged us to deep inner diving.  Such a hard, honest look at the self – this revelation by God to us of ourselves - led a young nun friend to quip her canonical year was like “getting cut up into a bunch of little pieces and letting God sew me back together.”  Though we aren’t employed this year, canonical novitiate - though grace-filled - is not a relaxing sabbatical or a spiritual vacation.  At our first reflection day, Fr Don Goergen, OP said, “there is rarely a pain-free grace.”  
Taking a “long, loving look at the real” – at least for me – has meant wrestling with my behaviors, attitudes, and assumptions in humbling and uncomfortable ways.  Not just the class content but also the inner movements that come in silent prayer, the probing questions of my directors, and the day-to-day elbow-rubbing of community life all pushed me toward greater self-awareness – and not without growing pains.  In speaking of the honesty and transparency needed to write memoir, Mary Karr said that “writing a memoir is like knocking yourself out with your own fist.”  Perhaps Karr’s words apply to the deep inner work of canonical year.
Eleven months ago, shortly before entering the novitiate, I participated in a ten-day workshop at the Collegeville Institute “Revision, Christian Spirituality, and the Writing Life” with Lauren Winner.  In between joining the Benedictine monks for Mass and the Divine Office, I workshopped book-length manuscripts with eleven other Christian authors in the north woods of Minnesota.  We read and reread, wrote and rewrote, offering each other kind yet frank feedback on where dialogue felt forced or flat, where prose sang or lagged, where characters felt believable or clich├ęd, where narrative stalled or moved too quickly, and what wasn’t on the page that needed to be.  Paragraphs or full pages were slashed, opening and closing sentences were rewritten, plot lines were turned in new directions. Red pens in hand, we journeyed through the sacred ground of each other’s manuscripts with the questions:  what am I trying to say, why am saying it, and how can I say it more honestly? 
The writers/revisers of the Collegeville Institute workshop, June 2017

As I look back, the revision workshop was a providential lead-in to canonical year.  Revision is the most apt metaphor for my year of discernment and formation.  Think of the etymology of the word: re (again), visio (to see).  Revision is the willingness to look unblinking and squarely at where I have been and all that has brought me to this point, in the light of faith.   I have come to believe we inhabit stories we create or inherit from our families, culture, and communities.  These stories explain who we perceive ourselves to be in relation to God and others, give a frame for understanding past and present relationships and experiences, and justify our thoughts, actions, and choices.  Generally we don’t know the stories we live out of; they reside below consciousness.  They are often outdated and no longer useful, if not downright irrational and damaging (ouch!).  Perhaps at least a part of what continual conversion (that is, cooperation with the God who reveals us to ourselves) means is a willingness to uncover these stories, get curious about how they function, and become willing to revise them. 
This hard, ongoing work of revision to integrate and grow in self-awareness seems particularly necessary for Religious who, as Pope Francis says, are to be “experts in communion.”  Especially as a fledgling member of the Order of Preachers - where preaching is not what we do but who we are - this call to authenticity, though difficult, feels necessary.  To claim veritas (truth) as a motto includes, I think, deepening in truth about myself with my strengths and weaknesses, my blessedness and brokenness, my wounds of the past and hopes for the future. 
An image from the Sinsinawa Dominican motherhouse featuring our Dominican motto veritas.

As a canonical novice I’ve not only set about exploring and revising my own stories, but also finding resonance in a widening circles of stories: the narratives of our founder Fr Samuel Mazzuchelli, generations of Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, St Dominic, St Catherine, and, of course, the life of Christ – especially the Paschal mystery.  Becoming Dominican is a lifelong communal venture which includes, I have come to believe, discovering and deepening into where I am held in this expanse of stories. 
On a recent reflection day, Gina closed our prayer with the Francesca Battistelli song “Write your story on my heart” which names God as “Author of my hope.”  The song includes the lines “I’m an empty page/ I’m an open book/ write your story on my heart.”  As I have traced this year’s process and the revisions to which I’ve been drawn by God’s revelation, the song reminds me – from the first scribble to the final draft – the individual and collective journey of transformation is God’s work, and the story is held in hands far bigger than mine. 
As we move into our final weeks here at the Collaborative Dominican Novitiate, please know of our deep gratitude for your prayers and support in our deep diving into Dominican life this year. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Dominican family visiting – Spring Break and Holy Week travels

              Easter greetings from the Collaborative Dominican Novitiate!  The month of March found Gina and me in true Dominican itinerancy mode as we hit the road for Spring Break and then again for Triduum.  While some past novices have done a whirlwind East Coast tour of motherhouses during spring break, we decided this was a bit too ambitious for us – which turned out to be a good choice as the Northeast got hit by a big snowstorm that week!   Gina and I spent ten days with the Springfield Dominican Sisters, sharing prayer, meals and fun as well as doing service during the week.  Both Gina and I met Springfield sisters who knew sisters from our respective congregations (Caldwell and Sinsinawa).  Another highlight of the week was spending time with the Dominican nuns in Springfield.  Their postulant Emily and I realized we had met two years before at a “Dubuque’s Got Sisters” weekend – we were delighted to be reunited and find that our respective discernment journeys had brought us both into the Dominican family!  The sisters and nuns were all very gracious and hospitable.  
An embrace from Sister Pauletta (Springfield) in Regina Coeli.

                Gina served in campus ministry at Sacred Heart Griffin high school, getting to know the school staff and assisting with special events like a Lenten Stations of the Cross prayer service and a special Mass.  Sacred Heart Griffin students also joined us at the motherhouse for vespers, dinner and games Thursday of that week – there was lots of laughter in the dining room as groups of sisters and students played Pictionary and MadGab.  
Stations of the Cross at Sacred Heart Griffin High School

                I served at Jubilee Farm Center For Ecology and Spirituality, pruning wisteria, planting seeds, and spring cleaning in the greenhouse.  Since the CDN house is located in St Louis’ busy, urban Central West End, I very much enjoyed being out in a beautiful rural spot.  I also enjoyed doing physical work and getting my hands dirty since I spend much of my time in chapels and libraries! The marigolds I planted on Monday morning had sprouted by Thursday morning – a delightful sign of spring and new life.
The beginning of a marigold in the Jubilee Farm greenhouse!

                The Wednesday of Holy Week we traveled eight hours from St Louis to Grand Rapids motherhouse in Michigan to join the community there for the Triduum liturgies.  As in Springfield, the sisters in Grand Rapids were warm and welcoming and very glad to have us with them.  We had heard from many others that Triduum at Grand Rapids was beautiful and we certainly found that to be the case. We also each enjoyed some quiet and contemplative time during the holiest days of the year of moving through the Paschal mystery - a much-appreciated break in our usual busy schedule of classes, chores, homework, and meetings.