Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Embracing community and conversion at “the Rock”

“Welcome to the Rock Church – where our celebration is long and loud!”  An usher greeted me with these words, a bright smile, and a hug the first time I attended Sunday Mass at St Alphonsus Liguori “Rock” Church in St Louis.  I had heard wonderful things about the Rock Church from past Dominican novices who made it their parish home during their canonical years.  My mind was made up to join the Rock after my first experience of vibrant worship and welcoming community there. 
                Mass at the Rock is, indeed, “long and loud” and is celebrated in the African American tradition. A gospel choir leading the singing of hymns and spirituals, the procession at the beginning of Mass led by a woman dressed in kente cloth bearing a cowrie shell-adorned bowl of incense, the use of ‘call and response’ with the congregation during the homily, African drumming, and the joyful communal shout of “harambee” to celebrate good news or special events are all practices that reflect the Rock’s enculturated worship. 
                The physical worship space reflects this commitment, too.  A side altar bears the image of Afro-Peruvian St Martin de Porres, and there is another corner of the church that honors significant African American Catholics like Thea Bowman, FSPA.  And then there are the images of Jesus.  In the small chapel where daily Mass is celebrated, an image of Jesus Christ Liberator hangs on the wall.  The paper worship aide I was handed by the usher included an image of black Jesus alongside the song lyrics.  
"Jesus Christ Liberator" icon by Robert Lentz, OFM

The Jesus of Vacation Bible School flannel-boards certainly looked more like my European-American self than like a Middle-eastern Semite.  And despite the ministerial and theological education I’ve received since those Vacation Bible School days, those images are still operative for me and I know I am called to deeper conversion.  This is in part why I chosen a faith community where my assumptions will be interrupted, where I am exposed to new images of Jesus and the saints, and where the style of worship is so different from my childhood church experiences.  As a novice with a congregation committed to becoming anti-racist, I share in the Sinsinawa Dominican challenge to address the structural evil of racism at every level, including within myself.  Aware of my own complicity and white privilege, accepting the invitation to join a faith community where I am surrounded by so many African-American brothers and sisters seems like one place to start. 
The importance of such a conversion is not abstract or theoretical, but feels deeply urgent and immediate.  The day I moved to St Louis as a newly-minted canonical novice in August, my adult hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia was filled with tiki-torch-bearing white supremacists repeating racist and anti-Semitic chants.  A state of emergency was declared, and the violence that ensued during and after the “Unite the Right” rally there led to one death and dozens of injuries.  I watched with disbelief and deep sadness as my Facebook feed filled with posts of friends who were counter-protesting.  As I prayed for and reached out to loved ones in Charlottesville during my first days at the CDN, questions of how to live out a commitment to racial justice as a truth-seeking, justice-loving, active-contemplative Dominican-sister-in-training became personal and pressing.  
 Moreover, three years after the popular uprising for racial justice in nearby Ferguson, MO, and six weeks after the acquittal of Jason Stockley, it is impossible to deny the wounds of racial injustice in greater St Louis.  One Friday night as I was praying compline here at the novitiate house in the Central West End, there were protestors passing by outside, bearing handmade signs proclaiming, “no justice, no peace” and “black lives matter.”  Dominican Praise book in hand, before the Blessed Sacrament, the line between the street and the sanctuary dissolved as their indignant calls for justice blended with my own voice chanting psalms of lament. 
Those questions continue to feel important as I move through my canonical year – “apart” from the world with the novitiate’s emphasis on prayer and yet deeply connected to all – especially through ministry.  Once a week, I minister at Marian Middle School, where the majority of the students are African American.  A few weeks ago the school social worker came in to give the standard “just say no to drugs” presentation.  During the classroom discussion after she spoke, one sixth grader piped up: “People think that we are more likely to use drugs just cause of our race.”  It is sad and striking that my eleven-year-old students are already aware of and able to articulate the reality of racial profiling – a reality I was completely clueless of as a white eleven-year-old.  
Another Marian Middle School ministry experience highlighted again the significance of reading and responding to “the signs of the times” in terms of racial justice and images of God.  Recently, I taught the fifth and sixth grade classes about St Mary Magdalen.  My PowerPoint slide show included several images, including an image of an African Jesus and Mary Magdalen.  One of my more outspoken sixth graders looked at the image on the screen, nodded and said emphatically, “Mm hmm!  Thank you, Sister!”         
source: Vie de Jesus Mafa
Reflecting on these encounters with my students leads me to a greater desire for solidarity with my African-American brothers and sisters and greater awareness of the need to repent of our nation’s “original sin” of racism. The Sunday after the Stockley verdict came down, our pastor Fr Rick opened space after the homily for parishioners to share what was in our hearts.  One Rock parishioner stood and spoke firmly:  “We are here.  We are here.  This is our home.  We are not leaving.  And we know God is with us.”  Her words were met with nods, murmurs of assent and a few shouts of “Amen!” 
                Her message was a powerful preaching to me since I, as a white person, have never felt the need to assert that my life matters, that I have a right to exist as an equal member of civil society, and that God stands by me in that struggle.  Her bold assertion of identity – which was enthusiastically affirmed and echoed around the sanctuary – has remained with me in the weeks since.
Yet, of course, worship is not only about intellect, but about our whole being.  Church participation is not a cultural or sociological exercise, but an encounter with the Living God.  Ultimately, our faith congregation should draw us closer to Christ, our Source and All in All.  We go to church to find and be found by God, together in the sacraments, the gathered assembly, the shared experience of prayer.  We go to church to celebrate the mystery of faith: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
And so I worship at the Rock because I experience an incarnated sense of the Resurrection there.  I hear echoes of Resurrection in the worship that has gone on for 150 years, in the face of systemic injustice.  I catch glimpses of Resurrection in that community which has gathered faithfully to pray, to sing, to claim victory in Jesus and their collective identity as God’s beloved.  They have gathered to proclaim, “Jesus is King!”, rejoicing in an authority that is infinitely higher and truer than the forces of empire.  They have gathered to offer a beacon of light to the neighborhood and the city.  This joyful lived witness, this articulation hope feels like glorious insurgency, an eschatological proclamation, gospel resistance.  This is Resurrection in real time. 
I find myself humming or singing, “Glory, hallelujah, Jesus lifted me!” – a common closing song at Mass at the Rock – often now.   I am grateful to be internalizing this song of praise which feels like it encapsulates the joyful Easter spirituality of my new parish home. I trust my participation in this community is part of a deepening conversion in Christ to a richer vision of Beloved Community, one where no one is excluded and each member of the human family is cherished.  
Sanctuary at the Rock Church (photo: Rhonda Miska)

Monday, October 30, 2017

"We Must Scatter the Seed, Not Hoard It"

Well, it’s happened. I knew that it would, sooner or later: I missed the chance to attend a funeral back home, because I am here as a novice at the CDN. The funeral was for a loved one of someone to whom I feel deeply connected through a ministry we shared for many years. The grief of my bereaved friend is important to me, and I wanted to be there with her. 

How to reconcile my distress? My bereaved friend is compassionate, supportive, faith filled, prayerful. She isn’t giving a thought to my absence at the wake and the funeral. But sure am! I’m also thinking about the Thanksgiving break that I can’t spend this year as I usually would, with my cousin who has special needs. Long story. To summarize: She will most likely stay at her group home on Thanksgiving this year because I won’t be home to have her visit. I ask, “God, is this really what you’re calling me to? Are you really asking me to step away from the needs of people I love?”

In 1217, Dominic told his fledgling group of 16 friars that it was time to disperse and take the preaching on the road, from Toulouse to Paris, Spain, Rome. At first, the friars did not assent. They protested that they were too new, too few. Dominic insisted, “We must scatter the seed, not hoard it.” The friars’ seed was the Good News. Their mission: the holy preaching. What is my mission? Do I, a novice of 12 weeks, have seed to scatter? Is preaching the essence of my mission in St Louis? In some ways, yes: I will preach at morning and evening prayer this week, and I have been studying and practicing preaching all semester in my Foundations of Preaching class. But as all Dominicans know, preaching happens beyond the encounter where we formally break open the Word. 

It happens when I visit my immigrant student, Nadia* for our weekly ESL tutoring sessions. I show up at her home faithfully each week in the hope that we can cover some ground in her grammar and vocabulary skills. Is her English improving? I hope so. I’m not sure yet. Am I preaching? My faithful visits are grounded in veritas, a truth that I hope I am speaking to her soul: Nadia matters…to me and to God, even if she calls God by another name. We are beloved children of this same God. She welcomes me warmly each week. We talk about family back home (hers in her home country, mine in New Jersey). She shows me photos of her daughter, her parents, her siblings. I show her pictures of my nephews, other members of my family. We sometimes struggle to understand each other. But we persist. So, is this preaching? Yes! During our lessons, often at a moment when I least expect it, she disappears into the kitchen. She returns with plates heaping with fruit, nuts, whatever she can offer. This newcomer to my country wants me, a newcomer to her home, to feel welcome. 
I do, and I feel humbled, too. The seed that she has, she scatters. The seed that I have, I scatter.

And this journey of mine—the one that keeps me from funerals and family needs back home—is this a preaching? I daresay yes. I yearn for the familiar blessings of home and for the relationships that wait there. But I have stepped away from them for now, trusting that cooperation with grace begets more grace. I hope, too, that my choice to be here is a witness. Such is my preaching, my own way of scattering seed. I still wish I could console my grieving friend in person, and I wish I could head to my relative’s group home on Thanksgiving morning. These are not frivolous tasks. They are works of mercy. 

But these works are not for me to perform, at least not for now. I have other seed to scatter. 

*Name has been changed.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Learning to Love the Divine Office

Though as a 37-year-old Dominican novice, I now treasure the Divine Office (also called the Liturgy of the Hours), it was hardly a case of love at first sight.  I remember well my first experience of praying - or attempting to pray! - the Office.  I was an eighteen-year-old college freshman, and my friend Samantha had invited me to pray morning prayer together.  Like many a college student, I was not a morning person so the 6:45 am alarm clock buzz was a rude awakening.  Not fully awake, I tried to follow Samantha as we moved through Lauds, unsure of when I was supposed to bow or make the Sign of the Cross.  Though she had arranged the various colored ribbons in the thick office book, I kept losing my place as I clumsily flipped around to different sections of the office book from antiphons to psalms to the gospel canticle. 

Moreover, the words didn’t feel like my own.  In Central Wisconsin during the winter, it’s still dark at 7 am, so the prayers about “greeting the dawn” seemed out of place.  More importantly, these words from the psalms of searing anger, euphoric joy, and bitter complaint weren’t my own.  Though I was a bit anxious about an upcoming exam in chemistry class and excited about my upcoming weekend plans, my emotional state surely didn’t match that of the psalms Samantha and I spoke together.  How, then, could this prayer be genuine? 

Fast forward nearly twenty years from that cold Wisconsin morning in the dorm lobby, and I have grown to cherish this prayer of the Church which at first seemed awkward and unauthentic – though now as then I sometimes lose my place as I flip around to different parts of the Office book!

During our CDN prayer panel in September, Dominican Friar Carl Joseph Paustian spoke of his love for shared prayer in Dominican life.  He also responded to the question my sleepy eighteen-year-old self wondered when I tried praying the Divine Office for the first time.  “When the psalms we’re praying don’t match our inner state, well, we’re not praying those prayers for ourselves.  There are people somewhere in the world feeling that emotion – we can offer it to God on their behalf,” Carl Joseph explained.

A page from Dominican Praise (photo: Rhonda Miska)

We learned more about the Divine Office when earlier this month Caldwell Dominican Sister Honora Werner spoke to us about Dominican Praise, a provisional book of prayer for Dominican women.  Seven years in the making, Dominican sisters from seventeen congregations around the United States shared their gifts as scholars, translators, liturgists, poets, artists, and musicians - in addition to prayer and financial support - to create this beautiful book for praying the Divine Office.

“This is not private prayer, it is the prayer of the Church for the life of the world.  We pray for those who cannot or will not pray for themselves,” Sister Honora told us.  She explained that we leave behind our personal preferences in order to pray together as an expression of common life and our solidarity with all humanity.  As Brother Carl Joseph said, and as I have come to sense more and more, the psalms we chant in the Divine Office are not intended to reflect our mood at the moment, but rather are offered on behalf of all humankind.  The practice pulls me out of wherever I am at internally and connects me with all creation: with those suffering the effects of hurricanes and earthquakes, with those who are incarcerated or on death row, with those who daily face poverty and war, with both the victims and the perpetrators of all forms of violence.

Since coming to the CDN, we have prayed the Liturgy of the Hours not only in our novitiate chapel, but also with the Dominican men of the Central and Southern Provinces at the priory, with the Dominican Sisters of Peace at their Kentucky motherhouse, with Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois, with the Trappist monks at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, and with the Benedictine sisters in Ferdinand, Indiana. 

When we visited Gethsemani Abbey and I walked through a display on Trappist life and spirituality, these words from an abbot’s chapter talk resonated:  “the Liturgy of the Hours…is an ongoing restructuring of our mind and hearts.” I do sense that the words from Scripture we pray together daily are working on me, sometimes consciously but more often what I sense is a subterranean level as I continue to discern vowed apostolic life as a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa.  

The rhythm of beginning the day with Morning Prayer, gathering again before dinner after the busyness of day for Evening prayer, and then closing the day before sleep with Night prayer seems to draw me into a greater awareness of each day as gift.  It reminds me that each morning is a new beginning and new grace, that each evening is a chance to “unplug” from the busyness of the day and give thanks, and that each night is an opportunity to surrender and rest.  The practice of praying the Divine Office sanctifies the day and creates opportunities at “hinge moment” of each day to pause, breathe, recollect myself, drop anchor, and offer praise and petition. 

In this daily rhythm of sharing hymns, psalms, proclamation and preaching, a Gospel canticle, the Our Father, silence, petitions, and a closing blessing, I aspire to offer service to the world and grow in my yes to Holy Mystery. Moreover, in this prayer we at the CDN are in communion with members of the Dominican family – in fact, with countless Christians around the world who share this timeless practice.  And there is a richness is knowing we pray with the very psalms that Jesus prayed with when He walked the earth.  Through our prayer we dare to trust our ability to touch the world’s great suffering with God’s great compassion. 

Choir stalls with Divine Office prayer books at St. Meinrad's Archabbey (photo: Rhonda Miska)