Thursday, March 8, 2018

A Night of Celebration

On Wednesday, February 21, the Collaborative Dominican Novitiate (CDN) in St. Louis marked its 30th anniversary. An evening of memories, song, and prayer at Aquinas Institute of Theology commemorated the occasion. This was an evening long in the making, scheduled to coincide with the three-day annual meeting of the CDN board of directors. This year’s CDN community—
co-directors Sisters Joye Gros (Dominican Sisters of Peace) and Megan McElroy (Grand Rapids), and novices Rhonda (Sinisinawa) and I (Caldwell) were delighted to welcome board members, the Dominican family, the Aquinas community, and friends to this memorable celebration.
Rev. John Pitzer and Sr. Susan Olson, OP
The evening’s masterful vocalists were Dominican Sister of Peace (and CDN graduate) Sister Susan Olson and the Reverend John Pitzer, with Hamilton Gutierrez on piano. The concert featured prayerful compositions by members of the Dominican family, with several opportunities for the audience to join in song. After Sister Joye Gros had welcomed everyone, Sister Mary Ann Nelson (Sinsinawa), a founding mother of the CDN, shared reflections on the birthing of this collaborative venture, a dream of almost 20 founding Dominican congregations.

Directors - past, present, and future
 Sisters Connie Kelly (Hope), Lorraine Reaume (Adrian), and Cathy Arnold (Peace) offered reflections on their own years as CDN novices. They spoke of growth and learning, challenges, fun, and, especially, the treasured relationships that the sisters formed during the canonical year. In many cases, these relationships have endured through the years. As Sister Susan Olson introduced the song “It’s Mornings Like This,” she relayed the deep bond shared with her CDN sisters.
Novices -  past and present
The night provided a chance to thank Sister Elizabeth Slenker (Sparkill) for her many years of care for the CDN house. Thanks to Sister Elizabeth, the house is in better condition now than on the day it was purchased! At the end of the evening, co-director Sister Megan McElroy offered words of thanks. As a surprise, board member and liaison Sister Rebecca Ann Gemma (Springfield) presented Sisters Megan and Joye with personal notes written by members of the board to thank these dedicated sisters for their eight years of formation ministry.

The cake was a fitting tribute...
The program concluded in a powerful spirit of prayer, with the singing of the Dominican Blessing (Marchionda, OP). Refreshments afterwards included an array of cookies baked mostly by Rhonda, though she did receive some help from our InterCommunity Novice friends and from yours truly!
...and so were Rhondas cookies!

Heartfelt thanks to all who joined us to celebrate the gift of collaborative intercongregation formation of Dominican women. With hope, we look to a future of promise—promise born of joyful trust in the One who calls us to preach the gospel of love!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Love Among Ashes: a “Valentash” Day Litany

“But don’t you want to get married and have a real family?” 
This was the honest question posed by my ten-year-old honorary niece shortly before I entered the canonical novitiate.  My middle school girls from ministry ask me similar questions: “But don’t you want to fall in love?”   “What if you meet a boy you really like?”
Adults ask, too, though without the disarming frankness of these preteen girls.  If you’ve grown up on the narrative of falling head over heels and living happily ever after, Disney-princess-and-Prince-Charming-style, it’s hard to believe a life that doesn’t follow that road map could be meaningful and fulfilling.  This narrative gets an annual shot in the arm every February when corporate America rolls out the candy, jewelry, lingerie, and flowers, replete with lots of pink hearts and red glitter, to sell us a cupid’s-arrow-pierced image of romantic love.  Unhappily-single friends quip that Valentine’s is “singlehood awareness day” as it serves as a painful reminder of their unpartnered state in a culture where romantic, sexual love is at the heart of identity, belonging, and worth.  In the face of such relentless marketing, the vow of consecrated celibacy I am considering sounds unrealistic at best, impossible and unhealthy at worst. 
How can this way of loving possibly make sense?  Such an inclusive, counter-cultural way of loving can only be understood by expanding the definition of love and intimacy.  There is a lot of love that doesn’t fit into the commoditized mold of a gorgeous bride and gallant groom – both with Colgate-advertisement-smiles and perfect hair – walking hand in hand through a spring meadow.  I appreciate the way Valentine’s Day is named in Latin America: as el dia de amor y amistad – the day of love and friendship. 
The confluence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day – dubbed by a pastor friend as “Valentash Day” – in the calendar adds a unique twist to my take on celebrating love this year.  There is a stark contrast between the Hallmark-card caricature of love and the black, dry ashes we smudge on one another’s foreheads at liturgy.  Fairytale fantasy meets a solemn call to fasting and conversion.  How can the two fit together?
Perhaps there’s a valuable truth in this holiday mash-up:  all authentic, enduring, love – in marriage, community, family, ministry, or friendship – requires struggle, and often sacrifice.  St Valentine was, after all, a martyr.   Love is costly. “Love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” said Dorothy Day, quoting Dostoyevsky.    Given her life of voluntary poverty, service to the poor, and justice-seeking in community, she knew well the cost of love. 
Recently at a house panel discussion on consecrated celibacy, a Dominican sister stated, “our world needs mirroring of who God is.”  Her words echo in my mind as think about “Valentash Day” with its simultaneous celebration of love and call to conversion.  I began to catalogue the glimpses of God I catch in countless acts of love I witness and share in, each of them a mirror.  
Mary Grace ministers to a wounding "Unite the Right" protestor in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017    (photo credit: Jeremiah Knupp, News Leader)

I smile at the enduring love of a couple at church - both over 90 years old - and the gentleness with which the husband helps his wife into her coat at the end of liturgy.  I am moved by the spontaneous love of a middle school student who affirms a classmate after reading an original poem in front of the class.  I weep at the muscular love in the public sphere of friends who have taken to the streets proclaiming “black lives matter” and nonviolently challenging police violence – all while refusing to diminish the human dignity of police officers.  I treasure the inclusive love of my brother who invited a transgendered friend to our family Christmas dinner when her own family no longer accepted her.  I witness the courageous, risk-taking love of a couple who have become guardians of an unaccompanied migrant Guatemalan teenaged boy so he can apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile status.  I am in awe of the quiet love of monastics who rise in the middle of the night to pray for the needs of the world. I appreciate the thoughtful love of sisters back home who send me so many cards of encouragement that they cover nearly every spot on my bedroom walls. I am heartened by the childlike love of my fifth graders as they wield Crayola markers and glue sticks to fashion red-construction-paper valentine cards for local nursing home residents.  I am humbled by the vulnerable love of a friend in early recovery from cocaine and alcohol addiction who brought me to an open Narcotics Anonymous meeting so I could bear witness to his resurrection.   I respect the truth-telling love of a sister who admits she found something challenging about an interaction with me so that we can deepen in relationship.  I hold in prayer the gritty love of my friends Sam and Daniel who do urban streetoutreach, carrying Narcan in case they encounter someone who has overdosed on opioids.  I am moved to tears by the astonishing love of my friend Mary Grace who, on August 12 in Charlottesville, while wearing a homemade t-shirt proclaiming “Love, 1 John 4:7-8” compassionately poured water on the face of a white supremacist with tear gas in his eyes and staunched his bleeding wound, despite her total disagreement with his point of view.  I give thanks for the generous love of Dominican congregations who for thirty years have offered novices the space to grow in freedom to make an authentic discernment about God’s call on our lives.  
Mary Grace washes the eyes of a "Unite the Right" demonstrator in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017. (photo credit: Jeremiah Knupp

This Ash Wednesday, might you write your own litany to celebrate how the love you witness mirrors God’s love and bears witness to Lent’s call to continual conversion? 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Marked by Ministry

Soon, we will receive the mark of ashes as we begin the Lenten journey. Here, Gina considers a mark of a different kind: the imprint that becomes part of us when we minister in God’s name.

Ministry plays an important role in the CDN experience. After all, we are discerning our call to a life that Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM, identifies as “mobile ministerial.” Dominicans recognize that our mission to preach is accomplished not just by words but also by deeds—deeds of love that announce the Gospel.

Last semester, I worked with a young immigrant woman who needed to learn English. I was the teacher. On the surface, I was the one who possessed the “gift” that my student needed. I knew English, and she needed to learn English. Yet, I was reminded that everyone needs a chance to give. Each week, my student welcomed me with impeccable hospitality. At every lesson, she set out plates of food. One week, she took me to lunch at a nearby restaurant. Another time, upon learning that my birthday was approaching, she disappeared into her bedroom and returned with a small gift. I, the ostensible “minister,” tasted (yes, literally) the reality that ministry is a two-way street. We give and we receive.

The sixth Station of the Cross illustrates this two-way street. Tradition tells us that Jesus accepted Veronica’s effort to cleanse his face of blood and sweat on the way to Calvary. Afterwards, the imprint of his face remained on her cloth. As we minister, we meet the One who leaves his imprint on us. I pray that my work with this student has benefited her. I cannot know for sure. What I do know is that her imprint remains with me.

Recently, my student’s schedule changed, and it became impossible for us to continue our lessons. It was painful for me to step away from our relationship. We try to stay in touch. She will soon begin work with a new teacher. I hope to visit her in the spring.

Meanwhile, I am exploring another type of ministry: hospice. I will visit patients in nursing homes, hoping to bring God’s compassionate presence. I have long desired to accompany those who are journeying through loss or are facing end of life. I once heard Paula D’Arcy speak of the God who sits with us in our boats while we are battered by life’s storms. There is no quick fix for profound loss. But it can make a difference to have someone sit with us. Ministry of presence can mirror God’s love and fidelity.

 I’ve made my first visit to my first patient. She sat still and silent the entire time. I told her about myself, the people and places I love, the dinner I was planning to cook. Tomorrow, I will read to her. I have no idea what she thought as I spoke to her, no idea if the books I’ve chosen from the library will entertain her or elude her. I don’t know if my presence will make an imprint, but I believe that my desire to accompany this patient is God’s desire, too. So I’ll try. I’ll sit in her boat. And I’ll let her leave her imprint on me.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Deep roots, wide branches: epiphytes, champion trees and the power of heritage

One blessing of the Collaborative Dominican Novitiate’s location in St Louis is the opportunity to surround myself with beauty during weekly reflection days.  From the paintings and art installations at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art to enormous sculptures in the garden at the St Louis Art Museum to the dazzling mosaics at the Cathedral Basilica, there is no shortage of art of all kinds to accompany me in praying through and integrating each week’s learnings. 
                The gardens and greenhouses of the Missouri Botanical Gardens also offer beauty and nourishment on reflection days.  It’s a delight to sit in the temperate house’s Moorish walled garden, prayer journal in hand, surrounded by the sound of the fountain’s running water and the sight of lemon and fig trees.  Beside the temperate house is the Climatron, a geodesic dome which houses a lush, large collection of plants from the tropical rain forest.  Walking across the bridge in the Climatron one reflection day and taking in the view of the foliage, I noticed a small plant growing on a tree’s thick branch.  According to a nearby sign, this was an epiphyte: a plant with no root system that draws nutrients from air and rain water. I marveled at the brightly-colored exotic orchid that had no direct attachment to the rich soil far below.

Epiphytes on a tree branch in the Monteverde rain forest (photo credit: Brett Cole)
I stepped out of the warm, humid Climatron into the brisk autumn air and continued my walk until I came across an enormous white basswood tree.   I craned my neck to take in the expanse of branches spreading against a backdrop of brilliant blue sky.  According to nearby signage, this was a Champion tree – the largest known of its species in the country.    In contrast to the lovely, delicate epiphyte orchid, this champion tree was enormous, old, and rugged.  I could only imagine the many birds and bugs that have made it their homes over the decades.  I could only imagine the network of long, thick roots hidden under the earth. 
That sunny afternoon at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, I began to envision that champion tree as a metaphor for the history I’d been studying over the past months as a Dominican novice. Learning about the history of my Sinsinawa congregation, the Dominican family (which we will dive into at the Aquinas Institute this semester), Dominican holy women (through research during my candidacy year), and of other religious congregations (through presentations by other novices in vowed life class and the inter-community novitiate) has given me a sense of the widening circles of belonging that contextualize my own discernment of religious life.  Like branches connected to the basswood’s strong trunk with a wide, solid base of roots, these histories give a sense of the tradition in which I seek to ground myself.  Study turns into prayer as it seems that part of discernment is finding echoes of ourselves in the through-lines of our congregational narratives.  

The grounding of this history doesn’t happen only through classroom lectures, books, and archival research, but in listening to sisters’ stories around the dinner table or in a motherhouse community room over a cup of tea. Spending time at the Sinsinawa Mound over Christmas break afforded me the opportunity to hear more of these stories - which are in turn inspiring, hilarious, poignant, and challenging - of Sinsinawa Dominican life, and hearing firsthand accounts of these roots. 
As someone on the cusp of Generation X and Millennial generations, a good number of my age peers - though generalizing about generations is tough - are often wary of organized religion and are likely to self-define as “spiritual but not religious.”  People my age are much more likely to be “nones” (to check the box “none” on a survey about religious affiliation) than to be “nuns.”  According to sociologists who study generational trends, many of us in our twenties and thirties tend to distrust institutions of all types, religious and otherwise, for valid and understandable reasons.  My age peers in many cases tend to be “do-it-yourself” types when it comes to the work of meaning-making and identity-constructing – epiphytes who ask the big questions without necessarily wanting to sink roots into tradition with all its ambiguities and complications, blessings and baggage. 
I certainly understand this impulse among my peers, and I have myself experienced disillusionment and disappointments in the Church and other institutions.  Yet thanks to the Providence of God, the witness of so many joyful and radiant sisters who are models of religious life, the opportunity to study the prophetic saints of our history, and grace of tenacity, despite my loss of first naiveté, I love this tradition - and have grown to love it more and more as continue to discern religious life.
I return over and over again to my appreciation of and gratitude for these widening circles of tradition in which I live.  I remain grateful for the stories, songs, images, rituals, and liturgies in which I am grounded.  I remain grateful for the widening circles of community in which I find myself.  I remain grateful for the Dominican legacy which stretches around the globe and across a span of over 800 years – a story still being written, a story into which I have entered.   
That autumn afternoon at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, I stood before the enormous champion tree and thanked God for the opportunity to explore the deep roots and wide branches of Dominican life. 
Dominican Family Tree (from Stone convent in Staffordshire, England)