of compassion learned through discouragement

Leyroy windows w dead vines

About three years after my first vows I hit a low-point in my vocation. I’d made it through seven years of training and early experience as a religious sister. On the one hand, I’d navigated a culture change from American teenager to vowed religious sister sustained by a genuine delight at finding myself in a place that simply felt right on so many levels. The more I learned about, and experienced the life of a Daughter of St. Paul, the more it resonated with something deep within my mind and heart. On the other hand—oy vey!—it was tough. Not so much the surface things such as how I ran up the stairs (no more taking them two steps at a time), but rather the more subtle discoveries. I’d never been so challenged to see beyond what turned out to be my surface self-interests, and to reach instead for genuine agape love.

Then after taking vows, I was stationed along with another junior sister in a small community made up of six sisters who evangelized both through our Pauline Book & Media center and through parish visitations. As the months in this first assignment as a newbie-nun unfolded, I found myself broadsided again and again by an older sister who had an uncanny ability to embarrass me before others. I was still learning how to interact with the general public in the setting of our ministry. She let me flounder, and then berated me for my faux pas in front of whoever happened to be around. In the same community we had two emotionally needy sisters. At the time I just wrote it off as two bad cases of midlife crisis—bad enough to land one of them in the psychiatric unit of a nearby hospital. One of these two religious left the community in those years; the other one soldiers on to this day. In the midst of it all, the term of our local superior finished. She had been a wise and compassionate woman who helped me navigate the vagaries of community life. Her replacement seemed anxious to make sure that the two of us juniors “got it right.” I managed to mostly get it wrong—or so it felt. Between one thing and another, I fell into a funk.

Looking back at that experience in the first half of my twenties, I realize that I was young, very young. It was my first sustained experience of vocational discouragement. The life that I had dreamed of—being a religious sister—was not turning out to be what I’d expected. Oh yes, I knew all along that things weren’t going to be rosy. Of course I expected my share of the cross. But I hadn’t thought it would come in that form. I hadn’t banked on living with the demons of others in community. It opened up a window into the chaos that can sometimes lurk in the heart of the well-intentioned. It frightened me.

In the midst of this Lenten season of my life, the collected poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins fell into my hands. Hopkins’ terrible sonnets voiced exactly how I felt at the time:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

In the end, I believe that Hopkins gave me the words and images to work through my own discouragement, to the point where I learned to have compassion on both self and neighbor.

+ + +

“Son though he was he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).

Lent is an uncomfortable season. The suffering and sacrifice of Lent isn’t the point of this season, it’s the learning obedience part of Jesus example. Not obedience as in slavish fulfillment of duties; check of the boxes; jump through the hoops… No, we’re talking about obedience in the sense of active listening to God.

Lent is the time to learn the art of mindful attention to what God is saying to me/us right here, right now. The point of the classic triad of practices: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer is to let the extra things drop away, to the point where one is not carried away by alternating currents of self-satisfaction, anxiety, indulgence, or that pleasure which comes at the expense of others. Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer teach us to deny our first-impulses of self-interest in order to see and hear what we’d otherwise miss.

Pay attention to what God is doing here and now eventually means coming to grips with the passion played out in our midst. It means finding Jesus in his wounds and woundedness. It means living into a life of active compassion for self and neighbor.

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable…

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.


Two excerpted poems taken from: Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956

Photo by Leyroy

spend some time before Jesus

st t cross in chapel

In a time of intense difficulty in the period following the foundation of the Pauline Family, Blessed James Alberione had what he later called a dream. It came in answer to his prayer and self examination in the face of setbacks. In this dream Alberione heard Jesus telling him: Do not be afraid. I am with you. From here I will cast light. Live with a penitent heart. When he described this prayer experience to his spiritual director, the latter told him: “Be serene. Dream or otherwise, what was said is holy. Make it a practical program of life and light for yourself and for all the members” (Abundantes, 154).

The words in various translations of the Latin original appear in all of the chapels of the Pauline Family. Since the words were “heard” in a dream, I often wonder if we do ourselves a disservice to think of them as distinct phrases separated by punctuation or line breaks. In the following guided examination of conscience I’ve taken the liberty to play with these elements.

Do not be afraid … of your failings, or the failings in the world around you.
+      Even if I cannot put it into words or understand it myself, can I bring my deep-down uneasiness before God?

Do not be afraid I am with you … you are not alone, I am with you. I AM.  I am faithful.
+      Do I work out difficulties on my own, or with everyone else but God?

I am with you from here … Here in the Eucharist I am your nourishment & your source. Here in this community which I form around this altar—I am with you here.
+      Jesus is with me here—but where am I? Am I here, or am I stuck in the past, or living in the future?

From here I want to enlighten … I am your light and I want to use you to enlighten others.
+      Do my words and actions reveal Jesus or do I obscure his compassion, his truth?

I want to enlighten, live with a penitent heart … Let my example challenge you in your inmost heart. Always live in an ongoing conversion.
+      Am I honestly trying to live the way Jesus lives? Where do I fall short?

Live with a penitent heart, do not be afraid … do not be afraid to acknowledge sin and darkness – atone for it.
+      Do I bring the failures of the world before God in prayer?
+      Do I bring my own sins to the Sacrament of Reconciliation regularly?

 


Photo credit: Sean Mayer

love is faithful, and yet it is also completely unpredictable

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This past week my religious congregation, the Daughters of St. Paul, officially closed the centenary year of our foundation. We are one of ten religious institutes of the Pauline Family all founded in the the Twentieth century by Blessed James Alberione (1884-1971). What started as an experience of enlightenment from the Eucharistic Lord during a night of prayer in 1900, grew to a family of religious and consecrated persons dedicated to using the new means of communication and apostolate to proclaim Christ Jesus. Today our institutes make sense, but in those first decades, Alberione’s vision of “writers, technicians, and evangelizers, who were also men and women religious” [1] seemed quite radical.

Tecla-0022Our co founder Venerable Thecla Merlo (1894-1964; seated to the left) along with the first sisters drew the ire of some and the ridicule of others for behavior that was audacious for women to undertake in the 1920s—behavior that was deemed completely unsuitable for women religious at that time. In the early days we wrote diocesan newspaper columns, ran printing presses, sewed books together (literally), and then sold them door-to-door and in bookshops. Was it novel? For the times, yes. Was it faithful to tradition? Yes. Was it an undertaking inspired by deep love? Absolutely! Our first sisters were responding a need of their time, which continues to have relevance today. And yet even within our community the pull to remain faithful to the charism means that  we have had to shift our initial self-understanding from being apostles of the good press to being evangelizers in the world of communications media.

The whole long history of religious life in the Church is a story of communities of disciples responding in love to the needs of their time and place. Did Anthony of Egypt think he was doing something new when he decamped to the desert? Who knows! In a sense he was innovating, and yet in another sense he was searching for that completely self-outpouring response to the Gospel which he believed that the Church had lost in a post Edict of Milan Empire where asking for baptism was becoming politically expedient, and martyrdom was less and less likely. I think of the many attempts to found groups of religious women that were not bound by cloister. Was Jane Frances de Chantal attempting something new? Yes as far as the ecclesiastical authorities were concerned; no in terms of fidelity to the Church’s commitment to the works of mercy.

Love is faithful, and yet it is also completely unpredictable. Love is the foundation of all that is true and good, and at the same time deep love is profoundly unsettling.

Love communicates. In the face of new circumstances, love finds a way to keep on loving.

“Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” —1 John 2:7-8

 

[1] James Alberione, Abundantes Divitiae: Charismatic History of the Pauline Family, 45


Photo credits: MediaApostle.com and Daughters of St. Paul archives

conversion—grace at work in the community

Baptism_of_St_Paul_-_Capela_Palatina_-_Palermo_-_Italy_2015

The Lord said to Ananias, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying. …Go for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.”

—Acts 9:11,15

The Acts of the Apostles narrates the conversion of St. Paul three separate times (in chapters 9, 22, and 26), which means that it is more than just an interesting story. Saul’s conversion had a huge impact on the early church, and the writer of the Acts of the Apostles wanted everyone to hear this story several times so that the message would sink in. This conversion story still has a huge impact on us today. Among other things it tells us that reaching out beyond our comfort zone is what Christians are called to do. It highlights the primacy of God’s grace in our lives, and at the same it showcases the fact that grace works through the members of the community.

When Ananias worked up the nerve to follow God’s instructions to go to the house of Judas and ask for Saul of Tarsus, he reached out to someone who until a few hours before posed a real threat to Ananias and his fellow Christians. At the same time, this Jew born and raised in the Roman city of Tarsus, educated in Jerusalem, was a real catch for the Christian community. Because of his background and education, Saul was perfectly positioned to bridge the cultural divides present in the first century Mediterranean world. Without losing his Jewish identity, Saul became a Christian and took the name Paul. He answered the summons to preach Jesus Christ “before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” But all of that would not have happened if Ananias had not been in an attentive conversation with the Lord in prayer. Each conversation with God in prayer, and each conversation we have with others about God, is an opportunity for grace to build bridges between us.

Saul’s conversion came about because God intervened powerfully in his life. But it was not a simple matter between Jesus and Paul. God’s grace involved Ananias and the other disciples in Damascus; and then it involved Timothy, Titus, Priscilla and Aquila, and countless others. God’s grace sparks a conversation that spans generations until it reaches us. It is a conversation that changes hearts and lives.


Photo: Baptism of St. Paul, Capella Palatina, Palermo Italy (cropped)  © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro  / CC-BY-SA-4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

feasting, fasting, food & faith

roscasmall03

Earlier this month one of my co-workers brought Rosca de Reyes (the Mexican version of King Cake) to the Pauline book store where I work. The three of us who were there that morning shared a piece before we opened up the day. As I bit into my slice, my tooth glanced off a hard plastic surface. The Mexicans, like the French descendants in New Orleans, hide a small “Christ child” figurine in the loaf. I got the baby, which means that I get to host the next feast day. Fine by me—let the cooking begin!

Oh the many layered connections between food and faith. Whether it is a home cooked meal, a bit of store-bought pastry, or the ritual elements of bread and wine—food is often the setting for faith conversations. Think of all of the Gospel stories about Jesus eating with disciples, the sinners, multiplying loaves and fishes, etc. Even today’s Gospel from Mark centers around fasting, food, and wine.

Sometimes I feel that those of us who work in religious publishing and communications are like chefs who curate a magnificent banquet. At its core this feast is the fruit of God’s gracious abundance. Our Father is the master chef. As each person joins the table, they enter into fellowship with God as well as with everyone else who is there. Both food and faith provide nourishment, occasion celebration, build community, and sustain life.

Let the feasting continue!


Photo by Thelmadatter (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

baptism—entry into a relationship

Greg Becker ocean

When I entered the convent in 1980, my religious community had the practice of reciting a chaplet immediately following the Benedicamos Domino wake up call. The designated postulant (we took turns by room) was supposed to spring out of bed, stand in the hallway, and lead a prayer which consisted of five decades of a call: “Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus—” to which we all responded: “—make us saints;” each decade was separated by the traditional “Glory be… .” The whole prayer wrapped up with a few more invocations for vocations, and by this point everyone in that dorm area was supposed to be ready to head down to chapel together. Practically speaking it was bedlam, with everyone vying with each other for time in the common bathroom area, and trying to master the art of rapid but perfect bed-making. In the chaos, the voice of the prayer leader would get muffled, and inevitably someone would respond “make us saints” at the same time that everyone else was saying “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.”

Over time I grew to appreciate that ‘prayer’: make us saints—as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be. Christian community is like that. We make each other saints. We always have.

Of course it is more theologically accurate to say that community is a privileged place for us to actively participate in the faithful love of God which marks our life as holy.

Baptism brings each member of the church into a relationship with God as a member of God’s people. We enter, as it were, into a grand conversation with God, and with others about a God who reveals God’s self to us.

Conversation only comes about when someone dares to cross the open spaces that separate one person from another. The miracle of divine revelation is that God crosses infinite boundaries in order communicate with us. As each one of us and all of us together reciprocate this communication (and in so doing, live into the reality of our Baptism) the Word becomes en-fleshed in our choices, words and gestures, pauses, etc. It is the mystery of grace at work in and through our life.


photo credit: Greg Becker

epiphany

Thomas Lefebvre Grand Central

When the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, what did they see? A refugee couple with their infant boy – hardly an impressive sight.

Which is more of a miracle: that the wise men found Jesus, Mary and Joseph, or that they were able to recognize this newborn as the fulfillment of their quest?

Epiphany
noun   |   epiph·a·ny    |   \i-ˈpi-fə-nē\
:  an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being

Excerpts from “epiphany” at Merriam-Webster.com

What was hidden is now revealed (although it is still hidden). How very much like ordinary conversations with friends, acquaintances, and family! Even when we attempt to be as open and sincere, our words and gestures conceal as much as they reveal.

God takes on flesh in Jesus Christ in order to reveal the Father’s love for all creation. He longs for our response. He wants to enter into conversation with each and every one of us – and all of us together. Epiphany continues as each baptized person bears witness by word and deed to the presence of God in their life.

Which is more of a miracle? That I recognize Jesus in the people around me, or that they recognize him in me?


Photo credit: Thomas Lefebvre

introductions

Hello I’m Sean.

@srseanm on WordPress, Twitter, and Instagram.

I’m a member of the North American province of the Daughters of St. Paul, a group of religious sisters who work with the media. On various social media sites my sisters and I use the hashtag #MediaNun. (So I’m a bit cheeky in swiping that phrase for my blog address.)

My mission-field right now is in the heart of the city – New York City to be exact. I’m the local superior of our convent here, and I work in our Pauline Book and Media book store in midtown. It’s an adventure!

Why this blog?

The Good News is just that—good news. God’s grand story of salvation makes a difference in life. In a sense, the experience of faith is a conversation we have with God and about God. And like all good conversations, it often takes place in the context of a meal. So here’s to good news, good food, and good conversation!