Thought of the beauty of Hildegard of Bingen’s words when I was walking in Tower Grove Park today by the lotus ponds.
About a decade ago, I started interviewing Incarnate Word Sisters to capture their unique perspectives and wisdom with the idea of writing a memoir. In May 2020, Blue Hole Wisdom: My Journey with the Sisters, will be available in paperback and e-book formats. A Spanish translation will be published in June 2020. I’ll be adding information about book signings as well as a link for ordering the book in April.
When I tell people I work with the Sisters, people are intrigued. What are they like? Who are these mysterious women in a time when sisters are fewer and far between, no longer instantly recognized by their unusual dress. They seem so different – set apart.
In this memoir of connection and common humanity, Bridget McDermott Flood reflects on the women behind the mystery and souls once veiled by habits, uncovering the wisdom, wit, and the indomitable spirits that have formed the charism of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word.
In a series of reflections, remarkable women come to life, illustrating the presence of the divine in the ordinary and extraordinary missions each sister has undertaken. Their stories form the heart of Blue Hole Wisdom.
From their traditional work in hospitals and schools to outreach among AIDs patients in Zambia and hospices in Peru, these women have garnered the wisdom that comes from decades dedicated to facing life’s greatest challenges not as passive observers, but as active agents of the change they wish to see in the world.
Flood welcomes readers on a journey of self-discovery, reflection, and connection across time and space. Beginning with her earliest relationships with the Sisters and the difficult journey of the first Sisters from France to the arid shores of nineteenth century Texas, Blue Hole Wisdom traverses the globe, following the Sisters and Flood as they navigate an evolving spiritual landscape and deepening bonds of fellowship.
Each story centers on a theme that applies to a reader’s daily life and spiritual growth. As a touching spirituality memoir, Blue Hole Wisdom draws upon the Sisters’ humor and ability to cultivate joy in those with whom they connect to drive home the necessity of embracing their frontier charism. Flood and the Sisters discover the answers to the question, “How are you in your heart?” among Ch’ol communities in Chiapas, Mexico. They create spaces for creativity to flourish and foster healing among live oaks and cypress trees around the book’s namesake watering hole.
Through trials and tense moments as the Sisters engage with Vatican investigators, concerned about the ways orders of women religious in the United States adhere to Church teaching and direction, Blue Hole Wisdom considers how the Sisters’ spirituality and call continues to evolve to meet 21st century challenges. This is particularly pertinent as lay individuals find themselves drawn to the spirituality of Catholic Sisters and the resurgence of interest in Catholic women religious and their place in the twenty-first century. In moments of jubilee and sorrow, Flood and the Sisters continue to pursue their paths, not always knowing the destination but bringing readers along on the quest for peace and fulfillment.
Blue Hole Wisdom combines vivid storytelling with deep faith, inviting readers to consider the ways in which the Sisters can serve as touchstones for how to live out one’s vocation, to relate to others, and to follow God’s call with passion, certainty, and grace.
cover art by Carolyn Flood Hellmich
Recently, as part of the Incarnate Word Foundation’s Project RECON, I was privileged to be present at a talk by Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ. I wanted to share highlights from his remarks.
Fr. Boyle: I am closer to God when I am with the people at our place.
What brings you out tonight is not me, but a ongoing need for an alignment to bring us to the dream of relationship. In the end it is about being in union with one another. We hope the day will come when we stop we throwing people away. No kinship no peace, no kinship no equality. The only way that makes sense is if we anchor ourself in the God who loves us without regret. St. Ignatius says we want to know that God is always greater, and so how do we arrive at that God.
One of the homies was reading a Psalm, and he said ‘The Lord is exhausted.’ Not exalted. I remember thinking at the time that is way better. I like the exhausted God, rather than a God who wants to spend eternity being exalted. It’s good to be exhausted if you are helping other human beings. It’s a good tired. That’s the God we actually have. A God who is loving you.
The God we settle for is a partial God. We always need to be on the look out for the God we actually have, not the God we settle for. When Dylan Roof killed those people in a Charleston church, a week later those families sat in his presence and said, ‘We forgive you.’ That is the God we actually have. But nine months later we settled for the partial God with the death penalty.
We can feel the tender glance of God and then exhaust ourselves in extending that glance to others. The depth of the God we actually have is this exhausted God who is inviting us to the margins to create a kinship with those who are out there. That is the God we know in the deepest part of us. We know that God only wants for us, not from us. We don’t have to measure up, we don’t have to perform. In asking us to create a community of kinship, God is not asking something from us, because it is in that community that the joy is. The joy for us.
I was talking to Whoopi Goldberg, and she said, ‘That Pope Francis, he’s going for the original program.’ What does that say? We all know what the original program is. We know this. It is the God we actually have. We want this. It’s what Jesus wanted.
- Compassionate loving kindness
That’s the regular program. We want to role up our sleeves and be in kinship. It’s about exquisite mutuality, about relationship.
I was in the car with Manuel and he is texting with Snoopy. I realized that Manuel and Snoopy are from rival gangs. They used to shoot bullets but now they are shooting texts. They are in kinship.
In our services at Homeboy, we want to align ourselves with that, with the original program. Service is the hallway that gets you to the ballroom, where there is the exclusive mutuality of joy, kinship. God doesn’t want anything from us. God just wants us to be in that ballroom. When it stops at service, there’s a barrier—the service providers and the service recipients. But truth be told all of us are in need of healing. It is one of those things that join us together as a human family.
Dreamer is a super smart kid. He’s very intelligent though I don’t recall that he every went to school. He is in his 40s now and is doing well. But in his 20s he was a yo-yo, in and out of jail. I’d find him jobs, but he’d find himself eventually doing things of vague criminality. And then he’d wander back. He cam back after 4 months in jail and then he said this time it will be different.
So I called Gary at the vending machine place and he said Dreamer could start tomorrow. Two weeks later Dreamer is at my desk again waving his paycheck. He said, “Damn G, this paycheck makes me feel proper. My mom is proud, and my kids aren’t ashamed. And you know who I have thank for this job? God.”
He could tell I thought he was going to say, ‘You, Fr. Greg.’ And he said, “It’s a good thing we aren’t living in Genesis times because God would have struck your ass with lightning.” The two of us fell out of our chairs we were laughing so hard. And I defy you to say who is the service provider and who is the recipient. It’s mutual.
Homeboy started as a bakery. Then we started Homeboy Tortillas. We changed our name to Homeboy Industries. And things grow and evolve. We are the largest gang recently program in the world. We serve 55,000 individuals a year. There are 11,000 gangs in LA. We are healing people. Healing is what it’s about. They come with chromic toxic stress strapped to their backs, and they need relief otherwise they are living for survival. They find sanctuary with us, and then they go home and are a sanctuary for their kids. We promote kinship.
Diane Keaton comes into the Homegirl Cafe. Diane asks what the waitress, a former gang member, would recommend and the waitress responds with three things she likes. Then she says, ‘I think we have met somewhere. I think I know you.’ And Diane says, ‘Oh, I have a face that people just think they recognize.’ Then the waitress says, ‘No, I’ve got it. We were in prison together!’ Oscar winning actress. Attitudinal waitress. I don’t want anything from you. It’s kinship. That quenches God’s thirst.
Go to the margins. As I have loved you, so must you have a special referential love for the widow, orphan and stranger. These are folks who know what it is like to be cut off and because they have been cut off in this way God thinks they can lead us to the kinship of God. They are guides and we follow. You are not called to the margins to rescue someone. When we go out there, we all find rescue. The measure of compassion is not in our service to those on the margins, but in our ability to see our kinship with them. The folks at the margins are our trustworthy guides to get us to the community of kinship that is God’s dream come true.
A woman asked me once, “How much time do you spend at Homeboy actually praising God?” And my answer was, “All damn day.”
Tattoos on the Heart, Gregory Boyle, SJ
Barking at the Choir, Gregory Boyle, SJ
To learn more about RECON: Framing a New Public Discourse, an initiative of the Incarnate Word Foundation, please see our website, http://www.stlrecon.org #RECONSTL
At the end of the year I had a business trip to Washington. The trip did not begin well. Lost luggage led to a hotel with no room ready. All I wanted to do was crash. The hotel lobby–hard sterile white marble walls, glass and chrome furnishings, black and white photographs, very uncomfortable chairs–propelled me out of the hotel and to the museum.
A brisk walk through crisp winter air brought me to the echoing limestone lobby. I was feeling a bit more like myself when the docent stopped me as I tried to brush past. Even though I had been to the museum many times common courtesy kicked in when she caught me at the information desk. And that’s when I heard that four Vermeers were in a small gallery on the first floor.
I made my way to the small gallery where visitors were taking selfies with the main attraction, a Vermeer from Amsterdam. Somewhat overlooked on an adjacent wall hung Woman Holding a Balance. At first glance, I was puzzled since it seemed like the woman was contemplating something unseen. It was only after reading the caption that I took a closer look and saw the delicate whisper-thin balance at perfect equilibrium, held by a woman ignoring the pearls and jewels tumbling out of the chest on the table.
I spent a few hours in the museum that afternoon and revisited the Woman Holding a Balance several times interspersed with intervals of reflection on benches in the neighboring galleries.
- How do I find balance in my life?
- What distractions should I look past?
- Can I learn to pull back?
- When will I achieve equilibrium?
I learned later that the painting is sometimes called Woman Testing a Balance.
That I understand.
My windowsill is filled with orchids. The challenge is getting them to bloom. In February I watch for the first signs, small green stubs that grow into willowy stalks with nodding lanterns that will unfold into the aptly named moth orchids.
I’m not organized enough to have proper labels on the pots and in late winter I wait for the buds to reveal the secret of their colors. Green velvet speckled with carmine, purple merlots, yellow-throated white ermine. All are eagerly anticipated.
But then a stalk was broken. The buds had barely unfurled. Someone had carelessly brushed it aside. I hadn’t noticed the stem hanging by a thread and I debated–should I snip it off or leave it dangling? In either case the buds were withering. The next day I clipped it off, put it in a vase, and threw it away a few days later.
Our relationships can be broken. We can be careless and may not notice the brokenness until the relationship withers. The relationship is discarded.
Not too long ago, I received a call from someone I hadn’t heard from in many years. Our relationship had ended on a sour note a decade before. She had taken a chance in calling me and I took a chance in meeting her for coffee. We talked about our families, our art work, what new paths we were taking. A fresh start.
What opportunities come my way to rekindle a relationship?
How do I take a risk and begin anew?
Am I missing opportunities to reconnect?
Several months later when the orchids are dormant, a new shoot appears. The damaged orchid flowers prolifically, with perfect flowers of Naples yellow dancing on the window ledge.
When nurtured, broken relationships can bloom again.
This past week I spent at the beach reconnecting with my soul. The world had worn me down with unrelenting bad news. Inexorable waves of violence, bigotry, broken lives and relationships slapped me, rushing out from the screen; social media spawned the undertow.
One evening I stood on the quiet balcony looking out into the darkness. My daughter had told me the waves were astronomically high because the moon was so close.
All I knew was that I was spent.
I searched for the moon but saw only the faintest blush behind the clouds. The ocean was pitch dark and blended with the sky, only known to me by a deep rumbling cascade and faint whitecaps.
Overwhelmed, it was time to reconnect with my soul. Time to be guided by what I held to be most true.
- What must guide me is the fundamental dignity of each person. The certainty that within us all is a spark of the divine. A spark that may flicker, be hidden, but remains deep within each of us.
- What must inform me is the knowledge others possess as well as what I might know. An openness that wisdom can come surprising ways.
- What I must recognize and accept is brokenness; the failings, pain and weakness of all of us. That the path to healing runs through each person I meet. That I cannot do it alone. It is through relationships that we are made whole.
- What must motivate my actions is open compassion. Compassion in each conversation. Compassion without judgment.
A clear full moon broke through the clouds, scattering a path of diamond drops across the waves. When faced with astronomically high waves, reconnect with the soul.
It had been a challenging week. An in-box boiling over with hundreds of messages. Frustrating meetings followed by meetings about the frustrating meetings. Everyone was rushing to tie up all of the loose ends before the holiday break and the the internal alarm clock rang–time to close the office a few hours early so that everyone could step back and unwind for Easter.
As I stepped off of the elevator after lunch to pick up a few things I was still multi-tasking, juggling loose papers from the car, an open purse, a trailing shawl and a ringing cell phone. It was my friend, Elizabeth. I was struggling down the dimly lit corridor toward the office while answering the phone, when I saw someone standing at the end of the hall outside the office–it was Elizabeth calling to see where everyone was.
She had taken time from her busy day to stop by the office with a gift, a beautiful basket of yarn that she had purchased at a fundraising event in Minneapolis. The rich garnet and woodsy teal mohair skeins were a soft nest for carefree turquoise cotton. And in the middle of all of it, sleek number ten wooden needles with a rainbow grain. I was already thinking of the relaxing knitting that was ahead.
My gratitude was not only for the simple gift, but for the joy of being remembered by a good friend.
- How can I be a gift to my friends?
- Can I take time to make a small gesture that can turn around a day for someone who is juggling work and family responsibilities?
- What really matters in the long run?
A simple gift.
I thought the day could not be better until I sorted through the mail at home. Amidst the fliers for gutter repair and the electric bill I found a colorful card from my friend, Pat, and a small packet of Mexican sunflower seeds. We had each grown them the previous year in our gardens and she had taken time to track down the seeds and send those to me.
A simple gift that brought back memories of swallowtail butterflies and the promise of lazy summer days. No multi-tasking allowed.
a presentation to Women’s Voices of St. Louis
March 13, 2014
In the weeks leading up to my trip to Zambia with Women’s Global Connection, I was excited about my upcoming trip to do workshops on micro-lending and fundraising in Mongu. And then the day of departure actually arrived and I realized that I had no idea what I was doing. While development workshops were something I could do in my sleep, what I knew of micro-lending was strictly out of a book. With fifty pounds of navy blue uniform shorts in my suitcase, a backpack of protein bars and cheese crackers, and a small carry-on, I took the 18 hour flight to Lusaka.
The next day we departed on an eight hour bus ride through the baking bushlands on roads that looked like rolled cookie dough with ragged edges overtaking the dry beige dust. Waves of dry heat distorted the sparse trees in the distance.
The OK Restaurant greeted us upon our arrival in Mongu. Entrepreneurs were everywhere–setting up shop in little corrugated buildings of ultramarine, orange, scarlet and grass green selling wood block stamped fabrics, bottled drinks, hard boiled eggs on sticks.
I was prepared, powerpoint presentation in hand, to present a workshop the next day to a group of Lotsi tribeswomen so that they could begin their micro-lending circle. The women arrived in brightly batiked dresses. One woman had lost her home to a fire in the past week. Many had seen family members die from AIDS. All lived with limited means. Despite this, the women were happy and optimistic. They had recently formed a rice collaborative to capitalize on the high demand for the famed iron-rich rice of the western province and had been given land to farm by the tribe. That was a big step.
We sat to begin our circle. They spoke Lotsi–I spoke English. The handouts made great scrap paper. Sennana, an Oxford-educated princess of the Lotsi tribe, served as an able translator and I discarded my presentation and started with questions:
Why did they want to create a micro-lending circle?
What could the funds be used for and what projects were outside the circle?
Who could participate?
What was the amount for a loan?
How long could you take to pay it back, and what was the interest?
The women had their own circle process. For each question they would start at a different point in the circle. The reason for micro-lending was simple. They wanted to start businesses–that should have been obvious to me given that the entire town was given over to small entrepreneurs. Funds could be used for micro-enterprises, for their children’s education fees, for funerals, but not for bottle–liquor–stores.
They quickly settled on loan terms and interest rates. Actually they were so efficient that they completed the micro-lending design in the morning and took the afternoon to develop a business plan for their rice business.
And then they danced.
When I returned to St. Louis I was determined to bring the micro-lending concept here. The Incarnate Word Foundation provided $5,000 in seed money to each bank. Women came together at Midtown Catholic Community Services, Haven of Grace, Let’s Start and East Side Heart and Home to begin their own circles.
There were no rules. Each group developed their own lending policies, repayment plans and interest rates. Most of the banks have interest rates that hover at about 5%. Usually loans are for no more than $500 and can be used not only to start a micro-business, but also to buy an appliance, provide a down payment on an apartment, or repair a car.
A partnership with the St. Louis Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) took the micro-lending circles to a new level. After an initial grant form the Incarnate Word Foundation the NCJW took the micro-lending circles to a new level by providing a mentoring component and focusing on women had suffered from domestic violence or limited economic opportunity. In two years they have expanded to five Helping Heart Banks serving women connected to Lydia’s House, Safe Connections, ROW, and the YWCA. Their efforts have also expanded to credit repair as they link women who are paying their loans back with the Credit Builder’s Network so that the women are able to repair their credit scores.
Banks like the Women’s Helping Hands Bank continue to make loans based on a “face check” not a credit check. That particular group has gone on to develop a cooperative farmers market, City Greens, as well as a matched saving program for neighborhood youth. The bankers of Women’s Helping Hands Bank have not only developed a handbook on micro-lending but also presented at Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington. That trip was a highlight not only for them, but also for me as I sat and listened to them tell other leaders how they had started a micro-lending circle that had blossomed into other enterprises.
What does it all mean?
For me the most important outcomes from micro-lending aren’t repayment rates or bank assets. What really matters is empowerment.
Each bank begins with the women themselves. They set the agenda. Their opinions are the ones that matter. After years and sometimes decades of being told what to do they are now the decision-makers. In one instance the women began by saying that they couldn’t do it–they didn’t feel they had the education or ability. But inspired by the example of the Lotsi women, they went ahead and did it anyway. No one stepped in to do it for them; instead other women walked with them to reassure, encourage and celebrate.
The affirmation that the women bankers and clients experience is the heart of each bank.
What does it feel like to finally be able to make decisions?
When does apprehension evolve into trust?
How does empowerment change our relationships with our children?
How does empowerment change how we see ourselves and the world?
I went to Mongu to teach women about micro-lending and the women of Mongu and St. Louis ended up teaching me.
Midwest winters can be hard. The last bit of green obliterated by the snow. The beauty of snow riddled with soot deteriorating into slush. Fierce nights. As I glance out window as temperatures hover around zero I see the bee hives buried in snow. All during the fall I had chastised myself for not getting around to taking the honey from the hives and now I hope that might be a saving grace.
The weather mirrors my life as I find myself in the role of caregiver while a family member recovers from surgery. Even though I know this will pass, patience is increasingly in short supply. Daylight is limited, but it is time to take a moment to see.
Sometimes I need only stand wherever I am to be blessed.
I pick up my knitting.
Sometimes I need only stand wherever I am to be blessed.
The next day the weather breaks and temperatures skyrocket to the 50s. And the Bellerive bees miraculously appear flying in and out of the hive.