Tag Archive | Catholic sisters

Blessed

The Bellerive bees in winter

The Bellerive bees in winter

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.
Mary Oliver

  • A handwritten letter arrives, bringing me back to an afternoon spent sitting with a nun in San Antonio who has generously become my friend even tough her days are precious, whisps of words carrying her strong spirit.
  • A blue heron flies over a lake at my friend’s new country house.
  • My daughters call, one during the day to invite me to a spontaneous lunch; the other near midnight just because she knows I miss her so.
  • Sadie gives me a sleepy Labrador wag from the sofa.  I dig my fingers into her rough coat and tell her the story of the first dog who comes to the first fire.
  • 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.

    The Lake, Pat Thibodeau

    The Lake, Pat Thibodeau

    How Are You in Your Heart?

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    Several years ago, I traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, with the Incarnate Word Sisters. We touched down in Villahermosa in inky darkness and traveled to the heart of the city where bars were doing a brisk and noisy business. The next morning we traveled by bus up through the clear air of the mountains in Chiapas.

    Our home base was a coffee plantation owned by the Ch’ol Indians. The sisters have been partners in Nich Klum Cafe for decades, working with the tribe to build an international coffee company. During that week I learned the mechanics about growing organic coffee–from seedlings in the greenhouse to beans forming in the fields. That the best coffee was shipped to Europe, the second-best to the United States, and the rest was left for Mexico.

    Gregorio was my guide. He spoke four languages–I speak one. At the start of each day his greeting translated not as “How are you?” but as “How are you in your heart?”

    When people ask “How are you?” the expected answer is “fine” or at the very least “okay.” It is a superficial question.

    “How are you in your heart?” That is a deeper question that places us in relationship.

    Although I don’t say, “How are you in your heart?” I try to keep that question in my mind and read between the lines as I go through the day.

    • How is my friend who lost her husband six months ago really doing?
    • How is my relative who is recuperating from a broken hip at home alone really coping?
    • How is a colleague who has a new supervisor really adjusting?

    And I take an extra few minutes to listen. To see the day through their eyes. To give encouragement, a kind word or an unexpected note in the mail. To be present.

    How are you in your heart?

    I hear their heart and I hear mine.

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    Prayer Flags and the Four Winds: What Is God Telling Us?

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    My friend Pat just sent me a set of her prayer flags. Bright symbols of faith and aspiration are tossed by the four winds in my garden. Each morning the bright colors, symbols and messages catch my attention. They are beautiful and it is easy to not notice the wind itself.

    At the foundation where I work, I often go next door to Sr. Mary Margaret’s office to debrief after a meeting or a phone call. She possesses a tart realism leavened with affection and wisdom; she is an excellent colleague and mentor. Her German practicality is the ideal counterpoint to my Irish intuition.

    There are times when I’ll tell her about a particularly frustrating meeting. Or I may have encountered what appears to be an unjust situation that hurts those who are powerless. Perhaps it is a project that is going awry, a set of policies that actually mitigate against accomplishing the goal.

    When I voice my aggravation and annoyance, Mary Margaret’s response is not to commiserate, but to say, “What is God telling you?”

    My first thought is usually, ‘I don’t really care what God is telling me. What I care about is how bad or wrong this is and how frustrated I am.’

    But later I return to Mary Margaret’s question: What is God telling me using this situation?

    And that question leads to others.

    What is the underlying message that I am missing when I focus on situation itself rather than on what we are working toward?

    How can I stay attuned to what actually needs to be accomplished rather than get mired in negativity?

    What is the other perspective that is present and what is the good to be found in that perspective?

    Where can we turn to move past the obstacle and build consensus around a solution?

    How do I emphasize the inherent value of human relationships rather than get bogged down in being political?

    I take time to feel the wind. Because while it is important to see the prayer flags, it is the wind that makes them flutter and dance.

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    What’s Important Is How We Do It

    Surprise Lilies in the Parkway

    While I was walking this morning, I was reflecting on a quotation from the woman who founded the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

    With God, what we do is less important than how we do it.
    Blessed Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, SSND

    She said those words a century ago, but they speak to my heart today.

    At the Incarnate Word Foundation I see many agencies working to serve those in need. Those of us in the funding world pressure them to show measurable outcomes. We want to know that they are effective in delivering services, that they measure their progress toward goals in quantifiable ways, that they are efficient in their use of resources. In response, agency leaders develop elaborate logic models and hire consultants to create service delivery systems.

    And while good stewardship is necessary and important, the danger in that is an over-emphasis on what is being done rather than how it is being done.

    Are we grounding what we do in compassion, love and respect?

    Are we taking time to listen with our heart?

    Are we walking with them on their journey?

    Do we sit and hold a woman’s hand?

    Do we see the spark of the Divine in each person?

    So often we focus on getting things done, on accomplishments and outcomes. While we may reach every benchmark, we can lose the love and humanity that should be present whenever we are with others.

    Because with God, what we do is less important than how we do it.

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    The Mission Is Within

    photo by Grant Gillard

    photo by Grant Gillard

    The primary nectar flow is in full swing and my bees are single-mindedly going about their work. Some guard the hive, others fetch water from the pond, forage for nectar, alert their comrades to new blooms by dancing on the doorstep. They and their mission are one. The mission is within.

    And I think of Sr. Alice.

    I first met Sr. Alice when she was leading a spirituality and arts center in the congregation’s old dairy barn. Alice is a white-haired wise woman, her features sharp, her eyes kind and laughing. She is a tai chi practitioner, tall and angular, moving effortlessly through the world of spiritual traditions.

    Alice’s white barn housed vibrant art and quiet music where the dairy stalls had been. The soaring beams of the hayloft framed a contemplative sacred space. I loved walking past the tall rosemary bushes into the barn, reflecting upon artists’ visions, listening to Alice as she shared her latest spiritual journey. But then it was gone.

    The sisters’ retirement complex was next door and needed more space. The barn gave way for senior apartments to expand the sisters’ ministry to serve older adults.

    The loss touched my heart. I thought of Alice, the scent of the rosemary and heat bouncing off the Texas sandstone that bordered the barn path, the light coming through the square dairy stall windows. The white barn gave way for a high-rise. I couldn’t imagine how terrible Alice felt about losing that beautiful space.

    A few months later I was in San Antonio on the motherhouse grounds walking behind the retirement center. Suddenly, I saw Alice striding toward me, tall and slender in a red shirt and denim skirt. I hurried toward her and blurted out my concern for her and the loss of the barn.

    She just smiled. Then she said that she was fine.

    The barn was just a place, albeit a beautiful place, but a place all the same. She had been given an office in the retirement center and was carrying out the mission in a new way that she called Chispas, or sparks, for the sparks of the divine that are in each of us.

    Alice explained that the mission is within her. The place is unimportant because she carries the mission within wherever she is. The mission manifests itself in whatever she is doing.

    I have thought about that conversation with Alice many times. So often we get caught up in the need to possess something, whether it be a place, a project, our job or another person. To varying degrees these things are necessary for us, but they do not define us.

    Each of us has a mission.

    The bees currently live in a hive box in my yard, but they could swarm and move to a hollow sycamore tree or rotted building eaves. The bees would construct new comb, rebuild the honey stores.

    We carry the mission within.

    Quiet Leadership

    photo by Taline Manassian

    photo by Taline Manassian

    We had a day of silence while at Aldermarsh for the PeerSpirit writing workshop. I didn’t know how that would work for me. Life is loud. We are always talking, sometimes all at once, pushing our points of view. But this is a space where cell phones don’t work.

    Rather than stare at the wall or cheat by getting on the internet, I took a walk.

    In my work at the Incarnate Word Foundation, we are called to the table many times. Board meetings, committee discussions, agency collaboratives and community workgroups–all of these require leadership, and there as many leadership styles as there are leaders. But should leadership be equated with whomever has the loudest voice, or who convened the meeting, or who has the most community standing?

    Sometimes the most effective leadership style is quiet.

    Sr. Mary was the foundation’s Board chair for nine years. During that time she practiced what I have come to think of as quiet leadership. The fundamentals are simple:

    Listen to the ideas of others before you speak.

    Don’t become consumed with anxiety about getting your idea out on the table.

    Focus on making the outcome one that incorporates the best thinking of the group rather than furthering a personal agenda.

    Stay calm and respect the integrity of each person involved in the discussion.

    Speak quietly.

    When I began walking the woods at Aldermarsh, I started in aimless silence only to become aware of murmuring sounds at every turn, leading me down the path and through the labyrinth.

    Photo by Taline Manassian

    Photo by Taline Manassian

    The Power of Being Present

    Alley Springs MO

    An essential part of living Incarnational spirituality is the power of presence. Very seldom are we truly present to others and to ourselves. We live in a constant state of distraction.

    Technology brings the work world home and we take pride in being accessible 24-7. Vacations are merely working in another locale as laptops and i-phones keep us connected to the office, but at the cost of being connected to our families, friends, and ourselves. Multi-tasking interferes with our ability to focus on the task at hand. In meetings, it is increasingly rare to have anyone’s full attention.

    Recently, I went to a meeting where a philanthropist was talking about her foundation’s work in urban neighborhoods. At the end of her remarks, she asked for questions, and then proceeded to use her Blackberry while simultaneously answering our questions. My suspicion is her texts and tweets are about as trivial for the most part as those that I receive. But what I know for certain is how little value she placed on the conversation at that table that day.

    The Power of Being Present

    I still remember the first time I experienced the power of presence. I had come to San Antonio to check in with the Congregation and stopped by Sr. Helena Monahan’s office. She was in leadership at that time and her days were spent overseeing the work of a religious order of more than 300 women, traveling to the new missions in Zambia, or working with the University of the Incarnate Word where she was the university’s attorney—her commitments were many.

    When I walked through the door, I immediately began our conversation by telling her that I was sorry to interrupt and that I would only need a few minutes to bring her up-to-date on what we were doing in St. Louis.

    Her response was to come around the desk, sit down across from me and say, “I am here for you. Take the time the time that you need.“

    There is a power in that moment when someone sets everything aside and focuses on what another person has to say. It creates a relationship.

    Presence and Incarnational Spirituality

    Recently, Helena shared her thoughts on how presence and relationship are essential and stem from Incarnational spirituality.

    The divine is in every person. If I put somebody off or don’t take advantage of being with that person, then I have really missed something of that person, of God and of just the experience of living. I try to live that out because it makes life calmer as every moment becomes important.

    Sometimes it is challenging to do this when you are with someone that you totally disagree with on important issues. You may just want to scream. That’s the time to step back from your anger and realize this is a human being who has the same reasoning powers and decision-making powers and somehow they’ve come to a different conclusion. I don’t have to agree with them and I can challenge them to the best of my ability and not become emotional. This is a huge discipline.

    Recently I’ve been reading and reflecting on Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh which discusses how the tenets of the two faiths are very much alike. A key premise, and I do think it is valid, is that all of life is a continuum.

    There is a ‘before I was born’ and there is ‘my life’ and there’s going to be ‘whatever happens after I die’ but really it’s all a continuum. That takes away fear and helps you live in the present moment without worrying about what is going to happen.

    It’s very enriching and incarnational since ‘In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.’ The Word will always be. Whatever God is and whatever the Word is – the expression of God – that is what we are trying to live and that is in every person. So that is where I am.