Tag Archive | sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word

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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    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.

    Women’s Leadership: Integrating the spiritual and professional dimensions of our lives

    Sr. Mary Pezold, Bridget Flood, Sr. Annette Pezold, Nancy Hawes, and Sr, Helen Ann Collier

    Sr. Mary Pezold, Bridget Flood, Sr. Annette Pezold, Nancy Hawes, and Sr, Helen Ann Collier

    I was privileged to speak at the Women’s Leadership Lunch sponsored by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Central Pacific Province. Here is what I shared with them.

    Women’s Leadership: Integrating the spiritual and professional dimensions of our lives

    Good afternoon and thank you all for coming. I always love coming back to Notre Dame where almost all of the women in my family went to school. The foundation has had many meetings here at Maria Center, and I keep thinking that any minute my daughter Carolyn will pop into the back of the room wearing a uniform skirt that had definitely seen better days with her shirttail out, picking up trays of food to take to the art room. But she lives in Nashville now.

    I want to thank the School Sisters of Notre Dame for inviting me to be a part of this today—looking out I see so many leaders from our community. I think about the women leaders who have blazed the path for all us of like my mentor, the late Sr. Mary Ann Eckhoff, SSND and current leaders in our community like the women from Let’s Start, and the future leaders like my daughter, Amelia. It is just wonderful to be back here at Notre Dame where my leadership journey began.

    So much of what I have learned about leadership I learned from women religious. My mentor, the late Sr. Mary Ann Eckhoff spent many years teaching here before she became the first woman and sister to be the superintendent of the Catholic schools for Archdiocese. I remember my first encounter with Sr. Mary Ann. I had left a really terrible work environment to go to the Today and Tomorrow Foundation at the diocese and on my first day I wrote a letter for sister to sign. After she read it she told me I had a done a great job, and I immediately starting backpedalling saying –no it could have been better, and she cut me off and said, Bridget just say thank you

    How many times as women do we cut ourselves down and put ourselves back rather than accept recognition in the workplace and move forward?

    That day was the beginning of a mentoring relationship that I will always carry with me. I learned so much from working with Sister. As a leader she had a way of pulling the best out of the people around her. There are two things she always said that come to mind—People live up or down to your expectations. I think that is so true. As a leader, if you expect people to do a poor job, that will be communicated to them in so many subtle and not so subtle ways. It will get in the way of getting things done and it makes people miserable in the process. She also believed that everyone has some type of talent—some people have one talent, others many, and that your job as a leader is to identify the talents of each individual and help them use their talents to the fullest.

    I guess you could say it was leadership by affirmation.

    That isn’t to say that Sister couldn’t be tough and make difficult decisions. When it came to doing what was right to carry out the mission and reach a goal she could be one of the most fiercely determined people I have known. One trait she and I both share is persistence. But she didn’t shy away from the tough decisions. I remember going to her agonizing about how a decision was going to make some people very unhappy. Her take on it was, “Bridget when you make a decision that some people don’t like you need to keep in mind that there are other people who are going to be happy with that decision. Don’t focus on the negative. Focus on the benefits and go from there.”

    I’ve also learned a great deal from the Incarnate Word sisters who sponsor the Foundation. Over the past few years I have been interviewing our sisters to capture their wisdom (and actually I need to take a minute to thank my wonderful friend, Pat Thibodeau who transcribes these interviews in exchange for me knitting her socks).

    It seems like everything I’ve learned from our sisters stems from their Incarnational Spirituality, a belief that God is present in all people and in the relationships we have. And what it has taught me is that effective leadership is grounded in relationship.
    Sr. Mary Pezold, CCVI was the Foundation’s Board chair for nine years and in that time I learned so much from her about leadership. One of the main things is to value relationships. And that sometimes relationships are more important than being right. By that I mean that when you are working with people with a variety of views, there are times when leadership means taking a back seat and telling yourself that even if the group doesn’t do things your way, that’s okay. That’s hard for me since I’d like to think that I have perfect wisdom but the sad reality, is that I don’t. And there are times when what looks like “giving in” is in reality choosing a path that is going to advance everyone to the ultimate goal—a goal that can’t be achieved if you trample on relationships to get there.

    Her leadership style is centered in respecting the contribution that each person makes to carrying out the mission. She also embodies gratitude. Taking the time to thank people and recognizing the contributions large and small that people make to achieve the goal is so important and often overlooked. To my mind taking the time to thank people, and to not take credit for their work but to acknowledge their contributions to the larger group is a key attribute of a successful leader. It may seem like an oxymoron in our world today, but the most effective leaders are humble and in that humility is great power. Because in being humble and putting others forward, their power is added to your’s and suddenly one plus one equals not two, but four or five.

    Being a leader is also about adapting and continually growing. Sr. Annette Pezold, CCVI shared that with me when she talked about all the changes that she has seen in religious life and in the world. We can’t be stagnant. Leadership is about new experiences and being open to change, not being stuck in the past. One thing that drives me crazy is when people say, “We’ve always done it that way.” Well when you look at some of the issues facing our world today—where has that gotten us? Like our sisters, we need to continually be open to walking new paths and identifying new solutions to the problems we confront.

    Being a leader is also about being contemplative. It is about taking the time to reflect and to step back. Sr. Helen Ann Collier, CCVI shared some insights with me about the importance of taking time even if it only for a few minutes to reflect on whom we are, and what we did, and how we did it. It is about asking where God was today, and what did I do in response? It is about forming a contemplative spirit because in that time of prayer we find the strength to bring God to birth in ourselves and in others. I know when I don’t have any time to step back I get stressed out and overwhelmed. That is when I head to my studio and put everything aside and work with the clay. After just 30 minutes there I feel renewed and just so much better. We can’t be leaders if we let ourselves get burnt out. And reflection time clears our minds to enable us to see new solutions or different ways to address nagging problems.

    There are many days when I go next door to Sr. Mary Margaret Bright’s office to vent about a problem and her response is “What is God trying to tell you?” My first reaction to that is—“Who cares—this problem is driving me nuts!” But afterward, if I take the time to think about it and reflect, many times I see it differently and it is much more likely to work itself out.

    Leadership also means being authentic—being true to who you are. And that is something I learned right here at Notre Dame. One of my teachers, Sr. Joanne Hanrahan, SSND is here and I can still remember how she emphasized that we needed to speak our minds in her world cultures class. That has stuck with me because one thing people I work with in the community say to me is that I tell it like I see it. There isn’t a lot of beating around the bush. And perhaps that’s because I have gone to so many meetings where women will come up to me afterwards and say, I am so glad you said that. Or I wish I had said that.” Well speak up. Because if you don’t you can’t count on someone else to speak up in your place. Your ideas have as much validity as the next person’s.

    And finally, being a leader is being happy in what you do. If you don’t find joy in the mission you are trying to carry out then it is going to be very challenging to involve others in working toward the goal. One of our wisest sisters, Sr. Neomi Hayes, CCVI told me once that her work in life is to bring joy to the world. And I’d like to end with a quote she shared with me from Kathleen Norris.

    “Imagine yourself at a party. Introduced to a stranger you ask, “What do you do? And comes the reply: “My work is loving the world. . . My work is mostly standing still, and learning to be astonished.”. . . This work is available to us all. It is the work of someone who takes the time to listen, to smell, to taste and see. We live in a time when anxiety and road rage are rampant while gratitude and wonder seem to be in short supply. All the more important, then, to take the time to imagine something better in yourself, in this exotic and beautiful world we call home.”

    As women leaders, perhaps that is our special gift—to bring a new perspective grounded in joy.