Old-fashioned trunk-centered simplicity

I admire my sisters’ tales of trunks.

Long before I entered the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration – and long before Vatican II for that matter – the common, communal practice was that every sister had to fit all of her personal property into one trunk.

Our Franciscan lifestyle is an itinerant one. As sisters we frequently move for ministry. For much of our community history, sisters moved from one ministry site to another after just a year or so. They’d move by train, and all of their possessions would move with them in the one trunk. It was an economical and practical way to do things, and such a practice permitted ease for living a simple life of Franciscan poverty.

The trunks contained three black and white habits, an extra pair of shoes, undergarments, and some prayer books. The trunk also held whatever supplies needed for…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report.  Continue reading here.

God’s teaching tools in Assisi

It’s my last morning in Assisi. Soon I will depart and go on the next leg of my journey before returning home. I’m restless and nervous, for transitions and travel challenge me.

I came here as a pilgrim two weeks ago. I experienced this city as a pilgrim. Now I understand that I also leave as a pilgrim, for I am always on a journey of faith.

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and sojourners to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against the soul. -1 Peter 2:11

I can trust that God will take care of me and remain my trusty companion, for sure. For me, a certain worldly desire wages against God’s invitation to be a disciple who take leaps of faith: I long for a sense of certitude about where my life is turning. I realized this here in Assisi. This is one of many lessons that I will bring home to integrate.

Indeed, God has utilized my time on this holy ground to teach me lessons that I need to learn.  Overall, my experience in Assisi has provided many graces.

To teach me these lessons, God has used many teaching tools. There’s the tools you might expect: liturgies, homilies, readings, lectures, silent prayer, meditation, religious art, tombs of saints, and churches.

God’s truth has been revealed in other ways too: through people, places, music and in random moments in caves, on mountain paths and busy streets.

In particular, God has spoken through the wisdom of other pilgrimage companions, all who are Franciscans. I’ll feature one:

David Hirt, OFM Cap.

"Br. David Hirt" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Br. David Hirt” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Age: 36

Entered Religious Life: 2007

Solemn Vow Profession: 2013

Hometown: Terre Haute, IN

Current Ministry: Campus Minister and Spiritual Director at Mount Lawrence High School Seminary, Mt. Calvary, WI

My Question to Br. David: What have you learned about the messiness of Franciscan life during this pilgrimage? 

Br. David’s AnswerFranciscan life is like any one of the old churches here in the Spoleto Valley. It’s old and rough and broken and beautiful, but built to show that one perfect sanctuary that is the reign of God. Franciscan life is the mix of ideals and the nitty-gritty reality of what you have to deal with in the world, and the ideal and reality don’t always meet. 

Another teaching tool that God has utilized is the beauty of the scenery.  It has frequently felt as if every direction I look gives me a picture worth contemplating. Many sights feel as if they are pictures right out of a European photo book or off a postcard. And, I get to be part of it! The beauty and God’s goodness has given much to ponder, much opportunity to do as St. Clare has instructed: gaze, consider, contemplate, and imitate.

Here is a photo from my time here that I offer for your own consideration and contemplation. What of Christ does this photo invite you to imitate?

"Basilica of San Francesco, Assisi" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Basilica of San Francesco, Assisi” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

As I journey onward, I am carrying some solid intentions and hopes about how I will integrate what God has taught me into my ordinary life.

Wisdom and beauty is propelling me into mystery blessed with trust. While I move, I pray that I shall imitate The Great Teacher and the lessons I’ve learned here in Assisi. Amen!

advice at the start

Here is a poem drafted from advice given to me by experienced, wise Franciscans as I set out to start my ministry at this high school three years ago. I am so grateful that they warned me and gave me good blessings when it began …

If you think

you can do

this without

making a mess

you are kidding

yourself and

expecting too

much.

Ministry

must be

messy.

Service

can’t

just be

sweet.

Work

must be

laborious.

Be consistently

firm, fair and kind.

Let Love

be your purpose.

Your yes means

more when

you can say

No.

Be

Loving

Presence.

Dear Aemiliana, Dear Sarah

Note: Mother Aemiliana Dirr founded the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in 1849.  After difficulties fulfilling their mission, she and some other sisters left the order in 1860 and lived out the rest of their lives as lay women.  I have written Mother Aemiliana a letter.

July 28, 2011

Dear Aemiliana,

My heart is so tender as I write to you.  It’s been a while.

You came to the states leaving all and you met tragedy and you left all again.  You know renunciation, the acid smell of fear, the biting taste of anger, and His love which propelled you forward.

We are still your daughters.  We have not left.  I think we are faithful to these times.  We are wacky, prayerful, and down-home.  Your daughters spread Franciscan joy, do justice, honor the earth and strive to live authentic relationships with each other.  Your dream has spread.  We have prayed in perpetual adoration for 133 years.  Right now two sisters kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and pray for the needs of the world.  We use email now, to receive intentions from around the whole planet, but you probably knew that.

You may wonder why I am writing after all these years.  In a few weeks, I will profess final vows as a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration.  My heart is on fire.  I know God calls me here and leads me on to follow my sweet Jesus with my sisters.  I am not alone.  My sisters know me, they love me, forgive me, and have not left me.

Religious life is now beyond what you could ever imagine.  We are a balm to a hurting, searching humanity.  Yes.  We may be prophets of a future not our own.  Yes.  We are faithful and strong and small.  We sit in the dark night and wait.  We tend the fire you left and wait for the breath of the Holy Spirit.  We are singing new songs, one “in love and purpose, with diversity of persons and gifts” as our FSPA constitutions say.

And Aemiliana, with all the challenges the future could hold for us, I stand here on the cusp of my perpetual vows with a question of my own.  Will I be enough?  I am afraid my fragility will overtake my gifts.  I fear even that my gift of self will not be whole enough.  I am sure you may remember that feeling as you first stepped on this soil or when you left in faith.  And yet, God stayed with you.  And in a funny way, you stayed with us too.  Because you let the vision lead you and walked past walls of fear.

I need you to help me do that now.  My sisters walk beside me in love.  They help me name the pain and the joy and place both prayerfully in god’s hands.  I cannot do it alone.  But, somehow, it seems He didn’t ask me too.

May God Bless You,

And know you are in my prayers.

Love,

Sr. Sarah Hennessey, FSPA

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Note: After writing our foundress a letter in preparation for final vows, I journalled back a letter from her.

Dear Sarah,

Fear is not a threat, but can be our friend, when held lightly and placed in God’s hands. I walked through the fire of fear and abandonment, through shame and uncertainty, but never alone.  My future seemed like a failure.

We do not get to choose the circumstances that try our faith, but only our faithfulness to God’s love.  So stop trying to grasp so tightly.

Child, you can let go of your harsh judgments and let the love of your sisters and Jesus into your heart just a little more.  You, my daughter, have an inner strength you do not suspect, and a mission of love to compel you onwards.

And you are right, you are not alone.

May God bless you and your sisters as you continue to build the kingdom.

In the Love of God,

Aemiliana

oh hey, summer! well hello, stranger!

The last day of teaching was well over a week ago and since then I have been on the move.  My itinerant summer has begun.

Many people have asked me what I am up to this summer.  The truth is that my life is just as packed and full as it normally is.  I love it that way.

Here’s the plan:  I am taking a theology class here this week, working as a mentor for this program next week, helping out at my sister’s organic farm the following week, working as a camp counselor here for a couple weeks in July, preparing for the next school year and then going to World Youth Day in Spain right before the school year begins mid-August.   I am really excited about all these great things, I am very grateful to have these blessings.

As my adventures unfold, I quickly become overwhelmed with the privilege, freedom and blessings I live out of.

I am especially conscious right now of how I am afforded the freedom to have these adventures because I am an American citizen with a valid passport and a strong support system.  The circumstances of my life permit me to travel and serve freely without fear of persecution, arrest or deportation.  I am mindful of how many could never freely have the experiences I am allowed because they fear for their safety and freedom in a broken, global immigration system.

My summer kicked off on June 4.  That day, I joined my community in celebrating the first vows of Sister Amy at our Motherhouse in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  It was a beautiful liturgy and party and Amy was really glowing with the goodness of God.  What impressed most deeply upon my heart, however, was my pondering of one of the readings that Amy selected for her service:

But Ruth said, “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you! for wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Wherever you die I will die, and there be buried. May the LORD do so and so to me, and more besides, if aught but death separates me from you!”  –Ruth 1:16-17

What a beautiful devotion to the mystery of Love! Plus, what a commitment to the journey of discipleship!  Highlighted in my prayer in my contemplation of the Ruth story this time was how applicable the wisdom is to our struggle for just, compassionate and comprehensive immigration reform.

We have a lot to learn from the wisdom of history.  Thank God the border between the Moabite Plateau and Bethlehem wasn’t guarded! Praise God that the ancestor of Jesus could cross freely, remain devoted to love and family, and then marry across ethnicity!  Wow, what if our society worked that way!?  If we heeded scripture, I suspect we’d welcome strangers then realize they are saints.

Sadly, it doesn’t work that way, right now.  My heart aches because of the real injustices related to immigration.  Many days the sorrow meets me in my email inbox and I am compelled to advocate and learn more.

Last week, my community held our Chapter of Chats.  These meetings are rooted in the tradition that St. Francis and his friars had in the 1200’s to come together and hold a Chapter of Mats to discuss the happenings of their lives.  I helped with the sessions led by our Justice and Peace and Integrity of Creation Committee, of which I am a member.  Our committee has been focusing our work on immigration reform for a while.  At the chapter, we viewed the powerful film The Visitor and discussed the great complexity of our broken immigration system. At another session, panelists spoke of how they personally have been impacted by the harm caused by the immigration laws.  As we gained awareness, we cried and prayed together that God would give us courage to act for change.

My concern with the topic of immigration extends beyond my work with JPIC.  As I state in this video, I am a daughter of immigrants.  I want all people to have same freedoms I have been blessed with.  Why should we be limited now?  Certainly, it seems necessary to have some order in our legalistic era, but I don’t think there is ever a justification for not treating people with dignity.

Although I have been concerned with immigration issues for a long time, it’s been more intense lately.  Last fall I visited an immigration deportation center in Chicago and it had a major impact on me.  I wrote about it here.  In 2008, the largest immigration raid in US history happened in Postville, Iowa just 10 miles from where I grew up.  Here is the story on NPR from last May, three years afterwards.   In July of that year, I attended a march and rally in Postville. It was amazing.

We were on the move that day.  We were moving with the Holy Spirit, like another Pentecost.  People of all races and tongues came from all over the nation to witness for the type of freedom we long and believe in: Christ’s freedom beyond borders, nations, languages, races, or places of origin.

As I move around this summer, I shall receive hospitality with joy and gratitude.  As we all move around, I pray that we can all welcome strangers and receive one another with the hospitality that Ruth- and Jesus- eventually found in Bethlehem.

Amen, Amen, may it be so!

“Done Made My Vows to the Lord”

Guest blogger, Sister Sarah Hennessey

Sister Thea Bowman sings the old spiritual song.  My vows have already been made to the Lord.  When I was around 12 I first began to really experience God.  That led me to become an active Quaker and to seek God through silence and service.  Somewhere along the way I had a distinct moment when I knew I had fallen in love with Christ and then when I knew I had fallen in love with the People of God.  Both have been essential to my journey.

Quakerism has been described as a religion which is communal mysticism.  Community is essential and I found my love for community soon shaping my choices.  From a Quaker college, to a year as a lay volunteer with Catholic sisters, to teaching at a Quaker boarding school I lived in small groups, prayed together, and sought God through communal means.  My love of Hispanic culture led me to Mexico, from there to the Franciscans and then into the Catholic church, which I experienced as a wider and more diverse community.

Sister Sarah at Mexican Orphanage
Mexican Orphanage with Sister Joyce Blum (I am on the left)

Fishbowl Not Pedestal
At times I feel that formation has turned me inside out and then left me in my confusion to put myself back together again.  Now I look at it differently.  Incorporation demands conversion, but I am not alone.  My sisters are with me, at varying levels of intimacy and personal skill, to both challenge and support me.

Sisters Deb, Corrina, Joanne and Sarah
Together with Sisters Deb, Corrina and Joanne

I entered my Franciscan community after only being a Catholic for two years.  I struggled with the title of “sister,” the public notice and appreciation, and centuries of baggage that were all new to me.  A distinction during novitiate helped me name how I felt about becoming “a religious.”  Being on a pedestal is not helpful to me or to anyone else and some of this relational model still hangs over from our past.  However, I am called to be in a fishbowl.  I have made public vows to Christ and the church and people should be able to look at me and see that I am at least trying to live how I say I do.

Fear and Awe
I feel a prior claim to religious life.  I also believe that this commitment is my free choice.  I am coming home to Jesus, the People of God, and these particular FSPA women through my “yes.”  I believe to make perpetual vows is to live them and repeat them on a daily basis.

I find religious life to be deeply intimate.  Like the cross, the horizontal plane of relationship with others and the vertical call to deep union with God intersect daily.  I need to pause and listen deeply before making this lifetime commitment and I know that listening needs to happen in relationship.

Sister Sarah in Mary of the Angels Chapel
"Listening" inside Mary of the Angels Chapel, St. Rose Convent

When I meet other new members of Catholic orders I am always struck by how there is no fear around diminishment.  Yes, religious life will change drastically in my lifetime.  We have many losses, particularly at every funeral.  But I firmly believe that this is a dynamic opportunity for religious life to remain fed by its source which is Christ.

In making vows I feel my emotions most intensely, particularly fear and awe.  There is no little amount of fear as I commit my life not only to God, but to this community of women and this church.  But I have voiced my fears and they have heard me and they still want to journey with me.  Together “we done made our vows to the Lord.”

Sister Sarah will profess her final vows with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in 2011. This is her fourth guest blog entry.