According to many who were present on Saturday, it was obvious I was boldly burning with a fire of love for Jesus; my family; my friends; my FSPA sisters; my Rabble Rousers; and my partners in a life of Messy Jesus Business, including all of you!
May God bless us–we are all in this Messy Jesus Business as we set the world on fire with Gospel love! Amen!
Soon after I decided to ask to make my perpetual vows and was approved to do so, I became a bit obsessed with fire.
It’s not a dangerous obsession or anything, it’s more that I am paying attention to all the ways that fire images and metaphors are incorporated into our culture and faith. I quickly became fascinated by what I was noticing and how often I heard popular song lyrics and ordinary conversation casually incorporate words like “fire,” “burn,” “spark” or “enflame.”
It got me thinking about all the different ways we use the idea of fire – like in St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of Creation, where he offers praises to God for “Brother Fire,” for being so bright and lively. I saw a print once that showed…
“How can you be a nun? You’re the most boy-crazy girl I know!”
My good friend first jokingly teased me with this question when we were both still teenagers. I was in the earliest stages of my discernment at the time, and I couldn’t give her a good answer to her question.
That was nearly two decades ago. I like to think that I’ve matured a lot since I was a boy-crazy teenager, and that I’ve come to understand how the complex parts of my personality can all enrich my relationship with God. Over the years, I have become convinced that God used my teenaged feelings to steer me toward my vocation. In fact, being “boy-crazy” actually influenced my first experience of “call” to the Catholic Sisterhood.
I was a teen who deeply desired to please God. I remember praying for guidance regarding my attraction to a certain boy while alone in my bedroom one night. As I prayed, I heard a very intense answer….
One of my core faith principles is that God will provide for all our needs. Recently, a little sisterly community experience re-convinced me of this.
Last week I renewed my vows. It was a beautiful, joyous event. Several sisters gathered in our chapel, Mary of the Angels, for Taize’ prayer and meditation Friday night. After a prolonged period of silence I stood up and professed to “live poverty, obedience and consecrated celibacy in community for one year, according to the Rule of the Third Order of St. Francis and the Constitutions of Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.”
Getting ready for this exciting event required a lot preparation for me. In addition to readying my heart and mind with a lot of prayer and contemplation, I also had to get my outward self ready. I got a new haircut and a nice new dress, but then I began to fuss about what to put on my feet.
As a Franciscan Sister and a disciple of Jesus, I don’t have really have that many possessions. Living simply is really important to me and I don’t like to have more than I need. In fact, for several years I have been very content with having only one pair of multipurpose sandals.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Could I wear my dirty, worn out Chacos® for the special occasion? Could I go bare foot? Should I just wear my wintry dress shoes or look for a new pair of dressy, brown sandals that I could also wear for teaching and other occasions? No matter what, I knew that I didn’t want to spend much money or contribute anymore to the destruction of God’s creation by being a consumer.
I hemmed and hawed a while and decided that if it was God’s will for me to wear nice shoes for my vow ceremony then God would provide. This seemed like a safe way to think about it, although in order to receive guidance and gifts from God I need to be open, pay attention and do a bit of work. To have what God wants us to have, it seems we must be willing to seek.
Once I decided that I was okay with having a pair of new sandals, I wondered how to find them. First, I began checking out the feet of all my sisters, hoping to see a pair I might borrow. I went to Goodwill and studied their shoe options with no luck. I asked the sister in charge of our community clothing exchange if she knew of a pair that had been donated and might serve my purpose. I looked at everything she had in the closet with no luck.
Then I started asking sisters what they thought I should do. Several of them assured me that it was appropriate and acceptable to buy brand new shoes. I didn’t like the idea, but I was trusting in the wisdom of my elder sisters. So, I asked Sisters Kathy and Mary Ellen, who I live with, if they wanted to help me shoe shop. With a hope and prayer we went out to the stores and quickly became overwhelmed with options–most were completely impractical and just too trendy. Eventually, we realized that it is hard to buy sandals this time of year because they are all so picked over.
Sisters Kathy and Mary Ellen were being very patient and helpful. I was starting to feel a little bit of unnecessary, goofy guilt that they had been putting up with my picky indecisiveness for over an hour. Strangely, I started to use that guilt feeling as my guidance. After spending so much time and energy I didn’t feel like I should leave empty-handed or disappoint the other sisters, so I bought a really dressy pair and home we went. I still felt unhappy about the new shoes or the price but convinced myself I should make them work. (Duh! I know and believe that when we “should” too much, we just get stuck in a big pile of “should” and it really stinks!)
Later that night after prayer in our house, the three of us told Sister Laurie about our shoe store adventures. I said I was concerned for the fact that I have hurt my ankles every time I have tried to wear heals, but if I practiced walking in them I’d be fine. I didn’t admit that I chose to buy the shoes for the wrong reasons, but I think I knew it.
For practice, I put them on and tried walking up the stairs. It was awkward–I wasn’t smiling and my stomach even felt weird. I was trying to be a good sport. Sister Laurie was tuned into me.
She took the shoes off her feet and said “Here, try these.”
I did. I hadn’t noticed her shoes before. They were pretty much exactly what I’d been looking for and fit perfectly. “Wow. What size are they?!”
“Seven and a half. Keep them.” she offered.
“What?! Just for Friday? I can give them back to you after the vows.”
“No. Keep them for good. They’re yours. I don’t need them.”
“Thank you! Thank you!” I said, delighted and relieved. I could take the other shoes back to the store and, after all, God provided just the way I was hoping for.
I am so thankful for my new shoes and for the generous, sisterly love I experienced as I prepared for my vow day, on my vow day, and everyday in this wonderful Franciscan community. I am thankful for all the simple lessons I learned through the experience of getting these new shoes. Wow–thanks be to God! Amen.
Brothers and sisters: As you excel in every respect, in faith, discourse, knowledge, all earnestness, and in the love we have for you, may you excel in this gracious act also. For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. Not that others should have relief while you are burdened, but that as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their needs, so that their abundance may also supply your needs, that there may be equality. As it is written: Whoever had much did not have more, and whoever had little did not have less. -2 Cor 8:7, 9, 13-15
I was on the mountain top and things looked clear. I was watching a group of Jesuit novices in the hilly northeastern states of India who were taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These vows were the same I had taken four years ago and they spoke to my heart. This radical response of love and service to the world seemed so simple and easy on the mountain.
Yet one never stays long on the mountain top. The next day I descended into the busy city of Guwahati; a chaotic place of a million people of every type. There in the city understanding was limited, if not all together gone for me. The noisy traffic patterns, the many people and languages, were all beyond recognition. I had no answers for how life worked or function in such a different place.
Many groups in India do understand the problems and plagues as it is a lively democracy with protests and other political demonstrations happening every day. Some had enough answers to try to take down the system all together by blowing up trains in Assam and bombing market places in Mumbai. These atrocities were only added to by the senselessness of the Norway massacre which all displayed the brutality of Christian, Hindu, and Muslim fundamentalism. Surrounded by and listening to only like-minded people, these fundamentalists see people in the way of their ideas and answers for the world.
Being a part-time community organizer and activist, I strive also for answers and understanding to change this crazy world, but the lesson God taught me in India couldn’t be more different from the fundamentalist response. Every time my feet sank into the mud of a place where I could start to recognize, understand, and know, I moved on. I expected to be grounded in one place but instead was invited weekly to visit some Jesuit or non-Jesuit work somewhere else. I continually found myself in a new area of the northeast with its own distinct tribe, language, culture, and issues. Having tea with so many I was honored by the sense of time people gave me and the beauty of listening to the joys and struggles of their lives.
Such people and stories pulled and stretched my heart. Bouncing in the back of a jeep from one place to another I was often frustrated at my seeming helplessness always “the guest.” I realized how little I have to say to their situation and how much I have to learn.
It was beautiful, hard, and freeing. The freedom that I was being taught was something beyond control and knowledge. It was freedom of letting go of my understanding so as to listen and realize that only together, with these radically different people, can I begin to know. My cultural viewpoint, my limited range of seeing, however enlightened I think it is, is never enough. I often accompanied two young Hindu lawyers from the Legal Cell for Human Rights who put on workshops in the poorest of villages to teach people their rights. Never understanding the language, I once asked them how they can have answers for every question asked in every village. They laughed and said, “We don’t. We never really answer the people’s questions directly, because they have the answer, we just have to help them see it.”
This freedom is beyond choice. Asking a religious Sister why she organizes domestic workers, she said she was called by God to respond to the poor around her. It was not about her interests, choices, or causes, but about meeting the needs where she was. I saw this lived out by Jesuits I lived with who were invited out into the jungle to set up schools for the most forgotten villages. I walked the tea plantations with organizers who humbly spent their lives helping their own people be proud of their culture and dream beyond their near slave labor conditions. All labored in freedom with the mission not to be heard themselves, but to help nurture the poorest around them and lift up their voice. They work as Jesus did, which was summed up beautifully by a Muslim women in a self-help group who told me “As long as God gives us life, we will give our life to help others grow.”
One of the tea worker activists asked me on a bumpy car ride why God had made rich and poor, why such disparity and diversity? I didn’t know and still don’t know. I leave India still overwhelmed by such a reality, but as a Jesuit president of an all Hindu school told me once, “God is much bigger than what we do and our understanding.” I don’t have to understand, but have to listen, learn, and, as I saw so many doing, work really hard in my own particularity for the people around me. I, like those vow men on the mountain top, have been given many gifts, and out of generosity to our great God, I hope to continue moving past myself and my limited view and answers to live a life of listening and work to help others grow and have a voice in this complex and beautiful world.
This week’s guest blogger, Ben Anderson, is a member of the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and a friend to Sister Julia. Ben lives in Chicago working on his master degree in philosophy at Loyola Chicago and is a community organizing intern at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. He spent two months during the summer immersed in the Jesuit works of Northeastern India.
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
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.
Note: After writing our foundress a letter in preparation for final vows, I journalled back a letter from her.
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.