Monday, July 14, 2014

Calm in the midst...

Nothing in all creation is so like God as stillness.
Meister Eckhart

What a whirlwind summer it's been so far! It has been a summer full of blessings (which I said about last summer), but completely different from last year. The day after school was out I left for Rome (see last blog post)… Then it was off to St. Louis for a service immersion trip with students… Then Frankfort/Chicago for retreat and a workshop on Ethics in Vocation and Formation Ministry… Yesterday I arrived back to Chicago for the weeklong Orientation for New Vocation Directors. When I get home from that I'll prepare for a trip down to my beloved San Antonio for the Marianist Lay Network of North America Assembly. Then it's off to be on retreat with our 2 pre-novices. By the time that's over I'll have approximately 10 days before going back to school. So, as you can see, whirlwind is an appropriate moniker!

In the midst of the craziness I am reminded of a line from the first poem I memorized in its entirety - "Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence." The Desiderata, a prose poem by Max Ehrmann, was a gift to my 8th grade class from our language arts teacher. I have never forgotten that first line. This line, and the entire poem really, has been a constant refrain in my life. It brings peace and calm in the midst of whatever is going on. If you are not familiar with the poem, please see it below.

As mentioned above I had the opportunity to make my annual retreat in Frankfort, Illinois this summer. I moved into a hermitage on the property of the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart on a Tuesday afternoon… and immediately felt a sense of peace. The quiet and the lack of clutter provided space to reflect, pray, sing, and sleep - all the important pieces of a good retreat (for me, anyway).

Hermitage - Rivo Torto ("tortuous stream" in Italian)

While in my hermitage I had a few reflections, some mundane/trivial and others not so much…

This is how I spent most of my mornings…  
Book recommended by my spiritual director

I met with a spiritual director on 3 afternoons of the 6 1/2 days I was there. In our first meeting after she asked me to tell her a little about myself, she went to her shelf and pulled down a book - Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives (pictured above). What an eye-opening book. In this book there is a quote by Thomas Merton (the full quote is not in the book, but I find the full quote to be quite challenging), 
"To allow one's self to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit one self to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."
Let that soak in for a minute. Violence to one self. It's strong language, no? In a world that currently has so much violence, it is difficult to see that our culture's addiction to busyness is also doing violence. I sat with that quote for a long time. I sat with the book for a long time. The book made a case (a good case) for incorporating Sabbath back into our lives. To really "Keep holy the Sabbath" - a commandment we typically ignore. Sure, going to Church on Sunday is something many of us do, but how many of us actually allow the day to be different from the other days? Allow it to be a time for renewal, friends, family, fun, relaxation? With so much to do - laundry, groceries, cleaning, yard work, grading (for those who are teachers), homework (for those who are students) - how can it be that we can incorporate Sabbath? It doesn't seem practical, does it?  But the alternative is doing violence to ourselves. Wow. My hope is that moving forward I might be able to embrace the Sabbath differently moving forward - as a first step to being a person who brings peace to situations and people.

Also in this book was an Hassidic Poem that resonated with me…

The insight? "All of your words each day are related to one another. All of them are rooted in the first words that you speak." It makes perfect sense, no? 

A mundane thing I learned while on retreat? What to do if you buy too much fresh spinach to eat in a week…

Looks gross, but sooo good!
Hmmm… liquid salad! 
Yes I finally learned to make a smoothie with a vegetable. I know I'm a little late to this craze, but I was skeptical. But this ugly concoction of blueberries, strawberries and spinach (what would normally be a salad for me) was amazingly good - and a great way to not let spinach go to waste.

I have always known that music is an important part of my spirituality, but one thing I didn't realize is how much I would long to pray in song while living in a hermitage. Why didn't I bring my guitar?! That was the question I could not figure out how to answer. But… my spiritual director came through with a special delivery one day… Her guitar! No music, but that's okay. I was able to play things I remembered from memory (many, many songs I learned early on while working with Aggie Awakening) and a few I could figure out by ear.

Her guitar and a nice note to accompany it...

Something else I learned? How to unlock this kind of lock:

That has this kind of key hole:

I had all the windows open and the ceiling fan going one day. And the breeze was strong enough to shut the bathroom door. I didn't mind that. That is until I tried to go to the bathroom and realized it was LOCKED! No key… no people around… I was worried. I still had days of retreat to go - what the heck was I going to do without a bathroom!? The more things I tried the more I really needed in that little room. Luckily I'm pretty handy with a pair of scissors. That was an adventure…

I spend time with Pope Francis on retreat as well. I finally finished reading Lumen Fidei and re-reading Evangelii Gaudium. And I think it would do me a little good to read them again. Some things you can't read enough times.

And so, there you have it. A small update on summer and some insights gained. As promised the poem Desiderata is below my signature.

I pray that each of you may be richly blessed.
Sr. N

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; 
and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.Keep interested in your career, however humble; 
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; 
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. 
But do not distress yourself with imaginings.Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. 

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. 

Be careful. Strive to be happy.

© Max Ehrmann 1927

Friday, June 20, 2014

Italy 2014… A great way to start the summer!

 A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter,
he who finds one finds a treasure.
A faithful friend is beyond price,
no sum can balance his worth.
A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy
Sirach 6: 14-16a 

Currently, I am on a plane heading back to Dayton, Ohio from 10 days in Italy. Part work, part play… a great way to begin the summer. What a gift!

First, my meetings…. I am on a team of Marianists who have been asked to plan an international gathering of Marianists Brothers and Sisters that will happen in the summer of 2016. This gathering is called Horizons and it is a 25-day formation program for those who have been perpetually professed for 1 to 10 years. The planning team consists of 2 Brothers from the US, 1 Brother from Spain who is a priest, 1 Brother from Kenya and me. We are quite the group – diverse skill sets and backgrounds, different ways of working on projects, and very different personalities. But, we did very well together and I look forward to our next meeting in July 2015.

The Horizons team celebrates Mass in the crypt of St. Peter's. 

I decided to stick around for a few days after the meetings to spend time with friends… One of our Sisters (my former novice director) from the US serves on our General Administration in Rome, 2 friends of mine are Marianist seminarians living in Rome, and another American Marianist Brother serves as vice rector for the seminary. We had a great time! A day in Florence… a day touring Rome… a close encounter with Pope Francis… and a day in Assisi. What a week!

There were many highlights from my time there. To list them all would be too much – and perhaps a little boring for the reader. However, on this trip I can say that I did gain a little insight. Allow me to share some of these (in no particular order)…

1.     Churches, parks, museums, oh my!

Some people are thrilled by big cities – all the sights, sounds, impressive buildings, and fast moving people going a thousand different directions. Big cities are fine and I can enjoy them. However, when I’m in one I always crave or seek out the places that offer some sort of refuge from the noise – Churches, parks, museums… or an out of the way cafĂ©/restaurant somewhere.

On this trip to Italy I didn’t get to any museums… there were too many Churches to see! But I saw some magnificent Churches… St. Peter’s, St. Maria Maggori, the Duome in Florence, St. Maria degli Angeli outside of Assisi…  However, it’s not all the gold or the size that impresses me. It’s the smaller, quiet places that bring a sense of peace. Take St. Alphonsus Liguori for example. No tourists. No crowds. Just quiet pews with people praying. The image of Mary there is the original icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. It’s a beautiful icon and a lovely place for prayer. Or St. Maria di Trastevere… also a quiet Church and the only place I’ve seen an image of Jesus with his arm (apparently) around Mary’s shoulders.

St. Alphonsus Liguori

Santa Maria di Trastevere

One afternoon my friend, Bob (one of the seminarians), and I walked in a park in Rome I had no idea existed - the Villa Borghese. This was after our visit to St. Alphonsus Ligouri. Anyway, the park, set on a hill with beautiful views of the city down below, is a true gem. There were not a whole lot of people there. Maybe because it had rained most of the morning, but regardless… I was happy to know a place like that exists in Rome – fresh air, beautiful trees, away from many of the tourists… I highly recommend it.

The view of Rome from Villa Borghese.

2.     Some places are holy and there’s no other way to describe them.

My favorite place by far was Assisi. The place oozes peace. It’s a small, quaint kind of place – more like a village than anything – set in the mountains of Italy’s Umbria region. Walking through the city and its Churches felt like walking through a museum and a park. There was an overwhelming calm that set in while praying at the tomb of St. Francis… taking in the breath-taking beauty of the hillside… walking up and down the narrow cobblestone streets… praying in the tomb of St. Clare and before the San Damiano cross (in front of which St. Francis received his call). It is difficult to describe. I will visit Assisi again someday. Maybe then I can find the words to describe it.


3.     Being in close proximity to someone “famous” can cause a serious  case of being star-struck

Pope Francis is a good example of that. Bob and I went to the audience on Wednesday morning. We had fantastic seats right on the aisle (because we arrived 3 hours before the audience was scheduled to start). The Pope drove by us not once, but twice. And I mean… very close. I couldn’t speak. I barely remembered that I was trying to take a picture or video. And I almost cried because I was so excited.

What a great morning this was! (excuse the finger at the top…) :) 

4.     There is such a thing as a social introvert. But there is a limit…

For many years people have questioned whether or not I am really an introvert. Being a person who enjoys spending time with friends, people confuse that with extroversion. It’s not. There is such a thing as a social introvert – I am one. And there comes a definite point at which I hit my wall and maybe speak 2 words in the space of an hour. I suppose that’s appropriate if you’re headed to Assisi for the day… but a little unfortunate for the travel companions.  

5.     Thirty-nine years old feels the same as thirty-eight as did thirty-seven.

While in Italy I turned 39 years old. THIRTY-NINE! One more year of my 30s left. This is about the time that most people call “midlife,” (well between 39 & 45). Seriously? I hardly feel older than 30! And yet, here I am. I am older. Wiser? Who knows? One can hope, I suppose.

One great thing about my birthday happening while I was in Rome with many different people is that I celebrated it at least 3 different times. Our meetings were held at the General Administration community of the Marianist Brothers in Rome, which also houses the seminary community. The second night we were there the seminarians were celebrating the June birthdays. Being the hospitable people they are, they included me in the celebration. I have a card and a picture of the seminary community – so that I remember to pray for them. … Our meetings ended the day before my birthday. So the team with which I was working went out to a neighborhood pizzeria to celebrate. Then on my actual birthday I traveled to Florence (or Firenze as it is known in Italy) with 3 wonderful people. It was a fantastic way to begin my last year as a 30-something.

6.     I am naturally a skeptical person – especially when it comes to legend and lore.

Some people might call this cynicism. I don’t think that’s accurate. While in Rome I saw many things that made me roll my eyes and say “Really?” To be honest with you, I feel a little guilty about it. 

7.     I must ask 1000s of questions everyday – not all of them are spoken out-loud.

When I was in middle school my classmates teased me some. One of the names I was called was “Pinocchio.” Not because I lied, but because people thought I was nosey and asked too many questions.  Yes, I know this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but they were middle school children. Often as middle school kids we did not make sense… and often we were unkind.

Anyway, at some point my filter got a little stronger. Well, to make a long story shorter I think the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. So, my inquisitive nature only comes out when I’m in a very comfortable situation. Then I ask more questions per hour than most people ask in a day… “What’s the symbolism of that?” “What is the translation of that word?” “Why would someone do thus-and-such when it’s not logical?” “What does that statue represent?” “How come all the cars are hatchbacks?” “How long has this Church been here?” “What’s the derivation of that word?” “Why are there booths on the shore of the Tiber (or Tevere as the Italians call it)?” “What’s that building?” “What were those ruins?” “Who is that poet?” “Who wrote that?” “What’s story behind that painting?” I want to know and to understand everything, it seems. It’s insatiable, really. (Too bad my memory holds on to almost nothing of the information I am told)

Yes. This is a part of who I am. I’ve come to accept it. I hope that I don’t drive too many people crazy! And if I do, these people should be thankful that not all of my questions actually get verbalized.

But here’s a question that must get asked… See the picture below:

What does this sign mean???

I saw 3 or 4 signs like this walking back to the train station from San Damiano in Assisi. Can anyone please tell me what it means? It’s driving me crazy…

8.     Friends are a gift from God and important for a person's well-being.

This statement is self-explanatory. I am extremely grateful for the wonderful people in my life that I am blessed to call friend. And although I do not have the opportunity to talk with them as much as we would like and I don't have the opportunity to see some of them very often, they are a great blessing to me. I should tell them that more often…

I tried for 10, but came out with 8. That’ll have to do. :)

Many blessings on all who read this!
Sr. N