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Studying Yoga, Finding Themselves

By Sister Jane Harrington

Recently I found myself driving along a winding country road, on my way to prison.

Hmm – let me clarify. I was indeed going to the West Virginia State Prison for Women (known as Lakin), but as an invited guest for a special graduation. Eight woman in prison at Lakin, having completed the rigorous curriculum, were graduating as certified yoga instructors! Not only could they teach in the prison, but upon release, they would leave with a valuable skill.

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How did this happen? What’s the “backstory” here? Trust me, the story is exciting, inspiring, touching, and encouraging.

I don’t remember how I learned about Laotong Yoga but when I saw the names of the two women who founded it, I knew I wanted to learn more. A mutual friend arranged for us to meet over lunch – and I was hooked! After retiring from their “day jobs,” Sue and Barb had begun bringing yoga (movement) and stillness (meditation) to those who couldn’t access regular classes – specifically, those incarcerated. The goals include nurturing peace, wellness, justice, and compassion.

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Barb and Sue, who run Laotong Yoga

After a few years of classes, the next step was to begin yoga teacher training ( referred to as YTT) at Lakin. It was demanding – one full weekend each month for a year, with 200 hours of instruction, practice, testing, and supervised teaching. And these women did it!!

yoga-304635_1280 croppedWhen I walked into the graduation site, several women of Lakin were putting the final touches on their decorating – the walls were lined with paper cut-outs of yoga mats – each with the name of a woman at Lakin who had completed at least one series of 8 yoga classes – over 200 names. Other women (those in a Culinary Class at Lakin) were setting up and preparing for the luncheon buffet to follow.

Then a gong sounded. Led by Sue and Barb (wearing white stoles), the eight woman (also wearing white stoles) walked with grace and dignity to their seats facing us. And as with all graduations, we experienced a number of speakers! The Warden and the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections not only congratulated the women but expressed their gratitude for how their practice was benefiting others at the prison and the entire atmosphere.
yoga-1916729_1920Finally – awarding the certificates. Sue and Barb introduced each woman, adding a few comments so we could know her a little better, and presented her with a well-deserved certificate. Each woman addressed the guests, and everyone began by thanking those who made this day possible for them, including funders! (A grant from the Congregation of St. Joseph Generous Promise Grant Fund helped supply each woman with her yoga mat, a binder of resources, and accessories — or as the women put it, “the super cool supplies that we received.”)

Here are a few of the women’s comments:

“It has been a privilege to be part of the YTT program – a blessing we never expected to receive – an extraordinary opportunity, a special gift”Barbara - when i get stressed
“Laotong Yoga and the YTT program have transformed us into the people we have always been deep inside but that had been lost or forgotten.”

“Physically I can do more. Emotionally I deal with problems at a different level now.”female-breathing calms me down
“I seem to be more relaxed but when stress happens, I’m a lot quicker to just breathe and collect myself.”

“As Laotong Yoga taught us, we are all connected as kindred spirits through energies of deep awareness, great compassion, and expansive love.”Sue-tyhe best partIn late afternoon, as I once again drove the curving, country road back home, memories of my day filled my heart:

  • the unfailing welcomes and courtesies of the staff, visitors and the women of Lakin
  • The eloquence, confidence, gratitude and vibrant spirituality of the graduates
  • The delicious lunch, graciously served by the women who prepared it

yoga-422196_1920And with the memories came a deepening awareness of the profound connection and mutuality between what I had seen and experienced that day and the Congregation’s Generous Promises and Mission:

“we commit to deepen our practice of shared leadership to activate personal and collective empowerment:”

“we commit to strengthen and expand our . . .partnering with a diversity of persons and groups to bring about life-giving change”

“that all may be one.”

 

About the Author

Jane Harrington (Chartres)Sister Jane Harrington retired as Executive Director of the Sisters of St. Joseph Charitable Fund (now the Sisters Health Foundation), and currently serves on the board of directors for Catholic Charities, West Virginia. She enjoys visiting family and friends in various parts of the country, quilting, and occasional (ad)ventures into knitting.

 

*Pictures from Laotong Yoga used with permission of the program
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What Comes to Mind When You Hear the Word, “Chapter”?

By Sister Marcella Clancy

The best part of your favorite book? Your membership in a special local group? The most significant phase in your life? All are included in the definition of Chapter, and there is a fourth definition: the governing body of a religious community. Yet I must confess none of these definitions begin to describe the experience of the recent “Chapter” we held as the Congregation of St. Joseph.

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It is true when the Chapter is in session it is the highest governing body in the Congregation, but the experience of “Chapter” is so much more than that. I am sure that everyone who participated in Chapter would have her or his own description of that experience. Here is mine!

 

  1. Beginnings: Chapter officially opened the morning of April 2, 2018, but it really began two years earlier. Reading meaningful articles expanded our thinking and our vision. Reflecting on our lives, ministries, and future challenged our hearts. Holy conversations in varied and diverse groups brought new awareness. Prayer and discernment, personally and together, brought us to deeper levels. These activities marinated each of us in the Spirit’s movement within ourselves and each other. The unspoken questions we pondered were: For the next five years, from 2018 to 2023 —- Where was the Spirit leading us? What would be our thrust? Where would we focus Congregational energy? What were the demanding needs of our time? Who would be our future leaders?

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    We opened Chapter with love and joy!

  2. Anticipation: We came to Chapter excited and cautious, expectant and apprehensive, as prepared as we could be yet realizing we were like empty vessels waiting to be filled with divine exuberance. Sisters, associates, staff, and other partners in mission gathered around tables, not to persuade others to our perspective, but to share the movement of the Spirit in our hearts and to listen attentively and intently to others. Reflecting back on the experience, there was a palpable presence and a force in the room much larger than our collective selves.

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    You could feel the energy in the room!

  3. Movement: In some sense we were dancing among ourselves and with God, leaving open spaces for the Spirit to move between us and within us while we chatted happily, ate plentifully, laughed freely, exercised when we could, celebrated often, prayed deeply and tended carefully to the business of the Chapter. The pace was slow and deliberate, being careful not to walk ahead of grace. There was a pervading sense of gentle joy.
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  4. Work: So, what was this work that we accomplished? We affirmed the Evolving Design, which outlines how we commit ourselves to live our mission in this time and in this place. We further advanced the Generous Promises we committed ourselves to in 2007 by articulating Our Sacred Work, in which we pledged ourselves:
    • to deepen our practice of shared leadership
    • to strengthen and expand our collaboration…with a diversity of persons and groups to bring about life-giving change
    • to respectfully engage people who may hold different values or world views to bring about cultural transformation
    • to exercise our moral authority… standing in solidarity with Earth and all who are oppressed… giving public voice when addressing systemic injustice.(Note: we tend to be exceptionally, some would say foolishly, bold and broad in our commitments.)
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      Me at my table, doing the work!

      Finally we deeply discerned and elected five wonderful women to guide us in keeping us faithful to these commitments. We ended our time together, as Jesus so often did with his friends, around a festive meal, full of thanksgiving and stirred to begin anew witnessing to God’s love transforming ourselves and our world.

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      Festivities and thanksgiving closed out our time together!

  5. After Glow: We arrived home exhausted, spent by days of attentive listening, overwhelmed by the utter goodness of those present and hollowed out by God’s consuming energy yet utterly hopeful that God would complete the good work God had begun in us. Chapters are held only every five years. They are concentrated and intensive experiences of community, mission and vision, and God’s abiding grace. Chapters really do not end. Rather they impel us forward for five years until we meet again.
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    As we move forward from chapter, we all carry with us the glow of energy!

    About the Author

    marcella Sister Marcella Clancy currently lives in the Detroit area. She offers spiritual direction, serves on Congregational committees, and companions one of our newer members. She loves long walks, good movies, and leisurely lunches with friends.

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Spring is a Noun and a Verb

By Sister Judith Minear

Spring is late this year, at least where I live. It is nearly the end of April, yet flowers are just beginning to debut in our neighborhoods! Forsythia dots the highways, but trees seem reluctant to bud, no doubt suspicious that we have not seen the end of snow.

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Last Sunday morning, sunshine was ‘live-streaming’ through my balcony doors, lighting everything in its path. And I do mean everything! Delighting in its beauty soon became noticing every bit of dust and grime that has collected in my living room this winter.

“That does it,” I thought. “Time for Spring cleaning!”

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Anyone who knows me is aware that I am happiest when I am making lists and checking off completed tasks. Over the next hour, I created my Spring Cleaning 2018 to-do list. I also started to wonder about this pattern of “springing into action” in Spring. How many other phrases sprang from spring…and how many of them describe my life as a Sister of St. Joseph?

Let me count the ways! Here are three of my favorites.

1. No Spring Chicken:

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It is no surprise to anyone that the majority of us sisters are aging. I myself am turning 66 this week. What might surprise you is how little aging affects what sisters are doing every day for the sake of our mission of unity! Every sister generously brings her gifts to the ministry table. Those gifts include prayer, “hidden” support, insightful ideas, and/or action. Being a part of a cross-generational community of women and associates is profound, and bears the fruits of both wisdom and ingenuity, lived out by sisters who willingly do “anything of which a woman is capable” (a saying from our early documents which we live by to this day!).

Years ago, one of our oldest sisters in Wheeling was trying to understand what it meant to “roast” someone who had recently retired.

“You know, sister,” said a man who had attended the roast, “it is when a group gets together and tells stories about the person retiring. Some of them are funny, some of them are serious. It’s a way of showing love and appreciation for the person.”

“Oh, yes,” said Sister Mary Grace. “We have that too. We call it a wake.”

In other words, we don’t every truly “retire,” we stay active until the very end!

2. Spring into action:

Sisters of St. Joseph are known to spring into action, regardless of the task. Our mission calls us to assess the needs of those around us, and then to meet them, often partnering with others to do so. In my 21 years of religious life I have watched my sisters create trafficking initiatives as readily as they help clear tables after an event. I have learned from them to stand with the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalized; to support peace and justice initiatives; and to advocate for systemic change. My sisters live and love boldly, ministering in ways “that all may be one” with God and with one another. There is no age-limit for springing into action as a sister. Living Love is for all time.

3. Hope springs eternal: Hope-springs-eternalA call to religious life is both radical and prophetic. A call to religious life is a call to stand in the mystery of this present moment in history and bring Jesus’ gospel to it. It means letting go of the familiar and risking the new. Numerous articles I have read about religious life speak of “diminishment.” As one who lives it, I choose to speak instead of the transformation and evolution of religious life. In her Global Sisters Report article, Linda Romey, a Benedictine Sister, quoted Carol Zinn, CSJ as saying “We are living in a moment where God is saying, to quote Isaiah, ‘Behold, I am doing something new. Do you not perceive it?'”

Eleven years ago my congregation reconfigured itself to live life differently in ways that simplified our ability and opportunity to live all of life for the sake of the mission. I am proud of how willingly (if also sometimes painfully) our sisters sacrificed what we knew for the sake of what could be. Our sacrifices for our mission are small when compared with Jesus’ great sacrifice, yet in both cases risk was taken with the confidence that this was the next right thing to do for the sake of the mission. Hope and Trust spring true.

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Spring sunshine certainly helps me to see how my space is improved by a good Spring cleaning. In the same way, I pray that my eyes, ears and heart remain open to the many ways my sisters help me to continually spring back to life and love as a Sister of St. Joseph!

About the Author

16-judyminear-copySister Judith Minear currently serves as part of the 3-member team for CSJ Ministries as Coordinator for Mission Integration, working with our 26 sponsored ministries. In her free time, she loves drawing zentangles, stalking birds and savoring poetry.

 

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Being Nun-ish

When I tell people I am an associate of The Congregation of St. Joseph, puzzled looks usually follow. In the secular world, the word ‘associate’ is fairly generic and can mean all kinds of things. Since I also work for the sisters, most people assume it must be some kind of professional designation. When asked, I used to explain that it meant I’m kinda, sorta a non-vowed ‘member’ of the Congregation. However, that didn’t ultimately bring any further clarity. In fact, the next question was always, “So are you a nun?” So, I’ve learned to say to folks not familiar with religious life that being an associate means I believe and share in the mission of the sisters. I’m not a nun, but I am nun-ish.

Being nun-ish means that I get to participate in some important work of the sisters including Chapter, a week-long meeting held every five years. I’ve just returned from this year’s Chapter where, amongst other important work, the Congregation set the direction they plan to move in for the next several years and elected a new leadership team.

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But attending Chapter was far from all work, and some of the best moments for me were the one-on-one interactions I was able to have with sisters and other associates whom I rarely get to see due to our large geography. We prayed together, sang, ate, danced, visited, laughed, and strengthened and relished in the relationships that are the cornerstone of the Congregation. The event is aptly titled, because as the week unfolded, each experience, session, and day was like a chapter in a book; each important in their own right, but also collectively guiding us to a grace-filled conclusion.

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So what were some of my favorite experiences of Chapter? I thought I’d share my 6 favorite moments.

  1. Being with the sisters, including the sisters at my table, with whom I had table discussions, shared discernment, and prayed throughout the week. They are all amazing women and I was blessed to share time with each of them.Sisters at table
  2. Hearing the personal stories of other associates. Associates are such a diverse group of women and men (yes men!), and I feel blessed to be one with them. Like the Congregation itself, the associate program is evolving, and I’m excited to see where the spirit is leading! (Want to know more about being an associate? Learn more here.) associates
  3. Hearing from the younger sisters and candidates. As one of these young women said “Religious life is very much alive!” Hearing from these women who have more recently committed themselves to the Congregation as vowed members was inspirational! Young sisters
  4. Thanking the Congregations current leadership team for their years of service. What a fun and heart-felt evening we had as we thanked and blessed these incredible women who led the Congregation so well and through so much. current CLT
  5. Electing the new leadership team, which will lead the Congregation over the course of the next several years. What a faith-filled, spirit-led process this was. To sit in a room filled with sisters as they were moved by the Holy Spirit to elect a new team was very special, and I feel blessed to have been a part of it. New CLT
  6. The blessing of the hotel staff. This is always one of my favorite parts of any of the Congregation’s gatherings. The hotel staff is called forth – servers, cooks, etc. – and all those in attendance say a blessing over them. The staff’s expressions say it all – appreciation, wonder, and awe- and I’m sure this kind of blessing doesn’t happen with most of the groups they serve. It is a wonderful expression of who we are as a Congregation. IMG_3990

How blessed I feel to be nun-ish!

About the Author

Gina's BioGina Sullivan is the Director of Communications for the Congregation of St. Joseph, as well as an associate. She is also the mother of two daughters ages 19 and 16, and, when not worrying about them, enjoys cooking, walking, reading and experiencing new places and people. Want to talk more about what it means to be nun-ish? Email Gina at gsullivan@csjoseph.org.

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Connecting to Life’s Melodies

Writing is an intensely personal experience for me. Being an editor and writing emails that are work related do not translate to my desire to write for myself. Journaling is tortuous for me as I edit, rewrite, edit and usually delete any self-reflective musings. Even just writing this blog post made me feel a bit queasy.

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As one of the editors of ImagineOne, the magazine published twice a year by the Congregation, I recently put an email out asking for sisters and associates who might want to write for the magazine. Knowing my own feeling about writing, I wasn’t sure what to expect in response. I shouldn’t have worried. I was immediately overwhelmed by the numbers of people who felt called to write.Spring.2018.Final.COVER
Hearing from over 25 writers who really want to write is inspirational to me. I was offered haiku, personal reflections, spiritual reflections, cartoons, and self-help articles. A bounty of writing within our sisters and our associates! Such a gift and a responsibility; I’m still sorting it all out.

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One of our sisters sent me a twine bound folder of writings from over 60 years of religious life. Time fell away as I read of her personal challenges in the 1960s, her friendships and losses, and read different pieces on life as a Sister of St. Joseph. I thought that I knew this sister, she has known me and my family for over 50 years, but I was wrong. The depth of her experiences took away my breath. The pages and her writings felt sacred and momentous to me. I looked at her with new eyes. Unfortunately, as moved as I was, there was no place for her writings in the magazine. Her trust in me as a reader sits with me. Gift and responsibility; I’m still sorting it out.

OLA. picnic. roasting marshmallows. habits. 1960sA picture of our Sisters from the 1960’s

One of my children will be confirmed in April and struggled to choose a name. For most of my children, picking the confirmation name was the easy part. Who hasn’t wanted to choose a name for themselves? I love my confirmation name (it’s Elizabeth, by the way) and I always longed to use it. So, the reluctance of my child to make the choice was surprising to me. I offered books on the lives of the saints and encouraged him to choose a name that had meaning for him. Weeks went by and the deadline loomed.

all-saints-2887463_1920 (1)So many saints to choose from!

Finally, I cornered him. “What did you decide?” He narrowed it to two choices, he said. One was the patron saint of his grade school, Christopher, and the other, the patron saint of music, Cecilia. Athletic and musical, both saints made sense to me for him. Sensitive to how others might interpret the choices, I mentioned that boys usually chose a male saint. He asked me if he was ‘breaking a law’ if he chose a female saint. “Of course not”, I replied. He will be confirmed as Cecilia. I looked at him with new eyes.
How does this connect to the sister who shared her life writings with me? Her name is Cecilia.

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I’m struck by the links here between holding the experiences of two totally different lives and how they have been shared with me. I’m touched by the trust that is present in each of them as they offer their gifts to me and the world. There is a melody here. I’m determined to keep listening to is as it plays.

 

About the Author

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Eileen Biehl is an Associate of the Congregation of St. Joseph and also works as the editor of the magazine, ImagineONE. She loves her family, good coffee, and Pilates. She’d like to love writing for fun, but she’s not quite there yet.

How Lady Bird Got Catholic Sisters Right

If you, like me, love the movies, you’ve probably heard of Lady Bird, a movie by Greta Gerwig about a girl in Catholic high school who is navigating her future, her family, and her own faith. I’d heard a lot about this movie, in part because of the widespread critical acclaim that it’s received (it was nominated for several Oscars) and in part because many Catholic news sources were talking about it. And so, when one of my best friends and I headed to the theater a few weeks ago, it seemed like the best choice for our movie night.

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While I had heard a lot about the movie, I didn’t know all of the details. But I anticipated that I would see some parallels to my own life. As a woman who went to an all-girls Catholic school that had been founded by sisters, I figured that Lady Bird and I were bound to have some crossover. What I didn’t expect was that the film is set in 2002, the same year I graduated from high school. I will admit to you, that this threw me for a bit of a loop. My friend and I turned to each other nervously, the realization hitting us at the same time that this film might hit a little too close to home for our own comfort.

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The look I’m sure I gave my best friend as the movie started.

We were, of course, right. We were transported back to the early aughts (the first decade of the 2000’s), to days filled with plaid skirts and button ups, mixers and school plays, uncertainty about our lives and our futures. Some of the things that stood out were small reminders of long forgotten Catholic school-isms that were a part of growing up: checks to make sure that our uniform skirts were long enough, making sure we “left room for the Holy Spirit” when dancing with boys, all school masses tailored to our young lives, the importance of female friendships.

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There’s nothing like the female friendships you make in Catholic school.

But what stood out to me as the most true to life about this film was the way that sisters were portrayed. Often the voice of reason in my own life, in ways that I certainly wouldn’t have understood as a teenager, the sisters that run the fictional Sacred Heart High School seem to be a guiding compass for the main character. And so, I’d like to offer you my thoughts on the how movie represented Catholic sisters that really rang true.

3 ways that Lady Bird got Catholic Sisters right.

1. Sisters encourage us to find the best parts of ourselves

Early on in the movie, the title character, Lady Bird, meets with Sister Sarah Joan, who is the principal of the school. Lady Bird, like many high schoolers, seems adrift. She often does things in dramatic ways as she works to find herself. Sister Sarah Joan suggests she try out for the school play, to use some of her natural dramatic skills in a way that might be more productive. This guidance may not be what Lady Bird expects, but it encourages her to be open to possibilities she had not explored previously. This was a wonderful reminder to me that sisters often act as the people in my life that encourage the good in me to come out. Without even realizing it, my interactions with sisters often lead me to a deeper understanding of myself and my place in the world, and encourage me to be the best person I can be.giphy (75).gif
2. Sisters have a sense of humor

Lady Bird plays a prank on Sister Sarah Joan later on in the film that, while harmless, she is worried she’ll be in trouble for. Instead, Sister Sarah Joan laughs. This moment seemed so poignant to me because it reminds us of an important thing that many people seem to forget when they talk about sisters: sisters are people! Just like the rest of us, they have a sense of humor and can laugh about themselves.giphy (84).gif3. Sisters understand love

One of the most poignant moments in the film, for me, is when Sister Sarah Joan reads Lady Bird’s college entrance essay. The essay is about Sacramento, the town Lady Bird lives in. Sister Sarah Joan tells Lady Bird she must really love Sacramento, because in her writing it’s clear she pays a lot of attention to the details of the city. Lady Bird is confused. She longs to leave Sacramento, and she doesn’t see how her essay reflects love. Sister Sarah Joan says “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention.”
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And isn’t this, at its core, the heart of love? That the things we pay attention to, the things we make time for, are the things we truly love? Sister Sarah Joan understands this because, despite her pranks and her drama, Sister Sarah Joan loves Lady Bird. She pays attention to her, to understanding her needs, to helping her succeed. And, in doing so, she shows Lady Bird what love really is, even when it is not always easy to see it in others.

Whether, like me, this film made you nostalgic for your own Catholic school days, or reminded you of your life in the early 2000’s, the message about Catholic Sisters seems clear. Catholic Sisters can touch and shape our lives in ways we may not even realize. Their humanity, encouragement, and love are some of what makes them such an important part of our lives.

About the Author

2002 and Today

The author in high school versus today

Elizabeth Powers is the Electronic Communications Manager for the Congregation of St. Joseph and manages the blog, Beyond the Habit. She sometimes acts as a contributing writer. She loves reading, writing, and Harry Potter.

 

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Journeying Through Lent…Into Spring

By Sister Christine Parks

We’ve had sunshine two days in a row now, a rarity in February in Michigan. I confess I’ve never been particularly fond of February (Valentine’s Day notwithstanding) but on days like this my spirit lifts out of the slough of mid-winter, as the drab landscape brightens. I can look out and imagine a bit of green lying just below the surface—ready to burst upward reaching for the sun, and renewed life.

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It’s always seemed appropriate that Lent should begin in this backwater time of winter, (at least in our hemisphere) when our spirits can be at their lowest ebb. When the grey sky seems to have fallen so low and heavy and cold that all we want to do is huddle under a comforter with a cup of hot tea and a good book.

 

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Instead we rise, face the day, scrape off the car (if we aren’t blessed with a garage) and shiver into another day. And then Lent comes! Lent with its promise, more reliable than a hundred groundhogs, of spring. Lent, with its movement through the recurring cycle of lengthening days, increasing light, and inevitable greening. No accident that our spiritual ancestors of two millennia ago chose this time of year to remember and relive the mystery of Christ’s journey through life, into death and then the illimitable joy of rebirth.

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Yesterday I went to the Greater Lansing Orchid show—and there it was, the miracle of burgeoning life in the beauty surrounding us. In the face of those gorgeous blooms—their amazing variety of size, shape and color—that mostly live on air, I could anticipate the coming of another spring. March arrives, and whether it comes gentle and a lamb, or roaring like a lion we can be assured that the rebirth of nature, our own and the landscape around us is only weeks away. We can be assured that the journey through winter, like the journey through Lent, can lead us down into the depths of our being and back up to the joy of resurrection—ready to sing another season’s “Alleluia”.

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About the Author

Christine Parks
Sister Christine Parks currently serves as a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph Leadership Team. Her leisure activities include gardening, long walks in nature, reading, writing, attending plays and concerts, as well as museums.