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All Souls and Saints

 By Sister Christine Parks

Sitting here with morning coffee and watching leaves fall in the gusting wind, I’m thinking about November—a kind of in-between month, when Autumn is winding down, the harvest mostly done; but it’s not quite winter yet—in spite of frost, or the occasional snowflake. It’s a month when the days continue to shorten, the leaves to fall, and the last of our autumn mums begin to fade.

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On the first two days of November, at our morning prayer, we prayed with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, celebrating the “communion of saints”—the formally canonized ones, and all those other holy souls, who’ve led their more or less ordinary lives, and are now one-with God. In our prayer we remembered all the lives that have gone before us.; remembered those who have walked the path of life ahead of us, and left their footprints—some larger, some smaller than those we may leave ourselves.

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In my own reflection I brought to mind all my deceased loved ones—parents and other family members; our sisters and associates (especially those who touched my life); and friends who mostly died too soon, and whose loss I still grieve. All of these souls crowded round our prayer table, part of the energy field of this corner of the universe wherein we still live and breathe and have our being.

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Sitting here now, I’m also pondering what size, what kind of footsteps I’m leaving? Who will be sitting in prayer on some future day in early November—remembering my life and how it touched their own? Although the feast of “Thanksgiving” is still weeks away, at the other end of this month, I’m beginning my list of gratitude for that day’s prayer. So, be prepared, included will be all those saints and souls who have gone ahead—along with some of you, the still living saints and souls, who will find yourselves in my thanksgiving prayer.

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About the Author

Christine ParksSister Christine Parks formerly served 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.

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Living Love: My Journey to the Birthplace of the Sisters of St. Joseph

October 15th is Founders Day for the Congregation of St. Joseph, the day that sisters, associates, and staff celebrate six women and one Jesuit priest coming together in 1650 France to begin a new community of women religious. These women would go out into the city and minister to the dear neighbor, looking to care for the needs of the people wherever they existed.

Founders Day is always an important day for the congregation, marked by service, prayer, and celebration. But this year, for me, Founders Day was especially powerful. Because in the days surrounding Founders Day, I was standing in the very place where it all began; Le Puy, France.

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The 14 pilgrims on our first day in Le Puy.

I, along with 14 other pilgrims, spent ten days retracing the footsteps of the early sisters, visiting many of the same places they had stood. The streets of Le Puy are still lined with the cobblestones used to create them hundreds of years ago. The buildings and rooms where our first sisters ministered to orphans, learned the needs of the people, and shared the state of their heart still stand.

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(Clockwise from left) The cobblestone streets of Le Puy, the building that housed the original orphanage our sisters ran, and the door that once was the entrance to our sisters home.

While the old city of Le Puy is still made up of the same buildings that stood in the 1600 and 1700’s, it is bustling with the life of today. Men, women and children still go about their daily lives amongst the history, some of them making a living similar to our first sisters.

In order to support themselves, the first sisters of St. Joseph in Le Puy were lace makers. Today, bobbin lace making is still one of the things Le Puy is known for, and we were thrilled to get to see a demonstration of how this lace is made by hand, in the same way our sisters would have made it over 300 years ago.

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A lace maker in Le Puy, using the traditional handmade lace technique.

For me, the portion of the pilgrimage that held the most meaning was our visit to”the kitchen.” During my time working for the sisters, I’ve heard a lot about the kitchen. Also known as “the hearth,” the kitchen is the last remaining portion of the original structure where our sisters were first founded. The kitchen was where these women would come together, share information about the needs they had seen in the city, share the state of their hearts, and work towards a better future for all of their dear neighbors.

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The kitchen in Le Puy

It was awe-inspiring for me to get to stand in this small room, where the Congregation’s roots took hold. But what was most inspirational to me was being surrounded by other people who are working to move the mission of the Congregation of St. Joseph forward.

Today the Congregation looks different then it did in 1650 France, and so did our group! Sisters, associates, staff, and partners in ministry all stood together in the kitchen, listening to the stories of the first sisters. And, while we have each come to the congregation in different ways, we are all doing our part to continue the legacy of six women who, along with a Jesuit priest, understood the need to make a difference in the world.

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Our group of pilgrims in the kitchen.

I’ll write more about my time in France in the coming months (once I am less jet lagged!) because there is so much left to share. But as I think about Founders Day,  and my trip to Le Puy, I am so grateful for the wonderful community of women and men who stand for love, justice and each neighbor in our world.

About the Author

Elizabeth-Powers,-WebElizabeth 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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Autumn Lesson–Letting Go with Anticipation

By Sister Jeanne Cmolik

I have always loved colorful autumn leaves. As a child, I would gather them, put them between sheets of waxed paper, and iron them to preserve them. Even now, when I walk in our neighborhood or in the park in autumn, I cannot resist picking up an especially beautiful leaf.

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There is a certain melancholy to autumn for me: the days grow shorter; flowers and foliage offer a final burst of color and then fade away; cool weather hints at the frigid winter ahead.

I recall that in John’s gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”

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I know that the image of the grain of wheat dying and being buried in the ground—and bearing much fruit—is a reference to the paschal mystery of death giving birth to new life. So, too, the rhythm of the four seasons reminds me that change is inevitable; what was new in springtime came to fruit in summer, and now autumn reminds me that death is near.

As a Christian, I say I believe in everlasting life, yet somehow it is easier to believe in the resurrection of Jesus than in my own. Like a kid playing musical chairs, I want to hold onto the life I have until I know for sure what is coming next—and no one knows for sure what that is. Have you noticed that the dead brown leaves of some oak trees hold on until nearly spring? I know there is a logical explanation for this, but sometimes I wonder if they are simply afraid to let go.

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Jesus says, “Anyone who holds onto life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.” (John 12:24 in The Message)

So how do I learn to “let go of life—just as it is”?

The Prophet Muhammad offers some advice. “Die before you die,” he says. I think he is reminding me that every change I experience in my life is, in fact, a little death. I let go of what I know—what IS– without knowing what lies ahead—what WILL BE.

As someone said, “We live in a world of permanent change.” I know this, but I am still learning to trust that good things—new life—will come from change. If I pay attention, autumn can teach me to let go of what is now and look forward to what comes next.

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I think about this as I look out the window of the old motherhouse in Cleveland—our center for more than 100 years—which we will turn over to St. Joseph Academy sometime next year, past the Hall building that will soon be torn down, to the new building nearing completion.

It is easy to see the leaves show their colors, drift to the ground and die, but I need to look carefully at the bare branches to see the buds hidden there—a promise of what is to come.

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About the Author

PIK_3949Sister Jeanne Cmolik is a spiritual director, works with new members of the Congregation, and coordinates RCIA at St. Christopher Church in Rocky River, Ohio. She enjoys reading, cooking, walking in the park, and eating ice cream.

 

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Teamwork: God-with-us and God-for-us

By Sister Mary Jo Curtsinger

I’ve recently adorned my kitchen with one of my favorite paintings by Sister Mary Southard, one of my Congregation of St. Joseph sisters in community.

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Mary’s art, titled “Bright Wings,” picks up where that of Gerard Manley Hopkins left off. This Jesuit poet wrote that the world is charged with the grandeur of God. And, despite the fact that generations of humans have seared, bleared, smeared…and smudged this world,

…nature is never spent…
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah!
bright wings.

Ah! there’s the source of Mary’s title. I suppose that, from his 19th century vantage point, Hopkins would never have suspected that he might have to rescind his claim that nature is never spent. (You can read the whole of Manley Hokins’s poem here) Mary Southard, on the other hand, certainly knows and deeply laments the grave destruction that humans have wreaked on our Earth, threatening the future lives of all species. (See Mary’s painting below, “The Children are Asking.”)

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So is the future of our common home up to God, or up to us? Are we to “let go and let God” or summon “all hands on deck!”? What saves ( or heals) us, faith or works?

The Christian tradition answers: “Both/And.” Christ incarnate is “Emmanuel,” God-with-us. God teams up with us humans in a radical, intimate way, intensifying our already vital connection with one another. Pope St. John Paul II taught that the one and only Holy Spirit of God breathes into every prayer that is breathed out, irrespective of one’s religion. Imagine!

Many of us believe these as truths, but perhaps haven’t let them sink deep into our consciousness. So we “forget ourselves.”

Let me back up and tell you what got me thinking about all this, a few days before I put up “Bright Wings.”

Meet my mother, Rose, and her pride-and-joy great-grandson, William.

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William has been special to Mom since he was a baby, when she and Dad cared for him when my niece went back to work. William can be a mischievous rascal, but Mom always takes up for him. “Rose-for-William”; it’s like God-for-us, writ small. Mom says that she always thanks God for ALL of her children and grandkids, and as you might suspect from this photo I snapped, it was truly a joy for her to hang out with William that day.

Yet later that same day, Mom “forgot” her joy and got very sad. A litany of worries flooded out of her heavy heart. Everything seemed dark and scary, it all depended on her, and everybody surrounding her had poor track records for success.

Now, Mom’s had a tough year, losing Dad, and feeling more like 90. It’s not that I “blame her.” It’s just that I want for her to live out of the gratitude she prays, to feel her belief that God loves her and advocates for her. God-for-Rose.

Enter, the mirror. I see that the same fitful, on-again, off-again pattern can be oh so true for me. I forget. I forget that I’m in a love relationship with God. Head beliefs only don’t cut it. Prayer is experiencing God loving me as friend, sharing smiles and heartaches. Prayer is also conscious experience of being “at work” in the world with God and others as partners: bringing about a little hope here, a little healing there. God-for-us as team leader, yet it’s totally shared leadership.

Here is another image from recent days, another that both radiates joy and belies suffering.

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This was the first moment at which Honduran Misael Ponce Herrera was holding his 6-year-old daughter Marianita since 3.5 months prior, when they were forcibly separated for having crossed the U.S. border illegally. Their reprieve from terror may be short-lived, as memories continue to haunt their family life, in the grinding poverty that sent them searching for a better life in the first place. But for the coverage of journalists of the PBS News Hour, Marianita might still be far from home, as are thousands.

(Heavy sigh.)

As the song goes:

“We need a little bit of Christmas, right this very minute, candles in the window, carols at the spinet.”

You might be thinking “what does a Christmas carol have to do with God being with us?” But you see, the song is sung in the musical “Mame” OUTSIDE the Christmas season. It’s saying, we could sure use Christmas cheer, or in this case, a reminder of Emmanuel, God-with-us, no matter what time of year it is.

We always need lights in the darkness, the singing of songs together, photos of treasured memories. All of these remind us of who we are, and Whose we are (A phrase of the late Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.)

 

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As it happens, a framed print of “Bright Wings” is gifted to recipients of The Sacred Universe Award by The Well Spirituality Center, a sponsored ministry of the Congregation of St. Joseph. The award is given to leaders “whose work and life fosters mutually enhancing human-Earth relationships.” Today I nominate for The Sacred Universe Award those artists and activists who inspire us, mothers and fathers who love us, and journalists who inform to form us. And “Bright Wings” graces my kitchen wall to remind me that we’re all on the same team.

About the Author

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Sister Mary Jo Curtsinger, CSJ, D.Min. completed the Doctor of Ministry degree at Catholic Theological Union in May.  Her thesis-project was entitled Truly Sisters: Catholic and Muslim Women Walking in Solidarity on the Path to Interfaith Leadership.

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Sounds of Silence

By Sister Marcella Clancy

One of my special memories while camping in Colorado National Monument Park occurred when I was sitting alone on one of the towering rock’s rim. It was so absolutely quiet I was startled by the almost noiseless flapping of a bird’s wings. I don’t ordinarily find that kind of stillness in my life. Yet I wonder if we are the poorer without such silence, without such depth of quiet. Genesis speaks of Adam and Eve hearing “the sound of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day”. But because they had sinned they hid from God. I question if today noise helps me hide from God and perhaps even from myself.

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Years ago when I first entered religious life we incorporate some of the practices of monasticism into our daily lives. We held “Grand Silence” from after night prayer until after breakfast the following morning. We had hours during the day of “Sacred Silence”. As a novice in religious life, my focus was on not speaking but that was not the point. The point was not about “not talking” but rather about listening more deeply. Listening to the Sounds of Silence.

After Vatican II and the renewal of religious life, we no longer held those practices in common. The living out our relationship with God is unique and personal and each woman is responsible for integrating in her life those practices which will best help her on this journey. However, there are still remnants of the value of silence. When a sister is in retreat, we reverence that time and do not engage her in conversation. During retreats we offer a “silent” dining room where meals can be consumed in reflective quiet. The unspoken assumption is that silence enables one to be better available to God. “Sounds of Silence.”

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I am fascinated by the enormous silence of nature. Seeds sprout in the earth, flowers bud, bloom, and blossom outward, the sun rises and sets sometimes with astounding beauty, the moon glows softly in the night, stars glimmer, puffy clouds glide overhead — all soundlessly. There is the roaring of the ocean, the boom of thunder, the patter of rain, the whispering of the wind, chirping of sparrows and calls of the loon, but even these sounds need from us a certain silence to be heard and more to be understood and reverenced. We need a quiet mind and heart to really appreciate them. “Sounds of Silence.”

astronomy-black-building-746111There is no magic about silence. In fact to give someone “the silent treatment” can be cruel and carry its own kind of violence. Yet, I think for most of us, our experience of God is Silence. Even though Christians refer to God as Word and define Scripture as the “Word of God”, those who desire to plumb the depths of any holy writings admit theology, study, and research are inadequate. Eventually one needs to sit in silence until the word becomes broken open within the inner lining of one’s being. “Sounds of Silence.”

I believe that in creating us, God deposited in each of us a capacity to be contemplative, to gaze in silence and in stillness and recognize the sacred everywhere and in everything, even within ourselves, to experience the Divine Presence flowing gently yet determinedly evolving all into union, into fullness. God has given us God’s own Joyfulness and Gladness in the midst of our suffering and pain. “Sounds of Silence.”

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The lyrics of the 1963 song, The Sound of Silence, written by Paul Simon, are rather haunting. You can find them, and listen to the song, here. A 2016 insightful address on Contemplation and Transformation given by Pat Farrell OSF, available on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) website, challenges us to contemplative silence as what is most needed in our day. She transparently tells of the experience of resistance and avoidance, the usual non-dramatic and emptiness felt, the inner demons that arise with the possibility for healing, if not rejected, and yet the occasional but certain depth knowing of God and the barely perceptible but assuredly slow transformation that occurs in silence. “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls and whispered in the sounds of silence.”

Silence is not a vacuum. Silence is not a void. Silence is Sound. A sound of deeper awareness; a sound of my own inmost being; the sound of God walking in the garden of my own soul.

About the Author

marcellaSister 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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Letting the “Stuff” Go

By Sister Jean McGrath

I have always been a fan of books and articles about organizational skills. Key word here is FAN, not proponent since my efforts to have an organized desk, an efficient filing system, or color coded closet fall far short of feng shui or the popular best seller, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Condo.

Never has this been more true than in the last few months since I left my long time ministry as principal of a Catholic Elementary School in Chicago.  Thirty one years of accumulated “memorabilia” had to be sorted, prioritized, and PURGED.

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The supplies I started with…

I was thrilled to go to Office Depot and find colorful new file folders and fine line markers to support the task.  I should have gone to the local camping outlet store to learn how to set a campfire in the backyard and safely ignite years of saved articles, newsletters, budget worksheets, and “to be read later” or “important to save” documents stuffed in bulging file drawers.

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The supplies I should have bought…

I prayed for detachment, simplicity and a powerful paper shredder.

Tough as the task has been, I have had some wonderful reflective moments during the purge.  On a yellowed piece of paper, I found the hand-written payroll from 1986 when a gifted kindergarten teacher with thirty years of experience at the time made an annual salary of $19,000.  (I should add that she taught for an additional fifteen years and never complained.) She was then and remains for me now a model of dedication, commitment, and true believer in the potential of each child whom she taught.blur-calligraphy-data-51191I desperately wanted to save the theological reflection of a first grader on his St. Patrick’s Day reflection on the meaning of the Trinity or the very tender letter I saved from a three-year old pre-schooler who told me I was the best principal she had ever had. Her limited experience of other principals did not diminish my gratitude.elementary-school-1332472_1920In the “legal issues” file there was the police report we needed to make when one of our fifth graders DROVE to school as a reward his mother gave him for passing a science test.

The prayer service folder was especially poignant. Funeral booklets for a graduate killed in Afghanistan, another for a father and police officer shot and killed in the line of duty, a third for a young mother who months before her death asked me to “keep an eye on the kids” if the chemotherapy did not work.

The prayer service files also held wonderful reminders of beautiful celebrations for First Reconciliations, First Communions, Confirmations and Graduations. How privileged I was to be part of those key moments in the faith development of so many children. How privileged I was to watch so many children grow in “age, wisdom, and grace”.files-1614223_1920One of the gifted “organizational experts” I have consulted suggests taking a picture of those things which you need to remember. He does not mention how to organize the scores of pictures that result.  Obviously this is not the solution for me.

Two months after officially leaving my ministry, I am still purging.  The piles are definitely diminishing, but there is much yet to be done.  I am comforted with the thought that perhaps the purge is a metaphor for all of life’s transitions; I am aware that I must “let go”, but also need to know there is yet much to be accomplished.

Meanwhile, I am going to read the sequel to Condi’s book aptly titled, Spark Joy, and hope the inexpensive shredder I purchased for the task continues to hum.shredder-779850_1920

 

About the Author

JeanMcGrath

Sister Jean McGrath recently retired as the principal at St. John Fisher School in Chicago and enjoys a good book, a good conversation, and a great bargain.

 

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Celebrating Life

By Sister Carol Crepeau

Today is my birthday. My Italian friends tell me that if I had been born in Rome I could very well been named Assumpta, since I share my birthday with the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. As life and geography would have it, I was born in Chicago and am named Carol.

When I was five years old my grandfather swept me, his oldest grandchild, into his arm and heart and took it upon himself to start me on the “path of life.”active-adolescent-affection-167300 His recurring words, spoken often and clearly, of who I am and who I am invited to become stay with me today.

When you were little, how did you celebrate your birthday? Well my mom was a great cook and for birthdays in my family, we had the special “privilege” of cooking our favorite meal, all courses, side by side with her in our kitchen. My dad did not have this privilege. This practice started when I was six and somehow the cooking and entertaining on special days is imbedded in my genes. In fact, my housemate, Sister Jackie, and I have an active, unofficial ministry of wining and dining. Thanks, Mom.food-3230799_1920

Today, when I celebrate my birthday, it is quieter, though no less evocative of childhood cooking and gathering with family and friends and making wishes for the whole world. I still sit with my Grandfather’s advice of who I am, though some of his descriptors have been adjusted a bit.

Two pieces of wisdom are active in my spirit these days – the first a Chinese proverb:

If I keep a green bough in my heart the singing bird will come.

The second a Cherokee expression:

When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.

So on this day I invite you to cook a meal, invite friends, gather a green bough for your heart and rejoice – wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyday, not only on our birthday, we would birth life?

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About the Author

Sr. Carol photo edited
Sister Carol Crepeau, CSJ ministers as a facilitator and leader of group dynamics for non-profits. Guiding the annual Congregation of St Joseph Pilgrimage to LePuy and Lyon, France is one of the most wonderful activities of her life. She also enjoys a good book and gathering with friends for prayer and conversation.