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The Gift of Winter

Editor’s Note: As we celebrate our 5th anniversary of blogging on Beyond the Habit, we are sharing a few posts from our archives. This week, we offer a blog originally posted in January of 2020.

BY SISTER MARCELLA CLANCY

The singer and song writer, Sara Thomsen, in speaking of her Winter Wanderings Tour talks about how the season of winter calls her to a “crawling inward”. She asserts that the hushed silence of winter inevitably draws her inward. Winter calls us to introspection in way perhaps the other seasons do not. There is the lovely promise of spring calling us to witness its soft blooming. There is the sunny allure of summer beckoning us to play outside. There is the exquisite beauty of autumn with its delicious fruitfulness delighting all our senses. Winter calls us to be more courageous of heart, to brave the chilling cold, the long hours of darkness, the stilling of the world wrapped in waiting. Winter calls us to contemplation.

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There is a tree that has befriended me outside my window in the courtyard. In the summer it looks like it has decked itself out and is ready to go to a ball. Now it seems dead. Its lovely curved branches all bare but for a soft layer of snow resting peacefully on them. I know under the blanket of snow the tree is still vibrant and that flowers lie sleeping. Even the birds chirping noisily who visit my balcony every morning in spring are now nowhere to be seen or heard. Rain makes distinctive pattering sounds as it falls. Snow is hushed and silent, soundlessly heaping up soft mounds on the ground.

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For the most part life is hidden, resting, sleeping in the winter. Winter calls us to consider what is hibernating within us, what new life is geminating waiting to burst forth in the spring. There is a natural quieting in winter. We shutter tight our windows and close our shades much earlier. Outside noises are dulled or eliminated. We cuddle into sweaters and huddle under blankets. Perhaps we also need to nestle into the inner chambers of our heart. Perhaps we are called to warm ourselves by that inner fire that burns slowly within.

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It is a challenge in our culture to listen to the quiet. It is so much easier to turn on the TV, the CD, and the smart phone that provides music, news, and distraction, literally at our fingertips. There is a certain discipline we require that other ages and cultures did not. We are very busy people. There is always another task to be done, another project to accomplish, something new to hear or report. Yet each season calls us to notice the changing season in our inmost being.

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I always tend to be a little cold. A friend once told me he thought God would send me to purgatory just for a while to warm me up a bit. So it has not always been easy for me to make winter a friend. Yet I have come to recognize winter brings its own unique blessings and inviting beauty. Earth rests in winter. Perhaps we are invited to find times and places to give ourselves more rest. This does not necessarily mean more sleep but a rather a fruitful rest that allows for creativity and generativity to emerge.

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Life is present but more hidden in winter. Perhaps we are encouraged to spend less time in the world without and more time in that hidden inner life within. Silence is louder in winter. Perhaps we are moved into more extended moments of silence, to listen more deeply to the quiet longings, urgings, and deep desires of our own heart. We wait in winter. We expectantly wait for the first warming and buds of spring. Yet there is something sacred about waiting. Waiting prepares us, helps us get ready, arouses expectations, develops anticipation, creates an eagerness for a promise we cannot yet see. What might winter be inviting us to wait for?

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A recent Gallup Poll found that 36% of Americans named spring as their favorite season of the year while 27% preferred fall, 25% summer, while only 11% identified winter as the season they liked most. Obviously we might have to reconsider what it is about winter that we are missing.

Gifts of the Winter Season: quiet restfulness, peaceful silence, comforting darkness, warmth against the chill, artistic layers of soft snow, the hidden life within, sacred waiting – which gift of the Winter Season beckons to your heart? What gift of winter longs to nourish you?

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About the Author

Marcella Clancy.LoResSister Marcella Clancy, CSJ, is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph and has degrees in theology and nursing. She has served in parish ministry, accompanied others in spiritual direction, and served as retreat director for many years. She has taught theology as an adjunct faculty. Currently she does some writing, spiritual direction, and gives presentations. She believes that the core of our life is moving toward love of God and love of our dear neighbor without distinction.

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The Gift of Selfless Love

By Eileen Biehl

In grade school, I was not chosen to carry the Baby Jesus up the center aisle of church on Christmas Eve at Midnight Mass and place him in the manager. I did not get to wear the costume with the long sky-blue veil on my head and look like Holy Mary. It was a bitter lesson in humility for me-scarred for years, but it also kept me home that night. My grandmother was visiting for the holiday and my mother asked me to stay with her and keep track of my younger siblings, so my parents could go to Mass. Can you imagine the sighs and groans that I offered as a response?

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That Christmas Eve, over 50 years ago for me, was cold and snowy. My mom had produced a largely unsatisfactory dinner of pork roast and applesauce because that is what my grandmother wanted. All the kids, five of us at the time, were a bit twitchy over what the next morning might hold. Presents were anticipated and some of the younger kids still knew it was all due to Santa. By the time my parents and my brother (chosen to be an altar boy for the Mass) left, things were quiet. I was grumpily in my bed. My mom popped in and left a present for me.

‘The gift of the Magi’ by O’Henry.

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Even at 11 years old, I was changed by the book and what giving from the heart could be. You might remember the story. A woman sells her hair to buy the man she loves a chain for his watch, and the man sells his watch to buy the woman combs for her beautiful hair. The intent of each was pure and selfless. Sacrificial love. I was stunned by the story and I never have forgotten that night. I was aware of something bigger. Something bigger about Christmas and gifts and giving was offered; a gift to me then and now.

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We know that Christmas and all the holidays are not about the gifts. But, I suggest that we might want to hold on to the intent of sacrificial love and what we can give to each other. Can I give you what I think that you need at the expense of what I hold dear? If you want my time and attention and I’d rather be watching Netflix or working out, what do I do? Can I swallow my pride, give you some time? Or listen to you at the expense of being right, not choosing my priorities over all else? Do I give of myself expecting something from you in return? If I do, I am likely to be disappointing both of us. When I give someone a gift, does it come from a place of wanting you to be happy? Or am I trying to make myself look better? The intent of how I give is likely more important than what I give.

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Maybe one of the challenges of Advent and Christmas is to be intentional in our sacrifices and actions. To move in the world with love and a sense of wanting what is best for others. To give of myself in ways that answer the continual call of what is best for all. And, maybe, toss a good book to somebody along the way.

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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.

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So This is Christmas: Finding Joy in the Darkness

Editor’s Note: As we approach our 5th anniversary of blogging on Beyond the Habit, we are sharing a few posts from our archives. This week, we offer a blog originally posted in December of 2017, which once again seems very relevant to our world.

By Elizabeth Powers

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go.

We’re told it’s the most wonderful time of the year. A time when hope and love and faith shines brightly from every corner. After all, everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe help make the season bright. And tree tops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow.

giphy (46)Everyone else when they here Christmas music.

Yes, if you listen to the songs that have been playing on every radio station, in every store around town, we’re all simply having a wonderful Christmas time. But what happens when Christmas does not bring with it the immediate joy the season is meant to invoke? This year especially, during a time that has felt tumultuous for our country and for our world, how can we simply put up a tree, string up the Christmas lights, and celebrate?

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For me, anyway, they’re singing deck the halls, but it’s not like Christmas at all. I keep asking myself questions as the winds get colder and the songs get merrier. So this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun. What have I done this year that has made a difference? How can I find the beauty of Christmas in days that feel so gloomy?

But then I remember the stars are brightly shining; it is the night of our dear savior’s birth. Even in days that are filled with doubt and worry, Christmas will come, bringing joy to the world on a silent night.

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Maybe you think this seems trite. Can the coming of Christ really do enough to lift our spirits? Can being reminded that a child is born change the course of our world? Maybe not. But isn’t that what Christmas is really all about? Having the faith that away in a manger a small child came to save us, even though the world is dark?

If anything, maybe we need Christmas this year more than ever. Maybe we need a little Christmas, right this very minute to help remind us that throughout the history of the world there has been darkness and tragedy and fear. But through it all, God’s light has always shined down upon us, and every year we celebrate, reminding ourselves that with the coming of Jesus, comes joy to the world.

pexels-photoWhile our troubles may not be out of sight, neither is hope. So, have yourself a merry little Christmas. 

About the Author

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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, Harry Potter, and she has finally found the joy of Christmas, thanks to her nearly 3 year old daughter.

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May the Force Be With You

By Gina Sullivan

In 1977, when I was 10 years old, a movie called Star Wars came out. It was like nothing I, or arguably anyone, had ever seen before. People waited in long lines at theaters to see it (many multiple times), and despite 20th Century Fox executives who were convinced it would fail, Star Wars went on to become the highest grossing movie of all time up to that point. Themed merchandise of every kind flew off store shelves and only added to the cultural craze. I myself had a Star Wars lunchbox and all the character action figures, and my younger brother had Star Wars sheets on his bed (he may not be happy I’m sharing that).

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In an era with no CGI to rely on, the special effects were stunning and still hold up today. The fresh-faced actors were mostly unknowns at the time, which only added to the sense of realism, and had chemistry for days. And the iconic score by the legendary John Williams elevated the entire experience, transporting us to far away worlds. I say ‘experience’ rather than ‘movie’ because that was what watching Star Wars was like – an experience. It captured my imagination and that of the world, and 11 sequels/prequels and several spin-off TV shows later, continues to do so.

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But as any movie-goer can attest, special effects, music and even great actors can only take a movie so far. What really made Star Wars special then and the reason it has stood the test of time is the story – a simple tale of good vs. evil. At the center of the story is the concept of “the Force”. The late actor Alec Guinness who played Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Jedi master and mentor to Luke Skywalker, explained the Force as, “An energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds us together.” Sound familiar?

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If you’re reading this, chances are it does as it is not unlike the mission of unity to which the Sisters of St. Joseph have dedicated their lives – that all people are intrinsically interconnected with God, one another and all creation. Many have argued over the decades about what the Force really was. Was it a metaphor for God, science, the universe? I’ve always wondered why these are thought of as distinctly separate. God is the author of all, which includes the universe and everything in it. God is the energy and the love that binds us all.

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So why does it feel sometimes that not enough people in the world know how truly interconnected we are? Why doesn’t everyone realize that what happens to one of us, happens to all of us, and behave accordingly? Maybe the words “realize” and “know” are the problem. Luke is only able to tap into the Force when he lets go of what his brain and eyes tells him and, as Obi-Wan instructs, stretches beyond himself and his thoughts, and just feels. This transformative process elevates and enlightens him, and allows him to use the Force for good. Could it be this simple?

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If I read a statistic about how many people are starving in the world, I think “that’s horrible”. But when I see a photo of a mother holding a starving child, I don’t think. My heart drops and I feel. That is the moment of transformation – the same one that has inspired the best of humanity to act with love and courage to change that which is unjust. We are, after all, in this together.

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Just as Luke Skywalker transformed his consciousness in order to access the love and energy that binds us all together, perhaps we too should think less and feel more. More compassion. More empathy. More love. Only then can we truly feel interconnected to God, creation and one another, especially those we do not know.

May THAT Force be with you always.

About the Author

Gina Sullivan.hiresGina Sullivan is the Director of Communications for the Congregation of St. Joseph and is also an Associate. She is the mother of two daughters ages 23 and 20 and step-mother to another daughter age 19 and son age 21. She is an avid concert-goer and Cleveland Browns fan, and enjoys cooking, reading, music, photography, her three cats, travel and spending time with family and friends.

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Gratitude and Grace

I love the month of November. I always have. From the moment I turn over the calendar page, November is a month that speaks to me of gratitude and grace.

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When I became Catholic, November 1st and 2nd quickly became my favorite feasts in the Church calendar. Celebrating the humanity and holiness of those souls who have gone before us, known and unknown, reminds me that there is a powerful spiritual bond between the living and the dead. As I have grown older, many friends and family members have joined the ‘heavenly hosts’ of ancestors whose names I speak in prayerful memory. Their pictures decorate my November prayer space. I cherish this month that is set aside to remember, honor, and celebrate these beloveds. I am grateful for the love that I have known and that continues sustains me.

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As I child I remember coloring pictures of cornucopias overflowing with abundance. Thanksgiving Dinner meant our table of eight exploded into double digits that included grandparents and other relatives or friends. Hymns of gratitude and bounty were sung that still echo in my heart: “Now Thank We All Our God”…”We Gather Together…” “For The Beauty of the Earth.” November meant raking the last of the leaves into crunchy piles and walking in the woods behind our house on a search for pine cones and oddly shaped acorn clusters.

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Age, of course, has widened my worldview and expanded my heart. Twenty months of a global pandemic has surely reshaped us all. The departed souls worldwide this year include more than 5 million deaths to COVID-19. For too many, life has included more loss than abundance: loss of jobs, homes, relationships, family milestones and rituals.

Yet it is during these challenging times when we most need to practice gratitude and look for the grace that surrounds us. In my own life, I am enormously grateful for the front line medical workers who have risked their own lives and health to help others. I am grateful for the technology that has made it possible for me to continue to minister and to connect with friends and family.

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How can we use this unwanted pandemic to grow our resilience and gratitude? How can we use the power of shared gratitude to appreciate how much we depend on one another?

November 13 is World Kindness Day (another reason to love November). The purpose of this day is “to help everyone understand that compassion for others is what binds us all together. This understanding has the power to bridge the gaps between [us].” To celebrate this day I am pledging to do at least one intentional act of kindness to benefit someone else. This will be my small way to bring a bit more abundance into the lives of my dear neighbor. It will also be one more way I name the gratitude and graces in my own life.

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Because in the end, gratitude connects us to our personal and global life stories and to the meaning at the center of that story. It connects and grounds us to what matters.

Who and what are you grateful for today?

What simple act of kindness could you do for someone today that could inspire gratitude?

About the Author

16-judyminear-copySister Judith Minear currently serves as part of a 3-member team for CSJ Ministries as Coordinator for Mission Integration. CSJ Ministries is the umbrella organization that works with ministries that are members of our Mission Network. In her free time, she loves drawing zentangles, stalking birds and savoring poetry.

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The Blessings of “Niblings”

By Sister Sallie Latkovich

For those of us whose life commitment keeps us from birthing children of our own, nieces and nephews are great blessings, providing the relationships that we might long for: to be with and to care for babies, watching them grow through childhood and into adulthood, and even watching them get married and bear their own children. I myself am blessed with thirteen “niblings” (another word for the children of ones siblings): eight nephews and five nieces. They have enriched my life in amazing ways for which I am so very grateful, and have taught me as much as I have taught them.

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Here are some of my favorite stories. . .

. . .my first niece, Kelly, was born in the fall of the year. Early in December, my sister asked if I might sit with Kelly while she went out to do some Christmas shopping. I happily obliged, knowing that Kelly would sleep away the afternoon and I could tend to my own work. I sat in a rocker in Kelly’s room and watched her sleep. She hadn’t “done” anything as yet: not crawled, nor walked, nor began to talk. And yet, my heart swelled with love for her in her very being. Ah, the experience of unconditional love. Perhaps this is how God views us as well.

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. . .my brother’s older two sons loved to golf at a short nine-hole course near their home. When I was in town, they invited me to go along. It was such fun to golf with those boys, who cheered me on and gave me tips. On one occasion, eight-year-old Patrick left us on the sixth hole to go to the clubhouse to use the restroom. He never returned to us or our game. When we approached the last hole, he was sitting on a bench with two older gentlemen, just “shooting the breeze” with them. What fun to observe our extrovert in action. Actually made me think of Jesus “sitting in the midst of the teachers in the Temple.”

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. . .one time, I was being interviewed by a TV news reporter about a report that the Vatican suggested that women’s ordination not be discussed. At the conclusion of the interview, the reporter asked me if I thought women’s ordination would become a reality. I replied that if it didn’t happen in my lifetime, it would happen in the lifetime of my nieces. Of course, my nieces viewed the interview. The next time I visited, I was sitting on a couch, and eight-year-old Sara stood before me with hands on her hips and said: “You know what you said about our becoming priests? It’s not going to happen! I’m going to be a Doctor!” Okay then. And, she did! Sara had a clear goal that she made come true!

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. . .as we all know, there are a variety of scrapes and bruises that happen to children. Nancy had come to learn that a little iced “boo boo bear” was always in the freezer and always used in an “emergency.” When her younger sister had a minor accident, Nancy was faster than the speed of lightning to get that boo-boo bear to her. I observed in her the desire to comfort and to heal.

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Of course, these are all stories of nieces and nephews as children. There are so many more stories of their growing up and into adulthood, with decisions made, careers launched, families begun. And, even more significantly, pain and suffering encountered on life’s journey. It takes some intention and attention to stay connected with them, deepening our relationships. They remain so dear to me.

Perhaps my greatest learning in relationship to nieces and nephews is that I want what is best for them in life, and want them to be happy. Although that is my desire, I have no control over their life choices (nor do their parents.) But, I can be with them, loving them, accompanying them. And isn’t that God’s desire and presence to all of us as well?

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About the Author

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After nine years at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Sister Sallie Latkovich was elected to and currently serves on the Leadership Team of the Congregation of St. Joseph.

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Science Discovers the Power of Prayer

By Sister Christine Schenk

I grew up at the height of the conflict between science and religion. As a good Catholic girl who loved science, this created more than a little angst. I soon decided the “God is dead” people were probably correct. After all, who had ever proven that God exists?

The violence of Vietnam and white supremacist attempts to destroy the civil rights movement –including the assassinations of prophetic leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and Robert Kennedy—all pointed away from the idea of a loving creator whose creation could in any way be considered good.

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Plus, more than a few scientists sneered at religion, viewing it as rife with superstition, and an obstacle to progress. The Catholic Church’s suppression of reputable scientists who were also believers—such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ—did not help. His soaring view of a God who could be found in all of creation was deeply inspiring to me. It also seemed too good to be true.

And so I became an agnostic. A scientific agnostic—or so I thought—as that seemed to be the truth of things and I could no longer pretend otherwise. Yet, while I no longer believed, it felt better to be around people who did. A Jesuit chaplain at Georgetown, William Kaifer, SJ, met with me almost every month. He posed questions, provided insight, and helped me understand it was ok to doubt. Mostly he loved and respected the integrity of my search. I faithfully attended daily Mass—albeit with a leaden heart—sitting alongside a beloved, believing, classmate. Looking back, I suspect I was secretly hoping to discover—or be discovered by—a God to believe in. A God who also believed in me.

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Thanks to Fr. Kaifer and my believing friend, I got my wish. On a weekend retreat my senior year—through Fr. Kaifer’s unwitting mediation—I had a powerful experience of God’s love. I never looked back. Although I hadn’t solved the science-religion dilemma—and the world was definitely still a mess—I made a separate peace with it all.

I also retained a lifelong love for both science and religion.

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Which brings me to a recent, rather remarkable change on the part of scientists who are studying the beneficial effects of religious practice. To their surprise they are finding such practices can lesson anxiety and depression, increase physical health, and even reduce the risk of early death. In his just-published book, How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion, research psychologist Dr. David DeSteno cites multiple studies revealing how religious practices from around the world improve emotional and physical health.

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Researchers compared subjects who engaged in certain religious practices with those who did not. They found statistically significant differences between the two groups. For example, the Christian practice of saying grace—gratitude—was found to increase empathy. The Jewish tradition of sitting shiva actually reduced the pain associated with grief. Japanese Shinto rituals related to childbirth were shown to insulate mothers from post-partum depression. Buddhist meditation reduced hostility and increased compassion. All of which led DeSteno to conclude:

“The ways these practices leverage mechanisms of our bodies and minds can enhance the joys and reduce the pains of life …. Rather than scoffing at religion and starting psychological investigations from scratch, we scientists should be studying rituals and spiritual practices to understand their influence, and where appropriate, create new techniques and therapies informed by them.”

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As a lifelong pray-er and meditator, I am not surprised by DeSteno’s findings. As have many others, I find meditation often leads to an inner calm and a surprising stillness. After resting in the quiet presence of the God-beyond-all names I have sometimes experienced improvements in cold, flu and/or minor pain symptoms. Yet these physical improvements pale in comparison to the healing and transformation of my fears, angers, and other psychological hurts—all because of prayer to a God who is love right through.

What is the explanation for such phenomena? I have come to believe that as we draw near to the divine mystery, we cannot help but mirror the wholeness of a life-giving God who is One with all that is. For Christians, this great truth is revealed especially in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus taught us to pray. His own prayer—and ours—opens a portal to the One God in whom we live and move and have our being. This can only bring healing and life.

What do you think? What has the power of prayer and religious practice meant in your life?

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About the Author

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Sister Christine Schenk has worked as a nurse midwife to low-income families, a community organizer, a writer, and the founding director of an international church reform organization, FutureChurch. Currently she writes an award-winning column “Simply Spirit” for the National Catholic Reporter.

Her book Crispina and Her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity (Fortress, 2017) was awarded first place in History by the Catholic Press Association.

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As the Season Turns

By Sister Christine Parks

I learned something new this year—really many things—but this is the one I’ve been pondering since September began. Maybe you already know this, maybe I’ve heard it before and forgotten, but there’s about a two-week difference between the astronomical beginning of Autumn (Sept. 22 this year) and the meteorological beginning (Sept. 1); at least according to our local meteorologists. And perhaps that explains, in part why we experience this shift of season so immediately in conjunction with the Labor Day weekend.

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This year with the turning over of the calendar page from August to September, it felt like a switch had been flipped, or a doorway stepped through. August 31st hot and muggy, September 1st cooler with a dramatic drop in humidity (at least here in Southwest Michigan). And while I don’t miss the 90+ degree days (which seem to be on the increase year-to-year) there is a brief moment of melancholy knowing the days are growing shorter as another summer falls into Autumn in the northern hemisphere.

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The melancholy doesn’t last though, as the increasing slant of light highlights the beginnings of trees letting go of their green gown, exchanging it for the vibrancy of fall colors; as crops mature and are harvested, the last tomatoes hesitate to turn red. It’s also one of my two favorite seasons for woods walks, with the decrease in mosquitoes, ticks and, dare I say excessive sweat.

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In recent years, for people of faith, September 1st has also invited us to enter the Season of Creation (Sept. 1—Oct. 4) and celebrate our Oneness with Earth and all the beings with whom we share our common home-planet. (You can join the congregation in our journey through the Season of Creation here.)

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As we entered into this year’s celebration, I had the sense of it being even more intimately connected to our congregations promises: to recognize the reality that Earth is dying, to claim our oneness with Earth and to take steps now to strengthen, heal and renew the face of Earth; and: impelled by the emerging worldview of integral ecology…we commit to exercise our credibility and moral authority as sisters and associates of the Congregation by standing in solidarity with Earth and with all who are oppressed and marginalized, taking the risks entailed in giving public voice when addressing systemic injustice.

These prior commitments have led us toward our congregational decision to join with other Religious Congregations, Catholic institutions/organizations, Dioceses, across the globe, and sign-on to the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, a unique collaboration between the Vatican and “all men and women of good will,” empowering all to take “decisive action, here and now” as we journey towards a better future together. In doing this, we begin our planning to take whatever actions we can to slow, if not reverse, the current climate change crisis. It is truly a challenging next step in our movement to expand and deepen our mission of unioning love, which includes more than just human beings, but is a celebration of being One in an integral communion with all of creation.

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All of these thoughts and ruminations are with me these early fall days as I walk in the many amazing nature preserves in our part of Michigan; as I watch the sun journey south, followed by many of our migrating feathered friends; as I enjoyed the rising of the harvest moon. We continue to be in the throes of the COVID pandemic, and yet, even in the midst of that, we are surrounded by the beauty of this season. If I were a musician I’d write a symphony for it, but even though I’m not, I still catch the occasional strains of a paean of praise, rooted in deep gratitude, singing in my heart.

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About the Author

Sister Christine Parks, CSJ, serves as a Spiritual Director, and occasional retreat and program presenter online and in Kalamazoo. She also works with the Congregation’s Protect & Heal Earth initiative and sustainability efforts. Leisure activities include gardening, long walks in nature, reading, writing and poetry.

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Heroes of the Classroom

By Sister Jean McGrath

Stopped at a traffic light last week, I noticed the bumper sticker on the van in front of me: “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

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Late August and early September days have for most of my life, been like New Year’s Eve. I treasure fond memories of my own days as a student when I marched into school wearing a crisp plaid uniform and carrying a backpack with a brand-new box of 48 crayons, (can you identify “burnt umber” today?) a nifty pencil sharpener, and a pink pearl eraser. Later, more sophisticated high school supplies included gel pens in every color, a multi-function calculator, and an American Literature Book the size of a large telephone directory. (Who remembers the white and yellow pages of telephone directories?)

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I entered the Sisters of St. Joseph in LaGrange, aware that with few exceptions, most in the community were teachers working in multiple schools throughout Chicago and the suburbs. Like my predecessors, as a teacher, September meant new groups of students, empty lesson plan books, full size pieces of chalk and trying to find a creative idea for bulletin board displays.

That was then and this is now.

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Students beginning school in 2021 face a very different school experience than I did those many years ago. IPads and the internet have opened immense opportunities for contemporary scholars of every age.  However, the role of the teacher is more important than ever and as the new school year begins, I think it is important to applaud what teachers do each and every day, especially in these COVID-19 times.

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The shift to remote or “e-learning” that most teachers had to master in a relatively short period of time was remarkable.  “Zooming” with students challenged them to re-design their curriculum and establish a cyber-space relationship with students that was very different from the usual daily encounters of the traditional classroom. Stories of the clever and creative ways teachers responded to the demands of the COVID-19 classroom are awesome and inspiring. Teachers often delivered assignments directly to the homes of their students, were available for countless after hour meetings, and communicated effectively with parents, many working from home themselves. An internet glitch could pause daily instruction for a single student or an entire class. Yet, because of their professionalism, dedication, and ability to respond to any crisis, students continued to learn, despite a very different environment. Kudos to our teachers!

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Last week as I watched a group of first graders wait to enter our parish school building, I thought about the teachers who had a profound effect on my own life. I thought about Sister Jesse who ended each school day by reading Little House on the Prairie or other stories to our fifth-grade class.  I marveled at the patience of my geometry teacher, Miss Gladstone, who promised that math phobia was a curable disease. I thought about Sister Noreen who dismissed a friend and me during glee club practice because something or someone had sparked that kind of uncontrollable laughter that usually only happens in Church. We waited sheepishly after class for what we thought would surely be the end of our acapella high school careers. Instead, Sister graciously forgave us admitting that she too sometimes caught the giggles. I learned much about the power of forgiveness that day.  Later, college teachers would help me to think more critically and strive to be a life-long learner.  

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Our lives are shaped by so many persons, experiences and events. With the exception of parents and siblings, our teachers from pre-school through post college years have the most profound influence on our formative years and help shape the persons we become.

 I recently tried to remember the names of the many teachers I had and the things I remembered about each. Some were just a name; others I realized taught me so much more than their specific subject matter. I invite you to take the time to reflect on the women and men who were your teachers, your mentors, your role models, and yes, even your challengers. I think you will find the experience a wonderful opportunity to realize the blessings each was in your life. And, perhaps as you can read this, you will thank a teacher.

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About the Author

JeanMcGrathAfter years as a Catholic School Principal, Sister Jean McGrath is looking forward to volunteer service now that she has retired. She loves a good book, a good conversation and a good bargain!

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The Gift of Community

By Sister Marcella Clancy

As a religious woman I often use the word community. Given the context, it has different shades of meaning: who we are as a whole, e.g. “Our community supports immigrants at the border.” Or our physically living together, e.g. “I live in community with another sister.” Or creating an experience of coming together in prayer, sharing, and/or celebration, e.g. “Our St. Joseph Day celebration was a good experience of community.”

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COVID placed limits on our physical experience of community. Celebrations were cancelled. Our bi-annual or monthly gatherings were all by Zoom. All get-togethers ceased. We could not even gather to grieve and celebrate the lives of our sisters who died. No warm hugs, catching-up conversations over a meal or coffee break, no personal sharing around a table. I realize that we are not the only ones who have experienced the loss of physical presence and tangible expressions of love during COVID and that for many loneliness has been much more poignant. Though limited I have been blessed in the opportunities I had for interaction and physical presence during this pandemic and for the most part was not consciously aware of what I had lost until….

During the last week of July, I was invited to give a retreat to our sisters at our Nazareth Center. I was categorized as a “volunteer” and was thus able to give talks in our chapel and during the day stay in one of the guest rooms where I met individually with retreatants. Because of COVID precautions overnight stays or meals in the dining room with our resident sisters were prohibited. Yet I could peer into the beautifully graced faces of our sisters as I gave my talks and listen to the sacred stories of those who shared with me. Quiet, heroic stories of suffering, loss, fidelity, and love.

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During this week, a profound awareness grew in me of the cumulative nature of community. I came to understand in a new way how much my life, my being has become intertwined, interwoven with these women. We have shaped and formed each other over our long years together. We have created community out of our shared hopes, desires, longings, our service to the dear neighbor, our fidelity through disappointments and suffering and our celebrations in joy and gladness. We have accompanied one another in our losses and sorrow and in our triumphs and successes and blessed each other with forgiveness over and over again. Our coming together of several communities as one congregation 14 years ago only expanded and enriched my experience of community as I discovered women who were eager to enfold other sisters from other founding congregations in the livingness of community and build together a new future. I became clearer eyed this July week that “community” is not a “thing”, an “entity” but a living physical reality. Gathering via Zoom was a gift during the pandemic yet the retreat week underscored for me the need to be in each other’s physical presence, to feel the blessedness radiating from the other, to experience the profound grace that binds us together, to encounter community and to know that we belong to each other.

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I was amazed to find myself so excited when our Congregational Leadership Team announced a possible gathering in December when we can come together as sisters. I have never been so enthusiastic about a congregational meeting. COVID has made me conscious of how much I miss the physicality community requires, being in each other’s presence, experiencing each other’s kindness, challenging one another by our differences, inspiring each other by our on-going story of grace, building together a future full of hope.

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Ministry flows from community. It is what we do. Community is the essence of who we are. I do not want to romanticize community. It can always disappoint, cause hurt, fail us. Forgiveness is constant requisite. We do not form community because we like one another, are like-minded or because we have a common charism/spirit or mission. The call to religious community is intimately personal. Each woman has her vocation story, a call, a lure, a drawing by God. The foundation of “community” is the intermingling over time of our unique faith journeys, of our individual interior movements toward God and our dear neighbor shared with each other. Through the Spirit’s urgings a living community is formed and has the extraordinary power to witness to God who is Love. “By this will all know that you are my disciples, by your love for one another.” (John 13:35)

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I describe what I understand to be the journey toward community in the context of my life as a religious woman yet I recognize faith communities are present in several different forms; church communities, neighborhood communities, work communities, educational communities, and most importantly family communities where all of us are first formed in community. In our culture of individualism, may each of us discover anew our community or communities and commit to building together a future full of hope and be the living witness of God’s great love tangibly among us.

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About the Author

marcella for blogSister Marcella Clancy, CSJ, is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph and has degrees in theology and nursing.  She has served in parish ministry, accompanied others in spiritual direction, and served as retreat director for many years. She has taught theology as an adjunct faculty. Currently she does some writing, spiritual direction, and gives presentations. She believes that the core of our life is moving toward love of God and love of our dear neighbor without distinction.