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An Amazon Advent

By Sister Jean McGrath

It is time for a true confession.

Having been in education for my entire professional career, I confess I tried hard to remind myself and the students with whom I worked that one should never rush Christmas. Instead, one should enjoy the beautiful austerity of Advent with its dark winter nights and beautiful Old Testament readings.

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I tried but I often failed.

When the infamous Elf on the Shelf is omnipresent in every classroom and the car radio has been playing Christmas music since the Monday BEFORE Thanksgiving, it is difficult not to think about Christmas shopping, decorating, and long lines at Target. I confess, I secretly enjoyed the contagious though commercial anticipation of Christmas. Now, having been barraged by Black Friday deals that began three weeks ago, I have had a revelation, Advent and Amazon do have some things in common.

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My new theory: Amazon does know something about anticipation (especially if you are a PRIME member). Like the prophets of old, Amazon has been telling us for months about great things to come. Amazon invites me to check the daily deal, not unlike the prophets remind me to be vigilant and watchful. Amazon sends tracking reminders so that I know something very special is on the way. The daily Advent readings remind me to “prepare the way” and track the wonder and mystery of Advent anticipation.

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Yes, this new way of thinking may be a dramatic stretch of the imagination and poor theology, but, so often our busy lives compartmentalize the season and I fear, make us a bit guilty. I want my heart to be still and peace-filled, but when will I shop for the ones I love? I want to experience the stillness of the Advent season, but waiting to put up the tree until Christmas Eve is impossible. I should be thinking about “the reason for the season” but I am also thinking about the ingredients needed for the Christmas cookies I love to bake.

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Before you judge me too harshly, please realize I do know that Amazon has been criticized for various reasons. However, let’s give the Amazon elves a break this season. They are people, like you and me, doing the best they can this holiday. Maybe a simple thank you to the weary driver or the offer of a thermos of coffee and a Christmas cookie would be a grateful Advent gesture worth thinking about.

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The Black Friday sales have filled my inbox and I admit to scrolling a few retail sites for a unique gift for the special people in my life. But I am also watching and waiting on this cold winter night grateful for the persons, opportunities and grace filled days that mark this special season of the year. I am also waiting for the blue Amazon truck to arrive as promised.

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I think there is room in my heart for both this season.

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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Ten Tips for Pray-ers

By Sister Jeanne Cmolik

You should pray always. To help you get the hang of it, here are my 10 tips for pray-ers!

  1. Keep it simple

You don’t have to be good at it, just do it! Start now and for five minutes, turn to God in your heart. Author Anne Lamott says the three essential prayers are “Help, Thanks, and Wow.”

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  1. Use your own words

You don’t talk with a friend using words from a book, do you? Put aside the prayers written by someone else—beautiful as they may be—and speak from your heart. God wants to hear your voice!

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  1. You don’t always have to use words

Sometimes the most precious time with a friend is sitting together in silence, looking at the autumn leaves or at a sunset. You’re enjoying a deep connection; you’re just not using words. Sit with God like that. You can go to a beautiful place, but you don’t have to. Just be with God.

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  1. Stay with it

So you’re tired; you’re not in the mood to pray. You have a thousand things to do. If this is important to you, make time to do it, even if you just sit and wait for God to show up.

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  1. Put your heart in it

Tell God why you have come. Tell your Friend that more than anything you want to be there, fully present, growing in love.

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  1. Be honest

It’s okay to tell God you’re having a bad day (God knows it without you saying so, anyway.) Tell God what’s going on, and what you would like to change. Ask for help.

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  1. Sing, dance, or walk your prayer

God doesn’t mind if you fall asleep while you’re praying. (I call it “resting in the Lord.”) I think God actually enjoys seeing us dozing peacefully in our prayer like little children, but if you’d like to rouse yourself and be more active in your prayer, sing a favorite song or hymn to God; use your body and do a dance for God; take a walk in God’s creation, aware of the holy presence.

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  1. Say “thank you” before you say “please”

I think it’s a good strategy to thank God for gifts you’ve already been given before you ask for more. Begin your prayer with a list of daily blessings. (It puts God in a good mood.) If you really get into this, you may even forget what you were going to ask for, or decide you don’t really need it.

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  1. Remember, God wants this relationship even more than you do.

Spiritual writer Joan Chittister reminds us “the God we are seeking is also seeking us.” I find this comforting, because for me it means even if I get tired of trying to find God, God never gives up finding me.

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  1. Don’t waste time and energy evaluating the quality of your prayer.

That’s God’s business, and God doesn’t do report cards. God’s just so happy when you take the time to deepen your friendship!

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Bonus Tip: Expect God to show up!

God always shows up—we just don’t know where or when.  Believe this. Watch for it.

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About the Author

Cmolik.Jeanne.webSister Jeanne Cmolik, CSJ, has served in various leadership positions including being a member of the Congregation Leadership Team from 2008-2013. She has also ministered in elementary schools, high schools, and parishes in the Cleveland area, and served in vocations working with new members. She enjoys reading, travel, music and writing blog posts!

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When the Road Rises to Meet You

By Gina Sullivan

I recently returned from a trip to Ireland where I was blessed to spend two weeks traveling the Irish countryside and getting to know the locals in small to mid-size towns with names like Whitegate, Mountshannon, Kenmare, and Kilaloe. This trip, which I had dreamed about since, well, as long as I can remember, checked a fairly sizeable box on my personal bucket list. It was everything I pictured Ireland would be but more beautiful – rolling, emerald green hills, stone houses and thatch-roofed cottages, ancient castles and churches, colorful streetscapes, and inviting pubs filled with music. What I could not have imagined, however, was how lovely and warm the Irish people would be, and how the many interactions and conversations I had would change me.

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Because I work in the field of communications, it is my job to transmit information, stories and narratives about the Congregation and our work outward to the world. The transmitting part I know, it’s the receiving part that can be tricky, mainly when the feedback is from those who do not agree with us. It’s a microcosm of what is going on in this country. Civil discourse, defined as “an engagement in conversation intended to enhance understanding,” has been replaced with vitriol in social media conversations where consequences are absent, and perhaps more concerning, avoidance and silence in our interpersonal conversations – even with family and close friends. Not so in Ireland.

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One of the commitments of the Congregation of St. Joseph is to “Respectfully engage people who may hold different values or worldviews to bring about personal and cultural transformation.” I held this intention as I engaged in conversation with the Irish. Because we stayed in a very small town, we got to know the townspeople personally. They were curious about us and asked many questions about what was going on in the U.S. They listened, rather than simply waiting to speak, and were never sarcastic or disrespectful. When we spoke about their concerns -Brexit being foremost currently – even when one disagreed with another about whether it was a good idea for England to withdraw from the European Union and how it would affect Ireland, they were still cordial and respected the other’s views. Civil discourse demonstrated, I thought, although they would not define it as such. To the Irish, it is simply being polite.

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I came away from my trip with a renewed value on listening and civility; on relationships over opinion; on people over politics. Like the Sisters for whom I work, this does not mean I don’t have issues I care deeply about or that I won’t express my views. But it does mean the way in which I communicate and conduct myself with those who hold different views than I do, both at work and at home, sets an example and matters. A return to civil discourse begins with me.

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Someone once said, “The best things in life are the people we love, the places we have been and the memories we have made along the way.” My journey to the Emerald Isle was all that but much more. It was a road I needed to travel…and it definitely rose to meet me.

About the Author

Street.webGina 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 21 and 18 and step-mother to another daughter age 17 and son age 19. She enjoys cooking, walking, reading, playing with her three mischievous cats, and experiencing new places and people

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Dancing Back to Humanity

By Elizabeth Powers

I have a confession to make – I love watching Dancing with the Stars. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Dancing with the Stars is a reality television program where famous people are matched up with professional dancers and, over the course of several weeks, learn how to waltz, samba, and quickstep, competing against each other in the hopes of winning the coveted “mirror ball trophy”.

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I know, it sounds incredibly silly. But it’s my guilty pleasure.

I’m not sure what it is about this show that is so appealing. Maybe it’s because everyone starts on equal footing (no pun intended), trying to learn a new skill. Maybe it’s my love of dance, the upbeat nature of the music, the fun costumes. Maybe it’s just an easy way to escape from the heaviness of life that we are all inundated with every day.

Regardless of why I watch, I was excited this September when I realized that a new season would be starting soon. When the show announced the list of “stars” who would be taking part, the usual suspects were present– actors and actresses from old television shows, former athletes, musicians. But this year, there was also someone signed on who I found personally divisive: a politician.

“It’s so frustrating,” I said to my mother. “I just want a little bit of time each week where I’m not focused on all the terrible things going on in the world. Why do they have to put someone from the political arena on the show? Regardless of your political leanings, it just seems wrong.”

My mother, of course, offered her wisdom.

“He’s probably not a very good dancer,” she said. “Get some popcorn, watch the show with us, and just hope he gets sent home early.”

I followed her advice, and I have been enjoying the season (who doesn’t secretly want to learn how to ballroom dance?) Still, every time this particular figure was on screen, it irked me.

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Then, last week, I had an unexpected change of heart. It was this person’s turn to dance and as I was about to roll my eyes at my mother, they started his introduction.

Usually, the introduction clip offers a glimpse into the star trying to learn the dance they’re about to perform, the difficulties of the dance style, and to share some humor and heartfelt moments. This week however, this individual talked about losing his father, how his family had shaped his life, and the memories he held onto when his father passed.

By the end of the clip, I was near tears. Here was a man with whom I disagreed with about nearly everything, and yet this silly, reality TV show had reminded me of our shared humanity.

One of the things the Congregation of St. Joseph is committed to is to “respectfully engage people who may hold different values or worldviews to bring about personal and cultural transformation.” While I obviously don’t personally know this political figure and hadn’t engaged with him on a personal level, how had I been treating even the idea of him? Hadn’t I been making assumptions about his life, about this family, about his very being? Hadn’t I forgotten that even though we disagree, we are all human?

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Sometimes, in this world of the minute by minute news cycle and social media, it’s far too easy to see someone as “other.” To look at them as a one dimensional being, who represents something we disagree with, whether it be a social issue, politics, or even some aspect of the church. This is what I had been doing to this politician – looking at him only as a person I disagreed with rather than looking at him as a whole person. A person who has a family. A person who has a full, interior life that I know nothing about. It took a reality television program to remind me that whether we know each other personally or not, we are all God’s children, all deserving of empathy and understanding, even when we disagree.

And maybe that’s at the heart of why I love watching Dancing with the Stars. We are all just people. We are all just living our lives, trying to learn new things, the best we can. Maybe, if we can remember our shared humanity, we can work towards building a more caring world, and help one another through this dance we call life.

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, Harry Potter, and Dancing with the Stars. She is a new mom, and working to figure it out!

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Hurdles Everywhere!

By Sister Jacqueline Goodin

One day in mid-summer, I looked out my window and over to the athletic field of St. Joseph Academy, our sponsored high school in Cleveland, which sits next to the center where our sisters live and work. I saw a group of young women running hurdles.

I marveled at how easily and courageously they seemed to run and jump, with some speed, over the series of hurdles in training for an upcoming sports season.

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I flashed back to my own high school days in P.E. The hurdles seemed at least five feet tall to me then. I spent my entire time in those classes always moving myself to the end of the line so that I would never have to attempt the high jump and face the ultimate humiliation of falling flat on my face.

In those years, I could never imagine all of the hurdles that I would face in the following decades. Nor could I have taken in the very real hurdles that people all over the world face in the daily challenge of existing amidst poverty, racism and oppression. At that time, avoidance was a very smart strategy. But not so much anymore.

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The image of hurdles has made me reflect on the ways in which I engage (or not) with hurdles in my life. How do you get over them, especially when they seem too big? First, let’s drop consideration for the many small hurdles in life that we inevitably face, such as a too-long grocery store line when I’m in a hurry or a small favor that a friend asks that isn’t very convenient to me. In the cosmos of things, this is not really a hurdle. It is a minor irritation. We can call upon our gracious God to ask for a bit more patience in those instances.

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I am referring to those hurdles which seem to plague us, injure our sense of well-being or safety, or which block us from believing deep down that we are loved by an Everlasting Love, whom we call God. These are real hurdles which one cannot avoid or run around. They must be faced, for on the other side is the abundance of life which we have been promised by our loving Creator. It’s worth the hard work of learning to jump those hurdles to have a taste of this abundance.

I believe the first step is to humbly ask our God for the gift of wisdom to discern what is a real hurdle and which hurdles are superficial. Then to ask for whatever other gifts we might need to break the hurdle down—such as the gift of self-compassion, courage, honesty, willingness to ask for help from friends or professionals. These are the gifts God never fails to give if we first take the often-time difficult step to simply ask and keep asking.

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Perhaps more importantly is “how do I accompany others who are facing their big life hurdles.” This is the call to turn compassion and justice-making into verbs—not nouns. We are called to be the bearers of hope that this abundance of life is possible and within reach if only we lay down our unnecessary burdens. Emptying ourselves of what is unnecessary only opens up space in our hearts for more love and life, for ourselves and for the world. We who are experiencing this abundance of life cannot remain satisfied and self-protective; we must reach out to those who are suffering in any way—through our prayer, advocacy, service, and hospitality.

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So, let’s get going and jump over a few hurdles today! No hurdle is too small or too big that it cannot be conquered.

About the Author

jackiegoodin.portrait.webSister Jacqueline Goodin, CSJ, is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team. She is a Clinical Social Worker with broad experience working with adults and children in varied settings. A transformative experience for her was the five years she served in Tanzania at St. Joseph Hostel for Girls, in collaboration with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambery.

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Discovering the Beautiful Hidden

By Sister Marcella Clancy

I am not good at making small talk and often feel awkward around those who are incapacitated. A few years ago, a sister with Alzheimer’s disease made a directed retreat with me. I came to understand the great suffering this disease caused. She felt shunned. She said to me, “They think I have a contagious disease and if they get too close to me, they will get it too.” There was great wisdom in those words. The others did not think she was contagious, but there was a tendency to avoid the confusion, the dementia, the cognitive impairment. Perhaps, like me, they felt awkward and impatient at having to answer the same question again and again and again. In her we perhaps foresee our own reality, and that frightens us.

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This past April I was invited to give a retreat at Borgess Place, where 12 of our sisters live who require nursing care. It was an unexpected invitation and though I accepted, I wondered what I would do. How would I give a retreat to women who had differing levels of cognitive ability and who all had some physical impairment? To my embarrassment, I rarely visited the sisters at the nursing home even though it is on the same grounds as our Center. I was awkward. I was in unfamiliar territory. I came with some thoughts but not sure how to proceed. They taught me.

My overall theme was from Henri Nouwen’s book, You are the Beloved. Each day we focused on another Eucharistic word: Taken/Chosen; Blessed; Broken/Vulnerable; and Given. I found pictures on the Internet that represented the theme for the day and added in large print a few lines from Scripture. I spent from 9:30 to noon each day talking to them individually about the theme, showing them the picture, and then praying over them. At 1:30 we all met together. I talked a little and we sang songs. One afternoon we sang one verse of You are My Sunshine – first hearing it from God and then a second time singing it to one another. After we finished, one of the sisters who usually was non-responsive started singing clearly in perfect pitch, not just the first but the second verse. Everybody else joined in with a hushed reverence.

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I learned to ask them questions and not just talk to them. What is one blessing you can name? What is your greatest suffering? Out of her deep confusion, one woman told me with absolute clarity, tears in her eyes, “I had a good priest friend.” Another, “We were poor but the riches of my family sustained me.” One told me with such deep anguish that the pain was tangible, “I have to be here for the rest of my life.” One expressed how disappointed she was that more sisters did not come to visit her and I wanted to cry. My own heart began to crack open. I began to see them not as cognitively or physically incapacitated but as they really were, the Crucified Christ, some feeling abandoned by God, some burdened by their physical inabilities, all slowly dying and waiting, waiting, waiting to go home to God. All hidden. All beautiful.

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Three women did not have the capacity to respond. There was no way to know what they heard or understood. I was asked to visit them too. Knowing hearing and touch were the last senses to leave, I went in and laid hands on them and played soft, prayerful, hopeful music: “May the longtime sun shine upon you. All love surrounds you. And the pure, pure light within you guide your way home.” Then I prayed over them, asking God to take them home. One woman who continuously uttered unintelligible words, grabbed my hand. After I prayed, I kissed her forehead and said “I love you, Pauline.” And I heard so very softly but clearly, “I love you,” and she took my hand and kissed it. And I knew, no matter how incapacitated, someone dwells within these bodies. Someone who still yearns to be touched tenderly, prayed over, and loved. Pauline died a couple of weeks later. She left me with an indelible blessing and grace.

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So many sisters told me they were praying for me and the retreatants. I knew without any doubt it was their prayers and the abundant grace of God that enabled me to do what I did. I feel so humbled and awed by this experience. I visited each of them when I came back a few weeks later. I asked one very serious sister, “Rosemary, your sister tells me sometimes you have good days and sometimes you have bad days, what kind of day is it today?” Sr. Rosemary’s response, “You’re here. It’s a good day.” I wanted to fall on my knees in tears. This is the sheer grace of God. I’m visiting again next week, and I can hardly wait to see my new friends.

About the Author

Marcella Clancy.LoResSister Marcella Clancy, CSJ, has degrees in nursing and theology. In the past she ministered in hospitals, taught nursing and theology at the college level and served in parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit. Currently, Sister Marcella ministers as a spiritual director, facilitates retreats and offers presentations through Transformation Spirituality Center at our Nazareth Center in Kalamazoo.

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We Remember, We Celebrate, We Believe

By Sister Sallie Latkovich

I like to say that Fr. Jean Pierre Medaille FOUND the Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph, who had already come together in 1650 in LePuy, France.  He discovered that they had divided the city and lived in small groups in order to serve the needs of the people among whom they lived.  Medaille was a fine spiritual director, who guided the little group in strengthening its foundations and being recognized as an apostolic religious order. (Learn more about our history here.)

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One of his writings was entitled The Eucharistic Letter from which this quote is taken:

“They will have an immense love for this adorable mystery and will recall that this holy sacrament of the Eucharist, having given a beginning to their little Congregation, should also serve to maintain it and cause it to grow more and more in every kind of grace and virtue.”  –Jean Pierre Medaille, SJ,  LePuy, France, 1650.

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We hear in the Acts of the Apostles that in the early Church, followers of Jesus “met in their homes for the breaking of the bread and the prayers.”   Of course, the ritual evolved from homes to church buildings;  and the celebration of the Eucharist became more stylized and universal.  The Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II named the Eucharist as “the source and summit” of Christian life.

There is a familiar hymn which summarizes the meaning of the Eucharist in this way:  “We remember how you loved us to your death.  And still we celebrate for you are with us here.  And we believe that we will see you when you come in your glory Lord:  We REMEMBER, we CELEBRATE, we BELIEVE.”

We continue to gather around the table of the Word and the Bread.  Indeed, we REMEMBER the life of Christ, the example for living that we hear in the Gospels. He showed us that love, forgiveness and healing are the way to live.  And he always sought out the poor and marginalized.  He was a prophet, a wisdom teacher, and a builder of community.

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Although the Scriptures we hear at the Eucharist always seem to be proclaimed with such seriousness, let us not miss the joy of CELEBRATION which must have been present especially in the accounts of being gathered  with others at table.  St. Frances de Sales highlighted the gentleness, peace and joy in which we are to live.

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And, we BELIEVE.  Liturgists use the Latin phrase:  Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi .  The loose translation is:  As we worship, so we believe, so we live.  Thus, worship leads to our belief and to our lives.

I realize that there are many hurdles that can get in the way of entering into the Eucharistic celebration fully:  poor music, poor lectors, poor homilies, poor presiding, etc, etc, etc.  Nevertheless, let us take Medaille’s words to heart:  that we be joined in immense love for the Eucharist, that it may cause us to grow in every kind of grace and virtue.

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About the Author

SallieLatkovich.Portrait.web
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.