Beyond the Habit on Hiatus

Our sisters and associates have enjoyed five wonderful years of blogging on Beyond the Habit! We will be taking a short hiatus starting in the spring of 2022, but please enjoying reading through our rich archive of blog posts from the last five years!

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Drink Coffee For Peace

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 2019.
By Sister Jacqueline Goodin, CSJ

It’s amazing what two cups of coffee (or tea) can do for us in the morning. It’s like turning a light on in your head. But can coffee’s near magical powers extend to larger areas, say, world peace? I practice peace-making whenever I am aware of the potential for relationship-building, and choose to take the time to share time with another person.

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Some of us may be familiar with the spiritual practice of mindfulness—that is, being aware of everything around us in creation, of our physical self, and of every movement-by-movement action that we make. When we practice mindfulness—even during a busy work day while taking care of the children or shopping for groceries—we slow our inside and outside self. Mindfulness ultimately helps us to appreciate the reality that we are in, to honor what needs honoring, and to consider thoughtfully our next steps.

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So where does coffee come in? It’s a metaphor for taking time, as we would when we savor a good cup of coffee or tea. Mindfulness can be applied to how we are with each other. I admit, many times I miss the potential. But more and more I am becoming aware of the possibility of taking time to be with another person fully. This requires that I set aside my own desires, expectations, or agenda for that person. I choose to empty myself so that I can truly hear the story of the one across from me. I choose to give the other the gift of my time, without rush. People have such interesting stories about themselves. As I listen with full attention, I can hear the connections between the other’s life and my own.

During moments when we share, we become one human family. Sometimes it feels easier to take time to connect with others when we do so over steaming cups of coffee and a lovely bit of pastry. It’s also the perfect invitation: “Let’s meet for coffee!”

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But coffee and pastry aren’t essential. You can practice mindfulness at the grocery store when you look a busy cashier in the eye and ask, “How’s it going today?” and then really listen to their answer. This helps that person feel appreciated for how hard she/he is working, and like a human being again. Every person I encounter is important and worthy of my attention.

Sometimes it’s harder to be attentive to those we are most close with, and sometimes it’s easier. But, it’s really challenging to pay attention, with true respect and openness, when we are with a stranger (from the Gospel perspective can anyone really be a stranger?) or with someone we know thinks very differently from us.

Perhaps if we knew that world peace would be the ultimate reward, would we not invite someone to share pastry and cup of coffee with us?

About the Author

jackiegoodin.portrait.webSister Jacqueline Goodin, CSJ, is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team, and an avid coffee lover. She reminds us that our time spent over coffee with another will have even greater impact if the coffee or tea is grown and harvested in an ecologically sustainable and just manner.

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Birds of a Feather Flock Together! Five Ways Living as a Sister of St. Joseph Put Me in Touch with my Inner Goose

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 2017.
BY SISTER JUDITH MINEAR

As a little girl, I didn’t think much of geese. Their reputation suffered in expressions I heard, like “you silly goose” and “well, that was a wild-goose chase!”  People around me had a million of those phrases, and I was the recipient of them a little too often.

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NOW I KNOW WHAT A WILD-GOOSE CHASE IS!

Fast forward several years into my vowed life as a Sister of St. Joseph. People often asked me (and still do!) what it’s like to live in religious community as a sister. While I had a deep sense of what this community meant to me, I wasn’t always able to communicate it well. Then one day, at a Congregation of St. Joseph gathering, the sister giving the keynote address said she was going to speak about how much Sisters of St. Joseph are like geese. “Great,” I thought. “My goose is cooked!” But then, what she said hooked me. It gave me goosebumps. So let me share her wisdom, as well as my own thoughts on why it’s great to be a goose!

  1. Geese are not afraid to stick their necks out. When something or someone we love is in danger (and sisters and associates of St. Joseph love every kind of neighbor. No holds barred), we aren’t afraid to stick our necks out and engage in change. To honk loudly (and respectfully, out of Great Love) when necessary. We do not run away from difficult situations. Instead, we seek to be a loving presence and an agent for change, standing shoulder to shoulder in the midst of others.
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WE DON’T HIDE FROM THE TOUGH STUFF!
  1. A goose falling out of formation feels the resistance of the drag and falls back into formation to feel the lifting power of the birds around it. This is one of the best expressions of the gift of community life I have ever heard! From my earliest days in the community, I have watched sisters and associates reach out to one another to lend a helping hand when another is “feeling the drag.” For someone whose past pattern was to isolate when I most needed support, I am strengthened and sustained to know that support is always around me.
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WE LIFT EACH OTHER UP WHEN WE’RE “FEELING THE DRAG”
  1. Honking in formation is used to spread important information and encouragement. As sisters and associates, we try to speak and act in ways that encourage those around us to lean into and lean on God’s Great Love. This doesn’t mean we always agree! The difference, though, is civil discourse. I have learned from my community to aspire always to put my best self forward…and my best self tries hard not to engage in pointless, hurtful honking!

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WE’RE ALL IN IT TOGETHER!
  1. Flying in V Formation allows geese to use less energy and cover more distance. This is another gift of community. Sharing and acting out of common values and a common mission builds our capacity to impact the world. I have witnessed and experienced internal and external collaborations whose outcomes transcend all original hopes and dreams.

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THE FLYING V CAN BE HELPFUL IN ALL WALKS OF LIFE,
WHETHER YOU’RE A GOOSE, A PEEWEE HOCKEY PLAYER, OR A SISTER!
  1. One goose leads the formation until it’s tired, and then another goose takes its place. Like geese, we share leadership at all levels throughout the congregation. Early in my formation I heard that “sisters of St. Joseph never do anything alone.” It’s true! From pitching in (without being asked) to clean up after a meeting, volunteering for committees and events, and leading projects and ministries on local and national stages, I watch my community naturally and seamlessly fill in the gaps to make incredible things happen.

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WE SHARE THE LOAD AS A FAMILY!

These days, I view geese in a much more positive and loving way, and laughingly think of myself as in touch with my “inner goose!” And when I see a beautiful V-formation of wild geese flying and honking in the air, I greet them as brothers and sisters of St. Joseph, joined in a common mission with all of creation.

About the Author
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Sister 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 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?

giphy (48)Me when I hear Christmas music.

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.