Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Bring Me Your Sick and Suffering

I have been in Haiti for a little over a week now, and today I experienced a Gospel story in real life. You know how Jesus would walk the streets and visit different towns and neighborhoods? He would kneel down and ask what was ailing an individual, and then people who saw and heard about His miraculous touch would desperately seek His help.

Today was my first time walking with a team of student nurses through the small neighborhoods of Jacmel, Haiti. We were lead by Sister Marilyn who had visited a few people the day before and promised a return visit. They were all waiting outside on their porches and steps when we arrived, eager to receive help from this group of healers. You could see the hope in their eyes and the excitement as they called on their children and grandchildren to search for chairs, offering a place for the nurses to sit. Sister Marilyn translated as people shared their aches and pains, burdened by illnesses they couldn’t understand or afford. People would stand around and listen, curious and watchful, but then more people would start to show up, just like they would with Jesus. We would finish with one person, and then someone would lift up their child onto the porch - “She doesn’t have an appetite,” they would say, concerned for their little one. The team of nurses would then discuss the possibilities as Sister Marilyn translated their questions. After granting small doses of medication, another neighbor would bring their elderly mother. “She has terrible headaches,” they’d tell us, and then all would watch, amazed, as the nurses checked blood pressure, took temperature, and pulled bottles of medication out of their bags.

We were almost finished with one home visit in particular when the small crowd parted to let a young man come through. We all winced as he walked up the steps, slowly and carefully, suffering from what looked like road burn. It turned out he had been near a propane tank when it exploded, leaving burns and blisters on his arm and face. The student nurses quickly began surveying the damage. After gathering all the necessary information, they cleaned the open skin with peroxide, then gently applied antibiotic ointment to the affected areas. When it was particularly painful, the young man would close his eyes, but his face was still covered with signs of relief, knowing that he was getting the help he needed.

As I observed the nurses and their patients, it was like watching people flock to Jesus; people with a hope big enough for miracles.


Friday, April 27, 2018

JOY: Jesus, Others and You


Busy Busy Busy!
I just wanted to share a wonderful experience I had last week in Henderson, KY. I was there from Sunday, April 15th through Sunday, April 22nd visiting a variety of schools and sharing my vocation story.

You may be wondering just how I ended up going to a little city out in the country. To find out, read on!

Last summer, I had the chance to speak at the 12th National Black Catholic Congress in Orlando, FL, where I also proclaimed the reading during Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary Queen of the Universe.

The group traveled together to and from Mass on a bus, and it was on this bus that I met Father Anthony Shonis. After some lively conversation, Father Shonis extended the invitation that eventually brought me to the Diocese of Henderson, KY.

While in Kentucky, I had a full itinerary - I spoke the night I arrived, every day thereafter, and then again on the very morning I left. I met with groups of all ages at schools across the diocese. My youngest audience included pre-kindergarten, but I also spoke with children in elementary, middle, and high school.

Teaching the little ones a chant with some movement!
I always shared my story first, talking about where I grew up and how I met the Felician Sisters. Then I talked a bit about religious life, explaining the vows and the difference between nuns and sisters, as well the difference between Franciscans, Dominicans, and Benedictines. I would then ask the kids a few questions, sometimes rewarding them with a knotted rosary I had made when they answered correctly - or even sometimes when they answered creatively, even if it wasn't the answer I was looking for. :)

After my story and explanations, I allowed time for the kids to ask me questions. I received excellent questions from every grade, including some interesting ones such as "What happens if you break the vows?"; "What do you think you would be doing right now if you weren't a sister?"; and "How do you pay for all of your travels?"

Me with the Youth Group at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church
My favorite question, however, came on the last day. After Mass, I spoke with the kids who came from the public schools for religious education. It was a mixed group, so there were children from elementary to high school present. When I finished speaking and invited questions from the students, a little boy in the front row raised his hand high and asked, "Is all of this true?" I held my laughter in behind a great big smile and said, "It is, actually! It's pretty much my whole life story all in one very short presentation." He stared at me in awe as I continued answering some other very good questions.
Posing with my new little friends at John Paul II Catholic School
After all of the questions had been asked and answered during my presentation, I did one of two things. With the lower grades - usually kindergarten through fifth grade - I would teach the students a chant with some movements I had made up. The kids had a great time, jumping up and down and using their 'outside' voices even though they were inside. One of the teachers came to me afterward and said, "That was great! We're going to use that as opening prayer from now on!"

With the middle and high school students, I would do something a little different. I had some choreography prepared that went with a popular song all the students knew, so it was a nice surprise for them to see I could dance. The older kids loved it! They started bouncing around as soon as the song came on, but they also had a great time learning the dance and competing to see who could do it best. I received several compliments afterward, from both middle and high school students, and sometimes even from their teachers who had gotten up and tried the dance, too. At one point, Father Anthony Shonis even tried learning the dance!
Teaching a dance I choreographed for the upper grades

Near the end of my time in Kentucky, I was blessed to be able to speak at the annual Black Catholic gathering for the diocese of Henderson. The day began with breakfast and Mass, followed by a short Q&A session with the bishop.

Afterward, everyone moved to the parish hall where I spoke with the small group of about 20 people in attendance. The theme was "Missionary Discipleship from a Multicultural Perspective: Effective Inclusion." I shared my story and focused on how God has been able to break barriers in and around me simply through my "Yes."

Explaining that it was not necessarily my intent to break these barriers, I shared that now I know it was God's intent and that my choice to follow His will is what allows me to be a voice for the minorities I represent. Several of the individuals shared their own difficult stories about racism and prejudice, explaining that they had been mad at God, wondering why He would make them "like this" (African American/black) if it meant they were going to be mistreated.

In the course of the sharing, many individuals expressed their gratitude for groups and events like the Black Catholic gathering because it gave them the opportunity to have a place in the Church. As the presentation came to a close, I thanked the group for their invitation and for their sharing. I explained, "I fall into many minority groups - I'm a minority as a woman of color; I'm a minority as a woman of color who's Catholic; I'm a minority as a young sister; I'm a minority as a young sister who's black; so a lot of people have begun turning to me, asking for my opinions. They see me and say, 'There are not many of you. We want to know what you think.' Now that you have shared your stories, I will join your voices with mine so we can speak together when people ask me what I think."

Me & some attendees from the Black Catholic gathering
in Henderson, KY
I can hardly express the joy and beauty I experienced in Kentucky. It confirmed the hopes I'd had when I first began to contemplate religious life seriously - hopes that God would use my gifts and life for a purpose, and that my relationship with God and the world around and within me would deepen.

I can only describe it in this way: I felt as if I were being lifted to God by all of my Felician Sisters at once; like I was in the middle of a wonderful celebration where all at the same time I was learning, loving, and laughing. It was like looking up at the sky right when the shooting star made its appearance; like knowing I am right where I am meant to be.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

An Easter Challenge

Every liturgical season has its own flavor — Advent with its anticipation; Christmas with its awe and wonder; Easter with its beauty and excitement — so every year we are able to enter into a rhythm as one body of Christ. Sometimes a certain liturgical season will be particularly potent for me and I will discover new insights or come to better appreciate long-lasting traditions. I did not have that experience this Lent. Instead, it was a steady and balanced season without any “aha moments” or extraordinary prayer experiences. To be honest, I was sort of disappointed. I thought, “Well this doesn’t feel like Lent. Lent is supposed to be deeply spiritual. Shouldn’t I be crying at Mass or something?” But my experience of Lent doesn’t have to be the same every year, and just because I cried at Mass before, or I’ve seen other people cry at Mass, doesn’t mean it’s a requirement. So what did I get out of Lent this year if it wasn’t tears? A very simple invitation with a very practical way to implement it. The invitation? Let go. The implementation? I’ll explain.

This September I moved from California to Pennsylvania. I sent some of my items ahead and others I took with me on a cross-country drive with my dad. Once we got to my new home, I took everything to my room and had it organized and put away within a couple of days. This January, I volunteered to move to another neighborhood, not far from my new home, in order to maintain a Felician presence in a place where the locals need a little extra love. Rather than move all my items at once, I took my time and transferred things over a period of two weeks. I spent a few final nights in my empty room before finally making the move to my new house. During those nights and days in my room where there was absolutely nothing on the walls and I had only the bare essentials in my drawers, it was as if I could focus better. My mind was clearer, I had more energy, I was not as easily distracted, and I was more attentive to my prayer life. It was like what I imagine fasting does for the body. When I made the transition and came to my new house, there was my room, full of items on the walls and on the shelves just like it had been at the other house. Now don’t get me wrong, I like my colorful room — it’s very cozy! — but I also realized just how much I could really let go of. There are a variety of areas in our lives where letting go is essential, but I have begun to focus on the material aspect first. I think it helps create the atmosphere that makes the act of letting go more possible in other areas of our lives, just as my empty room helped clear space in my mind and heart.

As I further reflected on the invitation to “let go” during Lent, I came to see that it is not just about letting go of items I have and donating them or sharing them with a loved one, but also actively working to not accumulate. In addition, it even means letting go of the familiar and of the ways in which I do things if they are harmful to others or the environment. So, I promised you a practical implementation for the invitation... Here it is! Soap containers. Yes, that’s what I’m being invited to let go of. You know those small Softsoap or Bath and Body Works hand soaps that last about a month? Well, here’s my challenge to you and to me: to decrease or eliminate the amount of plastic going into our landfills starting with soap containers. I know, I know, the smaller soap containers are easy and convenient: there’s no mess in refilling the soap container and you get a variety of scents and colors when you get to choose a different one every month. But why not let go of what’s convenient and save the planet from some of that plastic? We could buy refillable hand soap dispensers and refill them from a larger container. Or, to eliminate plastic all together, we could purchase bars of soap that come packaged in cardboard, paper, or not packaged at all. Then we can keep them in a wooden or glass dish by the sink and voila, no plastic! If you already do this, I applaud you, but perhaps there’s another way in which you can eliminate your use of plastic; maybe by pledging not to use straws, by choosing products with less plastic packaging, or by using a refillable water bottle.

It’s simple, but I believe that by letting go in this very practical way, we will find ourselves moved beyond the world of material goods. Perhaps up until now we have been like Peter, warming his hands by the fire as Jesus was being tormented and ridiculed — we have been thinking of ourselves and what’s convenient while the planet and our sisters and brothers in Christ have been crying out in pain; but it wasn’t too late for Peter, and it’s not too late for us (John 18:25). As we celebrate the great joy of the resurrection this Easter, may we let go of all that keeps us from being open to God and to one another. May our courage be strengthened and our hearts be made new. Let’s aim for increased mindfulness and decreased plastic, amen? Amen.



Sister Desiré Anne-Marie Findlay

Monday, January 8, 2018

Perfection

There is a quote attributed to Albert Einstein which says, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." I agree with this and I do my best to live the latter. However, I think we could also replace the word "miracle" with the word "perfect" and say, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is perfect. The other is as though everything is perfect."

I remember receiving a painting from my aunt as a child that was titled, "Everything is Perfect". It bothered me. I didn't like the title, or that it was always staring at me from underneath the small image. I didn't agree with it at all. "Some things are perfect," I thought, "but not everything." I think about that little painting's title now though, and I have actually come to agree with it.

Even the most "perfect" things - like Barbie's measurements or a beautiful Christmas snowfall - have their issues. For one, hardly any woman who has ever walked or will ever walk this earth shares Barbie's measurements. Plus, her measurements only match what a random handful of people believed to be the perfect female body. As for the "winter wonderland" of snow on Christmas, it may look beautiful, but it requires a lot of work. So which is it? Are Barbie's measurements flawed or perfect? Would we rather have snow on Christmas or not?

"Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect," reads a line from Matthew 5:48. Seems impossible, right? I always thought so. Every time I heard that reading I thought, "Seriously? How could I ever match the perfection of God?" But the more I think about it, the more curious I become about God's perfection. What is God's perfection like? My first inclination is to think about physical characteristics and personality traits, but then I stop trying to measure God by human standards. Rather than look at God in terms of height or weight or behavior, I look at God in terms of forgiveness and compassion and kindness. I think that's the type of perfection we're called to - to forgiveness, compassion, and kindness. So maybe we overeat, or maybe we're chain smokers and workaholics, but can we bring ourselves to forgive when we're hurt? Can we show compassion when it would be easier to settle for condemnation? Do we choose to be kind when we see someone in need or when we find ourselves in an argument?

This reminds me of my favorite character from the movie Silence by Martin Scorsese (I'll try not to spoil it for you in case you haven't seen it). It was about a couple of young Jesuit priests who went to Japan in search of their Jesuit mentor who seemed to have gone missing. In the process they were faced with a very harsh political, cultural, and religious clash. This caused painful tragedies and spiritual torment throughout the Christian community in Japan. Continually forced to choose between life and death, several Japanese Christians were martyred for refusing to renounce their faith. Very few Japanese Christians renounced their faith and many faced their persecution bravely, but there was one individual in particular who found it impossible to follow their example - his name was Kichijiro. A Japanese Christian and a drunk, Kichijiro renounced his faith every time he encountered this difficult decision. I couldn't stand him, especially when I compared him to the other brave Christians who clung to God and their faith despite the consequences. Kichijiro fell into despair and drunkenness throughout the entire movie, repeatedly renouncing his faith, but I began to notice something - every time he renounced his faith, he desperately sought out the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He failed constantly, but at the same time he constantly acknowledged his wrongdoing and trusted wholeheartedly in the mercy of God.

While it's true that the Japanese Christian martyrs and all who have died for their faith are worthy of admiration, I believe Kichijiro is as well. For those of us who cannot be as steadfast as martyrs in our own Christian commitment, we can choose to seek forgiveness just as Kichijiro did. We can wholly seek holiness, which can sometimes mean repeatedly failing and wholly seeking forgiveness. There is more than one way to God - and thus, more than one way to perfection.

I realized that when I stopped comparing Kichijiro to the martyrs, I was able to see him for who he was and accept his unique albeit wobbly path to holiness. It is the same for each of us; when we quit with the comparisons, we can see ourselves and our situations more fully and with greater understanding. So maybe we happen to be in great shape, with measurements even better than Barbie's; or maybe we don't take care of our health as best we should, but by acknowledging our weakness and striving to do better, we cancel out our imperfect measurements. As for the beautiful blanket of snow at Christmas, even such a masterpiece is not without its challenges. So do we start cursing the beauty of winter? We may be tempted to, but the thorn does not have to detract from the rose. So, enjoy the snow! Recall your childhood wonder at the falling flakes and take a day or two off if you can. And if you have to go to work, use shoveling the sidewalk as a good excuse for exercise and shovel the neighbor's sidewalk while you're at it. Like a line from the movie Wonder by Stephen Chbosky, "Auggie can't change the way he looks. Maybe we can change the way we see." Maybe we can change the way we see.

Try not to look at your body vs. Barbie's or Ken's, or at the snow vs. its aftermath; if we dwell on the imperfections, nothing will be perfect. Let everything be perfect in its own right. Look in the mirror less and look more at the perfection of God. Do you choose patience? Or do you frown at the sky when the snow falls? Will you choose self-control? Or will you blame your boss for the dark circles under your eyes? If we acknowledge our shortcomings for the sake of learning to better love ourselves and others, we can live more fully. If we seek to imitate God's perfection with the fervor of Kichijiro, we will be able to show God's perfection with the heart of a martyr.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Holy Land Entries

Lots of people dream about going to visit the Holy Land; to see where Jesus lived and preached and prayed, or to visit and venerate various holy Jewish and Muslim sites. Oddly enough, I never dreamed about it. I never put it on a "bucket list" or thought, "I'd love to go one day," because I figured it would never happen. I guess I just didn't want to get my hopes up, but sometimes God dreams for us. I suppose that's how I ended up traversing one of the holiest places in the world for about a week and a half.

Before I tell you how amazing the trip was, I want to tell you how I ended up going:

A very generous (and anonymous) donor decided to gift our religious community with a large sum of money. The stipulation, however, was that it be used toward the spiritual development or benefit of our Sisters. Together, our Provincial Council decided that the money would go toward pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Obviously they wouldn't be able to send everyone, so they decided to do a lottery. Our annual gathering was coming up, so it was announced that when we were gathered, those who were interested needed to put their names in a jar before the final day of the gathering. We were told, "Four Sisters will be able to go, but we will draw only two names. Each of the two Sisters who are chosen will then be able to choose a Sister companion to go with them." Why not? I thought. Might as well give it a try. I slipped my name in and then forgot about the drawing all together. When the day of judgement came around, our Provincial Minster stood on stage with the jar. Fireworks started going off in my chest while simultaneously my lungs decided to quit on me. "Calm down!" my brain said. "You're not going to win anyway, why get yourself all worked up. There are hundreds of names in that jar." In the midst of my positively negative self-talk, the first name was drawn. Hundreds of names, literally, and the first name read was mine. Yes, straight out of the Provincial Minister's mouth I hear, "Sister Desiré." There was no mistaking it. I'm the only Sister Desiré! My whole body jerked as my hands flew up to cover my gaping mouth. And then, even better than hearing my name called, half the room stood up immediately - in a room of approximately 300 Felician Sisters - and began to cheer for me. Like I said, sometimes God dreams for us.

I wish I could go into detail about everything we did and saw, but you didn't sign up to read a novel right now and I didn't sign up to write one. I'll share as much as I can, but mostly I'll share the highlights and the moments that meant the most to me.

First of all, let me just wow you by saying we spent our first three nights in Nazareth. It still baffles me to think that I can now speak personally about places I'd only ever heard of in the Bible. Staying in Nazareth brought me close to one of the most important stories Scripture has for us: the Angel Gabriel's visit to a young virgin. I have read the story of the Annunciation plenty of times in Luke's Gospel (Luke 1:26-38), and I pray with one of its passages every day during evening praise as my community recites the Magnificat. Who knew that I'd be sleeping in a hotel less than a block away from such a historically and spiritually significant spot? Since we stayed three nights there, I stopped in the Basilica of the Annunciation every night to pray just so I could be near it. Of course there's a huge church built up all around the site, but they have preserved the humble dwelling of so prominent a family. I would stare at its stone walls and wonder about all the activities that went on there. Was I looking at Mary's actual bedroom? Was I looking at the kitchen where her mother, St. Anne, would have been busy working to nourish her family? Or maybe there was no separation and every room ran into each other, just small corners making up one whole. I'll never know, but what fascinated me even more was being so physically close to the place where God began to weave Himself from the fibers of humanity.

I was reluctant to leave, but as always, the best was yet to come. We departed from Nazareth and took a bus to Palestine. The days ahead featured visits to Jericho, Bethany, Bethlehem, the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea. Again, I couldn't believe it. So many of these names had once been untouchable sacred sites in a faraway world found in a miraculous Book. It was almost unreal. Our trip to Jericho was brief, but it remains one of the most profound moments during the entire pilgrimage. We had arrived at the church where we would be having Mass for the day, but the group ahead of us was not yet finished. "We still have about twenty minutes until their done," our group leader told us. "It's not on our list of things to see, but the tomb of Lazarus is just up the street. If you take a left out of here you'll see the man standing outside to collect your money. It's $2 to get in." We all looked at each other and nodded in agreement. "Two bucks, why not?" Although the raising of Lazarus is yet another powerful and prominent story from Scripture (John 11:1-44), I never really had a personal connection to it. I really just wanted to see his tomb because it was there and I could say that I went. Up the hill we walked, all 24 of us, to pay our two bucks. We stepped inside, one by one, and shuffled down some very narrow and steep stone steps. We were greeted at the bottom by a tiny doorway through which we basically had to crawl. Each one came in, took a photo or two, touched the walls, and then turned to go. It was our seventh day on the pilgrimage and we had been moving from site to site so quickly that I had been longing for some stillness and quiet. After everyone had left the small space and I was left standing alone in Lazarus's tomb, I poked my head out and told my friend I was going to stay and pray a little while longer. She made her way back up with everyone else and I stood there in the emptiness. I sat down near the small doorway and looked around, imagining the darkness that would have surrounded Lazarus there. It wasn't hard to imagine since the little light inside was fairly dim and the silence was absolute. I realized that I was in yet another place where holiness broke into our helplessness. Not only did Jesus stand in this place, but He wept here. He cried with us and for us, and then He prayed so fervently that His friend was called back to life. This was a personal miracle. This was someone Jesus knew and loved, and a moment in which He felt His humanity. If anything could show me that God is not far from us, this would be it.

Although it may seem somewhat unrelated to the religious nature of this trip, I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Dead Sea. I had been going back and forth in my mind as to whether or not I would swim in it. Finally, like my rationale with so many other decisions, I figured, "Why not?" I suited up and walked down to the water's edge. As I stood there looking over its surface, it appeared to be just like any other body of water, but underneath I knew it was different. The Dead Sea, known for its high salt content, cannot support marine life. As a result of its salt levels, it is also unique in that items which cannot usually float in water are suddenly able to - like humans! This helped me with my two very real fears of large bodies of water: the fear of creatures biting my limbs off, and the fear of drowning. I walked in slowly, watching others splash around on their backs, so when I finally had water up to my waist I decided I would give it a try. I lifted one leg, then the other, and that was all it took; with hardly any effort I was lying on my back in the shallow waters of the Dead Sea. With that one swift motion, my fears disappeared. I marveled at the fact that there was nothing to be afraid of, that I didn't have to wonder about what was below the surface or if I would be able to survive the pull of unknown currents. I drifted out as far as I could go and lifted my face to the sun while my arms and legs gave themselves to the movement of the water. Pure freedom. Even now I am drawn back into that place of calm as I re-imagine the experience. It's a gift that I will never forget, and one that I hope to recall in times of turbulence and fear. God's love is even more abundant than the salt that carried me beyond fear; if salt can keep me safe, how much more safe is the love of God - infinitely able to lift my soul beyond the fear of pain and death.

Continuing the journey, we departed from Palestine and entered the city of Jerusalem where we stayed for the remainder of the trip. While in Jerusalem, I was able to set foot and heart upon another set of holy sites, including the Basilica in which Calvary and the tomb of Jesus have been preserved. One of my favorite experiences took place at the Church of All Nations which sits over the Garden of Gethsemane and houses the stone upon which Jesus is said to have prayed during His agony. We actually visited the church twice, going there a second time for a late night Holy Hour. As the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, I knelt at the railing near the altar with the stone at its base. I tried imagining the stone in its original setting and pictured the garden that was outside the church. "This must have been a beautiful and comforting space," I thought. It brought to mind all the times I had sought out a comforting place or person when I knew I needed to cry. Perhaps Jesus came here with His closest friends because He knew He needed to cry. We see Gethsemane and the garden as a solemn and somber place, but maybe it was different then. It's somber now because we know the rest of the story - because we know that Jesus wept there and was betrayed there - but before all of that, perhaps it was a cozy place to pray and Jesus knew it would comfort Him to be there. Suddenly, I felt like I needed to cry. I couldn't understand why, so I closed my eyes and pictured myself with Jesus in the garden. Kneeling beside Him at the rock, He looked into my eyes and said, "It's okay, you can let the tears come." Then, lifting His hands to my face, He gently placed His thumbs over my eyes. I immediately began to cry real tears. I tried not to let my face fold into the sadness that had just taken over, but I couldn't help it. I felt now that I was no longer there to comfort Jesus in the garden, but that He was there to comfort me, sharing with me His sacred space. Just as He did during His agony, I cried out to my Father, not sparing the pain welling up inside me. I felt united with Jesus, as though He wept with me not only in the moment, but even when He had wept in the midst of His unfolding Passion. It made me realize just how connected Jesus's life is to ours. Jesus may have walked the earth over 2,000 years ago, shedding tears and sharing joy, but God is timeless. God's life on earth continues, and is especially real because Emmanuel - God-with-us - enfleshed and redeemed our humanity.

As Advent makes its way into our homes and our hopes this year, my prayer for us all is that we not only long for God's renewed presence among us, but that we also recall how He has been and remains present to us. Your tears are His and your joys flow from His heart; may you know during this special season and always just how present God is to you, and when you are able, may you remain present to God by being compassionately and boundlessly present to others.

Wishing you peace and all good,
Sister Desiré Anne-Marie


Fearless in the Dead Sea!