Thursday, October 3, 2019

The End of Doubt

Kate Buckley Photography
After nine years of prayer, formation and formal discernment, I made my final vows with the Felician Sisters on August 15, 2019. Those years flew by like clouds on a windy day, but they were meaningful and packed to the brim with experiences and people who helped to shape me. Even after those very full nine years, I still couldn't be 100% sure that I was ready to say "yes" forever. I was about 90% sure, however, that I didn't want to say "no". I had been living this religious life for nine years and I couldn't imagine myself doing or being anything different.

In preparation for the big day, we spent several weeks throughout the year in prayer and conversation. It was a year of reflection, but even the day before the day I thought to myself, "This final vow ceremony is pretty much just a formality. I've been living the vows for six years already, and nothing changes after this. I'll still be doing what I've been doing and living where I've been living. It's no big deal." Oh, but it was a big deal.

When we processed into the chapel at the start of Mass, joy flooded my heart with wave after wave of
Kate Buckley Photography
smiling faces. Parents, siblings, family from miles away, friends, sisters from other congregations, sisters from my own congregation, people from my Pomona family - they were all there, and they were there to support and encourage me as they had all along the way. I was so excited I couldn't even cry, but I'm crying now just recalling that moment. All these eyes connected with mine, but our hearts had been intertwined long ago. Almost 100 people came to celebrate, and Jesus was certainly in our midst. Not just another body in the crowd, He was the pulse of it - the branch connecting all the vines with mutual love and excitement.

I don't remember much else, but I do remember that I wholeheartedly enjoyed the music. I'm a dancer by nature, but I fervently sang along to songs that had been a part of my journey from the beginning and songs that had connected me with my sisters over time. Basically I was just enjoying a rather fancy and personalized Mass; but then came the reception of the ring. I stood at the front of the chapel while the priest held up a simple silver ring. I'm sure he said something very profound and I probably responded with "Amen" but all I really know is that as soon as the ring made its way onto my finger, a sudden and slow explosion began to go off in my mind.

Kate Buckley Photography
About 50 different thoughts came at me as soon as I received that ring. For one, I realized that I had been subconsciously keeping myself aware of all the options still available to me prior to that very day. Up until that moment, I had subconsciously been saying to myself, "This isn't forever yet. I can still choose to pursue anything. I could travel, get married, have kids, anything." However, as I watched that little silver ring slide onto my finger something else became apparent: out of all the options out there, I chose this one. I could have chosen anything else, but I didn't.

As I continue to reflect on that moment, I realize that I was not only living with an awareness of other options, I was living as if I might choose one of them instead. I loved my community from the beginning, and felt all along that God had been inviting me here, but even then I hadn't fully given myself all of those years. Not only was I holding onto those other options subconsciously, but I was living them subliminally. I was not going on dates or flirting, of course, but neither was I 100% invested in my call to religious life. I was living it knowing that it could potentially be temporary, halfheartedly showing up to prayers and never giving a thought to how it affected others. That ring changed everything.

It makes me think of the Catholic Church's firm stance on couples not living together before they get married. I always knew it was important, but I never really paid attention to why it mattered so much. With this new understanding of commitment, I'm finally "getting it". When two people live together before marriage, they know in the back of their minds that the person they're with is still just one option out of many. They may not say that out loud, but it's subconscious, and so at some level they will live that way, too. It may not come in the form of physical betrayal, but it's hard to invest oneself fully in a commitment when it still just remains an option. At the same time, the other person knows that they remain simply one option out of many. Thus, marriage becomes a way for a couple to say to one another, "Out of all the options out there, I choose you. I choose to give myself fully to you and to nothing and no one else."

My little ring has become a symbol of just that. On August 15th I said to God, "Out of all the options out there, I choose you. I choose to give myself fully to you and to nothing and no one else." So here I am, committed to no one and everyone all at once, serving through the charism of my beloved congregation. Where will it lead me? I have no idea, but I am content in knowing that "I have found the One whom my soul loves" (Song of Solomon 3:4).

Kate Buckley Photography

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Elbow

I recently traveled to Holly, MI for a program sponsored by the Felician Sisters called "Seeds of Hope", which is a youth leadership experience for young women going into their sophomore or junior year of high school. This was my fifth year helping out; every year I walk away with something to ponder, and this time it's a moment of personal reflection that still has me fascinated.

This year our program was graced with a new speaker, Erricka Bridgeford, a co-organizer for the "Ceasefire" weekends in Baltimore who appeared on TEDx as a result of her efforts. She spoke about "The Power of One" to our group of young women and walked us through an exercise that would help us envision our unique and essential place as a single member in the fabric of humanity.

"Close your eyes," she instructed. We did so very obediently since Erricka is not a force to be reckoned with, but also because her entire talk throughout the morning had held our attention like nothing else. We didn't want to miss anything she had in store for us. "Imagine a huge body. It could be male, female, just picture a person larger than normal." She let us sit there in silence, fashioning our people. I imagined a genderless being, large, but not quite the size you'd imagine a giant from a fairy-tale. "Imagine all the parts at work," she said, gently focusing our minds. "Think of whatever you can: organs, limbs, hair. Think of it all working together." I pictured little people all making up this big person of mine. They were holding hands, going about their work, but careful not to let go of one another. I liked picturing humanity that way. It made me see more clearly the reality that we are one big life depending on all the parts for strength. "Now," Erricka continued, "think of yourself in there. Where are you? What are you? Are you a finger? A nose? The heart?" Again, she gave us time to think about what vital piece of the body we might represent.

I didn't know where to start as I tried to imagine what part of the body I might be. A few things came to mind, but it didn't take long until an image popped into my head and I knew right away it wasn't just me looking for an answer. I saw myself in that giant body, resting contently in the elbow. The elbow? I thought. Even though the image gave me peace, I couldn't understand why I would picture myself there. Why would I be an elbow? Getting into a thinking position, I leaned over in my chair, placed my elbows on my thighs, and that's when I understood it. The elbow. It's hidden, right there in the back of our arms, not even visible unless you bend awkwardly to get a good look at it; but it's an important place of support. It helps to hold us up when we are tired; allows our arms to stretch and bend; it even springs into action and aids us in breaking a fall. That silly little elbow has so many jobs, and yet it's not in any noticeable place.

The more I considered the role of the elbow, the more happy I felt in knowing that it was God's place for me. A silent and unseen place, but one that enables people to reach farther and keeps us from hitting the ground too hard when we fall. I liked thinking that I could quietly be that for others. Less attention on me, and more attention on supporting my human family.

Why not give it a try! Follow Erricka's promptings and see which part you are. Don't force it, just let the image form as you imagine all the parts of the body working together. You'll know which one you are when it comes to you. Once you feel sure, even if it seems odd, take some time to ask yourself some questions. What makes this body part represent me? What is my job in the body of humanity? What is it that I do for others because of my unique place in the body?

As always, thanks for reading! Many blessings as you do your part to hold up humanity,
Sister Desiré Anne-Marie

Monday, April 29, 2019

An Easter Poem

Love Reborn

Darkness lies solemn upon the earth
And yet, new light
A death
A birth

Silence spreads slowly across the sky
A long, deep breath
A fall
A rise

Fire breaks softly inviting the day
Whispers of hope
A cross
A way

Glory runs swiftly toward the tomb
Mary finds life
A cave
A womb

God speaks boldly humanity’s truth
The Spirit burns on
In me
In you

Sister Desiré Anne-Marie Findlay

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Heart of a Mother

I love giving vocation talks, not because I'm trying to recruit young women to religious life, but because a lot of young people are curious about the lives of Sisters and don't always have a chance to ask us questions. The Q&A portion is my favorite part of a vocation talk. I get questions as simple as "Are you allowed to listen to any kind of music?" and questions as complicated as "Don't you want to have children?" This second question is the one I sat down to write about today.

When I ask a young woman whether or not she has considered the possibility of religious life, if she says, "No," it's often followed by, "Because I want to get married and have children." Oddly enough, a lot of Sisters I know said the very same thing when someone had asked them the very same question. Despite all the gender stereotype and social construct arguments, I do believe that our bodies are deeply connected to our souls. The womb of a woman is not just another body part, but is central and sacred, even the womb of a woman physically unable bear children. The space within us tells us that we are bearers of life, that we can carry another human being within ourselves. It makes sense, then, that a young woman's hesitation to religious life would be the relinquishing of such a gift. But is it something we actually relinquish?

This reminds me of the story of Abraham, called to return his son to the Lord by sacrificing him. That's how I felt about dance once upon a time. I thought that once I entered the convent there would be no dancing, that it would be a gift I would have to sacrifice and return to God. Instead, it has been returned to me and its blessing upon my life has increased a hundredfold, just like God promising Abraham "descendants as countless as the stars" because he was willing to let go of that which he held dear (Gen. 22:17). I think it's the same for a woman who cherishes her life-bearing abilities and yet decides to live out the religious vow of chastity. Many of us enter religious life thinking, "I would love to have children, but this is where I am called, and so I am willing to make this sacrifice." In the end, though, I am starting to see that much like Abraham, we too receive descendants as countless as the stars.

I didn't think too often about having children until I was a novice and my sister was pregnant with her first child. The mystery and excitement of it all paralleled a deep sadness that began to run through me. Being the older sister by only a few years, my younger sister and I had always been very close. I had often experienced life's challenges first which gave me the ability to help guide her through similar challenges later. That was not the case this time. I couldn't understand what she was going through and, I realized, I never would. "We'll never be able to swap giving-birth stories," I thought, "Or watch our kids play and grow up together." I would smile whenever we spoke on the phone, but at night I would turn to my pillow and cry.

Roller-coasters with my favorite nephew
It's been six years since then. In addition to her gentle son, my sister also has a girl now, a spicy little 5-year-old who couldn't wait to start kindergarten this year. As I prepare to make final vows, I still let my mind drift from time to time and wonder what it would have been like to have children. I wonder what they would have looked like, or how they would have behaved. Would they have been artists or athletes? Maybe both! I wonder if I would have ever gotten them to school on time since I can't stand waking up early. Would they have been little night owls, too? Or would they have pounced on me at 5:00 in the morning, ready for a new day?

Twinning with my favorite niece
While I do not have answers to those questions, I am starting to feel my heart open up in a way I can only describe as the heart of a mother. I would do anything for my nephew and niece. I save all the drawings they give me; I think mean thoughts about the kids that bully them (and then try to pray for the conversion of their heathen souls); I spend all my money on them at Christmas; and I sit on the phone with them for as long as they want when they call. They may not be my kids, but my heart can't tell the difference. My sister jokes that they're half of her and half of me. My nephew is becoming a little bookworm, just like I was when I was his age, and my niece is obsessed with animals of all sorts, wanting to rescue them no matter how big or small.

That maternal love is extending now, further and further, as I spend more time with the youth in our country. During a retreat this month I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with a handful of high school students. I was surprised by the level of despair and pain with which they came to me. They were carrying tragedy and questions that I never had to deal with so young. As I listened to them I longed to carry it all for them. I found myself asking God how I could help lighten their loads, or how I could help them discover the abundance of God's love for them. I would sometimes look out at all of them during quiet moments of prayer, just to take in every little hair on their precious heads. I imagine that's how a parent feels - wishing they could take away their child's pain, whether it's a scraped knee or a deep heartache; or watching their child, toddler or teen, during some simple activity and feeling overwhelmed with gratitude for the gift of their lives.

Maybe I thought I was giving up a huge part of my life when I realized I wouldn't be having children; maybe I felt like I was sacrificing my own child the way Abraham must have felt as he held the knife over Isaac; but God's invitation is always followed by lavish, life-altering love. That's what I found instead of sacrifice and emptiness. I am discovering each day a love that is as true as any I could have hoped for. I guess my answer to the question "Don't you want to have children?" will now be something more along the lines of, "Of course! That's why I have hundreds."

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Famous Question

I have had one of the most adventurous summers of my life. It started with a single phone call from a young woman named Emily Cunningham. After tracking me down through a list of phone numbers she had received, Emily finally got a hold of me at my new place of residency. When I answered the phone I started trying to imagine all the reasons I might be receiving a call from someone I did not know. "I was given your name by Father Tom Sparacino," she said. "My friends and I have been asking around about a Sister who could join us for a camping retreat." My heart started pounding. A camping retreat?! Never mind that I had only gone camping like twice in my life, I was being invited to a camping retreat! Well, it didn't take long for me to rearrange my vacation, despite the fact that I had to cancel a surprise trip for my baby sister's 13th birthday. (It sounds terrible of me, I know, BUT ... spoiler alert ... it all worked out in the end.)

Every activity we took part in during camp was discussed during a debriefing time when campers and camp leaders would talk about the day's events in light of their relationship with God, themselves, or others. It reminded me of the question that so many spiritual directors love to ask: "Where did you see God in this?" The famous question.

As I ponder my many trips and adventures, that continues to be my guiding question. During the camp - named Camp Lajas after the Colombian miracle of Our Lady of Las Lajas - we had a chance to go hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, and rafting. I was forever gaining insights from the campers and camp leaders, but also coming to my own insights as I processed the experience for myself. In order to continue processing the experiences, I am sharing them with you here and hopefully it can help you ask the same question for yourself about your own summer activities: Where did you see God?

On Sunday, July 22nd, Emily's wonderful mom gave me a ride up to Muskrat Cove at Moraine State
Park where I met the rest of the retreat leaders. We cooked, cleaned, set up tents, put together an outdoor chapel, laughed, ate, took pictures, and got ready for the eight retreatants who arrived the next day. They were young women in all levels of high school and from different areas of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. They all looked nervous when they showed up Monday since most of them did not know each other or the camp leaders, but it was easy to see that they were all excited to be there. I was excited too, except for the white water rafting we'd be doing on Thursday. I was not excited for that.

Rock climbing - it's not as easy as it looks
When we went rock climbing on Tuesday, the instructors were great and gave tons of good tips as they explained the difficulties and rewards of rock climbing. I looked up at the tall rock walls they had chosen for us and couldn't wait to give rock climbing a try. We had two options, so I went to the wall that had more edges and crevices since it looked like more fun to climb. When it was my turn, I put the harness on and happily started my ascent. I wish I could say I never looked back, but I could barely hang on after I'd gone up only two feet! I gracefully fell off the wall and had to start again. I think that's when I lost my confidence, because after that I began to second guess everything. It took me so much time and effort to consider my next move that I was getting frustrated. My arms were getting tired and every crevice seemed too far away for me to grasp. When I made it about halfway up the wall, the instructor simply called out to me, "Trust yourself!" It was like a movie moment, when everything is suddenly still and your spidey senses are heightened. It was exactly what I needed to hear. I had been relying on the strength of my wobbly arms when the instructors had clearly told us in the beginning to rely on our legs. "Most beginners think they need to use their arms to get themselves up, but all the work should really be in your legs." Of course, I thought to myself, Why would I rely on my arms anyway? They've always been the weakest part of my body. My strength has always been in my legs. It was like I suddenly realized that God had already given me the strength I needed, I just had to trust in it.

I read the book I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and it reminds me of something she said the doctor had told her father when the hospital was getting ready to transfer her for recovery after she was shot. Her father had expressed gratitude in the fact that God had sent those specific doctors to his daughter's aid right when she needed them most. The doctor, Dr. Javid Kayani, replied, "It is my belief God sends the solution first and the problem later" (pg. 269). It felt the same for me - although in much less drastic circumstances - God had already given me a solution. The solution was my strong dancer legs, so instead of trying to come up with my own solution by using my arms, I needed to trust that God had already equipped me for the task at hand. I saw a clear parallel in my rock climbing adventure with implications for daily life: I have already been given certain strengths with which to navigate this life, and I'll only be able to find my way if I use them.

When Thursday came around I woke up with a pounding headache and thought perhaps it was a sign. As you may recall from my post about the Holy Land, drowning is one of my biggest fears, so with a headache on white water rafting day I figured it meant I shouldn't go since I might not make it out alive. I seriously considered staying behind and had an interior battle before getting into the van. I thought, If I don't go I'll miss out on time with the campers. Maybe I won't die. Maybe I'll be fine. No, this headache is terrible. I won't be fine. I'm going to die. Even with that conclusion, I somehow convinced myself to line up for the van.

Halfway to our destination, we missed our exit on the highway. Usually you can just turn around without too much of a change in your estimated time of arrival, but not on white water rafting day. Once the GPS rerouted us we got 30 minutes added to our trip. Instead of arriving right on time at noon, we were now going to be a half hour late. To me, that was another sign. Emily gasped in a panic. "They'll leave without us!" she said. "The paperwork clearly states that if we don't get there on time, the group will leave without us." She sat in shock for a moment as I silently thanked God that we missed our exit. This must mean I was going to die! Now we're definitely not going white water rafting. Thank You, Lord. "Wait," Emily said, "I'll just call and tell them we missed our exit. Maybe they'll understand." She made the phone call and the very kind woman on the other end said they would wait. I was disappointed. So there's a chance we'll make it, I thought. Great.

When we finally got rerouted it seemed that all was going smoothly until suddenly the tires on the van screeched and the wheel locked. The camp leader who was driving slowed down, pulled over to the side of the road and took the keys out of the ignition. We sat for a moment, wondering what could have possibly happened and I uttered another silent sigh of relief. We're definitely not going to get there now! Woo hoo! Our driver tried restarting the van, but it fought back while I tried to fight back my smile. She tried it again, but to no avail. I held my breath on the third try and suddenly it started. Ugh. But I was still holding out hope that we would not get there in time.

Nope, we were on time. Figures, I thought. Now all I can hope for is that I don't die. Please, God, don't let me die.

As the guides were giving their instructions, I practiced every move they described. I tightened my life jacket until I could hardly breathe, just as they suggested, and we set off for the rapids. Our group was split up into three rafts and I ended up with four teenagers and only one adult who had been white water rafting just once before. She was younger than me. I looked at my crew and thought, Yup, today is the day. My earthly pilgrimage is over.

We started out nice and slow in our bright yellow raft. There were about five other rafts on the trip with us, plus a rescue raft and our two guides in their kayaks. The river was moving pretty quickly, but didn't seem too threatening. It was almost like an exciting lazy river ride. Our guides called out directions, telling us what was up ahead and explaining whether we should stay to the middle, left, or right. As soon as we hit our first rapid, I was immediately in love! I couldn't wait for the next one! We went a total of 7.4 miles downstream that day, and at the halfway point we all stopped for a lunch break. Plenty of people had fallen out of their rafts during the first half of the trip, but none of us in my raft had. We were so proud of ourselves and our great teamwork! We had almost tipped over once, with water rushing in as we slumped halfway off a rock, but we had narrowly avoided the disaster and used it as an excuse to build our pride.

Once we got back in the water we were feeling more confident and were happy to know we still had another few miles of rapids left. At one point, one of the guides was explaining that there was a hydraulic ahead. He said, "This is the spot where plenty of rafts get flipped! You need to watch out and make sure you avoid it. If not, then hit it straight on and with as much speed as you can, because if you're turned sideways or going too slowly, your whole raft will flip over." We listened intently and followed the group along as we watched for this infamous hydraulic. When our guide shouted that it was just ahead, we saw it, but there was nowhere to go. There was a raft on our right and a bunch of rocks to our left - we were headed straight for it. Without enough time to fight the swift pace of the river, the nose of our raft turned and we were headed slowly toward the hydraulic at a crawling pace, exactly the way we were not supposed to. It all happened just like our guides had explained during the instructions, "If you fall out, everything will go dark and wet." It sure did. Dark and wet, I thought. Yup. But then I remembered his next words, "Don't panic. You'll float right back up to the surface. Just stay calm." I paddled my arms a bit as I came up and then there I was, back in the sunlight. I stayed calm, just as he said, because I realized that there were rules in place to keep me safe, so as long as I followed those rules I would be just fine. His words kept coming to me, "Once you come back to the surface, make sure you get your legs pointed downstream. Don't try to swim, and don't try to stand either. There are plenty of rocks and crevices your feet could get stuck in. Just get your feet pointed downriver and float." I realized my head was pointed downriver, and even though we were wearing helmets, I still didn't like the idea of hitting my helmetted head on a rock. I turned myself around and floated downriver with my feet out in front of me. I grabbed two of the paddles floating next to me and marveled at just how calm I was. Eventually the guys in the rescue boat reached out and pulled me over using the paddles I was holding. They quickly took hold of my life-jacket and pulled me up by it. I was so glad I had tightened it just like the guides said, otherwise I would have slipped right out. After that, they gave our paddles back and promptly returned us to our raft.

When we were talking about the rafting trip afterward, my little crew was still in awe over the experience. Almost all of us had loved it - even the falling out part - but one girl from our raft said she had been terrified the whole time. However, when our raft flipped, she explained that her consolation came from the fact that there were others in the water with her. I hadn't thought about that aspect, but I realized when she said it that it had been a consolation for me as well. I was comforted by the fact that I wasn't the only person adrift, but that my whole team was with me. I joked later that our teamwork was the best because we were either all in the raft together, or we were all in the water together.

It made me think about how important it is for us to be with people during their time of need. Of course we need people there to pull us out of the water when it's time, but we often need to feel like people are with us in the water. When I'm feeling upset or distraught about a personal situation, I don't always need saviors. Sometimes I just need someone who will say, "I understand. I'm here. I'm with you in this. We'll get out together."

These are just some of the places where God showed up for me at Camp Lajas: in learning to trust the gifts God has given me; in better understanding what it means to work as a team; and in realizing just how important it is to be at the side of those who feel alone in their struggles. So, back to the famous question: Where did you see God in this... summer / post / year ? If you want to know where God is at work in your life, this question is a good place to start.

Wishing you peace and plenty of adventures,
Sister Desiré Anne-Marie Findlay