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

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.