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.