Tag Archives: community

Among the Trees

Looking up at the trees at St. Mary-on-the-Lake
Looking up at the trees at St. Mary-on-the-Lake

I will never forget the first time I drove on to the property at St. Mary-on-the-Lake, the west coast regional center of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. I had driven 3 hours from Portland to attend my first ever vocation retreat. While I had been in contact with the vocation director by email, I had not yet met any of the Sisters and was still a bit unsure about this whole becoming a Catholic Sister thing. Truth be told, I was more than a wee bit nervous.

And then I drove onto the property and was immediately calm and at peace. It was the trees. St. Mary’s is on a wooded property with beautiful tall cedars and evergreens.  When I say tall, I mean tall. They tower over our three story residence buildings. They are majestic and strong. They provide shade and endless green. They make for a cozy peaceful spot.  They speak to me of home.

This morning I arrived back at this sacred spot, flying to Seattle from New Jersey where I am living at our eastern regional center (also a beautiful spot to be sure – in its own way).  We have our Spring Assembly here on the weekend. It is always good to spend time with our CSJP Sisters and Associates, whether in the East, the West, or the UK. One benefit of my new gig is that it is now part of my job to spend time with them. How lucky am I?

I have moved around quite a bit in the past decade since I entered the community, and I will be spending the next six years or so living in New Jersey. But the Pacific Northwest is home. It is the place where my being is most at peace. Several of the Sisters greeted me in the dining room earlier today, welcoming me home, even if just for a short visit. I was lucky enough to live here at St. Mary-on-the-Lake the year after the Novitiate, and this community was my home base while I was studying in Chicago. They would always welcome me home for holidays and vacations or just for a visit. It is good to have a place like that, where people and landscape make you feel at home.

Some of you may realize that the title of this blog post is a nod to one of my favorite poems, by Mary Oliver. I’ll end this post with her words, inspired by a different landscape but entirely transferable:

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
– Mary Oliver –

Soaking

trees at st mary on the lake
trees at st mary on the lake

I’ve spent the last week at our west coast regional center nestled in the woods on the shores of Lake Washington. This morning I didn’t have to be anywhere especially early, and so I was able to stay warm and cozy in bed and listen to the pitter patter of rain on the roof. I know that I am a Pacific Northwesterner at heart, because oh how I have missed that sound!  I head back to winter on Monday when I go home to New Jersey (weather permitting), and so it was nice to be able to soak it all in.

I’ve also been soaking in the presence of people, especially Sisters who are dear to me here at west coast groovy sister hq. It’s been far too long since I was here, given that I was frantically trying to finish my graduate studies in order to begin my new leadership gig last month.  One blessing of my new role is that I will be back much more often. I know that, and it makes me happy, but this week has also done wonders for my spirit.  Relationships and landscapes can shape us in such a way that we carry them with us, no matter where we go.  Even so, it is important when you can to situate yourself in proximity to those people and places who hold a special place in your heart, soaking them in, refreshing and renewing your spirit.

God is good friends. God is good.

Peace

On Unicorns, Anomalies, and GV

unicorn_little_sister_button-r0a0b34445bf44ee383d2299c9776189a_x7j1a_8byvr_324Last weekend as I was mid-way through my second week of congregation leadership, I found myself thinking of my friends who were gathering in Arizona for the annual Giving Voice retreat for Catholic Sisters in their 20s and 30s.  I prayed in gratitude for Giving Voice, a grassroots network of “young nuns,” and in blessing for the next generation of GV Sisters.  My prayer is that the relationships they forge today will sustain them well into the future.

As it happens, I aged out of the 20s and 30s retreat a few years ago myself, which is a nice (and unusual) experience as a younger vowed religious … actually being too old for something! But this summer we had our first GV 40s retreat. It was an amazing experience to once again pray, play, and be with my age peers in this life, if only for a few days.  It was also perfectly timed to aid in my own discernment, given that it happened directly on the heels of our discernment retreat for the group of CSJP Sisters invited to leave their names in for congregation leadership prior to our Chapter.  I had decided to leave my name in, and it was a blessing to sink into that reality with other religious from different congregations who were my own age. One friend had even recently been elected leader of her own congregation which made me feel more normal and helped me to think that I was not entirely crazy.

Tracy Kemme has a post on Global Sisters Report reflecting on last weekend’s 20s and 30s retreat. As I read her column, I found myself remembering the light and love and laughter that filled my heart after my first GV retreat when I was a novice. I could have written her words myself:

At the close of this weekend that went way too fast, we gathered for prayer and to share what the retreat had meant to us. I shared that I felt normal. Usually, I am one of just one or two sisters with a group of peers, or I’m one of a just few young adults in a big group of sisters. In this group of young adult sisters, there was a natural understanding and a relaxed spirit. Women in our circle said they felt grateful, renewed, affirmed, energized, accompanied, strengthened and more.

Religious life is unusual … there is simply no way around that. There is also no way around the fact that, with the median age of Sisters in our communities rapidly approaching 80, being a younger woman religious in your 20s, 30s, or even 40s means that you are pretty much like a unicorn, in that you are one of a rare and exotic species. In community, you have different experiences of church, pop culture, and life than pretty much everyone else. In your circle of friends, you are walking a different path which they most likely respect but to which they cannot relate, no matter how much they try. And with the general public, you tend to elicit sheer disbelief when people find out that you are in fact a young Catholic Sister. “Really? … are you a real Sister?” … I have been asked, many many times.

So imagine the relief when you get together with 5 or 20 or 30 or 100 other young nuns.  You get to stop being a unicorn and just get to be yourself.  When I was a novice, this was so very important. My discernment was greatly aided by having a network of religious life age peers. It helped me to filter out what aspects and questions and experiences were the byproduct of my age versus what were real questions I had to deal with related to community, ministry, and prayer. GV is a sacred space for which I give thanks. Again, Tracy captures it well:

Younger, newer women religious need these encounters. Of course, we dearly love our own congregations and all of our sisters. Nothing could replace that; the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati are my home. … Being with peers in religious life, and I mean true peers, is indispensable for a young sister’s health – and exciting for the unfolding collaborative future of religious life.

I have grown into my identity as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace in company with my Giving Voice Sisters. The sacred space of GV has helped me to own that I am not, in fact, a unicorn. Younger Catholic Sisters do exist. We are vibrant members of our communities’ present even as we step into a future we cannot yet imagine, but a future in which we deeply believe.

As I read Tracy’s column, I realized that I am in a different space now. My circle of feeling normal has expanded from occasional GV retreats and conversations to who I am in community every day. I carry this circle of friendship and support with me wherever I go. There has been a level of integration for which I am very grateful. GV is part of my context and identity as a finally professed Sister of St. Joseph of Peace, even as I step into the circle of congregation leadership.

To be sure, being a young nun elected leader makes you more of an anomaly than a unicorn. A good young non-nun friend used that word to describe my reality the other day. It caused me pause, but on reflection it fits my present, very unusual reality. I am humbled to realize that I am serving in leadership of my community, a community which I dearly love.  The vast majority of my CSJP Sisters have been Sisters longer than I have been alive, and yet, here I am privileged to give my all for our present and as we build bridges to a sustainable future for the generations yet to come.

Giving Voice has been the gift that keeps on giving, especially as I step onto this path of leadership. There are by no means many age peers in leadership (I can count them on one hand), but there are some.  I also know that as all of our communities live into the reality of demographic change there will be more who are called to this adventure.  I am grateful for the elder Sisters who are recognizing this reality and mentoring the younger Sisters in their community. (If you fit that category, I highly recommend reading my friend Tere’s Open Letter to the Great Generation on Global Sisters Report. I also had a GSR column  recently on how this is a unique and important time for all the generations living religious life today.)

Most of all, I am grateful to my loving and mischievous God for breaking through and leading me onto this wonderful crazy path with unicorns and anomalies and friends and laughter and hope and trust and love.

Love and Memory

Today we will celebrate the life of Sister Christine who passed away last week here in the infirmary at our east coast regional center. Last night we actually began the ritual of remembrance, with the vigil service.

I remember Sister Christine from when I lived here eight years ago, and what I remember most is her smile and her warmth. It was lovely last night to sit with our Sisters at the wake and remember her. Each story that was told brought her memory to life, and especially the ways that our lives and community were enriched by her presence. I was especially touched by the theme of quiet generosity which emerged.

I love the way that we as Sisters of St Joseph of Peace say goodbye to our Sisters. Each region has its own flavor and traditions,  but there is a simple love and sense of gratitude which always shines through.

I know that Sister Christine will continue her generosity in the next phase of her life with her loving Creator, praying for us and cheering us on.

Video Prayer Reflection: He Woke Me Up Again

I was the lector at mass this morning in the Chapel at St. Michael’s Villa where many of our senior Sisters live. I’m actually living next door now, so it’s wonderful to have such a faithful and welcoming praying community so close by.

Today’s first reading is a favorite of mine from 1 Samuel Chapter 3, where the young Samuel is called again and again by God. Samuel doesn’t know who is calling him, so he goes and wakes up Eli, thinking he was the one calling him. It seems to me like Eli is somewhat annoyed at being awoken again and again, until he finally gets it, and says to Samuel: “Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’”  It was a pleasure to proclaim the word for my CSJP Sisters this morning, particularly this passage.

I also found myself remembering this video prayer reflection which I made a few years ago on retreat at Stella Maris, our retreat house on the Jersey Shore. It is set to a song by indie singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens.  The song has always reminded me of this passage, and of God’s persistent love.

How wonderful it is that God calls, and calls, and calls, until we get it, until we are ready.  God is persistent and faithful and waiting for our yes. And sometimes, perhaps most times really, it takes others to help us realize and understand and respond to the call.

Margaret Anna Fridays – Our Common Work

Mother Francis Clare (Margaret Anna Cusack)
Mother Francis Clare (Margaret Anna Cusack)

Periodically on Fridays I will share some words of wisdom from the founder of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. Known in religion as Mother Francis Clare, Margaret Anna Cusack was a prolific writer in her day.  She wrote lives of the saints, spiritual works, histories, and social reform. She also wrote copious letters to her Sisters. This gem is from her April 1887 general letter to the new Congregation.

“We must all have more consideration for each other, and make full allowance for difference of birth, education and temper. We have a common work to do for God, and His poor which should be our union and our bond of charity and this motive should enable us to put aside all little differences, and troubles.”

Settling In

Winter on the grounds of east coast groovy sister hq
Winter on the grounds of east coast groovy sister hq

Today has been a wonderful lazy Saturday of gently settling in to my new (this time around anyway) surroundings. I moved to New Jersey on Tuesday and began my new gig on Wednesday. I’m living with some of the women who I will have the pleasure of serving with, over the next 6 years, on our congregation leadership team.

I qualify my new surroundings as new to me this time around, because I’ve actually lived here before. This is where I made my novitiate, and I’m actually living in the same house. It’s nice because it’s familiar. But it’s also nice because it’s different.

Today I went out a bit to explore and reorient myself to the neighborhood. I was happy that I remembered the back way, avoiding gridlock on the highways, to the hospital we sponsor. I then explored and found a new-to-me thrift store, where I found some new-to-me things!

This afternoon I took a nice leisurely walk on the grounds and to the neighboring park. We had some snow yesterday morning, and since it is quite cold it is still fresh looking and quite beautiful on the trees.

My room is starting to feel like home. I brought some things with me on the plane and shipped a couple of small boxes. The box with the items for my prayer space came today, which makes me very happy. In two weeks I will head back to Chicago for my Dad’s birthday and get the rest of my belongings.

I am grateful for this quiet day to just be and settle in. God is good, and community is a blessing.

Peace, friends.

Goodbyes and New Beginnings

Me standing in front of the "Bean" sculpture in Chicago's Millennium Park
Me standing in front of the “Bean” sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park

Two and a half years ago I packed up my room at Grace House (the CSJP community house in Seattle where I lived with two other Sisters) and moved to Chicago to study at Catholic Theological Union.  While it was hard to move to a city without any other CSJP Sisters, I was excited about the opportunity to study theology full time. I was also excited that my big sister Monica lived in Chicago with her family, and that I had a ready made group of “young nun” friends in town.

About a year later my Dad moved to Chicago as well, so I’ve had the unexpected opportunity to see him every week since then.  I will miss those regular father/daughter bonding moments, as well as the regular kid time with my 4 1/2 year old nephew and the opportunity to get to know my sister better as an adult (we’ve never really lived in the same city before).

I’ve also made some great friends at school, mostly younger than me, who have made this time special. I know we will stay in touch thanks to the wonders of social media, and I’ve offered guest rooms for any who find themselves in the New Jersey/New York City area, but it’s never the same after you say that initial goodbye.

Of course, new adventures await! I am in the final stages of sorting, purging, and packing. Tuesday morning my friend and housemate Sarah will drive me and my many bags to the airport. When I get to New Jersey, I will be met by one of the Sisters with whom I will have the pleasure of serving on community leadership for the next six years.  I’m actually moving back into a familiar space. Believe it or not, the house that was my novitiate house is now where I will be living with two other members of the leadership team. God has a funny sense of humor in my experience.

God is also faithful.  I find myself praying with these words from our CSJP Constitutions during this time of transition:

“Confident of God’s faithful love and collaborating with others who work for justice and peace, we face the future with gratitude and hope.”

The real meaning of Sisterhood – Love

4churchwmnI will never forget the day when I first learned about the four American church women who were killed in El Salvador 24 years ago today. It was 1988 and I was a junior at a Catholic girls high school. One of the Sisters from the community who sponsored my high school came to our religion class to speak about her work with the people of El Salvador, which was still embroiled in a brutal and bloody civil war. She brought pictures of the children and families she accompanied and shared the story of her ministry.  She also told us the story of Sister Dorothy Kazel, OSU, lay missioner Jean Donovan, Sister Maura Clarke, MM, and Sister Ita Ford, MM who had been beaten, raped, and murdered by five members of the National Guard of El Salvador just a few years before, because of their presence and ministry to the people of that country. Their bodies were left in a shallow grave along an isolated roadside. I remember being shocked by the story. I also remember being overpowered by the realization that this Sister who was talking to us and sharing her own story also put herself at risk of a similar fate. And it became clear to me that her reason was love. Love of God and love of the people of El Salvador.

Love … that’s the real meaning of Sisterhood. Love is worth living for. Love is worth taking risks for. Love is even worth dying for. What else does the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus teach us?

In the words of Sister Ita Ford in a letter to her goddaughter, written just a few months before her murder:

I hope you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you…something worth living for, maybe even worth dying for…something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what it might be — that’s for you to find, to choose, to love. I can just encourage you to start looking, and support you in the search. Maybe this sounds weird and off-the-wall, and maybe, no one else will talk to you like this, but then, too, I’m seeing and living things that others around you aren’t… I want to say to you: don’t waste the gifts and opportunities you have to make yourself and other people happy.

Chances are, most of the people who will tune in to the second episode of the ‘reality’ show The Sisterhood tonight do not know this real life story of the power of Sisterhood.  Hopefully, however, the message still comes across that vowed religious life isn’t about giving up make up, or hiding away from the world, or fleeing the drama that comes with being human. In my experience, it’s about finding something worth living for, something that energizes you and causes you to share your God given gifts in a particular way to help address the unmet needs of the world. It’s about responding to the transformative love of God in a way that challenges, supports and transforms you as you seek to transform the world in the company of your Sisters. It’s about love.

In the words of Pope Francis in his message for the Year of Consecrated Life: “You will find life by giving life, hope by giving hope, love by giving love.”

Vow-iversary

Three years ago today I professed my final and forever YES as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace. In our chapel at St. Mary-on-the-Lake, in the presence of my congregation leader, community members, family and friends, I said:

In gratitude for the wondrous gift of God’s love, I ask to life a life of love and service as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace.  I pray that each day of my life I may “take that step which will lead [me] into the deepest depths of the heart of Jesus.” (Mother Clare)

Trusting in God with all my heart and relying on the support and example of our sisters and all others who touch my life,  I hope to live with an open heart by listening, pondering, and contemplating the word of God in my life and witnessing to it in action for justice and peace.

In response to God’s call to seek justice, to love tenderly, and to walk in the way of peace, I Susan Rose Francois, in the presence of Margaret Byrne, Congregation Leader, and in the presence of the community gathered here, vow to God, poverty, celibacy, and obedience for life according to the Constitutions of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.

Three years later I continue to be so very grateful for God’s love and the opportunity to respond to that love as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace. I continue to feel the call to live with an open heart and to seek justice, love tenderly, and walk in the way of peace. New adventures are still to come as I continue to take steps which lead me deeper into the deepest depths of the heart of Jesus. And for that, my friends, I am very grateful!

Signing my final profession of vows in our community vow book
Signing my final profession of vows in our community vow book