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Dear Ita....

Sunday, November 19, 2017

(If you don't know who Ita Ford is, I suggest reading this first - "Not Left Forgotten: Guided by the Spirit of Ita Ford")

Dear Ita,
As I sit here reading your letters, I feel compelled to write you. I write to you as a friend because, although we've never met, I've known you for years. I've read and re-read your letters and writings since I was in college. Your words have been with me in my studies, in the mission field, and in religious formation.

After leaving religious life a year ago, I wondered if your words would still resonate with me. They had meant so much to me all those years. So, tentatively, I started re-reading, wondering if it would result in the loss of a spiritual guide and heroine (I know, you'd be nauseated by those titles)

But years ago, you wrote to your niece, praying that she would find what gives life a deep meaning for her - "something worth living for, maybe even worth dying for...something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead" (read the whole letter here) And I breathed a sigh of relief. You got it, you understood journeys, no matter what they were.

That's where I am right now - on the path for that which gives me my life deep meaning.
I thought I had found it with religious life, but no, it wasn't what God intended.
I'm not sure what my vocation is, what these next years will hold, but I'm okay with going with God's flow...for now, anyway...I think.

Despite the question marks, since I left the Sisters, to echo your own words:
"What seems to be slowly happening is an acceptance of the truth of who I am: coming to know it, see it in relation to the whole - and accepting the knowledge of who I am and where I am...coming to be comfortable with who I am, how I have been gifted for others." (retreat notes, Aug 1978-1979, p124)

Even though I'm unsure where my life is leading me and I've lost that title of "Sister", I do believe we still have a lot in common. It's incredibly obvious that you loved writing, as I do. You were witty and, truthfully, a bit nerdy. You were faithful, yet full of questions. You struggled with comprehending God's love for you in your imperfections, just as I do.

Neither of us had a journey we expected. You joined the Maryknoll Sisters and left right before vows, joined again seven years later, lost your best friend in a car accident that almost killed you too, and then died just a few months after moving to El Salvador. I, well, I have been all over the place, in and out of community.

Is all this what's meant in Jeremiah 18:5-6, one of your favorites:
"Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel"? 

In a 1977 article, you mention living in the mission field of Chile as "on the front lines of Christianity" (quoting a letter you had received using that phrase). Things are a bit different here. I called living my faith in Bolivia 'barefoot Christianity' because it was Christianity at its core, stripped to simplicity.
So, how is it that I live out my faith here in San Antonio, beyond church, beyond prayer? I work for persons who are poor and, like you, like all of us, I have no answers for them. I can only walk with them and let myself be evangelized. But the noise of God's work in others and myself isn't quite as loud as it was back then or maybe there's a lot of static my ears are foolishly focusing on instead. But I know He's here and very much alive in these people.

All this is to ask for your prayers, Ita (and readers).
Your friend is a jar of clay but she's not broken yet. God still has me in His hand.

Peace,
Amanda

Texas, God Cries With You

Sunday, November 12, 2017

For my birthday, a friend gifted me a charm - it was the shape of Texas with a heart carved out in the
middle.

It made me smile because, after leaving the Sisters a year ago, I decided to stay here in Texas, where I had been sent on mission. The fact that I didn't move back home to Maryland was a hard decision for some Sisters to understand, but the truth is this city had started to feel like home. And it has ever since.
And I've noticed that in the little ways I never expected to assimilate - when I pulled out my boots when the temperatures dropped below 75, when I told my afterschoolers it was too cold to go outside when it was only in the 50s, etc.

I never expected, though, to be a "beyond-winter Texan" through so many tragedies.

The human smuggling tragedy here in San Antonio.
Hurricane Harvey.
Sutherland Springs.

And, with each tragedy, I saw the heart of San Antonio ache, even if the last two didn't affect the city itself. I was in Maryland visiting during the human trafficking tragedy, so I can't speak to the response, but I was in Texas for the last two.
After the fear of Harvey hitting San Antonio passed, I saw the city burst into action to help its victims - nonprofits of all kinds used their resources to help the refugees, churches and schools opened their doors, groups rushed to cities to help rebuild, etc. Even the news spoke of "our brothers and sisters in Port Aransas/Houston/fill-in-the-blank".
As we spoke of Sutherland Springs today in church, I heard sniffles in the church as people held back their tears (or didn't). (Granted, Sutherland Springs does hit a little closer to home. Someone in my Bible study does know someone in the town.)

The truth is Texas has been through a lot this past year. And let's call it what is - trauma and suffering.

For Catholics, November is a time to remember the souls of the departed. And Texas certainly has plenty of those from this past year. All Souls Day is a Catholic tradition, yes, but why not make it a tradition for everyone of the Christian faith?

In a sweep of tragedies, it is so tempting to believe that our God is one of vengeance or even one of apathy. It's part of being human. We're wounded and vulnerable...and where is God? But if we reflect on who we believe our God to be, we know He didn't send the tragedy out of something we did or didn't do nor does He sit back in apathy. Rather, He sits and cries with us.
"The Lord said....‘My eyes pour out tears. Day and night, the tears never quit. My dear, dear people are battered and bruised, hopelessly and cruelly wounded."
- Jeremiah 14:17 (The Message)

He is here. 
He is here in every victim.

When I was in Seminary (novitiate), I had several health problems. Because I'm human, I attributed it to God punishing me for my sinful behavior. Once I finally let go of that erroneous belief, I then wondered why He would let this happen in the first place. Those health problems cost me so much. I lost the little independence I had. I felt like I was the center of attention...and in a very bad way. I was very angry with God. I stopped talking to Him at one point, even. (See, even Sisters got spiritual issues.) But, one day, in the chapel alone, I started talking to Him. Angrily, but still. And suddenly, like a flash, I could feel His presence. Not just in that moment, but I could see it in little moments from the very beginning of my health problems. I could feel Him on the floor with me when I fell, stroking my hair, making sure I was okay. I could feel Him next to me all those times afterwards I whimpered alone in my room, thinking of all that had to be taken away, of all the doctor's visits, of all the unwanted attention. And I could feel Him embracing me in that moment in the chapel, saying "I'm here. I feel your pain".

He is here in every tear shed.

For the past ten years or so, in different parts of the world, I've worked with people who live in poverty - whether it be as a caregiver, teacher, or caseworker. In each instance, I've found 'helpers' in those I'm supposed to be 'helping'. It's taken different forms.
It's been the girls from the orphanage in Bolivia, having gone through incredible poverty, child abuse/neglect, malnutrition and occasionally homelessness, longing to do something for starving children in Africa.
It's been my Girl Scouts here in San Antonio, whose families can barely afford childcare much less anything else, who wanted to use money from their cookie sales for NICU babies.
It's been parents who have turned down my help for the childcare tuition assistance fund for families in crisis because "please, save the money for another family. I'll figure out a way. There may be someone else who won't be able to"
It's been my afterschooler at my current job in section 8 housing who wants to sell chocolate bars and "give the money away to those who really need it".

He is here in every person lending out a shoulder to cry on or a helping hand.

So, this month, whether we're Catholic or not, let us remember each one of the departed, even the unnamed. And while we do so, let us remember God's presence next to them in their suffering...and next to us in our sorrow and path to healing.

That charm now, for me, symbolizes more than just Texas, my second home.
It is a constant reminder that God is here...in tragedy, in transition, in sorrow, in healing.
"The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit." 
- Psalm 34:18

Being 'the Other': Owning a Different Kind of Story

Friday, November 3, 2017

I often feel like ‘the other’ – part of a group of people that no one knows how to deal with or react to.
There’s married people, parents (who may or may not be married), widowed, divorced, singles, religious…and then there’s me.

Yes, I am single, but I don’t identify at all with the single life, or at least those that are single and around my age (32).
Why? Because singles that are in their 30s have usually spent the past decade or so dating, perhaps having at least one long-term partner along the line, exploring different careers maybe.
Me, on the other hand? Not so much. I voluntarily lived a life of celibacy. I explored different careers, yes, but not really through my own choice (not that I minded). I moved around the whole country, but again not through my own choice (again, not that I minded). My long-term partner was God.

Except for my work, the rest of my life feels stagnant. Since leaving the Sisters, I haven’t gained many other friends, though I kept those I already had. I did join an all-female Bible study group at church, which helped a little, though I tend to only see them on Sunday nights. Almost all the women (just by happenstance) are divorced, a stage of life that I can relate to the most, and, as you can guess, they are almost all older. [Truthfully, I think this tendency to form friendships with older generations stem from the average age of those I lived with when I was a Sister.]
Because I mostly only see that group on Sunday nights and because the rest of my friends have families, I lack friends to do spontaneous things with…like go to festivals or try out a new restaurant or just hang out.

So, I do many things alone. Having an introvert side, I don’t mind this too much. But doing so, I realized how much society assumes we do everything in groups.
I even had someone try to skip ahead of me in an ice cream shop once because he assumed I was waiting for a friend.  I wasn’t – just getting some pistachio gelato on a nice night. And there was one time in church that they squeezed so many in the pew that I wondered if I was going to be asked to move to a different part of the church because it was obvious I was the only one in the pew by myself.
And pretty much everywhere, I’ve rarely had anyone talk to me when I’m alone.

Oftentimes, if I share my story, many (regardless of age, religion, or vocation in life) don’t know how to react to my story of being a Sister, leaving, and then the grief of transition – that is, if I even feel vulnerable enough to share that last part. Usually I get a shocked face, a “wow, that’s interesting!”, and the conversation ends. When I was deeply sharing with someone once, I was told “I can’t relate to your story at all”, which I’ll admit made me feel sad. That comment truly did make me feel like ‘the other’ – like saying ‘you’re different than the rest of us and I just can’t understand that’.

Brené Brown once wrote
Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

The truth is all that – my vocational discernment, being a Sister for five years, leaving, and the transition to lay life – is all part of my story. I can’t erase nor would I want to, really. The key is to embrace who I am, who I was, and what happened. I can’t pretend I’m anyone else. It may seem like it makes me more acceptable but, really, it just makes me more fragmented.

Being ‘the other’ – at least for now – is part of that story. On some days, when being alone is difficult or when I hear comments that emphasize my “different-ness”, it’s easy to give up. It’s easy to believe this is the way it’ll always be. But maybe it’s realizing I’m different, maybe it’s reflecting on the murk of my story, that allows me to pick up the shards left of my brokenness.

And hopefully, one day, I’ll find people, like most of the friends I have right now, who understand my story or at least feel comfortable with its uniqueness.

If I think about it, if there’s one thing I’ve been this past year, it’s brave. I’ve stepped into the unknown by becoming a lay woman. I’ve wrestled with grief, having lost my lifestyle, my community, and even some friends. I’ve chosen to remain in a city with no family and only a handful of friends. I changed jobs in September, leaving the ministry I knew for three years. Does that mean I haven’t been fearful? Or depressed? Or lonely? Oh God, no. Ask any of my friends. They can share those times they’ve had to calm me down. Yet, I feel that bravery doesn’t exclude those emotions but it means choosing to wade through it all anyway.

Sometimes bravery is in the small things, in trudging through life when it feels like it’s not going forward, in going out of your comfort zone, in sharing your story anyway, in believing God has a bigger plan.

I may be ‘the other’ for a long time. But screw that. I don’t have to be anyone else. My story is mine. And everyone’s story is worthy of being told and listened to.

"Take Heart, Daughter": Lessons from the Bleeding Woman

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Some thousands of years ago, a desperate woman reached out and touched Jesus' cloak. Twelve years of suffering from hemorrhages, twelve years of losing more and more blood, twelve years of being a social outcast, twelve years of spending all she had and living in poverty, twelve years of being "unclean". Unlike the paralyzed man, unlike Jairus' daughter, no one spoke up for her. She was alone.
She didn't say a word, just touched Jesus' cloak and hoped to be healed.

And she was.

A year ago at this time, I was making the preparations to leave the Sisters. After wearing a habit for almost four years, with help of friends, I had started the dizzying task of buying clothes. I was making heartbreaking phone calls to close friends. I started searching for a place to live.
While I had some idea of what may happen when I left, I had no idea the amount of healing that would need to happen once I took off the coiffe and stepped outside those doors.

I lost some friends. There were misunderstandings about why I left, although it was agreed upon that it was my decision. Some, religious or not, believed it must have been something I did wrong.
I was angry over what happened and what didn't happen in community. I longed for the good times I had there. I was hurt over the bad times.

I felt like the bleeding woman. Desperate. Just hoping to be healed.

But, over the months, I realized I am being healed.

I started standing up. I wasn't as angry, hurt, or wistful. Life had gone on. Life was better.
I felt like my friendships were deeper because they knew and accepted me for who I was and who I am now. There may still be misunderstandings about why I left from people who knew me before, but I started to care less about what they think. When hurtful comments continued, I rolled my eyes and thought about what deep-seated psychological issues they may have instead of letting them blast me into oblivion. I felt like I was finally becoming my own person and that I was finally home.

I started standing up, but I wasn't completely on my feet.
I still worked at the non-profit next to the Sisters' house (and even where four of the Sisters worked).
Because of that, co-workers, clients, or kids took a long time to stop calling me "Sister Amanda" if they ever did. The kids especially had a hard time making that transition.
I still tried to hide myself from donors, Board members, and volunteers that knew me as a Sister because I felt awkward or even embarrassed.
Memories, good or bad, still plagued me because I faced their setting every day.

All of that changes tomorrow. Friday was my last day at that non-profit. Tomorrow, I begin my new job. A new job where no one knows me as "Sister Amanda", a new job where I won't encounter the Sisters every day, a new job where I forge my own path and my own identity.

It's the next step in the healing process, the next step in standing up tall. I just wish it wasn't so terrifying. I know it seems ridiculous to say, considering I gave up everything, my entire way of life, just a year ago. Yet, my fear is real.

I can learn two things from the story of the bleeding woman (Matthew 9:20-22 and Mark 24-35).

First, it's okay to be terrified. But keep going.
In Mark's version, the bleeding woman touched Jesus' cloak, was instantly healed, but Jesus didn't know who touched him. After all, his back was turned. So, he asked. Certainly, this was a scary moment. After all, technically, this woman made him "unclean" simply while touching him while she was bleeding. Outside of being in the crowd while he walked by, as far as we know, she didn't know that much about Jesus. She couldn't have known his reaction or even the crowd's reaction. She could have easily whistled away when Jesus asked "who touched me?" Instead, she spoke up. She was terrified, but she spoke and told him the whole truth.
Don't listen to fear because, if the bleeding woman had, she would have missed Jesus words meant just for her.

Second, I have to believe that God says those same comforting words to me: "Take heart, daughter" (Matt 9:22) and "be at peace and be freed from your suffering" (Mark 5: 34)

And so I try.
In all aspects of my life, I'll try to follow the example of this woman, who knew suffering and fear just like me, and had faith anyway. And I'll try to follow the example of this Jesus, who knew to go to the least of these without fear and say the words they needed to hear.

What We Can Learn from Frank in the Garden

Sunday, August 20, 2017


I've tried keeping office plants. Twice, actually. But both sadly shared the same fate - a slow death.

I haven't tried to keep even a small garden on my third-floor balcony because I know that those plants would most likely follow the path of their office friends. I hate to even think of the idea.

That being said though, I love statues of Frank.
Francis of Assisi, that is.

I love to see him in gardens of Catholic and non-Catholics alike, giving water to the birds or just staring into the great abyss.

I love it because, when I see him, I think of Francis' story. And I think of a great lesson that I was reminded of today: God is a disrupter. And that's okay. And everything's going to be okay.

Feeling secure and safe is one of my biggest needs in life. It's just a personality hazard. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why the decision over leaving the Sisters was so agonizing. Even though more and more I felt God was calling me to leave, it meant leaving a planned future, stable relationships, steady schedules, etc. I really wrestled with that. But ultimately, I took the knife, cut down the safety net I was sitting in, and jumped into the great unknown.

Frank understood that. He had his own safety net, his plush life as the son of a rich silk merchant. Surely, his future was planned out; he had friends just like him; he enjoyed the care-free life. But slowly, things changed. He had a conversion experience in which he felt God calling him to rebuild the church. Did he agonize like I did? I don't know. But ultimately, like me, he took the knife, cut down his safety net, and jumped.

Francis' life changed drastically, as we all know. He grew very religious, re-built churches with his bare hands, started living a life of poverty, and founded the Franciscans and Poor Clares.

God disrupts. And that's okay.
Our lives change for the better when He does.
Sometimes that disruption doesn't come in the form of a religious conversion like Francis' - maybe it's in the form of leaving an unhealthy relationship, an unhappy job situation, finally confronting someone about an uncomfortable but important subject.
It's been almost a year since I left the Sisters. And I can say that I'm happier today than I was a year ago, even two years ago. I do miss my safety net sometimes, especially when, in instability, I'm looking for security. But I don't regret letting it fall.

That being said, it's easier said than done...most especially when the cutting of our safety net is beyond our control. Some people I know were told to leave their religious communities. There is no discernment, no personal agony. the safety net just falls out from underneath you. And you hit the ground with a BANG.

Francis knew that too. His father never spoke to him again after his religious conversion, people thought he was mentally ill, and there was division in his own Franciscan community. Not anything he would have wanted or probably expected.

But he would easily tell you it was all worth it. God disrupts. Then, it's up to us to work with the disruption. Mourning that cut safety net is okay for awhile but what are the next steps? Perhaps that's why Francis (maybe??) said "Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible."

So, those statues of Frank in gardens don't remind me of Brother Sun, Sister Bird or that I need to water my plants.
They remind me of God the Disrupter, God the Plan-Changer, and that I need to trust and work with those disruptions.
And, although it may not always seem like it, everything's going to be okay.

"And Sarah Laughed": Losing Sr. Mary William

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sarah, Abraham's wife, knew who she was.
She knew she was old and more so than most, certainly not old enough to have a child.
She also knew the ridiculous when she heard it.
So, when angels came to their tent to say she was going to have a son, Sarah laughed to herself, thinking the ancient version of "yeah, right".

Deep in my Google Drive is a voice recording of Sr. Mary William Sullivan, who passed away last week at the age of 91. Her voice is raspy, yet you can still hear the energy as she shares her thoughts at the local community's house meeting. Before the tape ends, she adds her opinion to a discussion about contemplation and the very last thing she says on the recording is this:


"What I laugh about with God! And I do! I have this picture that I was given years ago....and I use it to center my prayer. And [God and I] laugh, you know....nobody ever taught us that. [speaking to the other Sisters] Our old Seminary Directress never said 'laugh with God', did she?"

Sr. Mary William on her 70th Jubilee
as a Daughter of Charity, 2013
When I met Sr. Mary William in the hallway of the retirement home, with a mischievous smile on her face, the very first sentence out of her mouth was "Did anyone ever tell you I was Sister Servant when the Sisters got arrested in Chicago?" No, no one had. And I had no idea this Daughter of Charity knew Martin Luther King Jr. and was known for her activity during the civil rights movement.
[But interestingly enough, despite the initial question, Sr. Mary William never brought up the Sisters in Chicago again despite our many visits. It was I who had to ask for the story.]

I don't remember Mary William as the one who taught me to be a voice for the voiceless, although she certainly was.
I don't remember her as the one who taught me the importance of community life, although she cherished it.
I don't remember her as the one who taught me how to be a good social worker, although she certainly had telling stories about it.

I remember Mary William as the one who taught me to be authentic with a humble heart.

She knew who she was.
She knew she was fiery and more so than most - at times where others may shrink and shrivel under the pressure of what others may think or say, Mary William stood tall.

But she also knew who she was.
She knew that fiery personality sometimes went too far.
So, she spoke up with a humble heart - she apologized for her shortcomings and spoke openly about the issues she had that still affected her, even in the retirement home, even in her old age.

She did the same with God, arguing with Him, apologizing to Him, crying to and with Him, laughing with Him. While God knows each of us through and through anyway, I truly believe He knew every part of Mary William because she opened up to Him about everything.

I already mentioned that Sarah knew who she was - old, not easily fooled, etc. But I didn't share the rest of the story. Like Mary William, Sarah also understood the rest of who she was.
Unlike Mary William's relationship with God, Sarah feared Him, which led to some mishaps. When God asked if she laughed, she immediately answered "No". Yet, with a humble heart just like Mary William, she admits it in the most unexpected way possible:

Abraham gave the name Isaac [meaning "He laughs"] to his son whom Sarah bore him....Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” - Genesis 21: 3,6

There is a story Sr. Mary William used to tell me about her friend Sr. Catherine Sullivan [no relation] that best describes both Mary William's and Sarah's authenticity with a humble heart. It ended with Sr. Catherine saying: "at my funeral, tell them all my friendships were particular and all my sins were original!" 

[If you'd like to read more about Sr. Mary William Sullivan, her obituary is located here on the Daughters of Charity website.]

Nichole Nordeman and the Clueless Disciple

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Simon Peter has always been my favorite disciple. Why? Because the man is absolutely clueless.
He tries to walk on water when Jesus calls him. Simon Peter doubts and sinks.
He hears that Jesus is to suffer, die and resurrect. Simon Peter says "no way, Jesus!" and Jesus calls him Satan (ouch).
He wants to build a tent for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah . Jesus doesn't want a tent.
He gets angry when Jesus gets arrested. Jesus tells him to put his sword away.
He tells Jesus he would never deny him. Simon Peter denies him three times.

I love Simon Peter because Simon Peter is every one of us. We're all clueless. All too often though, when we read the Gospels, we laugh at Simon Peter and we're disgusted by his foolishness instead of recognizing that Simon Peter embodies who we are.

After Jesus appeared to his disciples and Simon Peter's world changed (again), Simon Peter went fishing (John 21). I truly think it was his way of processing things. His life changed when he followed Jesus. His life changed again when Jesus died.

As for me, when I left the Daughters, writing was my way of processing that my world changed completely. I've rarely cried. But that Friday morning when I put on Nichole Nordeman's new album Every Mile Mattered, you bet I cried.

Nichole Nordeman has all been one of my favorite CCM artists, although hearing her on radio stations like KLOVE is rare. I've always felt that Nichole sings of the true story of faith - struggle, doubt, vulnerability, and love. Although we know it to be false, we'd much rather imagine Christianity as a magical recipe for happiness and eventual perfection here on earth.

"Hush, Hush", a song from the perspective of God, was the first song I played on random. I think it was at the lyric "But I'll put you back together / Hush, hush / You don't have to have the answers" when I absolutely lost it.

The songs about shipwrecks, listening to your life, burning safety nets, meeting God in the seeking but not always finding, only kept the tears flowing. My life was being sung, but so was God's assurance that He was still there.

Simon Peter would get it. 

He knew all about letting go of safety and wanting to feel his heart on fire, like in the song "No Longer", when he dropped those fishing nets and followed Jesus.

He easily could have written a "Dear Me", a song about how Nichole's thoughts on faith, worthiness, and even poverty changed throughout the years. After Jesus' resurrection, Simon Peter had a dream about eating unclean meat, a clear message about welcoming Gentiles into the Christian community. (I wrote a "Dear Me" too, although mine was about grief)

Was he haunted by those screwups I mentioned in the beginning of this entry, those shoulda beens, coulda beens that we hear in the song "Every Mile Mattered" or  "Lean" (Why are my memories of / You as the judge, me as the mess / ....Why is it hard to believe / You just want me just as I am)?

Nichole inadvertently sings out the story of Simon Peter, which is our story: that we're all trying not to sink when Jesus calls us across the water, that we struggle with understanding God's plan, that we long to do what's right but sometimes come up wrong, and that God loves and is with us, even when we mess up.

Instead of escaping our resemblance to foolish Simon Peter, instead of denying it, how about we embrace it, soak in the message of Every Mile Mattered, and remember that this clueless guy was the one Jesus chose to be the Rock of His church?



(All lyrics are property and copyright of Nichole Nordeman)
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