Quote of the Week: Mary Doria Russell and Creation

Saturday, July 22, 2017

“There are times...when we are in the midst of life - moments of confrontation with birth or death, or moments of beauty when nature or love is fully revealed, or moments of terrible loneliness - times when a holy and awesome awareness comes upon us. 
It may come as deep inner stillness or as a rush of overflowing emotion.It may seem to come from beyond us, without any provocation, or from within us, evoked by music or by a sleeping child. 
If we open our hearts at such moments, creation reveals itself to us in all it's unity and fullness. And when we return from such a moment of awareness, our hearts long to find some way to capture it in words forever, so that we can remain faithful to it's higher truth.
...when my people search for a name to give to the truth we feel at those moments, we call it God, and when we capture that understanding in timeless poetry, we call it praying.”

                                                               - Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow

Read The Sparrow. Now. The plot may sound crazy, but it was the best book recommendation anyone gave me.

(Sidenote: Way back when, I had Vincentian Quotes of the Week. I certainly still count myself as Vincentian, but I felt it was time to revive the tradition with quotes I find meaningful from all around the spectrum.)

Dear Me: Grief is Survivable

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Dear Me,
This is a letter to the girl I used to be.
The girl who drove away that first of October and started a new life, the girl who had no idea what she was going to do next, the girl terrified that she was leaving religious life, which had been her dream for years.

Here's the bad news: you still don't have it figured out.

At first, that ambiguity was absolutely overwhelming.

Even wearing "dress-down clothes", "play clothes", "civvies", whatever you wanted to call them, was overwhelming. What matched, what didn't? The world wasn't blue and white anymore. You remember that the first time you went out in public that very night, you changed at least ten times...and you still felt awkward. You're better at it now...I think.

It was overwhelming to have a day alone. One day, you'll go to the library, get a book, and read for hours. You kept stopping yourself because you were overwhelmed with guilt. After all, you should have been doing house duties, grocery shopping, some kind of weekend ministry, something.
(Truthfully, you haven't done that again.)

And most of the time you recognize what you're going through: it's grief.

You'll smell popcorn and it'll remind you of a Sister you created a deep friendship with, a Sister who you felt truly know you.
You'll hear something said and it'll frustrate you, reminding you of those last few years in community, the struggles, and everything you wish you would have said.
You'll talk about your time in community and the struggle of your transition and you'll see on people's faces that they just don't understand.

But here's the good news: you do more than survive.

You take one day at a time.
Soon, you find yourself taking one week at a time.
Then, one month at a time.
Then one day, you find yourself saying "did all that really happen NINE months ago?"

You'll smell popcorn, get sad, and then a few weeks later, that Sister will text you for the first time since you left.
You're still loved.

You'll hear something, get angry, and then open your email to see a friend that has written you, with superhero clipart and one sentence: "you should buy a cape".
They understand your strength, even when you don't.

You'll talk about your time in community, feel like you're the only one, and then receive a message from another ex-Sister who reads your blog and finds it therapeutic.
You're not alone.

The grief hasn't ended but you start to see the healing. It stops hurting when you hear "Sister". You stop flinching when you pass your old house. You gradually feel your identity as Sister falling away and the authentic parts of you starting to show through.

You'll find out just how much friends care. Friends that pray over you, friends that tell you (repeatedly) that you don't realize how much you've accomplished in all these months, and friends that gently tell you that it's about time to get up, brush it off, and start kicking butt again.

Wherever you are, dear Me, it may be rough right now, but keep moving. 
With each breath of healing, with each step forward, you're moving...somewhere.
But, most of all, you feel God moving. And that's the best part of all.

What Airports Can Teach You About Bearing Witness

Thursday, July 13, 2017

"The White Nuns" Copyright (c) 2015 by Andrea Missianto
As I waited in the Southwest Airlines line to check my bag, I caught a glimpse of a white veil behind me. I turned around. I just had to. Of course, I said “hi” and even correctly guessed her community, a community I know pretty well here in San Antonio. I told her my name, which I hope she remembered, but I also thought “I used to be one of you”.

Sister, I used to be one of you. Like you, I used to have random strangers approach me and strike up conversations, just like I did with her this morning. People would tell me wonderful stories about Sisters they knew in their childhood that changed their lives or they'd talk to me about their struggling faith or we'd try to see if we knew the same people. Now, I've become one of those strangers.

In my last blog entry, I mentioned the Daughters being a missionary itinerant  community. They were also a community that traveled. A lot. Even if we weren't being missioned, we were traveling for retreats, for meetings, for conferences, for everything. I traveled to states I've never lived in and never visited since.

A few minutes later, as I passed through security, I thought of the Sister again. I didn't see her in the security line but her experiences are probably the same that I had for years.
Sister, I used to be one of you. I would rip off my coiffe (veil) and put it in the bin. One airport asked me to, so I always did since. Some TSA officers seemed shocked - “no, Sister, you don't have to take it off! It's religious garb!” “No, it's okay”, I told them. But, almost without fail, no matter the city, I was pulled aside after X-ray and patted down. Once because of the cross but usually because of that long skirt.

Sister, I used to be one of you. Like you, I used to be a silent witness. I know some Sisters were bothered by the extra time we spent in security but the truth is I never minded. Let TSA do what they need to do. But, more than anything, I wanted to wear my habit to the airport. I wanted people to know that young Sisters, “young nuns”, still existed. Even if they never approached me, just a glance of me would hopefully remind them of good things – of faith, of goodness in the world, of service, of love. Hopefully remind them of more than just nuns with rulers...which I unfortunately did hear about time to time.
And it was more than the veil, by the way, lest anyone think I'm starting a debate. Even Sisters without habits have a “nun” look. I can point them out from a mile away and would have done the same this morning with an un-habited Sister too.

Sister, I used to be one of you. But I'm not anymore.

Now I am a random stranger in the airport, traveling to who-knows-and-who-cares-where.
Now, I blend in.
Now, I'm now free to sit and read my book or sleep leaning against the window, two things I missed about traveling when I was a Sister.

Nonetheless, I may be able to finish my book but take off the veil, take off the title of “Sister”, take off the religious community's initials, and being a witness of faith, goodness in the world, service and love becomes a whole lot harder. Not just in the airport but in life. It's no longer obvious, no longer implied by my very lifestyle – but it's not something I'm willing to abandon. It's still something I want to remind the world.

So, Sister, in that way, I'm still just like you.

When the Nomad Stops Roaming

Saturday, July 8, 2017

About this time last year, I sketched a tree in my journal and wrote something to the effect of “I’m tired of moving. My soul longs to plant roots.” This was revolutionary for the one who prided herself on being a “nomad for the mission” (or "a Vincentian nomad") but everything was changing. I was changing.

Since college ten years ago, I had not lived in any same city more than two years. I was constantly moving. First, country to country, then state to state. In fact, before I became a Daughter, I almost took a job in Panama until a friend there told me “No, Amanda, you’re a butterfly. I know you; you won’t stay here for long.” She was right. I joined a missionary itinerant community and I soon become an expert at moving. By the time I was a postulant, I had my personal possessions down to two suitcases and a carry-on. (Although, I’ll admit it- I sent my books through the mail)

I personally, in or out of community, had no pattern either: the indigenous culture of the valley of the Andes, the urban jungle of the nation's capital, the contradiction of continued racial segregation and joyful friendliness of the Bible Belt, the scrambled Mexican/American culture that is the Rio Grande Valley, the proud and quiet Midwest, the snowy Northeast, and then the festivity of Central Texas.

But, now it’s all different. Now, my wish from last year is coming true. I had lived in San Antonio two years when I decided to leave the Daughters - that magical number. (Not to say that they would have moved me, but I would have moved eventually)
And what was truly radical is that I decided to stay in San Antonio instead of moving back to Maryland. I broke my own cycle.

I'll celebrate my three-year anniversary in San Antonio in October…which also means that some of the friendships I’ve built here have also lasted this long, which is amazing longevity for me. More or less, I know the different “sides” of the city and I understand the city’s inside jokes. While I’ll never be a local, I’m beginning to feel more and more like this city is a second home.

However, something happens when you've been a nomad or missionary or wanderer...when you finally stop, it feels strange. Awkward. Clumsy.

Or at least, for me, that's the truth.

I realized I really don't know how to say goodbye when I'm not the one leaving.
I stumble through digging my heels in deeper, like allowing myself to be vulnerable, because I'm trying to build lasting friendships, not fleeting or long-distance ones.
While the Daughters took road trips, it seems peculiar to satisfy my wanderlust by exploring the areas around San Antonio in my car, rather than getting on a plane every few months for meetings or retreats.
I feel a goofy pride over small victories like figuring out routes without my GPS.
And as I see other 30-somethings that were more stable in their life, I get jealous because growing roots is incredibly hard.

But I have to tell myself that every mile mattered (this blog entry was inspired partly by this song by Nichole Nordeman). Every state mattered. Every area mattered. Every person I met, from such backgrounds and cultures, mattered.

I may blunder as my roots grow, but I wouldn't be the same person if I hadn't been a nomad all those years.

I wouldn't be as dedicated to service of the poor if I hadn't lived with abused and neglected girls in Bolivia, took a suicidal girl under my wing in Washington DC, heard a mother tell her son that she gave up on him in Georgia, listened as an immigrant described her unjust work conditions in the Rio Grande Valley, joked with middle schoolers who said they wanted school all day so they would feel safe in East St. Louis, and smiled with a refugee couple from Afghanistan as the wife rejoiced that there are no bombs there in upstate New York.

I wouldn't be as flexible or open-minded if I hadn't lived and worked in so many cultures, some of which I spoke the language and others I didn't. They affected me both the same.

I wouldn't have heard so many stories from people from so many different walks of life: consecrated, married, single, citizen, immigrant, young, and old - stories that show me the power of vulnerability, survival, and resilience, stories that teach me we are all wounded.

I wouldn't have gotten to see and know God in so many different ways because of my wandering - in words and silence, in others with religion and in those without, in my language and in not.

And, of course, it would take pages to write about how each of the Sisters I lived with changed me.

Being a nomad was worth it, but I've reached the point to set down my walking stick.
And God will continue to form me in different ways just as He has in the past.
His story for me continues to unravel.

The Wicked Witch of the West And Me

Saturday, July 1, 2017

This blog has been named after Maria from The Sound of Music, but lately I've declared an affinity and sympathy for Elphaba in Wicked - that is, the Wicked Witch of the West.
In case you've never seen or even heard of the musical, it's about "the true story of the witches of Oz" based on the book "Wicked" by Gregory Maguire.

Photo from The Western Sky
To most, my departure from the Daughters was sudden and surprising. For me though, it was a discernment that dragged on for months, maybe even years. 

It would have been easier for me to stay with the Daughters. Not easier emotionally or even spiritually, but easier in terms of my life. (If you thumb through my journal during that time, you'd find that was a big factor I considered.) I would be staying with the "status quo". You entered the Sisters; therefore, you stay. People know you as "Sister Amanda" and slowly it becomes who you are.

The same was true with Elphaba. She was a normal citizen of Oz (you know, except for the green skin) until....

Well, I won't give away too much. But in the song, "Defying Gravity", Elphaba finally voices that pivotal moment. It's the moment where she realizes she can no longer blindly follow the Wizard, the moment where she knows that she's meant for something different, the moment where she lets go and gives it all up - the hope for a successful future but also the hope of acceptance into a community that she had started to think that maybe she would belong.
There's fierce empowerment in that song but there's also a renouncement of any normalcy she may have had.

There are numerous lines in the song that resonate with me and my journey. One of which is "something has changed within me, something is not the's time to trust my instincts, close my eyes and leap!" There was a moment when I personally reached a point when I knew I had to leave and, at that point, there was no turning back. It was absolutely terrifying, but, like Elphaba, I changed, everything changed.
And I leapt.

The leaping now is a blur. So much happened in such a short amount of time. Phone calls, revealing my decision to the local community, visits to apartment buildings, meetings with my work supervisors, and then a massive email to all the Sisters. And then, before I knew it, I was out. Everything truly changed.

As for Wicked, the story we all know comes to pass. Elphaba becomes jaded by betrayals of her friends and community. It's up to you to figure out whether it's rightfully so or not. And well...

The leaping, that "flying into the Western sky", wasn't easy for me, either. There were betrayals, misunderstandings, and even ostracizing. Part of me wants to believe it's all because my departure was such a shock or because I left most without a proper goodbye (not because I didn't want to, but because I was so far away).

Elphaba, I get you, girl.

But there were also numinous moments - co-workers giving me a laundry basket full of apartment essentials, friendships here in San Antonio deepening, the joys of re-connecting with others months after not being in touch, and countless others.

I listen to the Wicked soundtrack, sympathize with Elphaba, and grieve that she wasn't able to experience those moments I did. In bad times, those moments that could easily turn me "wicked" (and sometimes do momentarily), I try to remember those times and I know it's all going to be okay...because neither life nor people are truly wicked.


Ode to a Girl Scout

Saturday, June 24, 2017

I tried many things as a kid - dance, soccer, Girl Scouts, flute, altar-serving, just to name those I can remember. Most didn't last for long, probably because there wasn't anything I enjoyed quite as much as reading books.

So, it's very ironic that now I'm the leader of a little Girl Scout troop. The Girl Scouts have a terrific program for fellow non-profits so they can have their own special closed troops. I connected with them about doing activities with our after-school girls and then it evolved into a troop. And then somehow I became the troop leader. An advice often given to women who have left religious life is "Take up something new and different after you leave community". I just wasn't expecting this one.

Not my troop. But you get the point.
As much as I fumble through it with the help of another troop leader, this really is the perfect group of girls for me. Our girls aren't your stereotypical middle-class vanilla troop. Out of the stories I know, three girls are cases with Child Protective Services, two girls are former foster-kids that were adopted last year, one girl has a father in jail, and almost all of the girls live in poverty, their afterschool care paid for by childcare subsidies. Their transition and raggedness mirrors my own.

But it's Tatiana (not her real name), who I specifically want to focus on.

We have only a few girls that are not Daisies (the littlest of the Girl Scouts) and Tatiana is one of them. And if I had to pick one of my favorites, Tatiana would be one of them. It's not because she's one of the most well-behaved...because she's not. In fact, the teachers are frustrated with her, searching endlessly for what might actually make Tatiana happy.

At first, I thought this attachment to Tatiana was because she reminded me so much of another girl I knew about ten years ago - a girl that was in my dorm in the hogar in Bolivia, a girl whose hard shell I wish I could have cracked, a girl I wish I would have treated better.

But as time passed, I realized that it wasn't just that. It was because I saw myself in Tatiana. I saw the anger. I saw the unhappiness. I saw the brokenness. I saw that it's still not okay.

See, Tatiana's mom is also my client, so I knew her story perhaps better than the teachers did. Tatiana's mom struggles to pay the bills and when her boyfriend, the only dad Tatiana knew, was arrested and put in jail, it was devastating both financially and emotionally for the family. Tatiana was already a rebellious girl but that was the tipping point.

While Tatiana's little brother was a bit more of a blabbermouth, Tatiana herself was tight-lipped. And if you asked her about her situation, she probably would have said "Why would I care about that?"

In Tatiana, I saw everything I was feeling - but kept hidden - played out in front of me. Every time she disrespected authority (which was often), I thought of the times I wanted to do the same when I disagreed with a decision but didn't. Every time I caught of a glimpse of her brokenness, I thought of my own.

Maybe you're reading this and thinking "um, I don't think her behavior is the way a Girl Scout should act". And you're right. But, at the same time, I see qualities in Tatiana that were exactly what a Girl Scout should be. I've seen her open doors for others without being prompted. I've seen her smile. I've seen her cry when the same things that she's complained about are taken away. I've seen her progress, each step as slow as a snail, but still. Seeing that little progress in her gives me hope for mine.

Tatiana is the type of girl I see that would make the world a better place, truly living out the Girl Scout Law I'm slowly memorizing. Because Tatiana is strong. Because Tatiana is honest (maybe too much) with herself and her feelings. Because I truly believe that one day, Tatiana will heal and use that healing to help others.

Through the Tunnel

Sunday, June 18, 2017

"The future belongs to God, not to us. Man does not have the imagination of God, so when we think of the future, we think of it being like the past... 
The future is like a tunnel. You can’t see anything inside, and only a fool would expect it to look the same upon exiting as upon entering it." 
- Brother Christian de Cherge
(from "The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria")
When I left the Daughters eight and a half months ago, I had no idea what the future held. I had some resemblance of a practical plan - I had a residence, a job, and a bank account - but there was no predicting what would happen next. What I couldn't predict was the loss of some friendships, the growth of others, general awkwardness, and a spiritual and emotional transition.

It would be nice if I could have easily slid back into being the person I was five-plus years ago. After all, I was happy with a good job, good friends, and on my way to getting a Master's degree. And I had a plan for my life. I left it for the Daughters because I felt that religious life was the "missing piece" I was looking for - that culmination of my desires to serve God and serve the poor. I felt that God was calling me.

But the future is not like the past. I can't be that person from five years ago. I can't be the same exiting the tunnel as I did entering it. There was so much I had yet to learn and so much yet to experience, both good and bad.

I had yet to experience the best and worst of community life, yet to experience the deaths of a number of my friends (including a housemate) and sing "Salve Regina" at their burials, yet to meet several people that are the most Christ-like people I know, yet to know the joys and perils of intergenerational living.

I had yet to see modern-day segregation firsthand or listen to an immigrant working in inhumane conditions in a shrimp factory, yet to be kissed on the hand by an elderly Eastern European refugee, yet to deliver milk cartons to kids in housing projects, yet to hear the words "we didn't eat dinner last night; we're saving the food for the kids".

I believe there's a misconception (one that even I fall into sometimes) that because one leaves religious life, they must have misheard God's call. Perhaps it was the result of poor discernment. Perhaps because they didn't pray enough before entering. Perhaps they rushed into it. In a way, all of these misconceptions imply that their time with their community was somehow a mistake. As if they entered a tunnel that wasn't meant for them after all.
I would challenge that.

I believe God did call me to be a Daughter (and called me to leave too). I believe that those experiences and lessons from the past five years were within God's crazy imagination for my life, each piece somehow fitting in the big puzzle that is me.

And, if that's the truth, then I have to believe and trust that there's so much more wonderment to discover as I journey through this tunnel into the unknown.

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