Vincentian Quote of the Week: St Elizabeth Ann Seton & Receiving Communion for the First Time

Monday, October 31, 2011

Elizabeth Ann Seton was born and raised Episcopalian, a denomination I've heard referred to as "Catholic Lite" or "Diet Catholic". Nevertheless, one of the biggest differences is that the belief of transubstantiation - the real true presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, a belief that Catholics have that Episcopalians don't. Shortly after her husband's death, Elizabeth Ann converted to Catholicism and writes to a friend about her First Communion:

At last....GOD IS MINE and I AM HIS! Now let all go its round - I HAVE RECEIVED HIM! The awful impressions of the evening before, fears of not having done all to prepare, and yet even then, transports of confidence and hope in his GOODNESS. 
My God, to the last breath of life will I not remember this night of watching for morning dawn? The fearful beating heart so pressing to be gone - the long walk to town, but every step counted nearer that street - then nearer that tabernacle, then nearer the moment He would enter the poor, poor little dwelling so all His Own.
And when He did, the first thought I remember was 'Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered', for it seemed to me that my King had come to take His throne. Instead of the humble, tender welcome I had expected to give him, it was but a triumph of joy and gladness that the Deliverer was come and my defense and shield and strength and Salvation made mine for this world and the next. (Elizabeth Ann Seton, letter to Amabilia Filicchi, 3/25/1805)

Elizabeth Ann Seton: Wrestling and Dancing with God

Saturday, October 29, 2011

I have always loved reading journals and personal letters of other people, most particularly holy people. I like Henri Nouwen's books, but I devour his journals. Thomas Merton's Sign of Jonas struck me way more than Seven Storey Mountain did. Mother Teresa's Come Be My Light allowed me to connect with her more than anything else would. It almost seems contradictory, considering I've been journaling regularly since I was 16 and, although I may share parts, I have never let another person read them.

There is a deep personal part of our soul that is shared in journals and perhaps in letters. Our soul becomes raw, in openness, a willingness to share our weaknesses, our wrestles with God and our joy. We hold nothing back. To read someone else's journal is to dive into their soul, to dive into the mystery of their being. And for our saints, for those holy people we admire, it is diving into the human soul of someone we may not think of as human, diving into the soul of someone who both wrestled and danced with God.

I've been reading the book Friendship of My Soul: Selected Letters by Elizabeth Ann Seton 1803 - 1809 by Sister Betty Ann McNeil, DC. I've known Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton since 2003 when I first started attending Mount Saint Mary's College in Emmitsburg, where she lived and died. I've been through the museum a handful of times and thought I knew almost everything about her. But in this book, Sister Betty Ann publishes Elizabeth Ann's most intimate letters with her best friends. Elizabeth Ann paints the picture of everything leading up to her husband's death....the ship, the conditions, the smells....and then the sorrow she feels upon William's passing.

In one letter, we find her complaining about the singers at the Opera House in Italy and says that anyone who finds that pleasurable must not have never known real pleasure (when I read this, I looked up at the icon of her on my wall and laughed, trying to imagine her saying that). A few letters later, we find her wrestling with herself and with God over the thought of Jesus' Real Presence in the Eucharist, an idea contradictory to herself, a good Episcopalian woman. You can feel her confusion, grappling over what she truly believes.

Suddenly, Elizabeth Ann became real to me. The book description  "rarely does a story come along where a reader feels effortlessly transported back through time—where words and thoughts vividly convey a feeling of life some two hundred years past." is accurate. Every time I pick up the book, I feel transported back in time, as if I were face to face with Elizabeth Ann herself, as if I could emphatically feel her pain, feel her confusion, feel her anxious doubt.

As you can see, I haven't even gotten to the point where she finally decides to convert to Catholicism. That's where Elizabeth Ann's story really takes off - from losing some close friends because of her conversion, from fleeing New York to Baltimore, from founding the first American religious order and starting a new life in Emmitsburg, from losing so many, both family members and Sisters.

I invite you to read this book as well, or at the very least, research our dear Elizabeth Ann Seton. She, our first American-born saint, is truly a hidden treasure. Her name may be familiar, but I feel that her story is obscure. Her story is one that we all need - a story of pain, of human struggle, but also of a saintly trust in God. Yet it is also important to remember that saints are real, not just stories. Elizabeth Ann was in fact real, a woman who apparently hated opera and whose heart broke a little at the passing of her husband, with her children still so young, and a woman who spent her life both wrestling and dancing with God. May we learn from her example.

Imamanta waqanki? Why Are You Crying?: A November Bolivian Reflection

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Every year, as All Souls Day approaches, I think of my time in Bolivia, most especially of the girls I worked with those two years in the orphanage.

It’s important to explain the Catholic context behind these two days. All Saints Day, November 1, is a celebration of all the “saints“, canonized by the Church or not. Interestingly enough, “saint” and “holy” are the same word in Spanish so it is even easier to explain in Spanish. Who are the “saints”? Those who we may not recognize - those who may live an ordinary life but follow the will of God, who do everything for the love of God. In the United States, this is a holy day of obligation, meaning the Church asks all Catholics to come to Mass this day.

The next day, we celebrate All Souls Day, November 2. This is a Church holiday to commemorate all those who have died, whether they’ve lived a saintly life or not. In Bolivia, this is the more important holiday of the two and certainly a more important holiday than it is in the United States.

In a country where the life expectancy is 66 years old, everyone has their own dead to pray for. On All Souls Day, everyone visits the cemetery and prays…but first, before explaining those traditions, let me tell you what this holiday means for the girls here.

On November 1, we had a Mass with the intention of all the dead family members and friends of the girls (and the employees). Sister Veronica read every one of them by name. I was in charge of collecting all the names. So my job was to walk around the orphanage and ask if there was anyone they wanted to pray for. The response was overwhelming. As typical in an orphanage, most had at least one parent on the list.
“My mom/dad needs to be on the list!” and then turning to their sister (or half-sister) and asking “What was her/his name? Do you remember?” Other girls told me “I don’t know where my mom/dad is. They could be dead, I don’t know. Should I put their name down?” Others said “Some of my brothers and sisters died but I don’t remember all their names.” Those were usually girls who had brothers/sisters who had died in infancy. Then one told me “My dad is dead to me. Does that count? Maybe he is actually dead, I don’t know, but he’s dead to me.”

I went to each one of them without thinking. When I got to Mileyda, I asked “Is there anybody that you want to put on the list?” She just looked at me for a few seconds in disbelief and laughed. “I don’t have anybody.” And then I remembered - Mileyda really doesn’t have anyone. And I don’t mean she doesn’t have any departed souls to pray for. Mileyda really doesn’t have any family. Nothing. I don’t think we know anything about any of her relatives, living or dead.

Beatriz doesn’t have any family either. We know nothing about her relatives or her family or her story before she got here. She’s been living here for years and years; before that, lived in another orphanage. The director of that orphanage told Sister Veronica that Beatriz had come with a older brother but to this day, that is the only thing we know about Beatriz and we still haven’t been able to find her brother that she doesn’t even remember.

Later that night, I was alone in the office making rosaries with Bernardita. Bernardita has been a friend of mine ever since I first arrived there in August 2007. She’s a high school sophomore and 16 years old. She has one sister here, Karen, who’s a high school junior and 19 years old. The both of them have such a unique laugh - joyful and kind of similar to Goofy. Bernardita, for some reason, gave me the nickname “Amandus” almost a year ago and it pretty much has stuck among the high-schoolers.

I don’t know how it came up. Maybe we were talking about the dead we prayed for. I don’t remember but Bernardita started telling me her story. Bernardita and her sister came to the orphanage in 2000 - Bernardita 8 years old,  Karen 11. Within a year of arriving, their dad died. Just a few years later, unexpectedly, their mom also died. Bernardita and Karen are complete orphans. In total, they have 4 siblings, three in other orphanages. The oldest immigrated to Brazil, now working but unable to afford to come back to Bolivia to visit his two sisters.

Francisca, an eighth-grader, also ended up telling me her story the night of All Souls Day. Her dad died shortly before she was taken to the orphanage. That was almost 14 years ago, too long ago for her to even remember her dad. She has three brothers and sisters, and she is the youngest. According to Francisca, in total they were supposed to be 8 children - but 5 died either in childbirth or infancy. If you think about it, it must have been some miracle that Francisca survived, considering over half her brothers and sisters died before they could even grow up. After Francisca’s dad’s death, her mom had children with another man…the father of her half-sister, Matilde, who also lives in the orphanage. Matilde’s dad died not too long ago.

These are certainly all terrible stories to hear around the month of Thanksgiving. After all, that is what November is for us Americans. Yet, after living in Bolivia, November has come to mean something different for me. It's become more of a somber month, a month of reflecting, both in gratitude but also in those who came before me. Those who shaped me but are gone now, both people I knew personally or indirectly. There's a sorrow in remembering them, knowing they are no longer with me, knowing that I can no longer touch them, that I can no longer hear their laugh or see their smile.

“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth, and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.” - Job 19:25-27

Yet, in the end, as Christians, we know that death is not the end. This is what comforts me when I think of the friends I left behind in Bolivia. The fifty girls in the orphanage, some of whom are out on their own now. And people like Sister Delia, who I count among my best friends, who is about to leave for El Salvador in preparation for making her perpetual vows. Becoming a Daughter of Charity means that the chance of seeing my Bolivian friends again is slim to none. But I'm doing it anyway....and doing it with joy....because I know that although I may not see them again on this Earth, I hope to see them in heaven.

That is what makes November so different. We remember the saints, not in pure curiosity, but as those who continue to help us beyond the grave. We remember the dead, but not in complete sorrow, but rather in the hope, in the joy of seeing them again. And we thank God for this life that He's given us, yes.....but also for the saints and souls who have passed before us and for this God who does not let them go unforgotten.

Vincentian Quote of the Week: St Vincent & the Power of God in Vocation

Monday, October 24, 2011

If it was not God, my daughters, who brought about that which is visible in your vocation, would it have been possible for a girl to leave her native place, her relatives, the pleasures of come to a place she has never seen, to live with girls from places far distant from her own, to devote herself, in voluntary poverty, to the service of convicts, to poor children abandoned by their parents, to the sick poor rotting in filth and even those in dungeons? Oh! no, my daughters, God alone could effect that! (St Vincent de Paul)

Oh, My God: A Birthday Reflection

Monday, October 10, 2011

As we sat outside the Starbucks drinking coffee, we started talking about death. Were we afraid? What did we think was going to happen? And strangely enough, it was that conversation that led me to reflect on my 26th birthday on Saturday.

I thought back to my near-death experience, one I'll never forget. I'm sure I've had other near-death experiences that I wasn't aware of.....maybe the bus to La Paz going through the Andes almost got too close to the cliff, maybe I narrowly missed being in a car accident one day, maybe...well, I'll never know. But the one I do know and do remember occurred as I was swimming in the ocean one summer afternoon. With no one around me, with the lifeguards looking the other way, I got stuck in a rip current. I had never been in one before and had no idea what to do. I fought, swimming with all my might but I kept drifting away and away from the shore. My throat muscles tightened and I couldn't scream. My muscles grew exhausted and no one was there to witness. I was terrified but at one point, I thought "well, if this is how I have to die...." and resigned myself to it and the pure exhaustion led me to sink. Less than a few seconds later, a stranger pulled me out of the water and onto the shore.

It seems strange to reflect on death, upon turning 26, such a young age. But I've seen too much to not reflect on it. I have no idea when I will die. None of us do, really. But I can truly say that if I were to die tomorrow, I would die happy. Grateful to God for the life I've led.

It overwhelms me...the plans God had for me from the beginning, before I could even write my name, before I could even slightly imagine where God would take me. I never would have imagined that I would became fluent in Spanish and become a missionary, that I would join a religious community, that I would be living in Georgia. I never would have imagined seeing the things that I've seen - families living without running water both here and abroad, families torn apart because of deportation, an abused girl without a finger, a 50 year old man aged to 80 because of work in the mines, kids on the brink of suicide, kids having kids, etc. Or the people I would meet - unlikely people that would turn into wonderful friends, life teachers, children that would become like little siblings, Sisters with a capital "S" that would become like sisters with a lowercase "s".

When we think of life as a journey rather than the here-and-now, life becomes something amazing, something truly marvelous. We can turn back and then think “Where has God led me? What has He allowed me to see, to experience, to meet?

That isn't to say that life is perfect or that I am perfect, because neither is true. I know that sometimes I have not lived up to what God wanted of me - I turned the other way from doing the right thing or going the right way. But to Him, as I grow another year older, I couldn't say anything less than "Oh, my God....thank you". Thank you for these 26 years. I'm not sure how many more I have left to live, but know that I am grateful and hope always to live for You, serving You in the person of the poor.

Vincentian Quote of the Week: St Louise & Hearts of Good Will

Trust that the difficulties will pass...may they keep you humble. Please God by serving your masters [the poor] and His dear members with devotion, gentleness and humility. Do not be upset if your senses rebel, but reflect that our good God is satisfied by a heart with good will. I beg His goodness to fill yours with His holy love in which I remain, my dear Sister, your sister and servant.
 (St Louise de Marillac; letter to Sr Claude Brigide, p81)

Vincentian Quote of the Week: St Vincent & Worrying

Monday, October 3, 2011

‎"Do not worry yourself over much… Grace has its moments. Let us abandon ourselves to the providence of God and be very careful not to run ahead of it." (Saint Vincent de Paul)
I really needed to hear this today.
Like, really needed to hear it.

In midst of the craziness that was today (and will be tomorrow as well), it's nice to know that our Founder knew what it was like to worry and what we should do instead. Truly providential that famvin's Facebook page had this as their quote of the day.

The Charity of Christ Compels Us!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The original seal of the DCs, circa 1633
"La Charite de Jesus Crucifie Nous Presse"

As I was reading a book on retreat meditations based on the spirituality of cloistered St Therese, a phrase struck me "...Caritas Christi urget nos - The Charity of Christ impels us" The author then goes on to talk about how everything done in love becomes prayer, etc, etc. I was expecting a reference to the Daughters – “The Charity of Christ Crucified urges us” is our motto - and was disappointed to not find one. So I checked the footnote, expecting a reference to the Daughters. Wrong again. Instead, it pointed me to a verse in Paul's second letter to the Corinthians. 

Then I felt like a real idiot for being in formation with a religious community, entirely clueless as to the origin of their motto. I stupidly thought that it was something St. Vincent or St. Louise made sounds really good, right? Who was I to know that it comes from 2 Corinthians 5:14? Whoops.

As I turned to my Bible to find the whole verse, I was filled with gratitude to be part of this community where the whole motto, the whole purpose of the Company is that the Charity of Christ (Crucified) impels us! The love of Christ urges us! And, as my Catholic Youth Bible puts it, the love of Christ urges us on! The Daughters of Charity...their entire charism, their entire not only based on the fact that we must imitate the love of Christ but that His love is what pushes us on, it's what drives us forward, it is His love that is asking us to serve. And what I really love about the motto is that the vocabulary, St. Paul's vocabulary, lets us know that it is something urgent....He COMPELS us, He URGES us. This isn't something slow, not something we can wait to do, it's something we must do NOW

And the Daughters of Charity are women who have followed that call to do something NOW. 2 Corinthians 5:15, the next verse, gives me an even deeper understanding of who the Daughters are: "He indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him" Jesus is calling us in the people who are poor - the homeless, the abused, the addicted, the sick. He is asking us to stop living for ourselves and live for Him - to become poor for Him, to teach for Him, to heal for Him, to bear the load of becoming frustrated or discouraged because of our work, all for Him.

How blessed am I to be in formation with this Company, whose sole reason for being is the love of Christ and following that love, which leads them to those the world has forgotten...a purpose that has carried them on for almost 400 years now. How blessed am I to follow in the footsteps of other women who were pushed by Christ's love to go in the direction of the poor, who gave all of their imperfect selves to live for Jesus Christ in the poor. What an honor He has given me by being here.
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