$100 dollar for your thoughts

Earlier today I was walking along my merry way from errand to errand, pondering invitation and possibility and the incredible connections and opportunities life brings if we are open to it. As I passed by a parking lot, the attendant stopped me and asked: "If I could give you a $100 for your thoughts, what are you thinking about as you walk?"

Recognizing that the $100 in question was purely hypothetical, my first thought was that the price of the thoughts of strangers has gone up faster than inflation! But he looked like a nice gentleman, and so I paused and told him that in fact I was deep in thought about an invitation to consider taking on a new role and doing something new. He actually seemed quite surprised that I responded, but he wished me luck on new endeavors.

What I didn't tell him is that I'm headed to New Jersey tomorrow to spend some time in prayer and conversation with my CSJP Sisters about the possibility of leaving my name in for elected leadership of my Congregation. Fourteen of us will be attending a discernment retreat at our retreat house on the Jersey shore this weekend.  Our Chapter (when the new team will be elected) is not until September. This weekend is a time to get away and ponder whether the Spirit might be calling us to share our gifts in this particular time and in this particular way. I haven't mentioned this on the blog before specifically, but regular readers might have been attuned to an uptick in posts of a discerning nature. This would be why.

I feel the love, support, and prayers of the entire Congregation and a deep peace at keeping my name in the mix for the discernment process. The 14 women who I will spend the next few days with are prayerful, faithful, women of peace with a deep love of the congregation and a commitment to God's people. It will be a privilege to enter this sacred time and space with them.

Tonight I'm headed out for an early birthday dinner with my father and then head to the airport early tomorrow. Most likely I won't be posting for a few days until after the retreat.

Until we "meet" again, please pray for the Sisters attending the discernment weekend.  In the words of our Congregation Chapter prayer:

Come Holy Spirit, refresh and renew us,
draw us deeply into your love, 
soften our hearts, rouse our spirits,
open us to all that the Congregation Chapter may entail.
St. Joseph, dreamer and practical one,
help us live our dreams into reality.
May the whole of creation
rejoice in God’s justice and live in God’s peace.
We pray with confidence and faith. Amen


Feast of Mary Magdalene

Today is the Feast of Mary Magdalene. Faithful friend of Jesus, Apostle to the Apostles. I love this icon of her from Micky McGrath, OSFS. "At night there are tears, but joy comes with dawn."

This morning, praying with the Gospel story of Mary at the tomb in John, I was struck with the fact that Mary saw the Risen Christ because she stayed at the tomb weeping. It was her relationship with her friend Jesus and her emotional life that opened her up to the joy of the Resurrection. 

"They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don't know where they put them." Was she confused? Yes. Even after she saw the Risen Christ (and mistook him for the gardener!), she was confused. 

But our Jesus can work with confusion. God does not need us to have it all figured out.  We need to show up, live with open hearts, and share the Good News.

Pray for us, St. Mary Magdalene, that through the confusion and tears we too may see the Risen Christ and be transformed through the hope of the Resurrection.


Inspiration for life

Today's first reading from Micah was one that helped inspire this blog, has accompanied my ongoing discernment in life, and guides my daily living of the vows.

As I wrote in the first post on this blog almost 10 years ago in the early days of my vocation discernment:

"The following scripture passage has been very present to me the past few months...

'You have been told, O people, what is good, and what Yahweh asks of you: Only this, to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God'. - Michah 6:8

Is it possible that it's really that simple? ... The invitation to act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with God is just too good not to at least check out .... and so I am."

And so I continue each day. As it happens, my congregation's vow formula is also inspired by this Scripture passage. These are the words I said when I professed my perpetual vows:
In response to God's call to seek justice, to love tenderly, and to talk in the way of peace, I, Susan Rose Francois, in the presence of our 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.
.... each and every day.


On Mustard: the call to be pesty weeds for God

This Sunday's Gospel story includes the parable about mustard seed. The best reflection I have ever heard on this comes from Sister Pat Farrell's 2012 address at LCWR:
Joyful hope is the hallmark of genuine discipleship. We look forward to a future full of hope, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Hope makes us attentive to signs of the inbreaking of the Reign of God. Jesus describes that coming reign in the parable of the mustard seed.

Let us consider for a moment what we know about mustard. Though it can also be cultivated, mustard is an invasive plant, essentially a weed. The image you see is a variety of mustard that grows in the Midwest. Some exegetes tell us that when Jesus talks about the tiny mustard seed growing into a tree so large that the birds of the air come and build their nest in it, he is probably joking. To imagine birds building nests in the floppy little mustard plant is laughable. It is likely that Jesus’ real meaning is something like Look, don’t imagine that in following me you’re going to look like some lofty tree. Don’t expect to be Cedars of Lebanon or anything that looks like a large and respectable empire. But even the floppy little mustard plant can support life. Mustard, more often than not, is a weed. Granted, it’s a beautiful and medicinal weed. Mustard is flavorful and has wonderful healing properties. It can be harvested for healing, and its greatest value is in that. But mustard is usually a weed. It crops up anywhere, without permission. And most notably of all, it is uncontainable. It spreads prolifically and can
take over whole fields of cultivated crops. You could even say that this little nuisance of a weed was illegal in the time of Jesus. There were laws about where to plant it in an effort to keep it under control.

Now, what does it say to us that Jesus uses this image to describe the Reign of God? Think about it. We can, indeed, live in joyful hope because there is no political or ecclesiastical herbicide that can wipe out the movement of God’s Spirit. Our hope is in the absolutely uncontainable power of God. We who pledge our lives to a radical following of Jesus can expect to be seen as pesty weeds that need to be fenced in. If the weeds of God’s Reign are stomped out in one place they will crop up in another. I can hear, in that, the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero “If I am killed, I will arise in the Salvadoran people.”

And so, we live in joyful hope, willing to be weeds one and all. We stand in the power of the dying and rising of Jesus. I hold forever in my heart an expression of that from the days of the dictatorship in Chile: “Pueden aplastar algunas flores, pero no pueden detener la primavera.” “They can crush a few flowers but they can’t hold back the springtime.” 

How/where are you called to be a pesty weed for the reign of God?


Resisting Evil ... Forging Hope

The liturgical readings for this Saturday seem tailor made for our present news cycle.

From the prophet Micah, we hear:

Woe to those who plan iniquity,and work out evil on their couches; In the morning light they accomplish it when it lies within their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and they take them; They cheat an owner of his house, a man of his inheritance.
The Psalmist writes:
Why, O LORD, do you stand aloof? Why hide in times of distress? Proudly the wicked harass the afflicted,who are caught in the devices the wicked have contrived. 
For the wicked man glories in his greed, and the covetous blasphemes, sets the LORD at nought.The wicked man boasts, “He will not avenge it”;“There is no God,” sums up his thoughts. 
And then in Matthew's Gospel: 
The Pharisees went out and took counsel against Jesusto put him to death. When Jesus realized this, he withdrew from that place. Many people followed him, and he cured them all, but he warned them not to make him known.
Our present news cycle is filled with the consequences of evil planned on couches. Peoples are plotting against other peoples or closing their hearts and doors to compassion and our common humanity. There are good news stories to be sure as well, but those do not get the air time. Instead, we are submerged in woe.

Jesus could have been submerged in woe. People were literally planning his death. And what does he do? He withdraws from the place ... he was a man of deep prayer. Yet when people followed him, he did not ignore them or push them away, but ministered to them.

At our last CSJP Congregation Chapter, we wrote these words in our Chapter Act: "We live in a society marked strongly by the violence of war, violence to people through poverty and a sense of powerlessness and alienation, violence to earth, sea, and sky--violence that is truly cosmic."  Those words would also fit our present news cycle! As a community pursuing justice and seeking God's peace, how did we respond in our Chapter Act? "In response we commit ourselves to grow more deeply toward a nonviolent way of being and acting as peacemakers." Like Jesus, our call is to withdraw (resist) and to respond in hope.

A few months ago I read something by the great liberation theologian Gustavo GutiĆ©rrez regarding hope. I'd like to end this Saturday morning reflection with his words:
Hope is, in the first place, a gift from God. Accepting this gift opens followers of Jesus to the future and to trust … God’s gift is not an easy hope. But as fragile as it may seem, it is capable of planting roots in the world of social insignificance, in the world of the poor, and of breaking out and remaining creative and alive even in the midst of difficult situations. Nonetheless, hope is not waiting; rather it should lead us actively to resolve to forge reasons for hope.
No matter what the news, let us resolve to forge reasons for hope.


Margaret Anna Fridays - Personal, Prompt, and Practical Action

It's been a while since Margaret Anna Fridays have appeared on the blog.  Reviving the tradition, most Fridays, I’m going to share a quote from the founder of my groovy sisters, Margaret Anna Cusack, known in religion as Mother Francis Clare. Here is today's installment:

The trouble is that poverty in the aggregate touches no one’s heart; it is no one’s business; the consideration of the matter is put off as too much of an outside question to need personal, prompt, and practical action.-The Question of Today: Anti-Poverty and Progress, Labor and Capital, M.F. Cusack, 1887



This month I'm attending the Summer Institute of the National Religious Vocation Conference, otherwise known as "Vocation Director School."  This is in preparation for moving into vocation ministry next year when I finish my degree.  I believe with all my heart in the future of religious life and my own community, and I suspect that God is indeed calling women to join us in our mission of peace. This course is to give me some of the nuts and bolts around how you actually promote vocations and work with candidates.

The last few days we've been focused on the application and screening process. I've had flashbacks to my own experience of completing the application for candidacy to my community, which of course is documented on this blog. My reaction from the way back machine? "Whew! Guess this would winnow out those who weren’t so serious."

Seriously. This is important stuff. You want to make sure that the people who join your community are able to live the life as a Sister fully ... for life. That requires a certain level of screening and assessment which is more than understandable. However, if I thought the process seemed daunting from the side of the applicant, looking at it from the side of the Vocation Director can be just as daunting!

Which is where today's readings come in. As I prayed with the Scripture this morning, I found myself reflecting both on the the first reading and the Gospel.

From Isaiah: 
O LORD, you mete out peace to us,for it is you who have accomplished all we have done.

From Matthew's Gospel:

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,for I am meek and humble of heart;and you will find rest for yourselves.For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

The take away? Perspective. And trust. As we say in our CSJP Constitutions:

As we live our vows each daywe trust that Christ's blessing promisedto peacemakers will sustain us,knowing that God working in uswill accomplish more than we can askor imagine.

My task these weeks is to soak up as much information as I can that will help me when I move into this ministry. I will also learn from the current vocation director (who was my own awesome vocation director by the way!) as I develop my own plan for this ministry. I will work with the other Sisters on the vocation team, leadership, and the whole community. We all share in our love of community and desire to continue to release the charism. Ultimately, then, my/our role is to show up and follow Jesus, trusting that God working in us will accomplish what needs to be done, even that which we cannot yet imagine.


Joyful, Loving Service ... Sister Eleanor Gilmore, CSJP

Sister Eleanor with friends in El Salvador
Our community lost one of our most joyful, loving and gently powerful Sisters last week.  This week we will be celebrating the life of Sister Eleanor Gilmore as we say goodbye and lay her to rest.  Her death was quite sudden, unexpected and, to be quite honest, very hard to wrap your head around.  Eleanor was not only my CSJP Sister, she was also a friend, mentor, and role model of how to integrate justice and peace into your life and ministry with JOY.

I had the opportunity to live next door to Eleanor for a year during temporary profession. She was often the first person I saw in the morning and the last person I saw in the evening (we shared a bathroom!). Eleanor was also interested in what was going on in your life, in your ministry, family, etc... Her care, concern, and interest was always genuine and you could tell when you answered that she was listening intently.  

I first met Eleanor on one of her visits home from El Salvador, where she was ministering through PazSalud, the health mission she founded in 2001.  That ministry is still going strong today--a joint effort between the CSJPS and PeaceHealth hospital system--providing health care to people with very limited resources.

Eleanor was one of our CSJP Sisters present to the people of El Salvador during the Civil War. Eleanor worked there from 1988 to 1993, coordinating health care through Jesuit Relief services for the people returning from refugee camps.  In their ministry to the poor, Eleanor and the other Sisters were captured and detained by the military more than once.  One arrest had Eleanor detained two days and nights after machine-gun toting soldiers came to the house where she was staying. Keep in mind this was after the martyrdom of the American Church women, Archbishop Romero, and countless others.

I had the privilege of going on a pilgrimage of sorts to El Salvador with Eleanor and other CSJP Sisters and Associates when I was a novice. It was a truly transformative experience, not the least because of the authentic and embodied love of God's people in need that Eleanor witnessed to with every smile and conversation. Watching her, I came to understand this passage from our CSJP constitutions more deeeply.

We value the ministry of presence
as an important dimension
of the gospel of peace.
In the hope of continuing our tradition
of gracious hospitality,
we welcome others to our communities
and also try to be present to people
in their own situations.

Whatever she was doing, Eleanor gave life, love, and form to the ministry of presence. In addition to being present to the people of El Salvador for over 20 years, Eleanor served joyfully in leadership for our community, with PeaceHealth, and on the board of Mercy Housing.

As I was looking through my photos, I found this one which I took a few years ago at a Valentine's Day party at St. Mary on the Lake. Another Sister had her elementary students write Valentines for the Sisters. Here is Eleanor reading hers. Eleanor loved God and loved God's people, and she was deeply loved in return.

It is next to impossible to sum up Eleanor's life in words. I for one am just grateful our paths crossed and that I am able to call her Sister.


Children on the Border: A Thought Exercise

Humor me a moment. I'd ask you to close your eyes, but you can't do that and read, so instead I just ask that you access your imagination.

You live in a large suburban development, one of those one with several cul-de-sacs, open spaces, and busy roads separating the different neighborhoods. You know the kids on your block by name, you might recognize the kids from the nearby neighborhood, but you have no idea who the kids are who live on the farthest edges of the development.

You and your neighbors have set up a neighborhood watch and safe haven program. The kids in the neighborhood know that if they are approached by a stranger, or even if they face abuse in their own home, they can come to the houses with the safe haven sign and they will be safe. You will offer them something to eat, listen to their story, and if necessary, call the police or child protective services to help them.  When you hang that sign on your window, after having received the required training and background check, you have made a promise to help a kid who comes to your door seeking safe haven. You have broadcasted the message that you can be trusted to help a child in need, even if they come from the farthest edge of the development.

But one day, as you are drinking your morning coffee, there's a knock on your door. You look out the window and there is a whole gaggle of kids. They look different than the kids in your neighborhood. You don't know them. Why are they here? The oldest of the kids points to the safe haven sign in your window. You pull back the curtain and shake your head, thinking, I don't know you, I can't help you. The youngest kid, clutching her stuffed animal, sucks her thumb. The big sister holding her hand looks back anxiously. They are scared of someone, something. But you are still looking at them, through the curtain.

As your spouse comes down the stairs, and asks you what's going on, what do you do?

  • Do you keep the door closed and hope they'll just go away?
  • Do make the oldest kid tell you their address, pack the whole group in your minivan and drive them back to their house, not knowing or caring what dangers you are sending them back to?
  • Or do you honor your promise, open the door, give the kids temporary food and shelter while you contact the proper authorities who will investigate--see what the problem is that sent the kids to pack up and travel alone across the railroad tracks, through the forested park, over the busy road, and to your street looking for safe haven--and offer them safety and the help they need?
If you have a shred of human decency, and to be honest if you are reading this blog, then my bet is you've got a whole lot more than a shred of decency, you know what you'd do. You'd help the kids, not only because you promised to when you hung that sign in your window, but because that's the right thing to do with another human being in need, especially a child.

The situation at our border with children fleeing gangs, human trafficking, and violence in Central America is this situation writ large. When Congress passed and George W. Bush signed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act in 2008, we hung up a "safe harbor"  sign in our collective window. Sure, we may not have realized the consequences of that act of humanity, but we hung up the sign.

Moving away from my simple imagination exercsie, if you'd like a thorough analysis of what is at stake here and some resources for action, I suggest the following: 
  • See pages 7-8 of the Freedom Network's Response to the 2014 US Trafficking in Persons Report. This section deals with the unaccompanied minor provision. This highlights the very real reality that may of the children at our door are fleeing potential or actual trafficking situations. "Massive and expedited deportation of such youth is simply not the answer and unaligned with the U.S. government’s goals in combatting trafficking."
  • See the reflection and action guide developed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, my religious congregation, on this issue.
  • Write your representatives. Call the president. Be an obnoxious advocate for these scared children on our doorsteps, far from their parents and pawns in a political game. You can send an e-message through the Ignatian Solidarity Network and Friends National Committee on Legislation.
  • Set the story straight when friends or neighbors speak inaccurately, unjustly, or inhumanely about the reality of the children at our border today.
Loving God, comfort your children far from home, seeking safety and shelter from their powerful neighbor. Give us the compassion, wisdom, and courage to open our doors, widen our hearts, and spread our wings to offer our protection. Inspire each of us to act in charity and for justice. Amen.


New Global Sisters Report Column: Shifting Conversations in Religious Life

My latest monthly Horizons column on Global Sisters Report was posted yesterday! I actually wrote it last month when I was visiting my CSJP Sisters in Seattle. The topic of this column is one I've been reflecting and writing on for some time now, namely moving away from a focus on "diminishment" in religious life and instead focusing on what I sense is one of the particular gifts of this time in religious life, demographic change.  Here's a snippet:

I’ve been inviting sisters I know, young and old, to abandon the “D-word" in favor of a more descriptive term –“demographic change.”  For one thing, as it is more descriptive rather than value based, the term is less energy zapping than the “D-word." ... 
When we focus on diminishment, we focus on what it is that we think we are losing. When we focus on demographic change, we can look lovingly at our reality and ask curious questions. What might God be up to with this radical shift in the landscape of religious life? What choices, actions, and plans can we make now that might help us to receive God’s gifts for religious life, for the church, and for the world? Are we likely to find easy answers to these questions? No. But I suspect that by shifting our focus to the gift of demographic change, we will be better able to access the creative energy of the Holy Spirit.
Visit the Global Sisters Report to read the whole column.  I'd love to know if this resonates with your experience or if you see this time in religious life differently.


Yoda, Letting Go, and Sisterly Love

I'm in the midst of a Star Wars marathon with some friends. Wednesday night we watched Phantom Menace (still pretty horrible) and Attack of the Clones. Last night, Revenge of the Sith. The real movies are next on deck when we get back together. Yes, I may be just a wee bit biased.

It's always amazing to me how no matter what you read or watch, whether it is a silly movie or a brain candy novel, when you need it, you find something there you need to hear at that particular moment. So it was last night. And yes, of course, it comes from Master Yoda:
Careful you must be when sensing the future ... Fear of loss is a path to the dark side. ... Death is  a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. .... Train yourself to let go, of everything you fear to lose. - Yoda, Revenge of the Sith

The reality of my life is that I spend a lot of time pondering and praying about the future. That is because I dearly love my religious community and I believe in the future of religious life and our CSJP charism with all my heart.  And yet there is our demographic reality. Our median age is over 75, so aging and even death are part of that future.  Loss is part of that future. Letting go is part of that future ... and our present.

I found out this week that one of my most dear CSJP Sisters is facing her last days. It was a very sudden illness. She's certainly not a spry young Sister, but she is a woman of depth, wisdom, caring, compassion, and real presence. She has been a leader in our community in so many ways. Just last week I received a letter from her which, as it happens, was speaking about our future, of which she too deeply believed, and she was inviting me to share my gifts and perspectives as we face the future with gratitude and hope.

It is of course so hard to be away from community at times like this. Yet, while I may be thousands of miles away physically, I am with my CSJP community in thought and prayer.  As we say in our community directives:
All in community show concern for the sick by visiting them, praying with and for them, and by attending to their needs with loving care. When the call of death comes to a sister, the community accompanies her with their prayers and, whenever possible, with their presence to render sisterly love and support in her final moments.
Sister love. What a beautiful phrase. Love is not easy. Loving someone means, eventually, letting go as they return to God (or in Yoda speak, transform into the force), as we will return to God one day.

Back home, Sisters, Associates, and friends are indeed staying with her around the clock as she awaits her return to her creator. One of my CSJP Sisters texted me yesterday as she was leaving the hospital. I had texted her yesterday when I knew she was going and asked her to tell our Sister that I was praying for her. So, even from across the miles, thanks to technology, I was there in both spirit and action if not in physical presence. Waiting, praying, and loving.


Shining the Lights

Many moons ago, in the early days of this blog, I wrote a little post about the application process for entering the formation process with the Sisters. And, as part of that process, I visited a priest psychologist at a local parish (who happened to be an internationally recognized expert) who did a behavioral assessment for the benefit of the community I hoped to join.

And, after the 3 hours spent answering intimate and personal questions, I went outside to my car to drive the hour and a half back home, and .... my car battery had died.  It had been foggy when I had arrived on windy country roads and I'd left my lights on. I had to take a deep breath, suck in my pride, and head back inside to find someone to help me. As it happened, I wandered the halls of the parish until I found the same priest psychologist who found the parish maintenance man (on his lunch) who helped me jump my car.

Well .... today I will have the opportunity to "look behind the hood" of the process! To shine the lights on how the questions he asked are relevant to the potential to life religious life.

Because you see ... I'm starting a workshop with the SAME priest psychologist on how to do a behavioral assessment with candidates for religious life.

Funny the paths life takes!