Life with Mary

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In a few moments, I will be leaving with another sister for Kingston, Ontario where we will go to the wake and funeral of a Congregation of Notre Dame sister, Mary, who was part of the formation team when we were novices over 50 years ago and who was later our provincial superior. There are many reasons for which I am grateful to this woman. Mostly, though, I am grateful to Mary for helping me to learn to pray.

In the late sixties, Mary organized English directed retreats at the French Jesuit Retreat house about half an hour to the north of Montreal. She would invite English speaking Jesuits from other provinces of Canada or from the States to be directors, and any of us who wished to make one of these 8 day directed retreat were welcome to attend. I was delighted and went as often as possible. It was these yearly directed retreats that nourished my knowledge and love of Scriptures, provided a solid foundation for my prayer and left me with an ever growing desire to grow in prayer. And, for this I am most grateful to Mary.

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Well, now I am back home. We have been to Kingston and back, and I am so happy that I was free to go to Kingston. The wake was a wonder gathering and celebration of Mary’s life. One after another, sisters and family members shared stories about “life with Mary” as sister or aunt, principal, local superior, formation director, provincial superior in the tumultuous times of the late 60’s, and compassionate listener for 30 years at the marriage tribunal in Toronto. Yes, Mary lived her life to the full, shared her faith with many, and did all in her power to help the individuals she met to develop their potential and grow in their spirituality. Mary surely did this for me personally over the years, encouraging, supporting and loving. I shall miss this great woman!

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On a totally different note, I am writing my last blog, at least for a while. For two years or so, I have been writing this weekly blog. I have enjoyed doing it, and many times I have wondered who read the blog and wished we could meet in person. I could look at the blog statistics and knew that people around the world had seen and read the blog, and this really blew my mind. I hoped that they would learn about the Congregation de Notre Dame, our spirituality, our founder Marguerite Bourgeoys, and a little about our life as sisters.

When I began to write two years ago, I had much more free time and could choose to write on one of several days. As of last November I have taken on new responsibilities at our Chapel in Old Montreal, Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, and finding the time each week to sit down and write is a challenge, particularly if any unexpected events occur. Because I am not getting any younger and because I am very much trying to give myself a little more time to be, I have decided to stop writing the blog. I did not take this decision lightly, but at the moment I believe it is the wise decision to make.

To all of you who have followed me so faithfully over these past years, I say a very sincere Thank You! If you have been reading me, you no doubt know a lot more about me than I do about you, but in some strange way, you have become my friends and, when I have sat down to write, I have thought of you as faithful readers and hoped that I might say something that would touch you in some small way.

If you want to get CND news, check out our website cnd-m.org. You might even find an article there from me on occasion.

I am a little sad as I say this final Goodbye. I wish you well and pray that our gracious God will love you tenderly and hold you close.

With much gratitude,

Sister Sheila

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Balancing our desires with reality and need

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Mondays seem to come around much more quickly than in the past. When I was younger, often I found myself impatiently waiting for some future event to arrive. Well, today, I find myself wondering where the past week went and wondering how it is that we are already mid-way through the month of September. A very busy friend of mine, who is about to turn 80, often responds when I suggest that she cut down on her numerous commitments, that “time is very short”. Perhaps, I am beginning to understand what she is talking about!

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I moved into a different Congregation of Notre Dame community at the end of June, just before the summer comings and goings for retreats and vacations began. The last couple of months have been a kind of “in between time” for me. Trying to fit in to a very different community, not sure how things are done in this new larger group, and never finding myself with the entire group has been challenging for me, and I dare say for those sisters who already lived here. We all know the theory, that the dynamic of a group changes with one new person, but the living of it is another story. At last, everyone is back, and life in our community is resuming its regular schedule.

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This past Tuesday, we met for the first time as the new group we are. After a time of prayer, we tackled our community budget. Yes, like all people we have to budget. We are 11 sisters in our community. Each of us makes her personal budget, foreseeing, as much as possible, her expenses for the coming year: needs for education, workshops, retreats, vacation, clothing, leisure, travel, personal effects, health and leisure. In addition to this, we come together as a group to look at common expenses for the needs for our life together: salaries of employees, food, maintenance, subscriptions held in common, heating, electricity and so forth. Again, we try to foresee additional costs for replacement of a stove or washing machine which might need to be replaced, given their very respectable age. Throughout this exercise, we make a serious effort to balance our desire to live more simply with reality and need. Never an easy task, it is one that we embrace.

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Following the discussion of the budget, we spent a little time talking about how and when we wished to pray, when meals would be, and what our hopes were for the coming year. An honest, sharing marked out time together. This year, again, the community has decided that, in addition to daily regular prayer together, we will come together Sunday evenings for faith sharing.

Thursday, we gathered again, but this time it was to celebrate the birthdays of three of the sisters. We had a lovely evening beginning with a social and delicious meal and followed by prayer and gift-giving after dinner. It was a nice evening!

Then, on Sunday evening we came together for faith sharing for the first time this year. Using the process of lectio divina, we prayed and shared together on the Gospel of the day: Mark: 8: 27-35.

This gives you a little idea of what life is like at the beginning of the year in our CND communities. Though I am speaking of a group of English speaking sisters who live in Montreal, this description of meetings would be typical of most of our communities around the world where the sisters live together. What would be different would be the month in which the “new year” begins. Here in North America, Sisters generally change ministry and place of residence over the summer. In the past when most of us taught school, we moved over the summer if we had received a new appointment, and community life got organized and resumed a regular schedule at the end of August or beginning of September. This is not the case for our Sisters in Central America and Japan, new appointments and changes in community groups occur at different times of year.

Though I have spoken of groups where the sisters live together, there are other community styles. In some cases, sisters live alone or with one other sister. Often, these sisters come together regularly for prayer, sharing and to celebrate birthdays and holidays.

No matter the style and form of community, we are sisters and we do care for one another.

Have a good week.

Sister Sheila

Wishing Everyone “the Freedom and Leisure of Sitting by the Water”

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Labour Day Weekend! Three days of sun and heat here in Montreal have offered people a wonderful opportunity to spend one last weekend of leisure before the usual activities begin again.

Personally, I took advantage of the weekend. Saturday morning, I biked from my community residence to Old Montreal, a 10 km ride along a nice level bike path by the Lachine Canal. It is a pretty ride by the water which wends its way through park and picnic areas. Once arrived, I followed the path to the water edge where I sat for a while watching the boats and all of the people milling around. There was a large Food Fest taking place in the area. Crowds of people were strolling through the grounds, checking out the choices, trying out different foods, and scrambling to find a picnic table in the shade. I joined the crowd for a while and then left to find a quieter place. I was lucky. In a nice grassy spot a little distance away, I found a bench in the shade. From this vantage point, I had a great view of many activities taking place up the hill. I watched as the young, and not so young, met the challenges of the jungle gym on the “pirate ship”, I heard the excited screams of people as they sped over the water along a nearby zip line, and I saw the throngs of people taking in all the sights as they walked around. And, in the background, I could see the spire of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel. It was a good scene! Families were enjoying time together. Older couples were strolling leisurely about, and others, like me were sitting in the shade reading. Later in the afternoon, I went to Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel for Mass and then out to supper with a friend.

The following day, Sunday, I picked up a Congregation of Notre Dame friend who is presently undergoing chemotherapy. We drove around a little and then settled by the water in a more western section of the city, not far from the Lachine Rapids and away from the mob and activity of Old Montreal. The afternoon was delightful and refreshing. As it is unseasonably hot in Montreal these days, sitting by the water and enjoying the gentle breeze was gift. It was so good to have time to chat without having to watch the clock and rush off to some meeting or activity. Then, to end the day, I joined a friend of mine and her family for dinner, and that was really nice.

Today, Labour Day, I am writing my blog and getting dinner for the sisters tonight. In between, I hope to read a little and to do some necessary cleaning.

Yes, it has been a good weekend, and I am feeling very grateful, but my heart is heavy as I think of so many persons in our world who do not have such opportunities. Images of a little dead boy on the beach, of boats capsizing and throwing their passengers into the sea, and of a truck by the side of the road filled with men, women and children who had died during the journey flash upon my mind. So many times, I have prayed for these refugees and migrants and offered my very minor difficulties for them, wondering when our governments would finally do something. But, I have been heartened by the news over the weekend that Germany and Greece are welcoming the refugees. Pope Francis’ plea to Churches, Sanctuaries, and religious communities to accept a refugee family is another ray of light in a very dark moment of time. In my own country, Canada, we are in pre-election time for a new Prime Minister, but over the weekend one of the contenders invited his opponents and the present prime minister to come together to see what we as a country could do. This, too, is a hopeful sign.

Often, I wonder how it is that I am so privileged to live in this country where I can enjoy the freedom and leisure of sitting by the water. I had nothing to do with the fact that I was born here. It surely isn’t fair that the same freedoms and simple pleasures cannot be enjoyed by all people in our world.

Sister Sheila

Praying for the Care of Creation

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Working at Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel and Museum is never dull. This past Monday, we celebrated summer with a corn roast. Unfortunately, not all of the employees were able to be free, but those of us who gathered had fun. Though a rather small group, our staff is very committed. We are a small team of full time employees, a dynamic group of young men and women who work as guides in the chapel and museum, and a hard working maintenance staff who keep everything clean and running smoothly. What is particularly nice about this group is that we are one, all collaborating together in the mission of the Chapel and Museum, and we enjoy coming together to celebrate.

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On Tuesday evening, we had another kind of celebration. In response to Pope Francis’ invitation to pray for the Care of Creation, we hosted a bilingual (French/English) ecumenical hour of prayer at the Chapel. Members of the Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, and United Churches, as well as sisters from several religious communities participated in this Liturgy of the Word, centered on the creation account from the book of Genesis. We asked pardon for our sins against creation, prayed that we might grow in awareness and resolve to take concrete action in caring for all of creation. Interspersed throughout were beautiful hymns and slides. One of the highlights of the evening was the dynamic reflection by David Fines, a minister in the United Church. Moving easily back and forth in both languages, David spoke eloquently about the biblical account in Genesis, making the point that the creation story is really all about relationship.
We were delighted with the evening and judging by the spontaneous applause at the end, the participants were too. Now it remains for us to move from word to action!

Sister Sheila

Aurevoir Mariana!

August 23rd! Can you believe it? It seems like only yesterday that I was looking forward to June 18th and the beginning of my retreat! Much has happened in the interval. There was my retreat by the shore of Lake Ontario, an assembly in Toronto, Ontario of the Sisters of the English Canadian (religious) province, a vacation at our summer house in the 1000 Islands, ministry at Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, and a move into a new community and residence with all of its accompanying adjustment.

For the past three years I have been living in a small intercultural community called Vita-Joie. We were Honduran, Cameroonian, and French and English Sisters from Quebec. Generally, French was the language used in the house, as the Honduran Sister had come to Montreal to study and needed to learn French for her studies. Often, though, I conversed in English with individual sisters in the house. Half of our community group were newer members of the Congregation; they were in their late 30’s and bursting with energy and life. I was the “grandmother” of the group, a role I rather enjoyed. I loved these younger women with their zest and enthusiasm for life, but nothing lasts forever. The students’ studies came to an end and with that the need for them to return to their home countries; another sister was elected provincial leader of the French Canadian (religious) province, so it was time for me to re-consider my options. After prayerful reflection, I realized that the time had come for me to move, so since the end of June I have been living in a very different community. We are 11 in all, and overnight I have gone from being the “grandmother” to being the second youngest in the community!

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This past Tuesday, those of us who lived together last year at Vita-Joie gathered for dinner at the house to say goodbye to oursister who was returning to Honduras the next day. We had a very pleasant evening together, sharing memories and good times. Sitting opposite Mariana, I marvelled at the self- possessed young woman before me. When she had arrived in Montreal 3 years before, she had spoken only Spanish. Resolutely, she had begun the process of learning French. She was patient and persevering and, most evenings in the beginning, she had had to be content with sitting at our dinner table, listening and trying to understand. I remember well the winter day we went for a walk together on the mountain. Struggling with my limited ability in Spanish, I asked her what shefound the hardest. “Not being able to communicate”, she answered. Well, Tuesday evening as I watched Mariana interacting confidently with those of us gathered around the dinner table, I felt like a “proud grandmother”. I could not help but smile as I saw this happy, confident, young woman speak of the challenges overcome, and she has every reason to be proud of her accomplishments.

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As I write this, Mariana is back in Honduras. We wish her well; we will savour the memories, and we hope our paths cross again in the future.

Sister Sheila

I have been teaching for 20 years… and have loved every minute of it!

Ah, summer vacation… For those of us connected to the school system, whether we are students, parents or teachers, we know how precious this time is. It is a time to relax, to read, to see family and friends, to have no schedule, to not have to worry about what to make for lunches for the next day, and to do all those things that are put on hold for the other ten months of the year.

I am a physics teacher, presently teaching grade 11 and 12 physics at a large public high school in New Brunswick, Canada. Although it is summer vacation now, teaching and my students are never far from my mind even during the summer months.

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I have been teaching for 20 years and have loved every minute of it. I know how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to get to share in the lives of so many young people. There is something very hopeful and sacred tied into journeying with these young people, whom I often refer to as “my kids”, as they learn and grow, and as they work on discovering who they are and what they want to do with their lives. Part of my job, in these final years of high school is to help them find their potential and discover what they are capable of achieving. The other part of my job is to help them discover that they are intrinsically good, gifted people who have the ability to change our world into a better place. I remember reading an E.E. Cummings quote a number of years ago where he said “We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that there is, deep inside us, something that is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch.” This really sums up my job with these young people. Many of my students need someone to believe in them so they can begin to believe in themselves. They long to know they are worth something, that there is something of value inside. Although they may have 500+ friends on Facebook, many of their relationships are electronic and in the end they feel alone, isolated and uncertain of themselves.

For me, physics is simply the point of connection with these young people. It is true that I challenge them academically. I teach them how to work and how to learn so that when they leave me they are ready for University. I know that academically I set the bar just a little bit beyond their reach, beyond where they think they can go, and then I spend many, many hours helping them reach it. The joke in my classes is that there are two things that they know they can always count on in this world. (1) Gravity will always pull objects downwards towards Earth and (2) my students will always have homework in physics. My students quickly discover that working on something every day makes them stronger in that field. I often tell them that physics is not a spectator’s sport. They cannot just sit there and watch me solve problems and think that they will get better at physics as a result any more that I can sit on the sidelines and watch one of them shoot foul shots in basketball and think then that I could hit a basket myself as a result of my watching. The only way any one of us gets better in any area of our lives is by practicing. On any given day at noon time, one will find between 20 and 40 students in my room at lunch, eating, chatting and working together on physics or another subject, happy to know that I or a classmate are there if they run into difficulty. These same students continue to hang out in my room even after they have completed my course(s) as they have discovered that it is a safe place to be, one where any question or problem is able to be addressed. Many of my students come back after their first semester of University to tell me that they were more than ready for the next step because of my courses and that makes me smile because that is how it should be. But that is only part of my job. As I said earlier, physics is only the point of connection with these young people, the way I get to know them and they get to know me so we can work together on whatever comes along in life.

When I encounter a student who is not doing what they are supposed to be doing in the school in general or what I have asked them to do in my class specifically (like the questions I assign for homework) or who is doing or saying something that they should not be doing or saying, I know something is wrong. These are red flags for me. These things tell me that there is something going on in this student’s life. When a student is disrespectful or rude, I know it is not about me but rather 99.99% of the time it is a signal that something else is happening. At these moments I know that the most important thing to do is to take a deep breath, swallow the automatic human reaction to disrespect, and remember that the key question that I need to ask, no matter what they might be saying to me, is “Okay, what is really going on?” And then I wait. Depending on the student, depending on the situation, it might be an instantaneous flood of words and tears or it may be a few hours or a day later before they come back to talk to me about what is happening in their personal lives that is making it impossible for them to function in their academic lives. Many people in our society might think that rudeness and disrespectfulness go with being a teenager in this day and age but this is not what I experience. Teenagers are good, kind, caring people who want to achieve and do well but many of them carry burdens that are too heavy for them to bear. The stories of the trauma, the heartache and the feelings of helplessness that I have heard over the last twenty years as these vulnerable, beautiful young people struggle to find their ways have broken my heart many times over. So often I find myself wishing that I could just reach in and fix it all for them. But that is not my role. My role is to stand by them and believe in them, to encourage them, to listen to them, to mentor them, to just be there to help them find the ways to “fix it” for themselves. What a sacred, incredible job I have…!

I think teenage years have always been challenging but perhaps at this moment in time, in a world of almost instant everything; our young people face even more challenges than in the past. Although they can have access to any fact or any other person in fractions of a second thanks to the world of internet and text messages, they often feel totally alone and cut off from the rest of the world. We are seeing more anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness among our young people in high school today than ever before. They often find themselves alone with all they face, feeling that no one understands them and unable to really talk to anyone about what is going on inside. They struggle with where and how they fit into society and what gives meaning to their lives. Really we all carry these questions with us all our lives but they can seem daunting when we are just beginning to face them and with technology that is able to connect us to everyone instantly and simultaneously leave us feeling totally isolated, these questions can seem overwhelming. Perhaps more than ever before they need those of us who are their teachers to stand by them, to believe in them, to be there for them and to connect them to outside support when they require it, as they try to navigate the darkness they face.

I read a line once that said “We teach who we are.” Teaching and all other human activity comes from inside of us, for better or worse. Teaching holds a mirror to my soul and if I am willing to look in the mirror and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge which is crucial to good teaching. In every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students and to connect them with the subject depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my true self and the degree to which I am willing to make it available and vulnerable to my students. So many of our young people do not have hope; they come from broken homes, broken lives, and broken dreams. They look to us to be signs of that hope so they can believe that despite the pain and challenges they are presently facing, life is still beautiful and worth the struggle that they are facing. They long to see in us love and evidence of hope for the future.

I have learned over the years that good teaching comes from my identity and integrity, how well I know and am at peace with myself. And I do not mean only my noble features, or the good deeds I do, or the brave face I wear to conceal my confusion and complexities. Identity and integrity have as much to do with my shadows and limits, my wounds and my fears, as with my strengths and potentials. It is amazing how often I find myself called to use/share the piece of myself that I would rather hide and pretend is not there. But a good teacher must stand where the personal and public meet and make ourselves vulnerable – to indifference, to judgment, to ridicule, as well as to growth and transformation as we allow others to see our humanness. How can I help my students get to know and understand their own depth, who they are and what is going on inside of them, the good and the not-so-good, if I safely stay on the surface with them? If I truly want to help them to grow, mentor them into self-discovery, then I must show them who I really am. I must be willing to show them where I have struggled or am struggling too. I must admit and own where and when I have messed up or failed them. As a result, my students change me, they teach me. From them I learn what I am capable of achieving, what my potential is, how God wants to act in my life, and the areas of my life where I still need conversion, transformation, growth, and the grace of God.

As these wonderful days of summer move towards September once again, I cannot help but smile because I know, without a doubt, I have the best job in the world…!

Sister Karen Kelly, CND

Biking and Reading!

Dear Readers,
I hope you haven’t completely given up following my blogs! There has been some confusion and weeks have gone by without one of my blogs being posted. Much of the problem lies in the fact that I do not post the blogs myself. Rather, I rely on the expertise of the wonderful staff in the communication department of my religious community, the Congregation de Notre-Dame. It is they who post and format the final document. Usually, I send in a word document, often with accompanying pictures, but sometimes I leave the choice of pictures to them.
This summer, we had planned ahead to times when I would be on retreat or at our vacation house where we do not have internet access. As you know, the best made plans do not always work out and so there have been several times this summer when the blog didn’t get posted. Hopefully, once everyone is home from vacation, we will be back on track.

 

Speaking of vacation, I had two very nice weeks at Howe Island, a small island situated in the 1000 Islands between Gananoque and Kingston, Ontario. I was blessed with wonderful weather; every day the sun shone. Occasionally, we had rain at night or very early in the morning, but the sun always re-appeared making it pleasant to be in the pool or sit out by the water. As I had brought my bike with me, many mornings before it got too warm, I went for a 10 to 12 km ride. Not having done much biking for the last three years, I began gently, not trying too hard to get up the few hills on the road, but by the end of my time there, I was biking up the hill without too much trouble and feeling quite good about myself!

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One of the gifts of vacation is the time to read, and read I did – mysteries by Louise Penny, Donna Leon, and Kathy Reichs, however my diet also included some spiritual reading. I began to read Ronald Rolheiser’s book, Sacred Fire which I am really enjoying. Several years ago, while on sabbatical, I was fortunate to meet Rolheiser and to enjoy his conferences, retreats and lectures. What I greatly appreciated was his ability to speak of serious topics in a very understandable way, and often times, in a very funny way. In Sacred Fire, Rolheiser’s gift is very evident. I found myself reading easily, but being challenged to ponder my own life and way of being on more than one occasion.

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Being in nature, surrounded by the beauty all around certainly makes it easier for me to ponder the greatness and genius of my creator God and to sit quietly in awe and gratitude before this great mystery. See for yourself some of the beauty that I saw during my time at the cottage.

Sister Sheila