From our founding years, my religious congregation has been geographically spread across wide distances. In January 1884 we were founded in the Diocese of Nottingham, England. By November 1884 our sisters had expanded to serve immigrant Irish women and the visually impaired in the Diocese of Newark, New Jersey across the pond. And by 1890 our pioneer sisters were invited to the Pacific Northwest to open a hospital which would serve the mining and timber communities in Bellingham, Washington.
On one of my last whirlwind trips from New Jersey to Seattle, one of those squeezed between commitments on opposite coasts with barely a moment to breathe, I found myself lamenting the fact that our three centers are 3,000 miles apart from each other. As an elected leader who wants (and needs) to spend time with our sisters and associates in all three regions of our Congregation, I was tired in that moment.
But as I sat there complaining, I reaching an aha moment of wonder. I don’t have to take a train or a boat or send telegrams or letters that must also travel by train and boat. I can make a phone call or send an email or even better meet with one of my UK sisters via video conferencing and take a six or eight hour flight and physically be present with my CSJP sisters and associates. We are so connected as a CSJP family, even across the miles, … pure grace!
There is of course the physical and mental wear and tear of travel, made more complicated by our security responses to a wounded and weary world. I have become a wee bit obsessed with effective packing and the benefits of quality luggage … packing cubes being my latest discovery! I’m now trying to be more intentional about bringing what I need, and no more, while still looking presentable. Then there’s the effort to make sure you have your electronics and the files you need for x and y meeting. It’s an effort, even with the benefit of modern airline travel.
But it is also sheer grace that, after I head on a plane this evening in the Newark airport, I will wake up tomorrow in Birmingham, England, just a short drive from our sisters in Leicestershire. I will breathe in the air that our founders breathed. I will rub shoulders and share tea with our UK sisters and associates. I will experience their gracious hospitality, enjoy their warmth, and share my own presence.
Travelling grace indeed!
And as I prepare to travel to reconnect with my CSJP family, I think of and pray for families separated by miles. Those who are do not have the proper documentation to visit an ailing family member across the border. Those forced to flee their homes in the dead of night after a drone attack or bombing. Those who leave family and seek to find a job in a foreign land to be able to send money home. So many families, separated by the miles. So much to be grateful for, so much to pray for, in our human family.
Catholic life in the United States, judging by my social media feed, is alive with energy and excitement about the Pope’s visit, and rightly so. Sister Sheila, our Congregation Leader, will be representing us at the Papal mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception today. Meanwhile, I will have to follow the excitement from afar since I am visiting our CSJP community in the United Kingdom for a couple of weeks.
Today I had the sheer privilege of joining some of our CSJP Sisters and Associates on an outing to visit the mission to seafarers at the Immingham Docks, the largest port in this country. I had no idea what to expect, and ended up being very moved by my experiences today. At the end of the day it felt more like a pilgrimage than an outing.
Immingham is located near Grimsby, England on the North Sea, the town where our first Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace began our mission of peace in 1884. The mission to Seafarers there is part of the Apostleship of the Sea – a global Catholic Charity which ministers to all seafarers, regardless of nationality or belief. Some of our CSJP Associates in the area volunteer with the mission.
At Immingham, we met Fr. Colum Kelly who is Chaplain to the mostly men, or “lads” as he calls them, who come from around the globe bringing imports such as coal, grain, biomass, wood, and automobiles to England. If you think about it, most of what we use comes to us wherever we are from places far, far away. And as I learned today, 90% of world trade is transported by ship. And, if you stop and think about it, those ships require human beings to navigate the seas.
That’s where the seafarers come in. A quick look at the visitors book shows that the seafarers come from all corners of the globe – Philippines, Vietnam, Poland, Greece, and Turkey to name a few. Fr. Colum told us stories of some of the cases he has been called in on to intervene, situations where the seafarers arrive in port hungry because there is not enough food on board, or in some cases they have not received their promised wages in months. Sadly, wage theft is a common problem in many industries, and is related to the reality of forced labor and human trafficking across the globe.
The stories Fr. Colum shared were powerful, and renewed my commitment to work against what Pope Francis has called the “globalization of indifference.” We live in a globalized economy, which means that we are intimately linked to the men, women, and sometimes children who harvest, mine, transport, and transform the raw materials which become the many consumer items we take for granted in our daily lives. Fr. Colum spoke of the invisible life of the seafarer. He also spoke with great passion and love for his ministry, which he described as the Church bringing its mission of hope and love to the margins, even in this invisible world to which we are all, in fact, connected.
Not all of the situations are so dire. Many of the seafarers work for honest companies, travel in safe vessels, and receive adequate food and regular wages. But they still spend as much as 9 months at sea, separated from family and isolated. The Seafarers Center welcomes them when they are in port with a shop, chapel, internet cafe, games room, money exchange, phone cards, etc… The mission was damaged in a flood after a tidal surge a couple of years ago, so the space we visited was bright and inviting. Fr. Colum and the lay chaplains also go on board the ships, offering a listening ear, providing religious services, and inviting them to the center. They also hold Christmas parties where they share gift boxes with toiletries and other sundry items donated from local parishes, often the only bit of cheer during the seafarers’ holiday.
In addition to learning about the mission and the life of the seafarers, we also were led in a couple of powerful meditations by Fr. Colum. One invited us to look at our own lives in terms of the cargo we carry–the “bad” cargo such as excessive busy-ness, past hurts, concern about what others might think, etc… — and our “good” cargo — our gifts and love and passion. How do we balance our cargo during our life’s journey, as we go about the work to which the God who loves us unconditionally has called us? Simple, really, but something which I found myself thinking about quite a bit on the two hour coach ride home.
Fr Colum also shared with us a devotion to Mary which was new to me … Mary Undoer of Knots. Apparently this is a favorite devotion of Pope Francis, which he first discovered when studying in Germany depicted in a painting he saw in a Church. This depiction of Mary draws on imagery from one of the early theologians of the Church, St. Ireneaus. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis introduced and encouraged this devotion in Latin America.
Fr. Colum shared a prayer of his own to Our Lady Undoer of Knots — a fitting devotion of course for someone who works with seafarers! He also led us in a time of reflection on the knots in our own lives before we ended the day with liturgy in the chapel there at the mission.
Each of us, of course, often finds our thoughts, minds, and even prayers tied up in knots. We worry about this or that, we are unsure how we will do x or how we will navigate that sticky situation with you know who.
How beautiful to call on Mary the undoer of knots in these moments of our lives. I’ll copy Fr. Colum’s prayer below, because perhaps you too might like to call on Mary in this way:
Holy Mary, mother of God and our most blessed mother too. You know my problems, both small and large, that like knots are tight and difficult to undo. I feel restricted by them and do not know how to overcome them. The knots of my heart, the knots of difficult family relationships, the knots of loneliness, knots of things yet to be forgiven …. Mother of mercy, untie the knots I am burdened with, journey with me from the darkness of confusion, into a new path of light.
Some days are filled with mishaps and events that can certainly contribute to a state of generalized grumpiness. Yesterday was one of those days, complete with flight cancellation, traffic jams, airport mayhem, delays and ultimately a missed connection which meant I did not arrive in time for the conference I am meant to speak at this morning.
Yet this one day of chaotic mishaps makes me realize that this is but a temporary hint of the daily reality of so many. Mothers who do not know how they will feed their children today let alone tomorrow. Patients receiving a diagnosis seemingly without hope. Villagers picking through the rubble of a senseless drone attack. People who feel broken or lost or alone facing yet another in a series of unfortunate events, often without adequate resources or support systems to help them cope.
And here I am. I was able to rebook my flight. The schedule for today was moved around so that I can still speak on the panel I was traveling to attend. I spent the night in a comfortable hotel bed and woke up to a scrumptious breakfast buffet and a good cup of coffee. The shuttle driver was pleasant and went out of his way to be helpful. I checked in and went through security with ease. The list goes on and on …
Every day is a bad day for someone.
I am grateful for my bad day because it gave me a much needed dose of perspective. It was almost like I needed an antidote of mishaps to reorient some grumpiness I have been indulging of late.
How we face the day makes a difference, not only for ourselves but for those whose path we cross.
I am coming to the end of my two week spring time sojourn in the United Kingdom. I came at the end of April to spend some time with our Sisters at our regional center in the midlands in advance of our Spring assembly which was last weekend. It has been a joy to be with our UK Sisters. I have had an inordinate amount of tea along with some wonderful conversations and a few treks in the countryside. Earlier this week I made the trek (by car!) to London. I’m staying in the same house where I lived for 3 months as a novice. It is so nice to be in another country, but yet to be at home. Another benefit of religious life!
I’m attending the Nun in the World Symposium: Catholic Sisters & Vatican II – a 3 day international symposium with academics from various disciplines (mostly it seems to be historians and sociologists who seem to get along but have divergent methodologies) and women religious. It has been fascinating to attend an academic conference about a subject near and dear to your heart. In fact, I suppose you could say I am one of the subjects of study! I was thinking today … many groups of people are studied by academics, but how common is it to have the people who are being studied attending the conference about them? Adding to the semi-surreal quality of it all, I just checked the Global Sisters Report website and found a blog post there which covers one of the streams of conversation I participated in at lunch today at the symposium!
Aside from those interesting aspects, the subject matter and research presented have certainly been thought provoking. Today we covered important areas such as race and class in religious life, prophetic witness and relationship to the hierarchical church by leaders of religious communities, the tension between being mainstream and marginal, and the newest generations of Catholic Sisters. There are over 100 participants from more than 10 countries. I even was able to meet another Global Sisters Report columnist, Caroline Mbonu, a Handmaid of the Holy Child Jesus Sister from Nigeria. We recognized each other from the pictures which accompany our columns on the Global Sisters website! She gave an excellent presentation on the experience of African Sisters ministering in the US as reverse missionaries.
All in all, it has been a very worthwhile experience and an opportunity to tap into the wider themes and key issues of Catholic women’s religious life globally. And there is one more day tomorrow, which will feature a series of presentations I am looking forward to with great anticipation on the Religious Life Vitality Project which was just completed here in the UK. Our UK Sisters participated in this project.
I head back to the States (Chicago for my graduation) on Monday. It has been a very good visit, with the prospect of many more over the next six years.
I’ve spent the last week at our west coast regional center nestled in the woods on the shores of Lake Washington. This morning I didn’t have to be anywhere especially early, and so I was able to stay warm and cozy in bed and listen to the pitter patter of rain on the roof. I know that I am a Pacific Northwesterner at heart, because oh how I have missed that sound! I head back to winter on Monday when I go home to New Jersey (weather permitting), and so it was nice to be able to soak it all in.
I’ve also been soaking in the presence of people, especially Sisters who are dear to me here at west coast groovy sister hq. It’s been far too long since I was here, given that I was frantically trying to finish my graduate studies in order to begin my new leadership gig last month. One blessing of my new role is that I will be back much more often. I know that, and it makes me happy, but this week has also done wonders for my spirit. Relationships and landscapes can shape us in such a way that we carry them with us, no matter where we go. Even so, it is important when you can to situate yourself in proximity to those people and places who hold a special place in your heart, soaking them in, refreshing and renewing your spirit.
Growing up in suburban Bowie, Maryland–the last suburb developed by the Levitt Brothers–you were always at home when visiting a friend’s house. This was not necessarily because of the quality of your friend’s hospitality, but because of the literal lay of the land. There were a limited number of floor plans in Bowie, so if you’d been in one Cape Code, Colonial, Rancher, or Country Clubber, then you knew where the bathroom, kitchen, closet, living room, and parental bed rooms were located. There was a certain level of comfort in that reality, truth be told.
This month, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the mother houses of two different religious communities. My sojourn in the mid-west is rapidly coming to a close, and so I finally made two long promised trips to visit with young nun friends. Both trips were lovely, in no small part due to the hospitality of my friends and their religious communities. I also realized that there is a certain level of comfort and “at-homeness” when I am in nunland (as one young nun friend calls it), reminiscent of my experience growing up.
To be sure, there are nuances and peculiar flavors of convent culture. But when you are a guest at a motherhouse, there are usually some things you can count on:
Your room will be ready and waiting for you, most likely with a welcome sign, a well-made bed, your own set of towels, and a note detailing some of the particular customs of the house.
Most likely the bathroom and shower is down the hall, so remember to bring a bathrobe and some slippers or shower shoes! However, you might be surprised by the gift of your own private bath. Best to be prepared in either case.
If you want coffee or tea, chances are it’s always available. And if you need anything else, all you have to do is ask.
Interested in a game of cards or a solving a piece or two of a jigsaw puzzle? That can be arranged.
Newspapers are usually available in the library or reading room.
Finished with your mystery or novel? Chances are there is a spot where you can pick up a new book and maybe even leave the one you just finished for someone else.
Looking for a group of women to pray with? You are welcome to join the Sisters in the chapel … just check the schedule in your room.
You will be greeted in the hallway, repeatedly, by a pleasant smile and maybe a hug from complete strangers.
There’s always a spot for you at the table in the dining room, complete with buffet style meals and interesting conversation. The water glasses might be smaller than you are used to, however.
When it’s time to leave, most likely the Sisters would appreciate it if you’d strip your bed and leave your sheets in the pillow case near the door. Sometimes there are even clean sheets for you to prepare the room for the next guest. You get to participate in the cycle of hospitality!
There are variations in the mix of these bits of convent culture, just as there are different flavors of religious charisms and communities. But when it comes down to it, we’re all Sisters and it’s so nice to be “at home,” even as a guest.
My life these days is mostly consumed with what is right before me–writing my thesis and preparing for my oral comprehensive exams. So, while this week is technically “reading week” at Catholic Theological Union, every week has been reading (and writing) week for me since I came back from our congregation chapter almost a month ago. I’m hoping to get to the halfway point of my thesis today or maybe tomorrow (God willing!), which helps me to realize that what is ahead of me is doable and I just need to focus.
But focus I’m realizing also requires breaks for perspective. And so I took the train to Wisconsin this weekend to visit a younger Catholic Sister friend. There was no substantive reading and no writing this weekend. Just visiting, laughing, exploring, and relaxing which I think I really needed. Breaks are important. They ground us in reality, help us touch back into the wider world and see beyond the tunnel vision we can develop when we’re focused solely on what is ahead. I guess you could say that breaks are a way of getting practice using our peripheral vision.
While I have plenty to be about in my immediate future, given that I am working to finish my degree requirements before Christmas, I also find myself skipping ahead to the adventures that start in January. But a funny thing happens when I do that, or at least a funny (and somewhat painful) thing has happened twice in the past month. I fall. No major bones broken, just some minor scrapes and bruises that I have acquired while thinking far ahead into the future instead of paying attention to where I am walking. My subconscious does this to me sometimes (or maybe it’s the universe or even an experience of God’s sense of humor). In any case, I wonder if it’s not a way of keeping me real.
For example, I remember when I was preparing to profess vows I fell not once, not twice, but three times in the weeks before, in a very similar fashion–walking while worrying about the far off future instead of paying attention to what lies directly ahead. What’s funny is that this last incident literally occurred just as I was arriving home and getting ready to cross the street with my suitcase to my building. Here I was, physically transitioning from my mini-relaxing-weekend-break to the work of research and writing, but my mind was even farther down the line. So my body protested, bringing my focus and attention back to the present moment. I could do without scraped knees and bruised elbows, but I’m also happy to be present in this moment. I just hope that maybe I’ve learned what I’ve needed to learn and can avoid a third fall?